Abuse is a topic that many Muslims shy away from because it is uncomfortable to tackle an issue that is complex and appears unsolvable. Many times when I address the topic of marriage, I clarify that the strategies I suggest do not apply to abusive relationships. Yet, what I have learned is that people who are in abusive relationships don’t acknowledge the abuse and instead try to do everything to “fix” their marriage and resolve the unhappiness they feel. Abusive relationships have a completely different dynamic and “marriage advice” cannot solve the problem of abuse. Sadly people do not understand that an abusive relationship is a dysfunctional relationship, therefore the only way the relationship can change is if both husband and wife get professional counseling because without intervention the abuse will only get worse and the relationship will continue to deteriorate.
Despite acknowledgements in our community that abuse does exist in Muslim homes, most victims and perpetrators of abuse claim that abuse happens to “other people,” in homes where there is “no taqwa (God-consciousness)” or abusers are those who are “uneducated.” However, abuse exists across all socio-economic levels, cultures, levels of education, and religiosity. Abuse is a social problem that exists with young and old alike. Patterns of abuse can be seen in young couples even before marriage as well as long-married couples with children.
At the heart of an abusive relationship is the concept of maintaining power and control over another person. An abuser can be either a man or a woman, however statistically most abuse cases involve the male as the aggressor. According the Bureau of Justice Statistic Crime Data Brief on Intimate Partner Violence (2003), women accounted for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence and men for approximately 15%. In this article, I will address women who are abused and in a subsequent article, I will address the issue of men who are abused.
How does abuse manifest itself? Many people think of abuse as a man throwing a woman across a room, punching and slapping her, leaving her with bruises. This type of physical abuse is easy to recognize, yet there are several ways people are abused that are equally damaging and have negative consequences on the individual and the relationship. Abuse has many forms and that is why people may be reluctant or even unable to identify abuse.
Consider this example of one type of abuse before marriage. See if you can find the early warning signs in the narrative.
Asma met Ahmed in the youth group. He was a charismatic leader and she thought he was funny and smart. They liked each other and their parents knew that they might make a good match. Asma and Ahmed communicated often via text and phone calls and Ahmed expressed that he cared a lot about her. He was very chivalrous. Once when he saw another boy at school checking her out in the hallway, he told her that she had to protect herself and should dress more modestly so other guys wouldn’t check her out. Asma found his concern for her very sweet. He would text her several times a day and ask her what she was doing and where she was going. He told her he wanted to marry her after they finished school and that he didn’t want any other guy even looking at her. She really liked him and wanted to be his wife. He gave her advice to stay away from friends who were a bad influence on her and would lead her astray. Advice like this only reinforced her feelings that he cared a lot about her well-being and safety. One day after school, he offered to give her a ride home since it was raining. She was so thankful to get out of the rain, she jumped into the car and headed toward her home. As they drove and chatted about their day, he suddenly pulled the car over and leaned in and kissed her. She was taken aback that he was so bold to kiss her, but she also felt thrilled that he liked her so much. They didn’t say anything. Her stomach had butterflies because she knew that good Muslim girls don’t kiss boys in cars, but she also reminded herself they would get married soon and he just couldn’t wait to be with her. Over time, he stole more kisses and when she told him she didn’t want to do that anymore because she thought it was wrong, he would get upset and feared she would leave him. Out of fear he threatened that if she broke up with him, he would tell the whole world what she was doing with him and then she would never get married. She was confused and scared; what if her parents found out? What if the community knew what she was doing? She knew he loved her and cared about her so she succumbed to his demands. She pleaded with him to get married, so they could make everything right, but he dismissed her feelings and told her that he would decide when the right time was to get married. Asma loved Ahmed but she felt guilty about what their relationship had turned into, she just wanted to marry him and not sneak around to be with him. She couldn’t take it anymore, she told Ahmed they would have to stay away from each other until they were at least engaged. He was outraged because he thought she was teasing him on purpose so he threatened to rape her if she didn’t stay with him. He reminded her that no man would ever want to marry her if word of what she had done got out. She was his and he would never let her go. Asma felt scared and stuck; she didn’t know what to do.
Abuse is a violation of a person’s human and civil rights. It follows a pattern of behavior that is used to gain or maintain power and control over another person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure or wound another person. In Islam, abuse is not tolerated on any level, as the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) reminds us “He is the best amongst you who is the kindest towards his wives….”
Abuse can be economic, verbal, emotional, physical and sexual. According to mentalhelp.com the types of abuse are explained as follows:
Economic Abuse occurs when a person is prevented from getting or keeping a job, or the abuser takes the person’s income or money and does not let them know or have access to the family income. The abuser may also hide money from the family.
Verbal Abuse occurs when one person uses words and body language to inappropriately criticize another person. Verbal abuse often involves ‘putdowns’ and name-calling intended to make a person feel they are unworthy of love or respect, and that they do not have ability or talent. If a person speaks up against these statements, they are often told that the criticisms were “just a joke,” and that it is their own problem that they do not find the joke funny. Verbal abuse is dangerous because it is often not easily recognized as abuse, and therefore it can go on for extended periods, causing severe damage to a person’s self-worth and self-respect.
Emotional Abuse occurs when one person controls information available to another person so as to manipulate that person’s sense of reality; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Emotional abuse often contains strong emotionally manipulative content (such as threats, coercion and intimidation) designed to force a person to comply with the abuser’s wishes and it is designed to cause emotional pain to a person in an attempt to gain their compliance and counter any resistance. Like verbal abuse, emotional abuse is often not recognized as abuse early on but can cause serious psychological effects.
Physical Abuse occurs when one person uses physical pain or threat of physical force to intimidate another person. Actual physical abuse may involve slaps, pushes, twisting arms, biting, punching, kicking, hair pulling, scratching and grabbing. Physical abuse is abusive whether bruises or physical damage occur or not. Physical abuse is also the mere threat of physical violence if the victim does not comply with the wishes of the abuser.
Sexual Abuse is usually connected to physical abuse or the threat of physical abuse and emotional abuse. Sexual abuse includes any sort of unwanted sexual contact perpetrated by an abuser. Sexual abuse is the forcing or manipulating of a person into having sex or performing sexual acts, holding a person down during sex, hurting a person physically in order to perform sex or hurting a person with weapons or objects during sex.
Consider this example of one type of abuse after marriage. See if you can find the early warning signs in the narrative.
Aisha met Abdullah through friends in college. He was a Law student and she was finishing up her undergraduate degree in political science. They enjoyed debating about politics and Islam and courted for three months. They got married soon after she graduated and not long after they married, she got pregnant and they had twins. Abdullah worked long hours at the firm and would arrive home late, exhausted, and stressed from his day. Aisha was staying home to care for the twins, Abdullah felt it was unnecessary for her to work and that she should be home to care for the children. Aisha challenged him, but he reminded her that in Islam, the woman should obey her husband. Aisha argued this point with him but eventually complied with his request to keep the peace and became a stay at home mom. She became exhausted from caring for the twins, but was especially careful to make sure the children were not fussing when Abdullah came home because he wanted to come to a quiet home after his long day at work. Aisha missed spending time with Abdullah since she had very few friends where they lived and he was her only support. She loved him very much and would do anything to make him happy. Abdullah was frustrated that he could never get a full night’s sleep because the twins woke up crying at night. One night when they woke up crying, Abdullah was extremely agitated with Aisha that she couldn’t get them back to sleep. He had just fallen asleep and would have to get up for work in 3 hours. He quickly walked into the twins’ room and roughly picked up one of the twins. Aisha went after him and reached to touch his shoulder to calm him down but he pushed her away and yelled at her for “getting involved” while he was trying to parent. She explained that she was trying her best and she was just as tired as he was. He slapped her for talking to him like that and told her to never insult him again. Aisha was shocked by his outburst and she tried to calm him down and encouraged him to go to bed while she cared for the twins. The next day, Aisha’s mother called from across the country to check in with her and see how she was doing. Aisha wanted to tell her mother what happened, but she didn’t want to worry her, so she said everything was fine. That evening, Abdullah came home with a bouquet of flowers and told Aisha he was taking her out to dinner. She was surprised and happy that they would get to spend some time together. She figured that is what they needed to make everything better. Over dinner he apologized for hitting her and reminded her that it was her fault that he lost his temper and that she would have to be a better mother if they were going to have a happy household. Aisha felt crushed that Abdullah wasn’t happy with her but didn’t want to leave because she desperately wanted her twins to be raised in a home with both parents. She wondered what she would have to do to make her marriage work.
Why do Women Stay?
This is the question that is difficult for many people to understand. It is important to realize that those who are abused hold onto the positive interactions they had with their spouse and convince themselves that their spouse is capable of kindness. The abused may still love their spouse and these feelings along with a longing for the past or a false belief that they can help the abuser be a better person are what keep them attached in spite of the abuse.
For many women, they may feel “stuck” in the marriage because they are financially dependent on their spouse, especially if they have limited or no work experience or education to be able to support themselves and their children. For other women who are isolated from friends and family, they may not have any support to turn to if they choose to leave. Some family members may know of the abuse, but may advise her to be patient with her husband and to uphold the family’s honor and stay in the marriage. Sadly some women may turn to their local imams and are actually blamed for the abuse and told to “be obedient to” or “be patient with” their husbands.
Finally, for some women the dream of preserving a two parent household for their children will make them endure abuse. Women may feel afraid of losing their children, by either their spouse abducting the children or him gaining full custody of children in court. Sadly, in many situations, women will finally leave only when they perceive imminent danger to their children or if Child Protective Services threatens to remove the children from the home unless the woman leaves her abuser.
Leaving an abusive relationship is a decision that a woman must make on her own. Women’s shelters, family and friends can be available for support, but only once a woman chooses to take control of her own life and wellbeing will she be able to leave. Statistically, an abused woman leaves and returns to her spouse ten times before permanently separating. Only by recognizing the dynamics of abuse and the fallacies of why she stays will an abused woman be able to seek support and get out of the abusive relationship. As Allah tells us in the Qur’an: “…Verily, God does not change [a person’s] condition unless they change their inner selves…” (13:11). The decision to leave an abuser and protect oneself physically and emotionally takes enormous courage and strength. The road out of an abusive relationship is not easy and it will require her to struggle emotionally as well as face economic hardship, but in that process she will regain her self-worth and will live a life of dignity.
For help and information contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org or 1.800.799.SAFE