Raising awareness of domestic violence in Muslim-American communities is a challenge. One surprising factor that makes the challenge even more daunting is the perception that attempts to deal with domestic violence in Muslim families constitute attacks on Islam itself.
That perception is not entirely baseless. According to a recent New York Times story on domestic-violence advocacy in Muslim communities, traditional women's shelters have been known to advise Muslim women to "throw off the yoke" of religious symbols like the veil, arguing that such customs are the symbols of a patriarchal and oppressive culture. One woman, for example, described being advised by women's shelter employees to remove her heavy head scarf and style her hair--to become, in her view, less Muslim. Advocates for abused Muslim women also chafe at the widely held notion that abuse is more common among American Muslims than non-Muslims. Although that belief does not hold up under scrutiny (one in three American women is likely to experience abuse in her lifetime, regardless of race or religious background) many Muslim women do feel pressured to stay in abusive marriages--all the more reason they need sympathetic advocates who understand and respect their cultural and religious beliefs, rather than trying to “Westernize” or change them.
Traditionally, there have been few shelters or organizations catering to Muslim American victims of domestic violence. But that, slowly, may be changing. For example, the Peaceful Families Project, founded by former North American Council for Muslim Women President Sharifa Alkhateeb, is dedicated "to systemically chang[ing] attitudes about domestic violence, dispelling the cultural impediments that prevent women from seeking help, and creating an environment of prevention." The PFP conducts "Islamically grounded" family dynamics and violence awareness programs for Muslim communities around the US, and provide training in cultural sensitivity for shelters and others serving a Muslim clientele. Such training can be important to help shelters and groups that aren't specifically Muslim in nature avoid cultural misunderstandings that could keep Muslim women from seeking out services.
There are also a growing number of Muslim women's organizations that advocate against domestic violence both within marriage and before. Among them are the Islamic Social Services Association, Washington, D.C.-based Karamah, and a number of local and regional Muslim domestic violence advocacy organizations.
Finally, there are a growing number of shelters and direct social services geared specifically at Muslim victims of domestic violence. The Hamdard Center in suburban Chicago caters primarily to Muslim women, by eschewing pork and keeping prayer rugs on hand. The Baitul Salaam Residence for Abused and Neglected Women and Children has sheltered hundreds of Muslim women and children in the Atlanta, GA area since 1997. And the Nonprofit Islamic Shelter for the Abused provides emergency and long-term housing, counseling, translation services and religious guidance to Muslim domestic-violence victims in the San Francisco Bay area. Such organizations, though still extremely rare in the US, are providing a critical and growing service to a group of Americans for whom domestic violence is still, too often, a taboo topic.
I think that violence towards any person is ridiculous. Religion seems silly as well.
There is simply no way to avoid the fact that Muslim violence against women is inextricably tied to the very doctrines of Islam. The headscarf, burqua and other tools of patriarchal repression are part and parcel of the problem. This, as you mentioned, the traditional women's shelters have tried to point out.
It is folly to train shelters to be "sensitive" to the problem. They will only thus avoid pinning the blame where it belongs, on the misogynistic Quran and Hadiths of the Islamic cult of male superiority and insecurity around female sexuality. That cult, despite all claims to the contrary, makes hundreds of millions of women property, keeps them subservient, home bound, and humiliated. The problems of abuse nearly always arise when westernizing Muslim women attempt to assert themselves outside of these backward cultural norms. Once a woman decides to leave or just become her own person, it's often not only abuse, but outright slaughter.
Why would anyone advocate telling Muslim women their "culture" is not the problem when it so clearly is? Dealing with Muslim domestic abuse by letting their abusers hide behind a mask of their medieval religion is like dealing with arson by training firefighters to be "sensitive" to an arsonist's need to burn buildings.
Islam is NOT a cult, it is a religion that is part of the Abrahamic tradition that includes Judaism and Christianity. It is the misinterpretation of Islamic teachings, combined with misogynist practices in various cultures, that enable domestic violence to continue. Islam, as other religions, promotes justice and peace, and completely forbids any form of oppression. Thank you, Erica, for a well-written article.