After moving to the U.S. in 2001, a young Pakistani-American woman endured years of abuse from her husband. But when she finally fled six weeks ago to a New York shelter with her two children, she was confronted by even more hardship.
No one, she said, would accommodate her dietary and religious needs.
Once again, she fled. This time to the Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services’ shelter in suburban Chicago.“I had nothing. No one understood me,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of her husband. “Now, I feel like I’m with family.”
Hamdard has become an indispensable force in the American Muslim community, attracting women across the country. Such culturally tailored shelters are rare nationwide, and with just 11 beds, the Hamdard Center turned away 859 women and children this past year.
Activists are using the occasion of Domestic Violence Awareness month to highlight the need for improved advocacy among abused Muslim females. The community, however, is beset by unique cultural challenges.
“We have only recently confronted the issue of domestic violence,” said Maryam Gilani, director of the Hamdard Center, 1542 W. Devon Ave.
The problem is two-fold, said Aminah McCloud, director of the Islamic World Studies program at DePaul University. Though domestic violence occurs among American Muslims at the same rate as other groups, it has become an increasingly sensitive topic for Muslims. To some, in a post 9/11 world, speaking out means feeding the stereotypes demonizing Islam.
“There is still some resistance among imams and mosques to deal with domestic violence,” Gilani said.
She says that just five years ago, mosques – the center of Muslim communities – did not welcome her to speak on domestic violence. Now, she said, imams are taking a more active role.
One vocal cleric is Imam Muhammad Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. He advocates discussion of domestic abuse during marriage counseling sessions at mosques.
“Violence against women is real and cannot be ignored,” said Magid, who leads seven mosques in Virginia. "In no way does Allah sanction these acts."
Those who claim Islam condones domestic violence point to passages in the Quran that have long been interpreted as giving husbands the right to strike their wives.
“Islam has been hijacked by people who point to any one line out of context and use it to legitimize their misgivings,” said Itedal Shelabi, director of Arab American Family Services in Bridgeview. “This is not uniquely Islamic -- the same can be said for Christians and Jews.”
Shelabi said an added challenge is reaching out to Muslim females in Chicago who are predominantly immigrants.
“Many women who are now in America have no idea what rights they have,” she said. “It’s not as though they get a ‘Welcome to America’ packet when they arrive.”
The struggles, she said, are more cultural than religious -- a clouded line she seeks to illuminate.“Like any other group, it’s an issue we must deal with, ” she said. “But we have to first admit we have a problem.”