Breaking Ground: Addressing Domestic Violence
in New York City’s Muslim Community
Robina Niaz, MSW, Founder, Turning Point for Women and Families
Editor’s Note: Social worker and activist Robina Niaz received a degree in Applied Psychology in her native Pakistan before coming to New York City, where she received her MSW from Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She has worked with many prominent city nonprofit organizations and was involved in the movement against U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. She founded Turning Point for Women and Families after becoming acutely aware of the issues around domestic violence and abuse unique to NYC’s Muslim communities. She was named a CNN Hero [http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/archive09/robina.niaz.html] in 2009 in recognition of her important work with these women.
It has always been difficult for immigrant women to find help and connect with services available in their adopted countries; however, following September 11, 2001, rising Islamophobia in the United States compounded these challenges and gripped the Muslim community in fear. One result of this was that numerous Muslim women were trapped in abusive relationships, unable to reach out to mainstream organizations for help. Many of them were being told by their abusers that if they sought help, the men would be detained and deported (this was indeed happening to many innocent Muslim men) and the women and children would be left without providers. The fear of dire consequences and the looming uncertainty prevented women from seeking help. At the same time, mainstream organizations could neither reach them nor necessarily understand the unique needs of the Muslim community, as they were not sensitized or trained to serve Muslims. Some of the women who sought services during that time reported feeling judged for being Muslim and even told that it must be okay for them to be abused since they were Muslim!
The few New York City non-profits that did offer domestic violence services were limited in their scope as they focused on ethnic backgrounds rather than faith of the victims. To fill this gap in services, Turning Point for Women and Families was founded in December, 2004 as the first non-profit in New York City to directly address domestic violence in the larger Muslim community and work with all Muslim women, girls, and children regardless of their ethnicity.
While research on domestic violence in the Muslim community is scant, I believe that its prevalence is no less or more in the Muslim community than in other communities. What makes it much harder to address in our community is the wide-spread denial around the issue and the serious dearth of culturally and religiously sensitive services by trained professionals. Often Quranic verses and Islamic teachings are misinterpreted and women’s rights and gender roles are viewed through patriarchal and cultural lenses. Since a large number of Muslims are immigrants, they carry cultural beliefs with them which often become a deterrent in seeking help, subsequently putting them at a much greater risk.
The patriarchal culture that exists in Muslim societies prevents women from getting education, taking on professions, and having control over their bodies and their lives. At Turning Point, we challenge the status quo and help women break down the barriers to accessing services by encouraging them to learn about and protect their rights – and we help them find the strength of their own voices!
At the heart of Turning Point’s work is its commitment to helping women and girls find their own strength, develop self-confidence and self-esteem, and become their own best advocates. Through our direct services program, Muslim women have learned about their rights, acquired English and other survival skills, found legal help for both matrimonial and immigration issues, become employed and self-sufficient, and educated other women and/or referred them to us.
I recognized very early on that teenage Muslim girls needed just as much support and help and in order to prevent violence against women, girls, and children, and that we would have to engage young girls in a proactive way. The focus of Turning Point’s Youth Program is to provide a safe space in which they can talk about and address issues that affect Muslim teenagers growing up in a post-9/11 New York. Some of the most important issues are navigating their way as children of immigrant parents, coping with peer and familial pressures, and dealing with the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in New York City.
Our very popular youth leadership program “Mecca to Manhattan: Muslim Women Moving Mountains®” is the brainchild of our very first youth leader, Moumita Zaman. This has since become an annual event and includes a series of eight interactive workshops conducted by young Muslim professional women for teenage girls and young women.
The ARISE NY! project was also envisioned and designed by our youth members and our then youth leader, Shehnaz Khan. Through interactive workshops and trainings both Muslim and non-Muslim youth, male and female, learn to respond to bullying and hate crimes in their schools and other public places. They learn about the impact of bullying, their legal rights, and appropriate ways of responding and seeking help when they or someone they know become a target.
The principle underlying this project is that in order to stop Islamophobia and bullying of Muslim youth we must engage ALL youth and create spaces where they can openly discuss these issues. Throughout the course of the year workshops are presented to youth at libraries, schools, and community centers, and once a year a citywide annual ARISE NY! summit is organized in Manhattan. Our 3rd Annual ARISE NY! summit was held on August 24, 2013 and we had fifty-two Muslim and non-Muslim youth who participated .
In terms of awareness-building with the general public, we work to dispel common misconceptions about domestic violence in the Muslim community. One is that abuse of women is sanctioned in Islam. This is not true at all. Often cultural norms are interpreted as religious tenets and women are led to believe that it is their job to please men regardless of how they are treated by them. But if true Islamic teachings were to be followed, abuse of women and children would be unacceptable.
We know from our work and experience that every faith community is challenged by misinterpretations of the sacred text, often viewed through patriarchal lenses, making it much harder for women to speak out and seek help when they need it most. Through our direct services, youth programs, and extensive community outreach and education, we challenge the myths and misconceptions by helping women and girls empower themselves so they learn to advocate and speak on their own behalf.
As social workers, we know that when services are specifically tailored for Muslim women, girls, and children, and provided by trained professionals from within the community who understand the cultural barriers, speak their languages, and challenge the norms that help perpetuate abuse, Muslim women feel safer talking about the abuse and getting help without fear of being judged for their faith.
To learn more about Turning Point for Women and Families, please visit http://tpny.org/ .
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