Fear, cultural concerns intensify risk among Midwest Muslim women
First in a series

The 42-year old woman, originally from Pakistan, married a man selected by her parents and came to the United States with a firm belief that her husband would respect her, value her opinion and encourage her ambitions.

Those hopes remained a dream. The woman, who asked that her name not be used for her personal safety, said her husband brought her to the Midwest United States to cook, clean the home, raise his children and take care of his mother.

“My story of sacrifice is not different than other South Asian Muslim women, who have been tied in various knots of fear, loss and stigma,” she said.


A 1993 study by a Muslim scholar, Sharifa Alkhateeb, of domestic violence among Muslims reported that 10 percent of American Muslims, mostly women, experienced abuse in their homes. A handful of stories have been written about the problem, usually from the perspective of women on the U.S. east and west coasts.

But the problem exists in the Midwest, too, in states like Iowa and Illinois. Advocates of those at the receiving end of the abuse say some of the women are remaining at home instead of seeking help.

They fear a stigma being attached to them, said Lata D’Mello, assistant director of Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, a group that formed in 2003 to offer direct services to women from south Asia and Africa who endure domestic abuse.

Cultural reasons keep some women from seeking help. Another matter that may surprise a lot of Americans: “The fear of police,” D’Mello, originally from India, said. “That’s of the old country, in the home country, the different responses to them (by) the officials.”

The woman interviewed about being subjected to domestic abuse was so fearful for her personal safety that the city in which she lives also is not revealed in this story.

“I could have taken a divorce and would have started a new life but in our culture, divorced women loose all respect,” the woman, the mother of four children and still living with her husband, said. “It is hard to live with an abusive partner, but it becomes even harder to live in a community once you are labeled as a divorcee.”

Living more than 18 years with her husband, the first generation Muslim American woman sees herself trapped in a situation she cannot escape because of cultural and social pressures.

Interview Excerpts
“Despite the fact we know our rights in the U.S., we cannot go against our men. The issue is something different in our South Asian community. Our hands are tied due to our strong cultural and religious values.”
The woman gives an example of a married woman who remarried after being betrayed by her first husband. “Now, our community looks down upon her and abandoned her as she has committed some sin… Ironically, men enjoy all the rights in our culture and interpret the religion in their favor by ignoring the rights of women.”
She continues: “Women all around the world have similar kinds of issues and sacrifices no matter whether she is from Afghanistan, Pakistan or India. Even American women compromise. … However, they stand up for their rights, which most South Asian women don’t. We just live the life for others, first for our parents and then for our husbands. …”
“What stops us from taking any steps or remaining silent is our cultural values and social pressures. We have been taught to compromise and sacrifice for the sake of children. In fact, we don’t realize that our children become mentally sick and badly affected.”

Help for those who are abused

Imam Taha Tawil, of the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said women should not feel subjected to men.

Domestic violence against women is not encouraged, nor is it allowed in any circumstance by the Holy Qur’an, the imam said. Verses make it clear that the relationship between men and women is to be one of kindness, mutual respect and caring, he said.

Some verses in which Allah says men and women are protecting friends of one another refer to the mandated atmosphere of mutual kindness and mercy in the marital home. Others show disapproval of oppression or ill treatment of women.

Julie Macfarlane, professor of law, University of Windsor; and fellow, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Dr. Julie Macfarlane, an Institute for Social Policy and Understanding fellow from the University of Windsor, reported in a study, “Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage: A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities,” that imams are highly influential in setting norms and expectations for Muslim family life. The institute, with offices in the Detroit area and Washington, D.C., is a think tank and research organization that studies issues affecting Muslims in the United States and the world.

Tawil said he works with a Cedar Rapids domestic violence shelter to help women who tell him they feel abused. He said instances are low in numbers, but exist, putting him in the position of counseling those who come to him.

“We cannot hide things. We cannot just give advice: ‘Oh, be patient. It’s OK.’ No, no,” he said.

“If there is a major thing like hitting or abusing, anything like that, you need the abuse to stop. You need to contact this number (for a shelter) and we will help you and we will support you.”

Interview with Imam Taha Tawil, of the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids

YouTube video

Still, some women feel locked into their relationships. “I have sacrificed to live with my abusive husband for the sake of my daughter,” one Midwest U.S. Muslim mother of a 10-year-old daughter, said. Her name is not used in this story for her personal security.

Originally from Pakistan, this woman came to the United States after marriage. Her husband runs a south Asian grocery store while she stays at home and does household errands. “My husband has a short temper and becomes violent on petty issues, and abuses me in front of my daughter,” she said.

After you compromise

People working with non-profit organizations to reduce domestic violence in Muslim communities said only a handful of studies have been done on the topic, making it difficult to determine how prevalent the violence is in south Asian Muslim communities in the United States.

(IowaWatch illustration/Jaime Vargas)

Another difficulty determining the prevalence is found when interviewing people in shelters or in general: Muslim communities are not open to talking about such issues because of that stigma and shame.

The discussion gets more complicated because the topic has been a taboo for many Muslim families. Even the term “domestic violence,” has been an obstacle at times in moving the conversation forward because it is perceived as “Western.”

An estimated 60,000 Muslims live in Iowa, although a good estimate is hard to find. In 2008, the Council of American Islamic Relations chapter in Iowa did an informal count by contacting the 12 mosques across the state. The findings varied widely depending upon who was contacted, ranging from 40,000 to 80,000 Muslims — or the median of 60,000 — who are Bosnians and Kosovars, Somali and Sudanese, Iraqis, Lebanese, Indo-Pak, Egyptians, West Africans, Syrians and others. The U.S. Census Bureau does not keep religious statistics for Iowa.

Exploring attitudes

The Peaceful Families Project, a national organization that works toward ending all types of abuse in Muslim families, estimated that 85 percent of domestic violence victims in the United States are women.

It has collected information about attitudes among Muslims living in the United States, based on their ethnic background.

For example, more than 30 percent of 121 Afghan women and men in a 2007 study told researchers they increasingly were concerned about family violence, the Peaceful Families Project reports. Twenty-two percent in a 2004 study of 631 Egyptian women had experienced intimate partner violence. A 2007 study of 1,800 pregnant Iranian women found that 60.6 percent had experienced multiple forms of domestic violence, including psychological, physical and sexual violence, the Peaceful Families Project reports.

Source: Peaceful Families Project

Support groups focus on the problem

Support groups for Iowa Muslims who endure domestic abuse are hard to find, but they exist.

D’Mello, the assistant director at Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, came to the United States from Mumbai, India, in 1996 to attend the women’s studies’ graduate program at the University of Northern Iowa. In 2003, she joined Monsoon as a volunteer and later became a multilingual advocate and outreach coordinator.

Workers at Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, which has offices in Iowa City and Des Moines, help those experiencing domestic violence with house or getting a job, Or, if they want to stay at home, a safety plan, D’Mello, said.

“A lot of survivors want to stay with their partners, their spouses,” D’Mello said. “They believe they have a home, that things will improve. They have other reasons to stay on, maybe financially, maybe emotionally.

“They do love their partners, some of them.”

Interview with Lata D’Mello, assistant director of Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa

YouTube video

Life of Domestic Violence Survivors in Shelters

One first generation Muslim American woman who was interviewed for this story lives in a shelter run by a non-profit organization Chicago. With tears running from her eyes she told about coming to the United States with a dream of living happily with her husband.

That dream turned into a nightmare within a few years.

“My husband beats me, verbally abuses me, calls me bad names and ridicules me in front of his friends,” the woman, whose identity also is being protected for this story for her security, said. “I felt worthless while living with him.”

She talked to her family for help but was told to compromise, she said. She said she comes from a male-dominated society in which women have been taught to be submissive and obedient toward their husbands.

One day, my neighbors called 911 when they heard my husband yelling at me and beating me harshly,” she said. “I always remained silent and never complained but that day, I decided to run away, but did not know where to go.”

A friend told her about a shelter in Chicago. “I came to this shelter, and took a sigh of relief,” she said.

She said she never will go back to her husband.

First is a series of reports.

Watch the next segment: Inside a Chicago shelter for domestic abuse victims.

Other additional segments (links added after publication):
The profound impact of domestic violence on children 
How the community can help stop the violence


Related Reading: Domestic Violence in the South Asian Muslim Immigrant Population in the United States. Ruksana Ayyub, Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2000.


About this Project

Lamia Zia

“Faces of Silence” focuses on Muslim American women of South Asian descent in Midwest United States who have been affected by domestic violence. The project highlights the manifestations of domestic violence in this group, how Muslims in the Midwest are dealing with domestic violence, the best practices for intervention in this community and their challenges. This project was the master’s thesis for Lamia Zia at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication in fall 2012. Zia interviewed during that fall domestic abuse survivors living in a Chicago shelter, experts, local women and imams for this report. Her thesis has been edited for presentation at IowaWatch.org.

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