Immigrant Muslim Couples and Domestic Violence

Source: Parveen Ali with permission

While underlining the obscenely high rates of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) against women across the world regardless of religion or culture, Parveen Ali, Ph.D.,* describes the special concerns of immigrant Muslim women. Ali emphasizes the great variation among Muslim families depending on their country of origin, religiosity, level of education, and a host of other factors, cautioning that each person must be treated as an individual. This said, Muslim women who are immigrants to countries where they are in the minority often share certain challenges, including: 

  • Isolation: Abusers often impose isolation on their victims as a way to enforce their dominating control. Isolation can also result from moving to a new country where the victims may not speak the dominant language well, may look and dress differently from her neighbors, and may live far from familiar and potentially supportive friends and family members. Isolation makes women vulnerable to IPV because they come to depend on the abuser for all human contact, lose self-esteem, and have no one to turn to when they need support or an escape route.
  • Stigma: Victims of IPV often feel ashamed of their victimization. Acknowledging and disclosing abuse experiences can be especially difficult for Muslim women because they may believe the abuse disgraces their family. Additionally, Muslims as a group are already portrayed negatively in the media. Like members of other stigmatized groups, Muslim victims of IPV may not want to disclose to outsiders for fear that this will bring increased negative attention to their community.
  • Discrimination: Confiding in others about issues such as IPV requires trust. People who have experienced discrimination or who have been reviled by politicians are less likely to trust secular authorities with their intimate family matters.
  • Pressure from community members to maintain the marriage:  Marriage and family unity are important Islamic values. Even where IPV exists in a couple, a victim may be pressured by family and community members to remain with the abuser for the sake of the family and the family’s reputation.
  • Lack of knowledge of rights within Islam: Islam does not condone the beating or sexual assault of women. However, some religious scholars have interpreted certain Qu’ranic verses as giving men the right to assault women. (Like most ancient religious texts, one can mine the Qu’ran to support a range of viewpoints on any topic). In some Muslim majority cultures, violence against women is quite common (including sexual assault, intimate partner physical violence, honor-based violence and genital cutting). Abusers may seek and find religious justifications for their actions. However, other Islamic clergy and teachers provide religious reasons why violence against women must be rejected. It is important for non-Muslims to understand that violence is not acceptable in Islam and therefore they should feel confident in supporting Muslim victims and challenging assumptions.
  • Immigration status vulnerability: If victims are undocumented or if their visas are attached to their husbands’, they are highly vulnerable to the abusers’ intimidating tactics. Victims may fear all involvement with authorities and IPV abusers commonly threaten their victims with deportation.
  • Fear of losing custody of children or child abduction: Immigrant IPV abusers will often threaten to take away the children or to bring them back to the country of origin and make them “disappear.” Victims are often unfamiliar with their rights and available services in their new country.

Muslim clerics are often ill equipped to handle domestic violence in families, and yet they are the first authorities many Muslim families will consult when distressed. These clerics are almost exclusively men, and they will interpret Islamic texts in ways that either condemn or support domestic violence, depending on their own perspectives. If the cleric does not know what to do or where to refer a victim for further support, he will often urge a woman to be patient, thus encouraging her to remain in a dangerous situation.

Ali also described the pernicious way domestic violence is reflexively be termed “honor-based violence” when it concerns an Arab or South Asian victim, regardless of the circumstances. Making the violence “exotic” in this way can lead professionals to walk away from it, considering it “cultural” and therefore unsolvable or beyond their purview. The tools that support victims–including counseling, economic empowerment, protective orders, and arrest of perpetrators–can be useful with Muslim couples. Certainly, we should not deny Muslim victims access to these resources or others, simply because we assume the violence is normative or acceptable in their culture; it is not.

What shall we do, then, to assure immigrant Muslim women protection from assaults by their intimate partners? The answer involves both education and legislation. People who understand Islam need to be recruited and supported in the field of IPV, as counselors, advocates, police, and attorneys. Muslim clergy and organizations should be educated about the real dynamics and risks of domestic violence. Secular agencies need to engage in regular and meaningful cultural competence training to improve their ability to address the needs of cultural minority groups, including Muslims. And policies that generally support immigrant and refugee children, adults, and families will decrease family stress, thus reducing violence and increasing options for victims of violence. People who view the police and other authorities as hostile forces will run from—rather than toward—services that might help them live free from violence and control.

* School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. This talk was given at the College of Nursing, University of Massachusetts Amherst on September 19 2017.


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