A resident of the Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services, a shelter near Chicago catering mainly to Muslim women. (Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times)
The western imagination is full of imagery of long suffering Muslim woman. She is destined in our imagination to live a life of oppression, violence and submission. The idea that they would resist, rather than waiting for reward in the hereafter is a foreign concept. Marx theorized that religion is the opiate of the masses, such indoctrination when applied to people who practice Islam is viewed as sacrosanct.
Muslim women are constructed as a monolithic one-dimensional caricatures, thus denying the individuality that they possess. Not only are women leaving abusive marriages they are organizing to ensure the safety of others. This is remarkable when one considers the many cultural, linguistic and financial obstacles that they face. While denouncing relationships that cause psychic murder they are retaining aspects of their culture, and or religion that they deem to be uplifting as they write a new script for their personal journey.
Once leaving unless they are able to enter one of the few womens shelters that specifically cater to Muslim women, they are forced to confront western biases. One Yemeni woman as reported in the Herald Tribune was told, “to throw off her veil, saying it symbolized the male oppression native to Islam.” Yet the Qu’ran encourages that both male and female be modest in their attire. Refusing to live in an abusive situation should not mean denouncing aspects of culture, or religion that are deeply personal, or give meaning to identity.
Living in a traditional shelter can be a diasporic experience for Muslim women. Gone are the comforts of community and familiarity that breed trust. They will find no Halal meats, prayer mats, or women dressed similarly to them. Womens emancipation is taught from a specific western framework in which they are largely invisible. Conformity to western practices is presented as the solution to their domestic issues. This approach is quite paradoxical as residents from a western background are in shelters because of experiencing male violence. Culture is no protection from abuse. To leave behind all that is familiar in a bid for freedom to be confronted by xenophobia is a testament to how far feminism needs to progress to aid all women in the struggle for emancipation.
Despite the overwhelming challenges that Muslim women face when they leave abusive marriages there are centers that specifically cater to their needs. One such place is The Hamdard Center in Chicago. According to their website:
What Hamdard Center Offers to Individuals and Families:
Provides crisis line (630-860-9122) round the clock for assessment and brief and immediate intervention and emergency assistance
Provides residential shelter, protection, representation, and advocacy for the victims (women, children, and elders) of domestic violence and abuse
Provides bilingual counseling to individuals, couples, and families. Facilitates preservation and stabilization of families
Deals with the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) in abuse and neglect cases
Provides court ordered assessment, treatment, and supervised child visitation to families involved with the DCFS and/or non-custodial parents
Provides parenting skills training to parents under court supervision
Helps enhance one’s sense of well being, coping skills, and anger and stress management strategies
Provides community education and outreach with a focus on primary prevention and early intervention
Serves as a processing center for a variety of human service needs through a single point of contact
Provides educational, employment, housing, medical, dental, and legal assistance and referrals
Provides consultation to school system, and law enforcement and mainstream community agencies
Transitional housing is a newly funded program that offers free housing to eligible shelter clients for up to eighteen months which can facilitate self sufficiency and long term independence for victims of domestic violence. When victims of domestic violence have no one to go back to or no place to go back to, transitional housing is a life saver.
Our experience at Hamdard tells us that (1) lack of financial independence, (2) lack of affordable housing or long wait for Section 8 housing, and (3) cultural and religious barriers that can create extreme difficulties, force our clients to remain in abusive household and compromise their personal safety and the safety of their children. Victims from our communities are reluctant to go to a shelter for fear of reprisal from the abuser, even when their safety is at risk. Transitional housing is also meant for those victims who have completed their short stay at the shelter and have no place to go.
Hamdard operates this transitional program with supportive services which can accommodate up to ten clients (women and children only). Under this project Hamdard rents four apartment (equipped with security system) in a safe neighborhood but close to public transportation and not too far from Hamdard’s administrative offices. Hamdard will furnish these apartment and all utilities and rent will be paid by the Hamdard Center through the VOCA grants.
Clients who graduate from the Hamdard shelter or clients who want to get away from the abusive situation at home will qualify based on certain eligibility criteria. Each client in the housing project will follow their individualized service plan focusing on their children’s safety and increased independence and self sufficiency. Their stay in transitional housing program may range from six months to eighteen months. Because of multiple barriers, such as, language, immigration issues, lack of employable skills and work history, these clients will need relatively longer time to become self-sufficient.
It is my hope that places that like the Hamdard Center will not only flourish but inspire the creation of similar centers internationally. Feminist activism must be open to cultural diversity to truly aid all women. Making others feel small and backward when they bravely seek to change their circumstances does not fit into the framework of a fluid, progressive feminist movement. Taking the time to understand rather than to judge is how allies are formed.