Sitting among a small group of sisters listening to Dr. Ingrid Mattson speak, I was surprised to hear her say that domestic violence was a top priority of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). “Is domestic violence that common among Muslims?” I wondered? She went on to explain that the stress created by emmigrating – in any direction – could bring on domestic violence (DV) in families where it previously had not existed. Years later, when I had emmigrated myself and began seeing domestic violence among my circle of expat friends, I was thankful to have been given this foresight and not to be completely caught off guard. I have asked Khalida Haque of NOUR to help us all better understand why it is important to comprehend what domestic abuse is and how to address it even when it doesn’t seem to affect us individually.
(Brooke Benoit): Why is being a ‘domestic violence ally’ important?
(Khalida Haque): I think the first thing to do is to define what we mean by ‘domestic violence ally’. If I didn’t know better and I read that term, I would think that it meant someone who assisted in the perpetration of domestic violence – the community at large can be an ally in that sense as we acquiesce through silence and a not-getting-involved attitude because ‘it is a family matter’ or ‘a private matter’, but oppression is a societal matter wherever it may be happening. Not only are there ‘passive’ allies in the perpetration of DV but also active ones who will purposely interfere in relationships, goading and encouraging the abuse. I could go off on a very steep tangent on this so perhaps it’s best left for another time and discussion Obviously, I am fully aware that that is not what it means. But for the sake of clarification, an ally or friend in relation to domestic violence is someone who is turned to when the victim can no longer ‘keep the secret’ of what is going on within their household – and is in fact an anti-domestic violence ally. When a victim speaks up initially they are not always looking for a way out. Often they just want to offload. As someone who cares, we may automatically go into a rescue or saving mode – ‘I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to get her out of there!’ This is usually NOT what is being asked for. If we do that, if we follow that instinct through, then we are more than likely to drive them away and back further into the relationship. It has been statistically reported that before finally leaving, a woman may go through the cycle of leaving an abusive partner and returning up to 33 times. If you bear in mind that with each episode cycle, the abuse often escalates, this is something we do not want to feed or enable.
So how should we respond? Responses such as “I am here for you. What do you want to do? And what do you need from me to do it?” aren’t easy to give to someone close to us, someone we love and want to get the hell outta there! If we know that we cannot respond in this manner then it’s best to be honest and direct them to professionals who can listen to and aid them in their decision-making. However, when we respond, it is crucial not to be judgemental as no-one knows what is best for them but hey themselves. What they need from us is emotional support and the knowledge that we are there whatever their decision is. You should be ready for the moment they are ready to leave. Perhaps discuss
with them the need for safety planning for emergency situations that may arise. Offer to store a packed bag for them so that they do not have to worry about what to take when they leave.
Our supportive presence can provide them with the hope and courage necessary to turn their lives around. To be able to be a good friend or ally, it is important for us to have an idea of what is out there in terms of help. Gain knowledge and information so that you can pass it on as and when needed.
(BB): Why is “Call the police!” not always the best advice to give to someone who is expressing that they are experiencing domestic violence?
(KH): “Call the police!” is not always the best advice for a number of reasons but sometimes, particularly if someone is being harmed physically, it is the only advice, the only solution. The threat of death is not something to be taken lightly as in the UK alone two women a week are killed by a current or ex-partner.
That being said, calling the police or involving social services is seen as the last step to take. If someone expresses that they are experiencing DV and you suggest one of these two options, likely they will walk out the door and not speak to you again for fear of losing their children and/or marriages/husbands. There are varying degrees of domestic violence and we need to understand what is best for each situation as every experience is individual.
It has been statistically reported that before finally leaving, a woman may go through the cycle of leaving an abusive partner and returning up to 33 times.
(BB): Another reason I think people should learn about DV issues and be good anti-domestic violence allies is because you truly never know when and how this test is going to appear in your life. Could this really happen to anyone?
(KH): Absolutely. No-one knows what is around the corner. And sometimes we may find ourselves in circumstances we never dreamed of. DV isn’t an issue within just one community or culture. Nor do victims only come from abusive backgrounds or with previous low self-esteem. The perpetrators are not all uneducated or working class. DV can affect anyone. The accepted statistic for women experiencing one incident of DV is 1 in 4. In terms of probability, that’s high!
(BB): I think when it does suddenly appear, people are often much too shocked to respond effectively. What are some of the precursors to DV?
Offer to store a packed bag for them so that they do not have to worry about what to do when they leave.
(KH): To be forewarned is to be forearmed. And just as with selfdefence moves, if we don’t really know them then we are likely to flounder and perhaps put ourselves in further jeopardy. So here are some precursors to DV to look out for (Taken from ‘Spotting an abuser’, Sisters August 2012 Issue):
He may say that his jealousy is a sign of his love for you but it is
more likely a sign of possessiveness and insecurity.
He needs to know every aspect of your life and he wants it all to be done his way. Concern for those we love is natural but trying to control their every move isn’t.
A tricky one for Muslims as we are encouraged not to delay marriage when we have agreed upon it but this can be a sign if there is an especially high degree of urgency placed on the matter.
He may expect you to be perfect and he may seem dependent on you to fulfill all his needs. A perpetrator may want you to provide everything for them financially, emotionally and practically.
He may use Islam as his weapon by saying that he does not want you seeing certain friends or family and that he has that right for you to obey.
Shifting blame (for feelings and problems)
‘It’s your fault I am this angry! If only you would do as I say then there would be no need for any of this!’ An abuser rarely takes responsibility for themselves, their feelings, behaviour, negative situations or problems.
Most perpetrators have low self-esteem and consequently will be easily insulted or upset.
Rigidity in views, particularly regarding gender roles
Another tricky one for Muslims but this can be a sign, and often it is the tone in which views are expressed that is significant. He may expect a ‘traditional wife’ or he may view women as inferior.
Verbal abuse (often a precursor to other forms of abuse)
This may occur in private or in public and it will be degrading and humiliating.
Neville Evans, author of ‘Safe: Your Complete Guide to Domestic Abuse’, sums this up as: “An abuser is a person who holds the belief that they are more important than you are. They hold the opinion that they have the right to manipulate and control your thoughts, appearance and lifestyle.”
The accepted statistic for women experiencing DV is 1 in 4. In terms of probability, that’s high!
(BB): The adage “Once an abuser, always an abuser” – is that true?
(KH): It is possible for an abuser to change, but they need to recognise that there is a need for them to do so. I often discuss with clients: “What is the right number of ‘chances’ that should be given to a perpetrator?” Unfortunately there is no magic formula. A way of identifying the unlikelihood of someone changing is often to give them that one chance and see what they do with it. Those that truly feel remorseful and see the wrong in what they have done will run with that opportunity and work their darned socks off to do right by you. However, what do they do once things get back to an even keel? Or for some reason the stress levels increase? That is also an indicator. Some people make the right noises, say all the right things, but if they don’t take any action in order to change, well I guess they can’t walk the walk! Counselling and programmes to work on and change unhealthy thinking and abusive behaviour can help. If someone asks me ‘”Will he change? Do abusers ever change?” I will honestly answer that “I don’t know, but they can.” Only they can answer this question, and only the victim and the perpetrator know what is in their heart of hearts. As my husband likes to say ‘How much truth can you stand?’; I believe this is the true measure for all of us because if we are truly Muslims, if we truly submit to the will of Allah I, then we will be able to stomach the truth no matter how unpalatable it may seem. Allah I will provide us with the strength to cope when we submit to His will.
(BB): I often see Muslims either questioning why DV rates are so high or are embarrassed that “our” rates are so high. Are we more prone to DV?
(KH): I guess what makes it seem as though ‘our’ rates of domestic violence are high is that we only hear about the negative cases and anything we hear is rarely placed in the context of the bigger picture. We don’t have any research within the Ummah (community of Muslims) to indicate the true picture, so that might be a starting point. But I believe rather than being embarrassed that it exists within our community, we need to be able to say “Yes, it occurs, and we are going to do something about it,” and then do that something!
Turning a blind eye won’t make it go away. If it is not addressed or
confronted then it will continue to happen.
Brooke Benoit has seen firsthand the effects of domestic violence on her loved ones and actively works to eliminate violence and oppression of all forms within her own family. Khalida Haque is a qualified and experienced counselling psychotherapist who works professionally under many guises within the world of domestic violence but predominantly as counselling service coordinator for Nour (www.nour-dv.org.uk).
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of SISTERS Magazine (the magazine for fabulous Muslim women).