The Need to Be Proactive: Responses to Domestic Violences in Muslim Communities

On November 15, 2011, a number of Canadian Muslim leaders and organizations issued a press release condemning domestic violence and honor killings. This press release was backed up by over 50 Muslim organizations, and the Canadian Council of Imams called on imams around Canada to dedicate a khutba on December 9 to issues of domestic violence (you can watch a video of some of the December 9 coverage here). Yet, to some extent, the sudden attention to domestic violence and honor killings seems to respond to the media coverage and ongoing trial of the Shafia case.

Back in October, the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto called for action within Muslim communities to eradicate domestic violence. The call was released at the same time as some Canadian media outlets were starting to discuss honor killings and draw parallels between gendered violence and Islam in the context of Shafia murders. Similarly, the Canadian Council of Muslim women contested the discussions on honor killings related to the Shafia case in a news release. More recently, Imam Sikander Ziad Hashmi, from the Islamic Society of Kingston, told the Globe and Mail that he has been affected by the issues of domestic violence and honor killings that have come up through the trial that the Shafia family is facing.  Therefore, it is clear that the coverage of this and similar cases have compelled some Canadian Muslim leaders and organizations to take a stance in the media as a way of tackling the issue of gendered violence and honor killings.

In the past, organizations and initiatives such as the Muslim Family Safety Project, the Islamic Society of North America and the WISE Muslim Women’s Shura Council have explicitly attempted to raise awareness and call for action against gendered and domestic violence and honor killings. Other publicized initiatives such as the Purple Hijab day have been moderately popular in the media and social media outlets, but not necessarily strongly supported by Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Domestic violence remains a big problem among Muslim communities in Canada, but few steps have been taken to actively eradicate domestic violence or the stigma that comes along with it at the institutional level in Muslim communities (i.e. mosques, Islamic Centers or Islamic schools). Other than the most recent press release and the call to dedicate khutbas to this issue, few mosques and Muslim centers in Canada have easily available information on domestic violence in their websites or in their premises.

The Toronto Star points out that this is the first time since 2005 that such a high number of Muslim organizations have come together to counter issues of domestic violence and honor killings. Although perhaps the Star is not considering the efforts of the above organizations, it is true that domestic violence in Muslim communities is a topic that is not often openly discussed in the media and Muslim institutions. Thus, although this press release may seem like a big and important step for community leaders to engage in, it seems to come solely as a response to the media coverage of the Shafia case and as a defense of Islam as a faith system.

Although bringing in together Muslim Canadian organizations (and other non-Muslim institutions) to discuss gendered violence is a valuable and important thing for the community, there are a couple of issues that must be recognized.

 First of all, we need to look at who is responding and how they are “representing” the Muslim community in the media. Even when a call to eradicate violence has been made, there are still problems with the way some community leaders go about this. For example, while arguing that Islam does not condone domestic violence, Imam Syed Soharwardy tried to explain the “true” meaning of verse 34 of Surah An-Nisa. He explained,

“Regarding “strike them with tooth brush” [according to his interpretation of the verse], it is an extreme situation. If a married woman establishes intimate relationship with another man, in that extreme case Allah is asking her husband to educate her first.”

There are a number of things that are problematic with this answer, starting by the fact that this response continues to establish a hierarchy between those who “have” to educate and those who “need” to be educated. Furthermore, it perpetrates the idea that “extreme” situations require “extreme” measures. All this, while trying to convince Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam does not call for violence or gender inequality.

Answers like this may not necessarily help counter domestic violence or fight the stigma that comes with it. Moreover, if press releases and public statements are not backed up by a strong anti-violence initiatives, these statements seem empty.

Responding to issues of domestic violence within our communities only when big cases catch the media’s attention is important, but we need more proactive efforts to eradicate domestic violence and honor killings. Gendered violence should be discussed and countered in our mosques and Muslim organizations, as well as in secular institutions. Education and support should be available to women, men, children, and families under any circumstances, with or without the Canadian media’s attention.

  • Nadia

    I think we as a Muslim community should really target younger men who are not yet married. My university, the American University of Sharjah, just had a talk recently by a social counselor and she spoke a bit about domestic violence. As far as I know, the men in the audience were not married. She’s a well-respected figure and having such a message come from her before they are in a situation where they are already married and have resorted or considered using violence against their wives and daughters probably has a stronger effect. It introduces a different mentality before they are actually married, so that it stays with them and has more of an impact even if they see or have seen violence against women as a normal part of their lives. Also, the message should be repeated as often as possible. It’s one thing to think inside your head “I shouldn’t hit women” but it’s another thing entirely to have someone constantly saying those words to you.

  • Humayra’

    Why is it that so many of our imams and scholars have no difficulty connecting the dots between ideas and actions in some situations, but not in this one? They apparently see a connection between, say, men and women interacting socially (even if the women are wearing hijab!) and people being tempted to commit (or actually committing) zina. Or so they say.

    But somehow, there’s supposedly no connection between teachings and practices that ultimately send the message that girls’ and women’s value and dignity lies in the public perception that they are absolutely chaste and modest (coupled with teachings that uphold male dominance in the family), and honour killing?

    Sure, our imams and scholars wouldn’t advise any father to actually kill his daughter for dating or wearing revealing clothes. But what help or advice DO they actually offer to troubled, dysfunctional families (possibly with mental health issues) with teens who are acting out? Tell them that they need to work on their iman? That parents need to preach at their kids more? That parents need to drag their kids to the mosque’s youth programs (so that someone else can preach to the kids too)? Or sermons and booklets and CDs on “the ideal Muslim woman” and “the ideal Muslim family”?

    What is the not-so-subliminal message in such “guidance” but that the answer to family problems is for the man to take control, and the women and children to submit?

    It would be wonderful if this tragedy results in some real introspection around this issue. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Nadia! I totally agree. But since we cannot control people’s actions we need to acknowledge that domestic violence is a problem and we need to have resources for victims.


    I believe every masjid should have a counseling unit staffed with both male and female staffers working to rectify situations like domestic violence, poverty, etc. If all masajid cannot provide this service then Islamic schools should work to have available guidance counselors who deal with both kids’ social, educational and personal issues. And if families need further assistance they should be referred to public social service agencies that are cultural sensitive to the needs of Muslim families. I know it’s alot to ask for though during these trying economic times when public programs are being gutted (or on the verge of being gutted) left and right.

  • Bint Younus

    Actually, Canada has at least one national Muslim helpline (MYHL) that provides resources and advice to all sorts of problems and issues, including domestic violence.
    My dad was one of the founding members/ Islamic counselors and he would deal with calls about domestic violence all the time.

    Although DV is not publicly discussed as much as it should be, I have found in my experience that sheikhs and imams in Canada do not tolerate it at all and in most cases, do whatever they can to help victims (providing them a safe place to stay locally, confronting the abuser directly, even calling the cops on abusers when the victim is too afraid to do so).

    Unfortunately, it’s impossible to eradicate DV, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not dealt with at all amongst Muslim communities in Canada.


    @Bint Younus

    Alhamdulillah that’s good to hear that something is being done about this issue in Canada. I guess I was looking at this from an American context because in America at least (NYC to be exact) I personally don’t know about such efforts going on. There may well be something there but if there is I wish it was more well-publicized. I am planning on highlighting through website Insha’allah at least one Muslim organization’s attempt to help domestic violence victims through the creation of a halfway house. I’m trying to find out if there are other such efforts going on but don’t know as of yet.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thank you all for your responses. I am certainly glad that there are some efforts going on to eradicate domestic violence. However, just as there are sheikhs and imams that do not tolerate it, there is a whole other institutional body that completely ignores it and tells the victims that they shouldn’t be discussing private problems in public. In terms of the press release, it just seemed quite hypocritical to go lengths to assert that this is nor part of Islam as a religion, but not doing much to change the situation or the stigmas that come with domestic violence.

  • BintYounus

    Eren – I certainly agree with you, although I’d like to continue emphasizing that across Canada, there are numerous shaykhs/ imams/ Islamic centers which have and continue to provide help and resources for those suffering from DV.

    In fact, I just had a conversation with my father about it last night, and he said that he and various others throughout Canada have been dealing with DV cases from the early 1990s. To this day, they consistently coordinate with each other in referring cases locally or directing victims to sources of support closest to them in locality.

    Like I said, unfortunately many within the Muslim community remain uneducated as to the pervasiveness of DV and the correct way of dealing with it, but at the same time, many community leaders are there for material support whenever necessary.
    I would hesitate to say that those who issued the press release are ‘not doing much to change the situation or the stigmas’ without doing further research or conducting deeper investigation. (I actually hope to do an informal survey of imams/ community leaders and how involved they are in addressing DV within their communities)

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I am so glad to hear that there is support around. This is not certainly my experience in Alberta (Canada). There are efforts to educate communities, but there is a bigger trend to contest those who criticize DV in Edmonton’s Muslim communities. I think there is a lot to do and I am glad the press release got such an attention. However,I hope to see more action in the months to come.