Fighting abuse one mosque at a time

Activists are finding new ways to reach American Muslims suffering from domestic violence.


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 8, 2008 2:00AM (UTC)

Sunday's New York Times took an interesting look at why raising noise about the unacceptability of spousal abuse in the Muslim-American community is easier said than done. The difficulty doesn't arise because domestic violence is any more common among U.S. Muslims than among other religious or cultural groups, according to activists, but, perhaps in part, because of the public perception that it is. Given the frequent argument against Islam as a patriarchal and oppressive religion, attempts at discussing domestic violence are often seen defensively as an attack on the religion itself. Rafia Zakaria, who is developing a legal defense fund for Muslim women, told the Times: "The Muslim community is under a lot of scrutiny, so they are reluctant to look within to face their problems because it will substantiate the arguments demonizing them."

But some activists find sneaky ways around resistant local clerics. During breast cancer seminars held at local mosques, activists from Chicago's Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services, a shelter that targets Muslim women, steal time to talk about domestic violence. The center also dispatches volunteers to inform local businesses -- including everyone from hairdressers to grocery store clerks -- about their services, reports the Times. More progressive clerics, like Muhammad Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, have linked up with local domestic violence activists. Magid requires that couples marrying at any one of his seven Virginian mosques complete marriage counseling that includes a component on domestic violence.

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The larger battle, though, is over Chapter 4, Verse 34, in the Quran. According to one translation, the much-contested, endlessly translated passage encourages spousal abuse as a last resort when dealing with a disobedient wife: "And as for those women whose ill-willed rebellion you have reason to fear, admonish them first; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them." Taking a look at a competing translation, it's easy to see where the disagreement arises: "As for women you feel are averse, talk to them persuasively; then leave them alone in bed; and go to bed with them when they are willing. If they open out to you, do not seek an excuse for blaming them." The debate hinges on the Arabic word "daraba," which has been translated to mean everything from "beat" to "spank," "seduce" to "go away." As some fight for the greater acceptance of a nonviolent translation, others offer up the prophet Mohammed, who isn't said to have hit any of his wives, as a guiding example.

Sadly, though, activists say that real progress will be truly difficult until the next generation of American-born and -raised Muslim women comes of age. Until then, I hope to see loads of "breast cancer seminars" showing up at local mosques nationwide.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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