Sheltering Muslim Domestic Violence Survivors

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Asma Hanif approaches her email as if it were an emergency room triage system in a hospital. As the founder and director of Muslimat al Nisaa, one of the few domestic violence shelters in the United States open exclusively to Muslim women, she must quickly decide who to admit based on the severity of the danger they face. Although the Baltimore-based home has been taking in women in since 2007, Hanif reports a significant increase in women requesting a spot in her shelter, more so in the past year than ever before. Many report having suffered constant abuse and discrimination at the other domestic violence shelters they’ve lived in, patterns that prompted them to seek out a safe space where they can live and practice their faith without fear.

Although some of the women and children living in the home have never been in other shelters before, the majority of residents at Muslimat al Nisaa, an Arabic phrase that loosely translates as “Muslim Women’s Organization,” are coming directly from other domestic violence homes from all around the country. But in recent months, an increased demand combined with limited funds, space, and supplies means that Hanif has been forced to turn away more women than she can take in.

“Sometimes, it feels like I’m deciding who lives and who dies,” says the 63-year-old former nurse, as she sits in the living room on the first floor of the shelter, draped in purple clothing. “What happens if I’m someone’s last option, their last hope, and I have to say no?”

Hanif believes that the uptick in women seeking out her shelter over the past year is no coincidence. The year the Trump administration took office was likely the worst ever for anti-Muslim incidents in the country, according to a recent report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In the first half of 2017, the United States experienced a 91 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes compared with the same period in the previous year, the largest jump since 2013, the year the council began tracking incidents. The spike in the numbers of women requesting a space in the shelter reflects the anxiety produced by anti-Muslim sentiments they have encountered in other homes, according to Hanif.

“Raina,” a 26-year-old woman whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, had lived in two different California domestic violence shelters with her three children before making the move across the country to Baltimore to seek refuge at Muslimat Al Nisaa. She recalls checking into a shelter in Oceanside, a city north of San Diego, where she sat down with a counselor to answer questions about her situation—the standard protocol for newcomers to the home. 

Raina, who wears a hijab, began discussing her history with an abusive ex-husband and why she needed to leave when the counselor interrupted her with a question. “She looked at me, and she asked, But, isn’t this, like, part of your culture?” Raina tells The American Prospect. The young woman paused to compose herself for a few moments before continuing, “She asked me to talk about my circumstances and then blamed my faith for what had happened to me.”  

Raina wanted to tell the counselor a few things: that she believed her religion taught kindness; that she thought the counselor was misinformed; that she had actually been raised in an abusive, non-Muslim household; and that she had found peace in the religion after converting to Islam as a teenager. But knowing that her options were limited, Raina carried on with the meeting without causing a fuss. She had three children to take care of, one of them just an infant, and she desperately needed a place to stay.

Still, Raina’s troubles didn’t stop there. Other women in the shelter suggested that she take off her headscarf if she ever wanted to find a job. Another woman told her that she was sucking out all the resources of a country that was better off without her. The same resident then turned to her five-year-old daughter and told her the reason for Raina’s situation was because the family had not yet accepted Jesus Christ.

In the summer of 2016, Raina moved across the country to Muslimat Al Nisaa. She says that the sudden death of Hadeel, her three-month-old daughter, from leukemia prompted her decision to leave California. “That was it for me,” she says. “I didn’t want them to go through anything else—to deal with all that. I needed my children to be in a healthy environment,” she continues. “So I left.”

Raina’s story is very similar to ones Hanif has heard from other women who have sought out her shelter. She has heard of non-Muslim women calling their fellow Muslim survivors devil-worshippers. She has heard other complaints of counselors who suggested that Islam condones the beating women. In some homes, Muslim women were not allowed to pray.

Early on, Hanif realized that she needed to create an environment in which her residents viewed Muslimat Al Nisaa like a family home—not just another shelter. It had to be a place where the women could regain a sense of belonging, and Hanif strives to run her home on that same premise every day.

“The truth is that racism in this country is becoming bolder and bolder, [and] as one of the most visible and identifiable minorities, [Muslim women] end up getting hurt the most,” says Hanif. “To go to a place where you’re supposed to get help after abuse, and to then get told there is no sympathy for you—what a sad situation to have in the United States.”

“Sakina,” a 42-year-old Brooklyn native (her name has also been changed to protect her identity) was only able to begin her healing process after she settled in at the shelter. “I couldn’t even process my abuse because I was in survival mode,” says Sakina, who had been in and out of six different domestic violence shelters before moving to Baltimore. 

When she sought out a shelter in New York, a security guard searched her bag, another standard procedure in these homes, and found a ticking alarm clock that she bought at a local dollar store. “He picked it up and said, ‘What’s this? A bomb? You know how Muslims are with those bombs,’” Sakina says. “I couldn’t even respond to him,” she continues. “He said it in front of everyone, and at that point, I was already beaten down, already homeless; why would anyone want to make it even worse?”

Sakina, who is African American, explains that she was stuck in the same cycle for years: She would return to her abuser after experiencing discrimination and discomfort at the various shelters she stayed in. “I’ve dealt with racism since I left the womb,” she says. “But [Donald Trump] has done a great job bringing it back to light.” Sakina adds that she often feels her hijab is a “green light” for verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse. “Just walking around with a piece of cloth on my head feels dangerous now,” she says.

According to Robina Niaz, the founder of Turning Point, a New York City-based organization that provides services for Muslim domestic abuse survivors, it is common for Muslim women to refuse to go to shelters due to a fear of discrimination or harassment. A veteran social worker, Niaz specialized in domestic violence issues in the Muslim community for 13 years before she set up Turning Point. Her first-ever client sought her out after another counselor told her that, as a Muslim woman, she must have “expected” the abuse she experienced at the hands of her partner.

“For many of these women, if you ask them what sustained them through all these years of abuse, they will tell you it is their faith,” says Niaz. “So if that is the one thing they hold onto, and [that faith] is being looked down upon or criticized, it makes them so much more vulnerable.”

Niaz says that she actively advocates for more consistent cultural sensitivity training at domestic abuse shelters across the country, and that she has been doing so for years. She compares the insults and other verbal abuse that these women experience to the rhetoric typically used to describe Islamic terrorists.

“When a Muslim person commits a crime, it’s automatically labeled as terrorism, and the same thing often happens in the case of domestic violence,” explains Niaz. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to speak to [a shelter worker] and say: You’ve got to look at her as a survivor, just like any other survivor.”

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Muslim women facing other types of crises such as homelessness also seek out Muslimat al Nisaa. On November 19, 2016, a local imam contacted Hanif about a refugee who came to him after facing harassment shortly after the presidential election. “When she ventured out for her immigration appointments, she was harassed and she felt unsafe,” he wrote in an email. “The mother is now extremely frightened about being exposed and ultimately deported: are you able to accept this family within your shelter?”

But Hanif could not help the woman. Although she previously welcomed homeless women, her budget constraints forced her to focus exclusively on victims of domestic violence. She informed the imam that his request was the seventh that she had received that day; the 21st of that week; and the 43rd since Election Day.

Hanif’s email inbox is full of harrowing messages. Some emails, written in broken English, are short and vague. “I hv 8 yr old son. Need shelter. They put me Muslim out from this place,” reads one. Others are long and intimate. One woman wrote: “I was talked to as though I was an imbecile, spat upon and cursed at.” She explained that after finally finding a room to rent on her own, the landlord changed his mind and kicked her out because “he didn’t want to house her kind.”

In another email, a Washington-based paralegal described her pro-bono client, a woman with two sons whose domestic violence counselors allegedly refused to help her unless she denounced Islam and stopped practicing her faith. She had been trying to find a job so she could save money to rent an apartment, but as an undocumented refugee, she had failed to do so. “Without housing, she is forced to remain in this violent situation and she fears for her life,” the paralegal said.

Hanif carries the burden of the women she cannot help with every new email that appears in her inbox. Yet she finds solace in the stories of former clients who took control of their lives after they left Muslimat al Nisaa. Currently studying to be a midwife in Washington, Raina has married a man she describes as an “absolutely amazing” individual. Sakina finally broke the cycle of returning to her abuser, and she too, has moved on to a new job and an independent life.

“All these people want is a chance at freedom, says Hanif, over the din of her ringing phone and the cries of a baby in an adjoining room. “That’s it,” she adds before taking the call and scrolling through her emails again. 

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