Domestic violence is found in every community and affects all people regardless of age, race, religion, nationality, gender or socioeconomic status.1 Domestic violence involves violence, abuse, and intimidation used by the abuser to control and dominate the other person.2 Cultural and societal factors add layers and barriers when understanding domestic violence within a particular group. For Arab Muslim women, the difference in domestic violence between them and non-Arab Muslim women does not lie in the dynamic of power and control, but in the cultural values and norms abusers have to coerce and abuse their victims.3
Although domestic violence is experienced by both genders, women experience domestic violence at a higher rate than men.4 This article will focus on cultural and Islamic norms that have been used to justify and oppress Arab Muslim women.3
Unique Aspects of Domestic Violence in Arab Muslim Communities
Family unity. The Arab family considers the family unit as a highly important social institution whose unity should be maintained.5 A female is often responsible in maintaining family unity, reputation and honor, and the family takes priority over her own well-being and personal safety.3 A woman’s marriage is a reflection of her family and family of origin’s success or failure.5 As a result, many victims of domestic violence choose to stay in the relationship to keep the family unit intact to maintain the family’s honor and reputation.5
Patriarchal and patrilineal family. Arab families are largely patriarchal supporting the dominant role of a man as the authority figure, and patrilineal, where family lineage is passed down through sons.6 These gender norms regulate the role of family members where the man of the family handles women’s affairs. Some males feel the right to defend their family honor by asserting power and control that can take the form of domestic violence if a woman fails to be submissive or comply to her husband’s or family’s demands and expectations.7 This form of power can be taken advantage of and used as a reason for abuse. It should be noted that some women support these traditional beliefs.8
Family as a support system. The Arab family substitutes the place of formal community services and support.6 Family members needing help usually seek advice and support from immediate and external family members. Women are often pressured to stay in the abusive relationship to maintain the family reputation.5 This creates a barrier for abused women to seek outside and formal support, while limiting helpful advice.
Religious influence. Support outside the family usually involves services inside the community such as seeing an imam, a Muslim leader.9 The imam, being a male, may support patriarchal views and gender roles that perpetuate the abuse rather than help women.3 Islamic teachings may also be misused and misinterpreted to condemn or support the abuse.3 There are experiences of abused women finding help from the imam only to be found guilty and deserving of the abuse, and being forced to live back with the abusive husband.3,9 This attempt to reach for help can cause the woman more disappointment and helplessness in seeking any future support, even from her own community.
Divorce. There is tremendous social stigma around divorce in Arab and Muslim cultures.3,5 Divorced women are socially shunned and stigmatized as being disrespectful, selfish and not caring about her family and children.5 An Arab saying, “a glass once broken can never again be made whole” is an indicator of the high stigma attached to being divorced.10 The stigma of divorce, including the harsh reality of being a divorced woman in an Arab society prevents women from leaving the abuse.3
Khula. A khula is issued by an Islamic court when a Muslim woman divorces her husband.3 The process of getting a khula is often difficult. Women in the process and aftermath of getting a khula experience harassment, threats to take away her children, false rumors, and family and community disapproval.3,9 The challenge of being granted a divorce from an Islamic court while experiencing social disapproval and alienation are factors big enough to discourage a woman to leave her abusive relationship.3
Finances. In patriarchal families, the male head of the family is often responsible for bringing in the income and handling finances, while the mother cares for the children and household.7 Women are discouraged from working and earning an income. This prohibits women from gaining financial independence while making them dependent on their husband, which makes it difficult for her to leave the relationship 7, and gain her own independence.
Cultural and religious factors such as those mentioned are known to the abuser and is used against the victim. Factors like family and social disapproval, community alienation, and the stigma of being divorced are weapons used to perpetuate domestic violence.3 The combination of these factors in an already challenging situation increases a woman’s hesitance to report the abuse and to leave the relationship that ultimately binds her to the abusive household.
3. Hassouneh-Phillips, D. (2001). American Muslim women’s experiences of leaving abusive relationships. Health Care for Women International, 22(4), 415-32.
4. Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Prevalence and consequences of male-to-female and female-to-male intimate partner violence as measured by the National Violence Against Women survey. Violence Against Women, 6(2), 142-161.
5. Haj-Yahia, M. (2000). Wife abuse and battering in the sociocultural context of Arab society. Family Process, 39(2), 237-255.
6. Kulwicki, A., Ballout, S., Kilgore, C., Hammad, A., & Dervartanian, H. (2015). Intimate partner violence, depression, and barriers to service utilization in Arab American women. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 26(1), 24-30.
7. Kulwicki, A., Aswad, B., Carmona, T., & Ballout, S. (2010). Barriers in the utilization of domestic violence services among Arab immigrant women: Perceptions of professionals, service providers & community leaders. Journal of Family Violence, 25(8), 727-735.
8. Kulwicki, A., & Miller, J. (1999). Domestic violence in the Arab American population: Transforming environmental conditions through community education. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 20(3), 199-215.
9. Abugideiri, S. (2010). The peaceful families project: Addressing domestic violence in Muslim communities. Partner Abuse, 1(3), 363-376.
10. Cohen, O., & Savaya, R. (1997). “Broken glass”: The divorced woman in Moslem Arab society in Israel. Family Process, 36(3), 225-245.
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