Staying in Unsafe Relationships

Written by Zawareen Zakaria

October has been designated as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month for several decades now by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It evolved from a remembrance spanning from one day to one week during the 1980s, as conceived by the aforementioned organization, and the designation of the month was passed into law by Congress in 1989.


Domestic violence is most often understood as the violence inflicted on one by their spouse or significant partner; however, domestic violence is a general term characterizing the forms of violence inflicted on one by those they may have familial relations or ties to and, as such, includes both child and elder abuse. Intimate partner violence (IPV), on the other hand, is a more specific form of domestic violence that is the violence perpetrated by a current or former spouse, partner, significant other, boyfriend, or girlfriend.


It is incredibly crucial for us as a community to recognize the ways in which domestic violence can manifest as well as the impact that it has both on individuals and on society as a whole. With the unfortunate ever-rising of COVID-19 cases in the United States and the subsequent placements of stay-at-home orders nationwide, there was a 75% increase from April to June 2020 in the number of calls from victims who were trapped at their places of shelter with their abusers. In some areas across the country, there was actually a decrease in calls; however, experts in the field have pointed to this statistic as being the result of victims no longer being able to safely connect with services from their places of shelter. The closing of courts amidst the pandemic also “led to a dramatic decrease in the filing of family violence restraining orders,” and with the economic strain felt by millions across the country coinciding with the “rollercoastering” of cases and calls, so to speak, it reinforced to experts once again the point that financial struggles are just one of many triggers for abuse as well.


Domestic violence, unfortunately, is experienced by people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes, and religious backgrounds. Such violence can be physical, emotional, sexual, financial, or psychological – despite general understandings of it as being primarily physical. In the United States, 1 in 4 women experience IPV, and 1 in 9 men experience IPV, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. IPV is the leading cause of homicide for women around the globe, and it is the most common form of violence against women. Women endure violent abuse to the head with an estimated 80-90% of injuries to the neck and higher, and the majority of women experiencing IPV also sustain IPV related brain injury, with about 51% of women sustaining traumatic brain injury (TBI), as researched by* Harvard University’s Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Eve M. Valera, PhD. Such trauma to the brain impacts cognitive, physical, and emotional functioning of the body, and can cause impaired judgement and memory problems, visual disturbances and nausea, and increased anxiety, depression, and mood swings. It is difficult, however, to truly ascertain the extent of the trauma inflicted on one’s body given that there are no visible signs of injury to the naked eye or through imaging, and especially because victims rarely seek medical attention.


It is, therefore, important to reestablish and remember that domestic violence and IPV traverses all socioeconomic boundaries and that such boundaries play a significant role in the severity of and the triggers that cause it. Domestic violence and IPV have a disproportionate effect on people of color and other marginalized peoples, and the extent of these effects are all the more varied given the pandemic-induced isolation. For Muslims in particular, as reported by journalist Rowaida Abdelaziz, the heightened barriers of Islamophobia and hostility against immigrants and refugees pose an extra burden to victims and survivors of domestic abuse from seeking the safety and shelter that they need and deserve.


According to a joint study by Peaceful Families and Project Sakina, 66% of Muslims reported that they knew a Muslim that had been physically abused, 80% of those surveyed experienced emotional abuse and 77% experienced verbal abuse, and of the Muslims surveyed more than 40% of those abused as adults said that their spouse abused them. Overall, 53% of American Muslims experience some form of domestic violence, which can include emotional, verbal, financial, physical, or sexual abuse. However, in addition to the barriers of hostility and xenophobia, the barriers that Muslim women face in seeking services and shelter include a lack of inclusion and erasure of Muslim survivors from shelters, a lack of knowledge of resources, spiritual abuse, familial abuse, and shame.


There is an overwhelming taboo within the community when it comes to the stories of Muslim survivors and victims of domestic violence and IPV, especially when it comes to the separation of victims from their abusers in the form of divorce. Oftentimes, abusers and even religious leaders will misuse faith-based rhetoric to gaslight, coerce, victims into staying in unsafe relationships. Furthermore, community leaders who are not knowledgeable about domestic violence and IPV may also tell victims that the victims are engaging in un-Islamic activities and going against what the faith teaches. This is incredibly harmful, especially when studies have shown that imams are perceived as counselors, as people who victims can reach out to for counseling and help with respect to safety issues. Furthemore, it pushes forth a narrative that Islam is not a religion that ensures the safety and wellbeing of individuals especially in the face of abuse. In truth, Islam promotes healthy relationships – there are countless ayahs in the Qur’an and in various narrations of Hadith that illustrate Islam as a preventative model and as a religion that mandates intervention, and divorce is pushed forth in the Qur’an as a peaceful solution between partners when the safety and health of a person or both are compromised within the context of a marriage (Qur’an 2:226-234, 65:1-12).


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of strife and increased tension within the community, and it is up to community members as a whole to recognize such tensions, as well as its roots, and to push forth solutions that seek to uplift and support. During this month, we should collectively seek to educate ourselves on the signs of domestic violence and IPV, the types of abuse and ways in which they manifest, and how to properly care for and help survivors. Rowaida Abdelaziz states that abuse victims within the Muslim community “pleading and calling on to members of their own community,” beseeching religious leaders and community members to understand that in sharing their stories they are trying to seek help in a situation that has become so much bigger than themselves and their own stories. During this National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let us listen and learn.


If you are someone or know of someone who is seeking help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. For more information on how to best serve Muslim and non-Muslim survivors and victims, please check out Peaceful Families Project, Institute of Muslim Mental Health, Pink Concussions, and Rowaida Abdelaziz’s “Muslim Survivors of Domestic Violence Need You to Listen.” ICNA Relief offers tele-therapy and counseling services through our Muslim Family Services, has a nationwide transitional housing program, and hosts the Give Every Month (GEM) campaign in order to support victims and survivors. ICNA Relief is also hosting a #WearPurpleDay on October 24 to show support for survivors and raise awareness for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.