Domestic Violence: There is no other name for it

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere –” regardless of race, religion, culture or economic status –” but most at risk the world over are women and girls.

“Violence against women and girls is a universal problem of epidemic proportions,” says a recent United Nations study. “Perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today, it devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.” (In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General, 2006)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in a sad irony it coincides this year with the opening of court proceedings on the death of three teenage girls and their stepmother, allegedly at the hands of their father, mother and brother. Since this case involves a Canadian Muslim family, it is bound to generate controversy and raise the specter of media frenzy as reporters rush to name this heinous crime a multiple “honor killing” and implicate Islam as the culprit.

What will be lost on so many observers and commentators is that Islam has never condoned violence against women and girls; in fact, the Qur’an both acknowledged and condemned the existing practices of female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia:

"When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide from his people because of the bad news that has been given to him! Shall he keep her in humiliation, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil choice they decide on?" — (Qur’an, Al-Nahl, 16: 58-59)

Also, the Qur’an openly declares that practitioners of female infanticide and abuse will be severely questioned on the Day of Judgment:

 And when the female (infant) buried alive (as the pagan Arab used to do) will be asked for what crime she was killed?" — (Qur’an, At-Takwir, 81: 8-9)

Women were despised, not only in pre-Islamic Arabia, but also in other parts of the world long before the advent of Islam. A popular book in the “wisdom literature” tradition of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament directs fathers to:

“Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control, or she will abuse any indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye; do not be surprised if she disgraces you." — (Ecclesiastes 26: 10-11).

The very same tradition of treating daughters, as likely or potential sources of shame, led pagan pre-Islamic Arabs to practice female infanticide.

Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his last sermon laid the foundation of healthy marital relationships on mutual rights and obligations, moral responsibility, and compassion, exhorting men to  "be kind to women –” you have rights over your wives, and they have rights over you."

He also said, "Treat your women well, and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers," and on another occasion, "The strong man is not the one who can use the force of physical strength, but the one who controls his anger." (Bukhari)

Men who beat and kill their wives and daughters do not do so because their religion allows it. More often than not, they follow their religious obligations selectively, implementing injunctions that suit their personal convenience; it is thus hypocritical and seriously misleading to insist that every aspect of a Muslim’s actual daily conduct is an exact mirror image of Islamic teachings, or that true Islam is what most Muslims do. No one mirrors their faith perfectly, even though most aspire towards such perfection. The same applies to other religions and those who profess them. Unfortunately, reality shows that within the distorted mindset and worldview of chronic abusers, the above-mentioned verses and Prophetic traditions are ignored.

Domestic violence is the most common form of violence against women, not only in North America, but globally as well. A recent study by the UN World Health Organization found that intimate personal violence rates around the world varied from 15% in Yokohama, Japan, to 71% in Ethiopia. The study noted that, “Here in the U.S. one out of four women will be assaulted by a partner during her lifetime” and similar trends are evident here in Canada.

In fact, a 2003 report by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics notes that “While men can also be victimized by domestic violence, 85% of the victims are women and 95% of the perpetrators of domestic violence against both men and women (as well as children) are men.”

In recent decades, domestic violence in North America has been acknowledged, defined, recognized in law, and countered with programs that include counseling, shelters, hot lines, enforcement training and judicial reform. As a result, the overall reported incidence of women being battered or killed by intimate partners has statistically declined, or at least leveled off.

But the problem itself has by no means diminished. “Still, as many as 4 million women are assaulted by spouses or partners each year and 1,200 are killed,” reports a 2005 article. “Clearly, the fight is not over. It certainly isn’t over for women like Jessica Gonzales and there are many like her… One day in 1999, Gonzales’s estranged husband abducted their three daughters from her front yard and murdered them, a carnage that might have been prevented had the Castle Rock, Colorado, police department not repeatedly refused to act on the protective order she’d sworn out.” (No Safe Haven, Mother Jones, July/August 2005)

Here in Canada, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 households experience at least one domestic violence episode a year. “In economic terms, the costs of family violence are staggering. Studies have attempted to measure the costs of violence against women. Each one found the annual price tag –” related to health care, criminal justice, social services and shelter operation, among other services –” is in the billions.” (Statistics Canada 2006)

Greaves (et al, 1995) estimated that the partial social services/education, criminal justice, labour/employment and health care costs of violence against women amounted to an estimated $4.2 billion annually.

Unfortunately, domestic violence is the crime no one wants to talk about –” including within Muslim community. Because it takes place within the context of intimate relationships, it is often dismissed as a “personal” matter, rather than the human rights violation it is.

My first exposure to domestic violence happened more than three decades ago during my student practicum in hospital in-patient psychiatry. Since then I have been professionally involved as a counselor and educator, having contributed toward establishing a shelter for abused immigrant women, developed culturally sensitive counseling services, trained mental health workers, and published papers on the topic. I was the first to research and write about domestic violence in the South Asian Family and discuss its long-term psychological impact on children. My work extended to advocating on behalf of victims and their families for better legal and social services, including skills training and language courses for new immigrants. This involvement led to my receiving the Rubina Wills award for working to overcome violence against women and children.

Despite statistical evidence and greater awareness, violence against women remains prevalent, pervasive, systemic, and even sanctioned in society. Therefore, it is critically important that we as a community move the issue from the abstract realm of being a human rights violation and a crime, to the concrete reality of making it socially and culturally unacceptable, period.

To advance this cause, Muslim women need to acquire a greater knowledge of their own faith, to reclaim their inherent rights in the light of what the Qur’an and Sunnah actually teach, instead of blindly accepting obsolete customs and traditions, extremist patriarchal viewpoints, or submitting to those who believe Muslim women need to be “saved from themselves.”

At least four times a year, every mosque or Islamic community centre should present an Abuse and Domestic Violence Awareness Program for Muslim Families, to teach risk identification, abuse and violence identification, safety planning, problem-solving techniques, and to distribute information on obtaining counseling for battered women and their families.

The top priority of the Muslim community should be education, because violence is a learned behaviour. Unlike Freud and Darwin’s theories of the animal in us that say “I cannot help it,” the Qur’an reminds us that our cognition and behaviour are under our control. It is our moral obligation not to cause harm to others.  Abusive Muslim men cannot blame their wives or daughters for their violent actions.

Finally, children must learn that violence in the home, or anywhere else, is not the way to resolve conflicts. I strongly recommend that Muslim parents engage with their children, give them Qur’anic proof behind their opinions, allow them to question, and invite discussion or reflection on ideas. After all, Allah continuously instructs Muslims to think and to reflect. What better issue on which to do so?