On 12 February 2009, Aasiya Zubair, a Muslim Pakistani American MBA student and co-founder of Bridges TV, was murdered by her estranged husband, Muhammad Hassan, after she officially filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against him. Hassan’s previous two wives left him due to domestic abuse, and Asma Firfirey, the sister of the deceased, stated Aasiya had previously sustained physical injuries requiring nearly $3,000 of medical bills. Hassan, who was ostensibly and regrettably considered a community leader despite his history of abuse – a shameful oversight and failure of the Muslim leadership community – is now charged with the murder. Remarkably, he recently invoked the “battered” spouse defence combined with psychiatric elements claiming that it was in fact he who suffered verbal abuse and humiliation by his wife.
Hassan’s defence takes away from the very real statistics that show the sobering reality of domestic violence in America. Approximately 1.3 million women in America are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually and nearly 25% of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Contrary to some spurious reporting and ignorant, reactionary stereotyping in the wake of Aasiya’s murder, abhorrent violence against women is neither culturally innate nor exclusive to Muslim, South Asian, or immigrant males. Sadly, domestic violence is universally endemic in “women of all races [who] are about equally vulnerable to violence by an intimate partner”.
Commendably, the Muslim American community refused to plead victimhood and make media-friendly, defensive rationalisations following Aasiya’s murder. Instead, they universally condemned the murder, acknowledged the existence of domestic violence as a silent but prevalent reality deliberately hidden due to shame, and decided to finally clean their own house.
A sudden grassroots effort emerged within two days of her death – mobilised primarily by websites such as Facebook – that campaigned for a “pledge to end domestic violence”. A nationwide, unified effort entitled Imams Speak Out: Domestic Violence Will Not Be Tolerated in Our Communities, directly called on imams and religious leaders to use their Friday sermon to decisively denounce abuse against women in Muslim communities. The call was heard and answered loudly. Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the most influential and popular Muslim American clerics, used the Qur’an, sharia and life of the Prophet Muhammad to categorically condemn such behaviour as un-Islamic and forbidden. Moreover, he admonished domestic abusers who rationalise such criminal acts by perversely misusing their religion to justify their violence.
Immediately following the tragedy, a few Muslim Americans started the Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence website, where they issued a global pledge “to never to engage in, support, or remain silent about the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse of Muslim and non-Muslim women and children”. To commemorate the anniversary of Aasiya’s death, they have released a “call to action” asking religious imams to reserve their Friday 12 February sermon to speak out against domestic abuse.
Also, the tragedy highlighted the resources and remarkable work of existing anti-domestic violence organisations and shelters that were sadly not fully utilised by many mosques and Muslim community centres during Aasiya’s life.
For example, Peaceful Families Project, which has existed since 2000, collaborated with the Muslim Women’s League last year to compile an online directory of “domestic violence programmes for Muslim communities”. They are now spearheading a video campaign called Take A Stand Against Domestic Violence, featuring pledges from Muslims all over the world.
An organised, global initiative, International Wear a Purple Hijab Day is asking Muslim women to wear a purple headscarf to remember Aasiya Zubair on 13 February and unite as a community to speak out against domestic abuse. Project Sakinah: Stop Family Violence Now is being developed by Dar al Islam, a New Mexico non-profit organisation, to stimulate awareness and decisive action within Muslim communities.
Furthermore, several domestic violence shelters, non-profit organisations, and Muslim community centres are hosting speeches and panels this weekend to commemorate Aasiya’s memory. Specifically, Domestic Harmony Foundation and Turning Point for Women and Families is hosting a joint panel to clear misconceptions of Islam’s treatment of women and tocondemn the domestic violence and murder of Aasiya.
Although the journey remains long and arduous, it is bittersweet yet ultimately encouraging that the anniversary of Aasiya Zubair’s death inspires many Muslim Americans, who were previously either apathetic or ignorant, to draw upon their faith and religious traditions to end domestic violence in honour of her memory.
Wajahat Ali is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He writes and edits the Goatmilk blog. This article was previously published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.