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Muslim Community Unites to Fight Spousal Abuse

By Suzanne Sprague

NORTH TEXAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Najma Gouse has known dozens of Muslim women who have been abused by their husbands.

Najma Gouse, Volunteer, Muslim Community Center for Human Services: The main problem that I am seeing is that there are a lot of guys that live here forever. They get used to the American standards. They go back and they marry some girl, bring her back over here. And then they think that she's not good enough for them. They have children with her and then just flee off, leave her high and dry.

Sprague: Gouse is a volunteer with the Muslim Community Center for Human Services in Arlington. She says the family desertion she's witnessed has often been preceded by beatings or verbal abuse. Some victims call the Community Center's hotline looking for help, but many Muslim activists say those efforts aren't enough. So the Muslim Community Center is launching a new program for abused women in North Texas.

Gouse: First, we are doing an assessment of how deep the problem is or how much the problem is.

Sprague: Gouse is among the volunteers distributing domestic violence questionnaires to women's groups at Islamic centers or mosques. Gouse: It just asks if they know what domestic violence means. Has anybody pushed you, shoved you, beaten you up? Have they constantly screamed at you? Do they put you down that you can't do anything, you can't do this and you can't do that?

Sprague: Right now, there are no reliable statistics on the rate of domestic violence among Muslims in North Texas. But national studies have estimated that 10 to 50% of Muslim women in this country are physically abused, compared to 25% for all women. According to Sharifa Alkateeb, President of the North American Council for Muslim Women, many women may never report abuse to authorities because many Muslims think it's wrong to criticize their family in public.

Sharifa Alkateeb, President, North American Council for Muslim Women: There's an extended family system. And usually if a person has a problem, then they will find some person, like an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, someone in the extended family, to help them solve the problem. Rarely, would they go to anybody they would consider a stranger.

Sprague: But women's leaders, like Alkateeb, still put stock in how people outside a family can help an abused woman. So the Muslim Community Center in Arlington hosted a conference on domestic violence earlier this month, which was attended by 150 people. And it's also planning to establish women's support groups in Islamic centers or mosques. Alkateeb: I think that Muslims, when they know there are support groups in each mosque or each Islamic center, the women will feel much more at ease, to come and tell someone who's in a mosque, rather than to tell a public agency.

Sprague: Those support groups will begin in the next few months. Eventually, the Community Center hopes it will also receive grant money to provide housing for abused women who leave their husbands. Dr. Basheer Ahmad, a psychiatrist who is spearheading this program, says most other women's shelters do not meet the needs of Muslim women.

Dr. Basheer Ahmad: It's a very safe environment, a good environment for people who are abused, but for this particular culture, it's difficult. Most of these women are not yet Westernized, and they try to keep their local culture: their dress, their hijab sometimes, and all these things are inhibitory factors.

Sprague: Dr. Ahmad says many shelters also can't provide the food, prayer time, or privacy that Islam requires. Muslim women may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable in a regular shelter and end up returning to their abusers. But advocates of these plans are quick to say they don't blame religion for the abuse many Muslim women suffer. Again, Sharifa Alkateeb.

Alkateeb: There are wonderful verses in the Koran about the good treatment of women, but many of the Muslims either don't know them, or they don't understand their impact, or they never study the Koran to know how they should behave holistically.

Sprague: Alkateeb and others place the blame for domestic violence on the patriarchal structures of Muslim countries. They say their religion is stereotyped by the violence between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and by some theologians who believe women aren't equal to men. According to Najma Adam, an instructor at the University of Illinois, these images may have a direct effect on how Muslims deal with domestic violence.

Najma Adam, Instructor, University of Illinois: If you look at Islam, specifically the Muslim women, there's a real fear that if this gets out, there's already the anti-Muslim sentiment in the media and in the world out there, in the U.S.; and so now we're just essentially giving them ammunition that they can point to and say, "See those Muslims, there they are causing trouble again."

Sprague: So the Muslim community has talked publicly about domestic violence in only a few U.S. cities. Austin is the only place in Texas where any significant organizing has taken place. That makes the recently announced plans for the Dallas area among the more progressive in the country. Muslim leaders here say they hope their efforts will both end suffering in violent families and promote a more peaceful vision of Islam. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.