Islamophobia Informed My Mother’s Silence On Domestic Abuse — And Mine

If Muslim women are to be vocal about their abuse, the inimical culture of Islamophobia cannot exist.

M ore than half of all female homicide victims in the United States are killed by their intimate partner. On June 8, 2013, my mother became a part of this statistic.

In one defining moment, my father, with full consciousness, shot multiple bullets into my mother’s chest. Even as she lay there dead, he kept shooting. As is the case for so many, the murder followed years of abuse.

As someone working in the domestic violence advocacy field, I want to be able to share my experience, to educate people and push for crucial change. But as the daughter of Libyan Muslim immigrants to the United States, I have often felt the need to show caution.

I want to prevent, to as great of an extent as possible, perpetuating damning stereotypes about Muslim men and women.

As a Muslim woman, I am often faced with overt Islamophobic aggressions — and these often come from my fellow domestic violence advocates. In my first month working at a shelter in the Bay Area, an advocate remarked that a young Egyptian Muslim mother’s suicidal tendencies reminded her of ISIS suicide bombers. Another time, when the shelter hosted a faith conference on domestic violence, I inquired whether any Muslim faith leaders would be a part of the conversation — and one of the facilitators of the event stated that she had not thought to invite any. She then asked me whether Muslim women are even allowed to talk.

Lila Abu-Lughod, an Arab-American anthropologist who has written extensively on Orientalism as it pertains to Muslim women, expresses how the West has been obsessed with Muslim women and their perceived oppression since 9/11. In her exploration of the Western image of Muslim women and Islam, Abu-Lughod cites a “moral crusade” that has successfully positioned Muslim women as submissive and in need of saving, and Muslim men as spectacularly violent and patriarchal. I remained silent about my father’s actions out of a fear of lending legitimacy to these racist tropes.

In the wake of my mother’s death, I became enraged — at my community, at my father, and at myself. My experiences with racism and Islamophobia as a North African Muslim girl growing up in post-9/11 America, amplified by my mother’s visibly Muslim identity, reinforced in me the need to protect my community.

For a considerable part of my life, Islamophobia informed my mother’s silence, and mine.

About those stereotypes.

It’s true that Muslim women experience abuse at the hands of their intimate partners — however, the same holds true for women in the West. Nordic countries, for instance — despite being some of the most gender-equal countries in the world — still suffer disproportionately high rates of intimate partner violence. In the European Union, the average rate of the lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence is 22%. In Sweden, the rate is 28%; in Finland, 30%; and in Denmark, 32%. In the United States, one in four women will suffer severe violence at the hands of their intimate partners in their lifetime. (These numbers closely mirror a survey of Muslims in the U.S. that found that 31% reported having experienced intimate partner abuse.)

What is unique is the presence of distinct cultural norms that make it especially difficult for Muslim women in the U.S. to report abuse or seek help. Ruksana Ayyub, a researcher on domestic violence, conducted a survey within the South Asian Muslim community and found that at least one in four women were dealing with domestic violence. Ayyub notes, however, that the numbers are probably much higher.

What the American populace is most often impervious to is the ways in which Islamophobia — through surveillance programs, incessant negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in mainstream media, and excessive news coverage of crimes committed by Muslims — has acted to reinforce and proliferate the abuse that is suffered by Muslim women at the hands of their intimate partners. Because of Islamophobia, Muslim women are encouraged to be silent about their abuse so as to not contribute to the further demonization of their faith and communities.

My community’s subsequent response to my mother’s death, or lack thereof, revealed how this can manifest. My mother Nadia, like most other Muslim immigrants to the United States, had her strongest roots at the mosque. She was beloved in our community, known for her exceptional cooking and shrewdness. But though her funeral brought together people that I had not seen in over a decade, celebrating her and her life, not once did anyone blame my father for what he did. Everyone wrote off his choice to kill my mother as a psychological illness, as a whisper from the devil, ignoring a reality that had been building up for years prior. Denial made the reality a bit easier to bear on each side — as a community, and as a targeted group in the United States.

Similarly, my mother, strong as she was, harbored reservations about disclosing her abuse to those within the Muslim community and outside it. I have inherited these same reservations from her, as there is a very real fear that my mother’s murder will be blamed on our culture and faith rather than on a culture of patriarchy and violence — a culture which America is hardly exempt from.

Denial made the reality a bit easier to bear on each side.

This silence is further compounded by the fact that Muslim women who are victims of abuse in America lack options when it comes to seeking help. As our places of worship continue to be surveilled, and racial profiling remains widespread in airports, law enforcement is deeply mistrusted. In New York, for example, the Police Department’s Intelligence Division has overseen a surveillance program since at least 2002 that involves mapping predominantly Muslim communities throughout New York City, providing photo and video surveillance of mosques, and keeping an intelligence database on thousands of innocent New York Muslims.

Even domestic violence centers specifically designed to help those in need often fail to adequately serve Muslim women, thanks to a lack of cultural education and training among advocates. In a study published in Journal of Social Work Research and Evaluation, an overwhelming 46.7% of Arab women who were victims of intimate partner violence agreed or strongly agreed that there were not any domestic violence programs or services that were established to cater to the particular needs of Arab immigrant women.

Asra Milani, a Canadian researcher on Muslim women domestic violence victims, expressed how Muslim clients seeking help from shelters may harbor feelings of suspicion or uncertainty in the presence of domestic violence advocates. Furthermore, Milani states that Muslims who are in need of mental health services “may be reluctant not only to seek services, but to express fears and problems in their lives created by Islamophobia.”

If Muslim women facing intimate partner violence cannot be comfortable in places established explicitly to assist abused women, then there is little faith that there is any place else for them.

Muslim women are constantly othered and dehumanized, their narratives fabricated in ways that intend to rob them of sympathy and needed actions to create change.

Perhaps what has infuriated me most since my mother was killed is the fact that no one calls what claimed her life by its name. No one says that it was patriarchy that killed her. No one talks about domestic violence as a public health epidemic. No one cares to break the silence around domestic violence in the Muslim community, even in the face of such a personal loss. No one seeks to draw connections between patriarchal indoctrination and my mother being brutally murdered by her husband.

Though it is true that all Muslims in the U.S. are deeply affected by Islamophobia, Muslim women continue to suffer the greatest loss: loss of agency, loss of power, and loss of life. There is also a grave cost to Muslim communities when voicing issues is discouraged. If Muslim women are to be vocal about their abuse, the inimical culture of Islamophobia cannot exist. Islamophobia informs the silence of abused Muslim women; that silence, in turn, is killing us.

There is a price to pay if we speak out. There is a price to pay if we do not. But if there is any prospect of saving our lives, we must know that our silence will not save us. Central to our livelihoods is that the culture of Islamophobia be dismantled. Without this, Muslim women lose access to the services that exist for abused women. Without this, Muslim women will, unjustly, continue to choose between protecting their faith and communities, or protecting themselves.

Nour Naas is at the beginning of a project which seeks to lend a platform to marginalized women, with a particular focus on Muslim women, who have experienced intimate partner violence. If you are interested in learning more about it or becoming a participant, you can contact Nour directly at dvpinquiries@gmail.com.

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