Two leading New York-based Urdu newspapers have reported an increase in homelessness amongst Muslim women, many of them fleeing domestic abuse. The Pakistan Post and the Urdu Times both reported that the relief arm of Islamic Circle of North America, known as ICNA Relief, one of the America’s largest Muslim charity and relief organizations, is finding it hard to accommodate the number of Muslim women seeking shelter at its temporary housing shelter in New York.
Voices of NY decided to dig a little deeper into the issue raised in the two publications, and here is what we found:
A post on ICNA Relief’s website described an “alarming” spike in homelessness among Muslim women, starting with a hypothetical situation.
Its 2 AM in the morning, Br. Moviz receives a phone call. A police officer meets Br. Moviz at ICNA Relief’s office in New York City. The police officer brings a sister along with her who has been turned out after a domestic dispute. The police officer didn’t want the sister to end up in a city shelter since she feared it would be too rough for her. After searching for housing arrangements for the woman, the police officer was lead to ICNA Relief through a local Islamic Center referral.
This is a typical day (or evening) for Mr. Moviz Siddiqi, Site Director of ICNA Relief’s Temporary Housing Unit for Women in New York City. In the month of June alone, he received over two dozen calls from women in need of temporary housing. This is a clear indicator that more and more Muslim women are finding themselves in uneasy situations where they do not have a place to live.
The Queens-based organization takes referrals from mosques, hospitals, and members of the community, as well as from police. The group runs three other shelters across the country — in Kansas City, Baton Rouge and Miami — which can each accommodate about 50 people. A fifth such facility will soon open its doors in Dorchester, a working class neighborhood of Boston, answering what one commenter on the ICNA Relief website argued was a pressing need:
Unfortunately women are turned away weekly, sometimes daily for ICNA Relief’s housing facilities. We currently have 4 operating facilities and 3 additional planned for 2012/2013 InshaAllah. In Boston, MA where an ICNA Relief Temporary Housing Unit is being planned, I have personally sent 5 Sisters from the Boston area to our Shelter Home in NYC. It seems we need a Muslim housing unit in every Major city.
The New York shelter was established in Jamaica, Queens, 2008, and it houses 12 people. In June the shelter could only accommodate six of the 16 Muslim women who contacted the center seeking a bed, said Moviz Siddiqui, site director of ICNA Relief’s Temporary Housing Unit for Women in New York.
“We always have a waiting list because of the high number of requests for shelter,” Siddiqui told Voices in a phone interview from his Jamaica, Queens, office. ICNA Relief spends almost half a million dollars each year to run its centers, using donations it receives from the community, he said.
The women typically stay at these shelters for an average of three months. In exceptional cases, their stay can be increased to maximum of six months, Siddiqui said. Women receive counseling and skills development courses to help them find jobs and rebuild their lives.
The website went on to explain the particular needs of homeless Muslim women:
The circumstances leading women to ICNA Relief are varied; newly converted sisters whose families have disowned them, domestic disputes between spouses whereby women have been turned out after being divorced, students new to NYC and do not have an immediate support system come to us as they have run out of options. The reasons may be varied but the need is still the same, seeking a safe place to live and while working towards self-sufficiency.
In some instances, young people fleeing their parents strict enforcement of cultural standards have come to ICNA Relief’s facility, Siddiqui said.
“A woman of Bangladesh origin sought shelter with us earlier this month because she had rebelled against the authoritarian family structure in her house,” Siddiqui said. Born and raised in the US, the 26-year-old woman spent almost two months at a city shelter before moving to the ICNA Relief facility. Her husband is in Bangladesh and cannot join her because of visa problems.
“We are giving her counseling and raising funds to send her to Bangladesh so that she may reunite with her husband,” Siddiqui said.
An increasing number of domestic violence victims are contacting Siddiqui with shelter requests, he said. Legally, ICNA Relief is not allowed to shelter victims of domestic violence at its facility in New York. Such requests are usually referred to city shelters or Muslim families that are willing to accept the women as guests.
New York City runs an elaborate program to help domestic violence victims. According to the Mayor’s Office to Control Domestic Violence, there are 2,208 domestic violence emergency shelter beds citywide. The Family Justice Center of Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence runs three information and services locations in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. These centers offer services that include advocacy, counseling, legal services and interfaith spiritual support.
But Siddiqui said women of Islamic faith might shy away from these services and seek out Muslim shelters instead.
“They feel that they can eat Halal food and practice their religion more freely in a Muslim shelter home than those run by the city,” he said.
Little data is available about the extent of domestic violence in the American Muslim households. In an article posted on the website www.themodernreligion.com, Sharifa Al-Khateeb, a noted writer and former vice-president of the North American Council for Muslim Women, quoted a 1993 survey of 63 Muslim community workers, leaders and individuals by the NACMW.
The survey found that “domestic violence (including everything from hitting to incest) against Muslim women and children occurred in ten percent of the population of Muslims. If verbal and psychological abuse were added to this, the figure would rise considerably. By comparison, seven percent of American women in general were physically abused, and 37% were verbally or emotionally abused in 1993, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund.”
In the 2007 book, “Change from Within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities,” authors Maha B. Alkhateeb and Salma Elkadi Abugideiri wrote that American Muslims are starting to face the problem of domestic violence.
The Muslim community as a whole is slowly coming to realize that it is affected by domestic violence as much as the greater mainstream population. As this awareness and recognition is growing, Muslim communities are struggling to understand the phenomenon of domestic violence, to develop appropriate resources within the community to deal effectively with individuals and families impacted by domestic violence and to identify strategies to prevent further violence in the family.
Another study conducted in 2000 and quoted by Sheila Musaji in a 2007 article in The American Muslim did not find domestic violence in American Muslim households to be different from the general population:
The rate of domestic abuse in the Muslim community is about the same as in the general population—about 18 percent, according to a 2000 study performed by Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., a rate comparable to the national average. It tends, however, to be more hidden, says Dorria Fahmy, WAFA’s founder and executive director.
In the absence of conclusive data, ICNA Relief officials said they still believe that domestic abuse in Muslim-American families is “alarmingly high.”
“Our estimate is based on the high number of requests that we receive from domestic violence victims,” Siddiqui said.“There is a dire need for a shelter for Muslim women victims of domestic violence in New York City.”