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The problem is men: Muslim women speak out against abuse in the US

A woman can do everything right and still be murdered, experts say
Muslim women leave after morning prayer to start their Eid al-Adha celebrations at Bush Terminal Piers Park in Brooklyn, New York, on 9 July 2022 (AFP)

Khadija* was making pancakes. She had just poured the batter into the skillet when she got a phone call from her friend. 

"Are you ok?" was the first thing her friend asked her.

Khadija was confused. There was no salaam, no 'How are you?' 

"Uh yes. Why?" she asked.

And that's when she found out about Sania Khan.

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Khan was a 29-year-old South Asian Muslim photographer. Earlier this year, she had gotten a divorce from her husband and documented it all on TikTok.

'It could have been me. It could still be me'

- Domestic violence survivor 

In one of her videos, she wrote: "The first few months of any divorce journey is the darkest. It's full of anxiety, sleepless nights, wondering if you’re doing the right thing, thinking Allah abandoned you, and feeling hopeless. You are not a failure because your marriage did not work out. Be gentle with your heart during this stage. Time does heal all things and it will get better."

But for Khan, things failed to get better. On 18 July, her ex-husband Raheel Ahmad drove 11 hours from Georgia to Chicago where Khan had an apartment. When his family found out he was missing, they called the police for a wellness check-in at Khan's house, where they believed he might have gone.

When the police arrived, they found both of them unresponsive with gunshot wounds to their heads. Both were dead. According to reports, Ahmad had shot and killed Khan before killing himself. 

Not even 24 hours later, 20-year-old Alwiya Mohamed in Milwaukee was shot and killed by her husband who then killed himself. Their one-year-old son was home with them at the time. 

Khajida would later find out that a couple of weeks before Khan's murder, Sadia Manzoor’s estranged husband came to her apartment in Houston and shot and killed Manzoor, their four-year-old daughter and her mother before turning the gun on himself. 

When Khadija found out, she had a panic attack. She hadn’t had one of those in ages. Her breathing was restricted, she began to sweat and it felt like her heart was going to thump right out of her chest, she said. For her, it all felt too real.

Holding the culprits accountable

In 2015, Khadija escaped an abusive marriage. It had begun with small things: her husband wouldn’t allow her to see her family, he would take the money she earned, he would sell her jewellery. And then he began to punch the walls.

If he was upset, he'd begin to yell at her until she backed up into a wall that he would punch. She remembers the first time it was near her left ear. Sometimes he'd throw stuff, but it wouldn't touch her. Not yet, at least. Until one day, he punched her. It was right in the stomach as she stood in the middle of their bedroom in their tiny apartment in New York. 

From then on, his fists always landed on her body - her neck, her chest, her shoulders. 

The night before she left him, she and her husband had had a fight. She told him he was cruel and the marriage was over. He punched her. But little did he know, it would be the last punch. She told him she wanted a divorce. He didn’t want to give it to her. So early in the morning, she packed her bags and never looked back.

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While Khadija thought she could find strength in those close to her, most of her family didn't believe her. Her ex-husband's family blamed her for their marital breakdown and the community was silent.

Khadija said she didn't go to the police because she was undocumented and afraid. She didn’t go to court because she didn’t have any money. She had her little sister though, who believed her and took her far away to a different state.

So years later, when she heard the story of Khan, Mohamed and Manzoor, her heart could not take it. 

"It could have been me," she told Middle East Eye, her voice barely a whisper. "It could still be me."

Domestic violence is rife in the US. One in four women are victims of intimate partner violence, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). In the Muslim community, where there is the stigma that comes with both domestic violence and divorce, the rates are also high. 

In a study of 190 Muslims seeking mental health counselling in Northern Virginia in 2011, 41 percent experienced domestic violence in the form of verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

But despite these statistics, community members are often hesitant to become involved in domestic violence cases.

Is divorce worse than murder?

Denise Berte, the director of Peaceful Families Project, a national NGO focusing on and documenting domestic violence in Muslim communities, said someone recently asked her what she would have done if Khan had come into her office. To which she answered: "I would not have done anything differently."

'This is the cultural manifestation and twisting of our religious traditions'

- Denise Berte, Peaceful Families Project

Khan did everything right, she said. She left an abusive marriage. She got a divorce. She informed her family and friends. She moved 700 miles away. The problem was not her, she said. The problem was the man.

"We really need to look at what we are teaching Muslim men about what their role is and what is both accepted and not accepted in Islam. All of these were practising Muslim men. All of these were Muslim men who went out and got a firearm. All of these were men who not only killed their partners but killed themselves. We need to look at what these men are doing and prevent it," she said. "What are our mother-in-laws telling their sons? What is his sister saying?"

According to Berte, the community needs to come together and talk about why it seems like the idea of divorce is worse than the act of murder and suicide. 

"This is not a religious tradition at all. This is the cultural manifestation and twisting of our religious traditions. There is this twisted narrative of what it means to be the head of your household. And it seems abuse and control are adapted within that role, which is not at all what our faith teaches."

She explained that the problem right now is not the victims, but the perpetrators. 

"The victims are of a wide variety of experiences, of education, of action, of protection of all of these kinds of things,” she said. “Our job is always to protect victims when they seek help. And we continue to do that in the best way that we can. But we do all of that and it doesn't make a difference."

"What we need to focus on is what is wrong with potential perpetrators. What is wrong with this role of male household leaders. Why does anyone think this is ok?"

Whose responsibility is it?

When it comes to men abusing their wives or, in cases like these, murdering them, the key is prevention, and prevention begins from a young age.

Mona Kafeel is the executive director at the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, an organisation that caters to Muslim women (though they take women and men from all faiths) who have gone through domestic violence and other forms of abuse. The organisation offers crisis shelters, transitional housing, imam training, and provides community education. 

When Kafeel heard about Khan, she said she sort of blamed herself for not doing enough. She said she wishes she had educated more people. That she could have met Khan somehow. That she could have done more. But the truth is, she realised, that it is not only up to her to create change -  it’s up to everyone in the community. 

She explained that when there is a man in the community or in someone's family that has been accused of being an abuser, then he needs to be held accountable by whoever has heard about it. 

"The responsibility can't be placed just on women. It's too big of a problem for all of us to ignore or say that only this group should take care of it. Each one of us has a responsibility to make a cultural change,” she said. “It is up to the man’s family to hold him responsible. How are we raising our boys? It is up to imams to be educated. It is up to us to raise awareness.”

According to Ustadha Zainab bint Younus, a community activist based in Canada, preventing something horrific like this from happening is a multi-prong solution that requires every person in society to be involved. Which is one of the reasons why she, and other women from the Female Scholarship Network - a group of over 100 female Islamic scholars and teachers across the world - got together and wrote a statement to condemn the “disease of domestic violence that has permeated the Muslim ummah for far too long”.

'There's a massive disconnect between what Islamic ethics calls for and unfortunately what our reality is'

- Zainab bint Younus, community activist 

According to Younus, women's families should be the first source of support. Once they find out their daughter or sister is being abused, they need to come to their defence; they need to hold the abuser accountable. 

Next, the community should be alerted to the abuse. Younus explained that the abuser should not be able to move on and remarry and hurt someone else. She said that imams and community leaders need to warn women and the families of men who have been involved in abuse.

She explained a hadith- a story of the Prophet Muhammad - when a woman came to him asking about who to marry between two men. The Prophet told her one was rich but his stick never left his shoulder, meaning he was abusive. And one was poor and had no wealth. He told her to marry another man altogether.

"A lot of people think 'You don't know if he'll do it again' or 'it's not our business; or 'what a man does in his marriage is his private business'. But that's absolutely not true," she said. 

She said people often step back from warning other people about an abusive man because they fear they are committing a sin by backbiting. But that is also not true, she explained.

“There are actually several exceptions and one of the major exceptions is protecting other Muslims from the harm of another person. And that's especially important in matters of marriage. If you know a guy is abusive, and you know that a woman would like to marry him and she doesn't know that, then you are actually obliged to inform her and her family so that she doesn't go into that marriage.”

It’s the responsibility of the entire community, she said. Families need to protect their women and humans need to protect each other. 

“There's a massive disconnect between what Islamic ethics calls for and unfortunately what our reality is, and it really requires all of us to work together to be able to stop these men from reoffending.”

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