Salma Abugideiri is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in trauma and couples therapy. She is also the co-director of the Peaceful Families Project, an organization devoted to ending domestic violence in Muslim families. Salma develops and conducts awareness workshops about domestic violence for Muslim leaders and communities, and trainings for people who work with Muslim families. She also conducts research and has a few publications, including a co-edited book titled Change from Within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities.
In honor of October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Amal Killawi interviewed Salma Abugideri about her work with domestic violence and the Peaceful Families Project.
Tell us about the Peaceful Families Project.
The Peaceful Families Project was founded in 2000 by Sharifa Alkhateeb, as a result of a survey she conducted to determine the prevalence of domestic violence among Muslims in the United States. She passed away in 2004, but she left behind a legacy—may God have mercy on her soul.
The goal of PFP is to end domestic violence in Muslim families through prevention, to educate people about the prevalence of domestic violence and to use Islamic teachings and values to address attitudes that might either tolerate domestic violence or encourage it.
We believe very strongly that change from our community has to come from within our own Islamic paradigm, and so we’ve based all of our trainings and materials on that belief.
What is the rate of domestic violence in the American Muslim community?
Domestic violence includes all forms of abuse: physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, and spiritual. Based on the few studies that we have about Muslims in America, we know that 12-18% of Muslims in the United States experience physical abuse, and 30-40% experience emotional abuse. Readers can refer to the 2009 SoundVision survey for example. Compare these statistics to the well-known fact that 1 in 4 women in the general American population are affected or will be affected by domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. I also come across information of approximately one domestic violence fatality each month in the Muslim community. My guess is that the numbers are higher because fatalities are sometimes reported as suicides or accidents and not identified as domestic violence.
Some people may challenge these statistics.
Numbers are important to a point, and people certainly need numbers to be convinced that this is a real problem. But it’s really important that when we look at numbers, we pay attention to what these numbers are referring to. Every research study will ask slightly different questions to different populations. Domestic violence is a difficult issue to get solid numbers on, but to me, the numbers that we have are enough to say that this is a serious issue. And as Muslims, we have a responsibility to do something about it and to get rid of it.
Don’t these statistics reinforce the stereotype of Muslim men being abusive to their women?
I’m not saying that Muslim men are more likely to abuse their wives. Muslim women like other women in the world are at risk of getting abused because they have lesser positions of power in the family and in society. The majority of Muslim men are not abusive.
What are some of the challenges you face in domestic violence work?
People don’t want to consider that we have this problem in our families and communities because they’re afraid that it makes Muslims look bad. It’s a painful reality that people would rather avoid, deny, or minimize. Domestic violence is not a popular issue. It’s challenging to get people in the room sometimes, and we have to be very thoughtful and creative in how we frame the issue so people will hear it and digest it. Another challenge is that once people hear about it and come forward, we may not have appropriate resources for people who are suffering from abuse. There are logistical challenges, resource challenges, and attitudinal challenges.
What about the claim that domestic violence advocates break up families?
This is an incorrect presumption. When a person is mistreated in their home, and we name that as abuse or domestic violence, naming it does not create the problem. The problem is already there. The existence of abuse is what breaks up the family. People in abusive family situations suffer all kinds of long term physical and psychological effects. We want to prevent that from happening by identifying the problem and teaching people about healthy relationships. We want our homes to be safe havens. Sakeenah (tranquility) is an incredible concept – it’s to feel safe and secure in your home. We want to promote family environments that are safe for every family member—the child, the woman, and the man.
What is the role of the community in addressing domestic violence?
As community members become more educated and aware, they also have a responsibility to make the community a safe space for people to come forward. We have to get over the notion that it’s none of our business. It is our business, and we have to be informed. We have to know the resources. We have to be willing to listen if somebody comes forward. All of us have a responsibility to promote the message that no form of abuse or injustice is acceptable. We are supposed to be the model community.
It is also very important for our community leaders to speak up. I often hear from imams that after they speak about domestic violence, many people come forward saying they have this problem. It gives people permission, and sometimes, people need to hear the community leader’s position before they come forward.
Some people might ask: How do I know if it’s domestic violence?
That’s a question people always ask me. Every relationship has conflict in it. The presence of conflict doesn’t equal domestic violence. Arguments and fights can happen in any family. However, domestic violence is when one person is being intimidated and controlled by the other person. It’s a pattern of behavior in which the abused person is afraid. Many people argue with their spouse, but they’re not afraid of their spouse. We want to make sure people have the skills to resolve conflict in a healthy way, but there are many unhealthy ways that people resort to that don’t necessarily warrant the label of domestic violence.
What is your advice for people in an abusive family situation?
Unfortunately, in cases of domestic violence, it’s often very difficult to get the whole family back on track. Most of the time, abusers are not willing to recognize or admit to the abuse, and they’re not ready to seek help or to change. Abusers are usually too busy blaming the victims and their advocates for breaking up the family, but they’re not willing to make changes themselves.
Counseling can help when people want to be helped and when they admit that there is a problem. Divorce is also an option, and it isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. Divorce can save a person’s life—whether it’s their physical life or spiritual/psychological life. I’ve seen many abused women completely turn away from Islam as a result of their abuser using Islam as the primary weapon. I’ve seen many teenagers turn away from Islam because they’ve seen their Muslim parent be abusive or they’ve experienced abuse at the hands of a Muslim parent. Often times, I’m invited to communities to speak on the issue after the janazah (funeral prayer) of a victim killed by domestic violence. I don’t want to wait until there is a tragedy.
Everyone deserves to be in a good relationship. People should seek help before things get to crisis proportions. The earlier people seek help, the more likely it is that change will happen and the relationship may be saved.
How can others support your work?
Help us get more accurate statistics. The largest sample size we have now is the 2009 SoundVision survey with 241 participants, but that’s not enough of a sample size to give us an accurate picture. Peaceful Families Project teamed up with Project Sakinah to conduct a national survey assessing Muslim Attitudes about Domestic Violence. We would like to have a representative sample of Muslims in America.
Help us by taking the survey at www.muslimsurveys.org and please share with others.
To learn more about the Peaceful Families Project, visit our website: www.peacefulfamilies.org.