Domestic Abuse by Muslim Men? Is the 18% Statistic Too Low?
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
From time to time, stories appear in the American media about domestic abuse among Muslims and about the growing movement to address this problem honestly. In a recent article, Safe Houses For Women, Makeba Scott Hunter reports from Dorria Fahmy, head of the shelter, Women Against Family Abuse (WAFA)*, that, “The rate of domestic abuse in the Muslim community is about the same as in the general population—about 18 percent, according to a 2000 study performed by Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, a rate comparable to the national average. It tends, however, to be more hidden.”
“The issues that we face are quite unique,” says Lakshmi Rajagopal, a coordinator at Manavi, New Jersey’s oldest Muslim-focused domestic abuse center. “Among those are the dynamics of violence in the community. The way that violence manifests requires an understanding of the culture, the family structures and the people that abuse comes from.”
The figure of 18% for domestic abuse among Muslims seems very low, so it may reflect overly strict standards for identifying it. Presumably the definition requires assault (which does not even require physical contact), as well as battery, which does. But does it require a pattern of hitting? My estimate is that the percentage of Muslim men who have hit their wives at least once in their lives is closer to 90%. How bad does this crime have to become before it is registered statistically as abuse?
And what criteria do the abuse centers use when they advise the women to return to their husbands? In my view, if any man hits his wife even once, the marriage is over. I can justify this from the Qur’an, but admittedly the ayah probably should be interpreted less stringently. Efforts at family reconciliation are required by both the fiqh and the maqasid al shari’ah, but this is designed for everything from intellectual incompatibility to emotional abuse, not for assault and battery.
The perversion of the Qur’an to justify spousal abuse is itself a crime. The famous ayah using the term daraba as the last of three measures to take against one’s wife, presumably for some heinous crime, uses the term to mean separation and eventually divorce. The excuse that it means hit or strike her lightly, like with a mishwak, is pure apologetics.
Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman has analysed a dozen cases of the word daraba used in the Qur’an for figurative extensions of the basic root word. Last night I happened to read Muhammad Asad’s footnote 57 to Baqara 2:73, which lists some of these, such as daraba fi al ‘ard (he journeyed on earth), daraba sh-shay bi sh-shay (he mixed one thing with another), daraba mithal (gave an illustration or coined a similitude), ‘ala darb wahid (in the same manner), duribat ‘alayhim adhdhillah (humiliation was imposed on them, or they were humiliated). In English we have similar such uses of the word “strike,” such as strike a bargain or she is a striking woman. This does not mean that the woman has a habit of going around hitting everybody.
My impression is that the percentage of women who seek out shelters is a small fraction of those who should do so or should leave their husbands. Most of those who seek help probably do so because they can’t otherwise support their children or themselves. Many of those who do not seek help probably love their husbands so much that they are natural victims of abuse, which in my view means that they do not have the strength to maintain their dignity as human beings.
In my view much more must be done to help abused Muslim women. Many of today’s Muslim leaders will remember the case of the woman at Sheila Musaji’s big Muslim “pow-wow” fifteen years ago, about which I wrote in an article, posted on July 12, 2004 in The American Muslim, “The Great Pow-Wow: American Muslims Come of Age,” in which I wrote: “At one point during the Pow-Wow, an Egyptian husband of an American-born Muslima proceeded to beat up his wife in full view of a hundred other Muslims because she had not told him that Sufis would be there. I immediately started rounding up some men to beat up this man as punishment for his crime. This was when I was still somewhat of a Taliban Liberal, if there is something so oxymoronic. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the unfortunate Muslima was sent to a shelter for battered women and a secret life, which she still leads today. Only a year ago, a decade later, this same ex-husband threatened Sheila Musaji’s life if she would not reveal his former wife’s whereabouts.”
Back then, I was head of the Legal Office at the American Muslim Council, so I had to handle this case. When we learned that the enraged husband was coming to see me, I arranged for a goon squad of several burly bouncers to meet him in the lobby just so he wouldn’t get any ideas. He, of course, like all bullies, was as friendly as could be, and never bothered me again, but he is still a mortal threat to his former wife.
This event at the pow-wow was not exactly routine, but it is not unusual. Such behavior occurs at home out of sight all the time, which is why I think that the implication that four out of five Muslim men do not beat their wives is an exaggeration and understates the problem.
One can offer excuses based on the tension that all Muslims are under in America, including the very fact that they have left their homes and are in America, but these are only excuses not reasons. And they certainly do not justify the sensitivity about even discussing the issue. Admittedly, Shaykh Hanooti was thrown out as the imam of Dar al Hijra, the largest mosque in Virginia, because five times in a row he sided with the wife in domestic disputes. He was saved temporarily only because Sister Anisa ‘Abd al Fatha, now head of NAMAW, soundly thrashed the ignorant men with her superb knowledge of hadith and saved the Imam at the big meeting called to expel him. But, once she left the area, the tyrannisaurus rexes got their revenge. This is the price that honesty among Muslims may exact, but this is not an adequate reason for playing ostrich.
The younger generation of Muslims and the converts are changing the domestic culture perhaps rapidly, but we still have a long way to go. We need accurate and relevant data, so this study, about which I had not heard, with the figure of 18% should be checked out, and broader studies with more depth need to be initiated. Even if the 18% figure does turn out to reflect the problem fairly accurately, the equally great problem would remain why Muslims, who supposedly are somewhat independent of the cultural degeneration around them in America, are no better than others.
* More informatioin on the WAFA House may be found on their website http://www.wafahouse.org/
Constructing the Notion of Male Superiority over Women in Islam, Dahlia Eissa http://www.wluml.org/english/pubs/pdf/occpaper/OCP-11.pdf