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SAMHSA News - May/June 2008, Volume 16, Number 3

Communities Join Together To Promote Behavioral Health

Culture Clash: Domestic Violence

By Kristin Blank

A summit panel on domestic violence opened a discussion on traditional gender roles that affect relationships in many Arab and Muslim households.

According to Ahmed I. Samatar, Ph.D., James Wallace Professor of International Studies and Dean, Institute for Global Citizenship, Macalester College, “Gender is the big fly in the ointment of the Islamic community, just as race is for the U.S. society.”

In general, in traditional homes in this community, the father is the ruler of the house, said Asma A. Ejaz, M.D., Chief of the Addiction Psychiatry Department at the Nassau University Medical Center.

“In domestic violence, what is really at stake is the power,” said Kushalata Ahmed, M.D., Consultant in Mental Health at the Islamic Center of Long Island. “Once you have the power, no one wants to let go of it.”

Often, medical and mental health care providers are the ones who help women and children in domestic violence situations.

Women who go to their spiritual leaders for help often hit a dead end, noted Dr. Ejaz. “Local clergy often will tell them, just pray, it’ll get better, just hang in there,” she said.

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Psychological Abuse

In addition to experiencing physical harm, Arab and Muslim American women may be psychologically abused. Men may try to isolate women from support networks and monitor their movements. “We have worked with cases where there have been hidden cameras in the house,” said Dr. Ejaz. “There was one case where a spouse even put cameras in the bathroom.”

Other times, wives suffer humiliation in front of family and friends or are denied funds—even for groceries or health insurance. Dr. Ejaz reported cases where abusers destroyed women’s immigration papers and diplomas.

Mental health and emotional problems are common in domestic violence victims, with issues including suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse, according to Dr. Ejaz.

To help, service providers can take some steps that are common for all groups, such as ensuring their safety—sometimes removing them to a safe home or shelter—providing moral support, and assuring confidentiality.

When treating members of Arab and Muslim American populations who have been abused, sometimes special steps are necessary, Dr. Ejaz said. Practitioners should:

  • Take into account religious and cultural morés the women may have been taught, especially regarding appropriate gender roles in a traditional Islamic household.

  • Explain to women that the abuse is not their fault, despite what they may have learned about women’s status under some cultural or religious traditions.

  • Provide assistance with legal issues, such as divorce or restraining orders, and other issues if women are not yet U.S. citizens.

  • Provide referrals for vocational training (when applicable) in addition to rehabilitation to help women become more self-sufficient. Many Arab and Muslim women who have experienced domestic violence already have professional training, as Dr. Ahmed and Dr. Ejaz noted that many of their clients are doctors and lawyers.

For children, according to Dr. Ahmed, the availability of a supportive adult helps the child to cope with trauma. Such support may lead to children breaking the cycle of abuse when they become adults.

Dr. Ahmed said, “A supportive aunt or teacher may prevent children from believing that everyone is bad.”

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