Religion and culture influence muslim women's reluctance to seek help from domestic abuse

By Rebecca Sladek Nowlis

A new qualitative research study indicates that Islamic culture and community
life in the United States significantly shapes the lives of abused Muslim
women, according to research conducted at Oregon Health Sciences University.

The study findings will be presented as part of a symposium on violence against
women at the 11th International Congress on Women’s Health Issues held in San
Francisco on Friday, January 28, 2000.  The Congress is sponsored by the
University of California, San Francisco’s School of Nursing in affiliation with
the International Council on Women’s Health Issues and other co-sponsoring

“American Muslim women are a marginalized group who are subject to the harsh
effects of multiple layers of oppression including gender, ethnic, race, class
and spiritual oppressions,” said Dena Saadat Hassouneh Phillips, PhD,
postdoctoral fellow of nursing at Oregon Health Sciences University.  “The
combination of an insular community, the accepted practice of wife beating as a
symbolic gesture, and the very high importance put upon marriage by Islamic
religion creates a difficult situation for many American Muslim women.”

There are an estimated 6 million Muslims in the United States, and Islam has
been cited as the fastest growing religion in America, said Phillips.  Despite
its growing presence, little information is available to guide culturally
competent intervention strategies in health care and domestic violence
intervention, she said.

Phillips interviewed 17 women between the ages of 20 and 59 in group and
individual settings.  Fourteen were born in the United States and three had
originally been from other countries.  Ten of the women had converted to
Islam.  Phillips was granted access to the women because she, as a Muslim woman
herself, was considered a member of that community.

Phillips found that the strong ties of faith, friendship, and identity inherent
in Muslim culture often discouraged women from seeking help outside of their
community.  “The community is central to a Muslim’s social and spiritual life,”
said Phillips.  “In order to get away from being abused, Muslim women have to
distance themselves from their family and community, which many are unwilling
or afraid to do.”

The belief that husbands have the right to chastise wives was reported as
commonplace, said Phillips.  This belief is rooted in the Koran which outlines
the steps husbands should follow in cases of nushuz, the rising, hating, or
deserting of the wife against the husband.  If all else fails, husbands are
advised to beat their wives lightly as a symbolic gesture of their displeasure,
said Phillips.

“The cultural value that places husbands in the role of disciplinarians is
problematic, especially when combined with the importance of marriage,” said
Phillips.  “Given that marriage makes up half of one’s faith, according to the
Prophet Mohammad, marriage has tremendous religious and cultural significance
for Muslim women.”

Fear of displeasing God was part of the participants’ conscious thought when
they considered getting a divorce, said Phillips.  Muslims believe that divorce
is the most hated thing that Allah allows.  Displeasing Allah is a painful,
even scary thing to consider, said Phillips.

“It’s difficult for Muslim women to obtain a divorce in the United States,”
said Phillips.  “They tend to rely on male leaders and scholars to take on the
role of judge, and these men are often acquainted with the women’s abusers.” 
Several participants described difficulties in obtaining a divorce despite the
fact that their husbands were abusive toward them, said Phillips.

The symposium on violence against women will also include research on domestic
violence in China, causes of sleep disturbance in sheltered battered women, and
the meaning of sexual abuse in Thailand.

More information about the Congress, including a complete program of events, is
available at