Why They Stay: Battered and Immigrant

Why They Stay: Battered and Immigrant September 10, 2014

“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought” Quran 30:21


The video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer, his then girlfriend and now wife, has practically been on loop for the past few days. It is a horrifying clip, one that I accidentally saw on some sports network my husband was watching.  The image of her limp body won’t leave me and is a reminder that no amount of money, fame, status, publicity can protect a victim from an abuser. The conversation on domestic violence and violence against women has taken center stage temporarily, and for me has brought back memories of my many female immigration clients who lived with much fear, and little hope, on a daily basis.

In the course of my legal practice, I’ve represented dozens of abused immigrant women, but one stood out in particular. She was in her late 30’s but looked a decade older. Her hair was thinning, her glasses smudged, her face tired. Very very tired. Her six year old daugher clutched her hand the entire time and the lady who drove her to my office sat in a corner, checking her watch every few minutes.

Her story was like many I’ve heard. She was married in Pakistan a decade earlier to a Pakistani-American who flew in for the wedding their families had arranged, and promptly returned to the U.S. He sponsored her immigration and almost a year later, when she received her visa, she flew to America by herself to be with her husband. She arrived in the country without a single blood relation here, not knowing the language, and entirely at her husband’s mercy.

They had a daughter a few years later, and shortly thereafter he disappeared. He abandoned her and the baby without a word, not leaving behind a number, a car, or any money. She managed to stay in their apartment until evicted and ended up being taken in by a woman in the local Muslim community.  She had no social security card, no drivers license, no passport. Her husband had taken it all, and in the years they were together had kept the papers from her.

After close to a year of working odd jobs on cash without any proof of her status, without the means to hire an attorney, without the knowledge that free legal assistance could be retained, she knew she was stuck. Her family told her not to come back, she couldn’t afford to get her own place, and she couldn’t stay indefinitely at a strangers.  She had been approached by an older divorced Pakistani man who was willing to marry her, care for her daughter, help her get a legal divorce, and adjust her immigration status.  He was well-settled, had a good job, and owned a house. His grown kids no longer lived with him. It was an offer she could not refuse because it was the only offer she had.Screenshot 2014-09-10 at 2.48.32 PMIn the years that followed her young daughter witnessed her mother being abused in every way possible. It became routine for her new husband, when angered, to pull her down the stairs of the basement by her ankles. She described how her head would hit every step on the way down. Sometimes he would drag up her up the same way. Sometimes he kept her locked down there for days. Sometimes she lost consciousness, and she often suffered headaches and eye problems. He never touched the child, but he made her watch as her mother bled, bruised, and begged. She still did not have a drivers license, was not allowed to work, and did not know her immigration status.

She was allowed to go to the mosque and there some women took notice of her condition. On the evening she came to me, she was supposed to be at a women’s Quran study group but had been smuggled out for the hour to come speak to me. In this way, over the course of months, we met a number of times and I gathered enough information to file a FOIA and eventually adjust her immigration status.  But during these months I urged her again and again to leave him or to report him to the police. To put away money from the grocery spending, to have an emergency plan in place, to get out before he killed her, to call the police the next time he knocked her off her feet and dragged her into the basement.  She simply could not. She wanted her greencard so she could be sure that she was not deported and separated from her daughter, as he often threatened her, but otherwise she was not going to leave him. I remember being incredibly frustrated, angry that she wouldn’t listen to me, I remember thinking I should report him, I remember looking at her daughter and wondering how it was destroying her, and then I remembered how I also, years earlier, did not leave my abuser.

For the past two days the hashtag #WhyIStayed has been trending as women take to Twitter to explain how difficult it was for them to leave an abusive relationship. For immigrant women there are additional barriers.  These are some of the reasons abused immigrant women stay:

  • No way to learn about available resources because of poor English language skills and no access or proficiency with computers
  • Fear of being deported and separated from children, a common threat abusers use, and one that prevents reporting of violence to police
  • No financial resources
  • No transportation
  • No relatives in the U.S.
  • Cultural stigmas of being a divorcee
  • Family rejection and unable to return to home country
  • Religious leaders telling them to be patient, pray, be better wives
  • Internalizing the idea that mothers sacrifice for the sake of their children
  • Believing that it’s a man’s right to discipline his wife, or that it’s just how men act
  • Manipulation and threats of retribution if she leaves

I am certainly missing many other reasons women stay with their abusers, but these are just a few I’ve heard from women over the years. In the same time, and at fairly progressive masaajid, I’ve requested khutbahs on the topic, requested DV workshops, requested resources be made available in the women’s restrooms or women’s worship areas, but was usually rebuffed.  I’ve been told more than once it’s not a topic relevant to the community, or that the Imam did not want to embarrass the brothers at Jummah.

It’s obvious that women’s needs are low on the priority lists of many masaajid, but it doesn’t mean that women cannot become resources quietly for each other. This client was identified and assisted with the help of women who were self-organizing to study Quran, who knew going to the Imam was useless, and who took matters into their own hands despite having no expertise on the issue.

All these years later I don’t know what became of her. She was fearful to keep in touch, and I respected her wishes. She did get her greencard, which she made copies of and gave the original for safekeeping to a community member. But whether her personal situation changed, whether she left, whether she is still being abused today, or whether she is even alive, I don’t know.  What I do know is this: even as advocacy on the issue continues, we cannot wait for society and men in charge of our communities to believe this issue is important and hold abusers accountable. We have to be our sister’s keepers.

*AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Many times I toyed with the idea of reporting my client’s abusers myself. But without their permission, I simply couldn’t. Because I knew that I could not guarantee that if the police investigated, and found the victim or the abuser to be undocumented, that they would not be reported to ICE – which could lead to arrest and removal proceedings. Is it a problem that victims are not protected from immigration consequences? Yes it is. 


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