NEW YORK – Domestic violence is a tenacious fact in different cultures across the globe, including those in the United States. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, “About 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner (e.g., hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something) at some point in their lifetime” (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). Thus, intimate partner violence is a systemic social issue.
Muslim communities are not immune to the violence of domestic violence, and Muslim women are subject to abuse despite it being counterintuitive to Islamic teachings. According to Peaceful Families Project & Project Sakinah 2011 DV Statistics, survivors of domestic violence experience “various forms of abuse including 82% emotional or verbal abuse, 65% financial abuse, 49% spiritual abuse, 74% physical abuse, and 30% sexual abuse.” (Peaceful Families). Although there are efforts to eliminate domestic violence in Muslim communities, cultural notions about women continue to make it a formidable endeavor.
Author Sahar Abdulaziz uses her expertise as a fiction writer to make social commentary about the issue of domestic violence among American Muslims. Abdulaziz holds a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in health and wellness promotion and administration, and is a certified Domestic Violence Counselor/Advocate.
Abdulaziz’s novel, The Broken Half, tells the tale of Zahra, an American Muslim woman in an abusive relationship. Zahra must decide whether to stay in an increasingly violent marriage to her husband Jamal or escape, which is ripe with its own perils. In an interview with AboutIslam.net, Abdulaziz shares her motivations behind writing her novel and the message she hopes it sends.
Why did you choose to write about domestic violence in your novel The Broken Half?
I have been an active proponent for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault most of my adult life. I have worked as a hotline worker, as well as a counselor/advocate, which allowed me to see up close and personal the devastating residual effects violence perpetuates upon all victims and survivors. As a Muslim, I am mandated to speak out against all forms of oppression, including domestic violence and sexual assault. Subsequently, choosing to write a novel where these subjects played a pivotal role only seemed a natural progression and platform. In writing a fictional story, I strove to shove open much-needed doors of discussion in the hopes of motivating those in abusive situations to realize they are not alone, as well as encouraging those in positions of power to take the obligatory actions necessary to address the challenges experienced by victims in our community.
The protagonist in your book, Zahra is Muslim. Is there a particular reason why you chose to write about domestic violence using Muslim characters?
Again, there is no group immune to domestic violence and sexual abuse, but this was a story that needed to be told and told accurately. As a counselor/advocate I witnessed how abused Muslim women have had to contend with multiple issues made even more convoluted and difficult by the lack of knowledge, compassion, and ignorance that surrounds this subject. I wrote this book to open up this uncomfortable and often ignored discussion to increase awareness, to show support for victims of abuse, and to generate outrage in relation to how this kind of outrageous behavior can continue to exist and thrive when left unimpeded.
What are the main reasons why a Muslim woman may not seek help if she is being abused?
Muslims, just like most other faith-based individuals are very private about their intimate relationships. Taking “one’s business” out in public is socially frowned upon; nonetheless isolation and secrecy are the prime essential ingredients, which allow abusers to get successfully away with what they do. Additionally, many Muslim women just do not know where to turn for help. When they go to the leaders of their communities, they are often told to ‘go home and stop making their husbands/fathers/brothers/, upset.’ They are instructed to practice patience, make dua, pray for forgiveness, and a host of other absurdities. Muslim women know that if their abuser finds out they are “spreading their business” more abuse will inevitably follow. Women have been maimed or killed by exposing their abusers. Women also have faced the real threat of having their children taken away from them if they should leave or call the police, -having their reputations tarnished, divorced or replaced. For many women, financial considerations also play a crucial role in staying in an abused relationship. Therefore, unless a Muslim woman has a viable alternative and a strong support network, leaving or disclosing becomes a hazard. All abusers employ these kinds of methods, but in too many of the Muslim communities, this behavior is sanctioned by the silence and apathy of the leadership.
Not at all. The Broken Half is about sexual assault and domestic violence. It is not a book contrived to feed into the trite stereotypes of Muslim men as having a greater propensity towards engaging in these vile behaviors.
One of the things I set out to do when writing this book was to show the complexities of dealing with the subject of domestic violence and sexual abuse, without condemning any one particular group of people. Sexual assault and domestic violence are global issues and not problematic to one group or culture. Muslim men are not any more or any less culpable for the propagation of violence than any other group of men. The male characters in my book cover a broad range of personalities. Even the abuser was not stereotyped. Like everyone else, he had a story that needed to be told. He was given nuance and humanity as a method to show the reader how his damaged life left him open and vulnerable to believing that violence was an acceptable mode of behavior.
As an author, as a woman, as a wife and mother of sons, as well as daughters, I wanted to make it transparently clear that nobody comes out of the womb automatically destined to become an abuser. Violence is a taught behavior that gains momentum when not stopped or diffused. Abuse is then encouraged when good men- all men do nothing to stop it. The Broken Half sets out to show the dire consequences that can take place when those in need of help are turned away, ignored, placated or made to feel guilty for their abuse.
In the scene where Zahra seeks help, the interaction between her and the domestic violence advocate is very strained. It is as if the advocate is condescending because Zahra is Muslim. How important is cultural relevancy when counseling a domestic violence survivor?
Cultural relevancy is an essential skill set and tool for all those wishing to work with, and lend assistance to a diverse public. In the story, Zahra is hesitant to seek help outside of the Muslim community but becomes immediately aware that the support she needs is not readily available from within. Like most victims who find both time and options were running out, Zahra had to make a life and death decision. Under duress, she finally decides to call a non-Muslim hotline number. There she is met with a wide-range of responses; everything from the supportive and compassionate to the painfully less-informed and culturally ignorant. Not only must Zahra quickly learn to adapt, but also then forced to navigate her cultural relevancy within the practical confines of stereotypes and preconceived thinking. Therefore, not only was she met was resistance from those in power within her community, but then she was further subjected to the biases from those outside of the community as well. This precarious situation left her physically and emotionally vulnerable and subject to further danger and abuse.
While cultural relevancy is imperative, ultimately the solution and responsibility lies within the Muslim community to address the needs of the Muslim populace. We must collectively make the decision to strive proactively to expand and provide more highly trained domestic violence advocates, and shelters to address the growing need in our communities. Leadership within each of our communities must also stand up and make it absolutely clear that domestic violence, sexual exploitation and abuse in any form or measure will not be tolerated, and the perpetrators will be legally sanctioned and punished. Period.
Those in secular agencies wishing to help all communities must then increase their social understanding to include accurate cultural diversity without relying merely on disseminated bias and propagated stereotypes.
Many of the men in the book seem initially reluctant to interfere with the abusive situation between Zahra and her husband Jamal. Why are they hesitant?
Men from all cultures, not just in Islam, are not encouraged to speak up about issues that society deems to be a ‘personal problem.’ Those in my story who wished to speak up didn’t know what to do, where to go to, or what needed to be done precisely because there is a huge disconnect between wanting to help and knowing what needs to be done properly as opposed to becoming adversarial and marginally irrelevant.
If I as a woman must first convince a Muslim man or Muslim leader that I have been sexually assaulted before they are willing to acknowledge or do anything about stopping it or helping me, then we already have a serious problem on our hands. For example -many men –even those who would never dream of hurting a woman are still under the mistaken misnomer that a man cannot rape his wife. This mindset is not only dangerous, but it sets up yet one more unacceptable hurdle for women to jump over while in the midst of trying desperately to survive. It is unacceptable and unforgivable that women and children, across the nation, are more in danger within their homes than outside of them. This speaks volumes to the level, and distance abuse has been successfully able to infiltrate the sanctity of the home.
What are some things Muslim leaders can do to assist victims of domestic violence in their communities?
Domestic violence and sexual assault are crimes against individuals and humanity. Muslim leaders must all first acknowledge without hesitation or excuse the severity and danger domestic violence, and sexual assault cause not only to the victim but the family and community at large. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy adopted across the board in all of our communities, and not merely isolated to a few proactive and well-informed leaders and masjids. Additionally, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault must be able to seek help and assistance from within the community without fear of embarrassment or retribution. This form of support must be willing to co-exist and work within the law, as well as with the domestic violence and law enforcement agencies that are already in existence. It makes no sense to reinvent the wheel. However, the more shelters and counseling that become available to address the particular needs of Muslim victims the better. Therefore I would strongly encourage all Masjids and leaders to get educated about domestic violence and sexual assault as well as support and encourage these types of necessary services to become a vital part of the community and made readily available to those in need.
How have non-Muslims responded to your book?
The response to The Broken Half by non-Muslims has been extraordinary. The readership has clearly understood that this story’s platform is about domestic violence and sexual assault, and they have done so without making any sweeping generalizations or feeding into any bias or stereotypes about Muslims or Muslim men.