by Nadiah Mohajir
Domestic violence is a reality in every community, and is not limited to only one racial, ethnic, religious or socioeconomic group. 1 in 3 women experience domestic violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. We each play our roles in the fight against domestic violence: this piece explores our collective responsibility in building safer communities- communities in which our victims are not blamed, in which they feel safe and supported, and most importantly, empowered not just to help themselves, but to be a resource for each other.
Despite the above statistics, most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police. The reasons that survivors do not leave abusive situations or do not seek legal or social services are many and quite complex. In addition to barriers such as financial dependency, shame and isolation, women may also suffer alone because of:
- love for their partner and not wanting them to face legal consequences such as jail time
- not identifying as being in an abusive relationship
- fear of being separated from children, or taking their children away from their father
- religious and cultural pressures to stay married
- believing that they deserve to be treated that way
- no support from family and friends
- being blamed and shamed for the assault
- and many more reasons not included on this list.
More often than not, there are survivors in our immediate social circles and families and our role as bystanders is incredibly important. We must do more to empower survivors, as many don’t seek professional services until they find themselves very deep in a bad situation. Rather, we should be doing our part as community members to support these survivors and create spaces for them where they feel safe, and empowered to do what they need to take care of themselves and their families well before the professional, legal and social services enter the equation. You don’t have to be a social worker, crisis counselor, police officer or lawyer to work toward this goal. Below are some steps we all can start to take to create safe spaces that welcome those in need to reach out and seek help.
Practice reflective listening. Reflective listening involves being present when the other person is talking to you, not interrupting them, and then repeating what they said to you, so they know you heard and understood them. It also helps you clarify from them what they are looking to get from you – whether it’s just a listening ear, or whether they need you to do something specific.
Affirm and validate. If someone reaches out to you about an abusive situation, the worst thing you can do is not believe them. Simple statements such as “it is normal that you feel scared” or “you’re doing the right thing by speaking with someone, and know you are not alone” can seem like insignificant gestures on your part, but are incredibly important for a survivor to hear and internalize as she works through her situation.
Free yourself of blaming and shaming the survivor. Often, people are quick to pass judgment on the survivor who hasn’t left an abusive situation. This results in further alienating the survivor and making them suffer in silence. Remain objective and remove your personal judgment.
Maintain their privacy (and your own!). Often times, people are hesitant to reach out to others because they don’t trust that their privacy will be maintained. Unfortunately, when situations such as domestic violence incidents do get exposed, there are many who discuss the situation and make numerous assumptions that are likely untrue or embellished, and more importantly, don’t respect that privacy is something that is crucial to maintain in this situation to avoid shaming, blaming, or re-traumatizing the survivor. Additionally, maintaining privacy can be essential to ensuring a survivor’s physical safety from further harm.
Be resourceful. Familiarize yourself and your family with the legal and social services in your community, should you need to direct someone to them. Have conversations with the members of your family on what they can do should they have someone reach out to them on a certain issue. Teach your children to be a resource for their peers, and when they need to reach out to a trusted adult.
Assess your privilege. Remember that there are plenty of factors and experiences in an individuals’ life that can impact their ability to access information and resources in safe and empowered way, and that you may have certain privileges that may facilitate you to operate in a different way in that circumstance.
Don’t ask why she hasn’t left. Ask why he’s being abusive. Whether you hear of a domestic abuse situation through the media, or whether it is something closer to home, a situation of a friend or family member, ask why the perpetrator is being abusive, and don’t focus on the survivor’s response (or lack of response). By asking the right questions, you not only hold the perpetrators responsible, but you also free the survivor of guilt and blame, which may be exactly what they need to feel empowered and validated to seek help.
Honor cultural and religious context. A survivor may be reaching out to you is because they might feel as if you understand their cultural and religious context. There are also numerous cultural myths and misinformation that are rampant in the faith-based communities that not only perpetuate uninformed communities, but may also contribute to violence, misogyny and patriarchy. The manner with which you address these myths and misinformation is key. Addressing these issues with great understanding, mercy, and empathy is essential. As much as you may dislike a cultural value or attitude, it may be something the individual holds on to and deeply respects and dismissing it may alienate a victim. Whenever you are addressing a question that an individual has asked, always ask yourself the following questions: What is your role in this process? Is it ethical for you to challenge and question their cultural understanding? What would be the impact of you doing so? Raise awareness about the issue and correct misinformation, but without making the individual feel judged or stupid for holding such a value or belief.
If you see something, say something. Too many times, we may know something about a perpetrator’s past but won’t say anything as they embark on a new marriage or relationship, perhaps out of fear of getting involved in a private matter, or perhaps out of respect for the Islamic tradition that encourages Muslims to cover their own sins as well as others. Yet, it’s important to remember these traditions do not need to be honored if someone else may be harmed by this information. In other words, if you know that a member in your community has a history of being abusive in past marriages or relationships, then do not keep this information to yourself, especially if you are consulted about this person’s character. There have been a number of domestic violence incidents in the past that could have been prevented had the community members not stayed silent about the perpetrators. Of course, speaking up against something like this requires much courage and can also be dangerous, so involve the right people if you need to, such as an imam or another community leader.
This work is our collective responsibility and we don’t have to be social services experts to do our part. Change in our families, homes and communities will only come when we make a collective commitment to changing the status quo. We must work toward creating environments that empower our survivors – not our perpetrators – to protect themselves and speak up if they are victimized.