Darakshan Raja is a founding member of Falling Walls. As a researcher and an advocate she works on examining criminal justice responses for victims of crime, Darakshan is currently a Research Associate at the Urban Institute where she evaluates criminal justice policies.
On March 21, 2012, an Iraqi woman was found murdered in her home. Initially presented as a hate crime, further investigation into the case determined Shaima Alawadi was murdered by her husband. As we pass the one year anniversary of Shaima’s murder, it is important for us to honor her memory and internally reflect as the Muslim community on how we could have prevented Shaima’s murder. As someone who believes that a true call for justice on behalf of victims of violence can only be attained if we eradicate the very root causes that lead to such atrocities, then true justice for Shaima can only be realized if we acknowledge the pervasiveness of abuse in the American Muslim community. One which researchers have found in a recent study released by Project Sakinah that 1 in 2 American Muslims reported they had experienced abuse in their lifetime. A rate that rivals some of the highest prevalence rates of abuse among minority communities. Sadly Shaima’s case isn’t an isolated event, it serves as a stain on the failure of societal responses to victims of abuse that range from the community to the criminal justice system.
When the murder of Shaima initially happened, there was immense level of solidarity and activism. However as soon as more information was released that this was a domestic violence case and not a hate crime based on religion, the call demanding justice for Shaima disappeared-a call that would have asked us to all reflect on why are women in our community being murdered when they ask for a divorce. How is it that we were more willing to police the daughter of Shaima for being in car with a man and having sex, but didn’t have the courage to ask why was it that even when she attempted suicide, and reported in an emergency room that she was being forced to marry someone against her consent that there was no response from law enforcement. Unlike in the United States where forced marriage isn’t a crime, other countries have created national responses to forced marriage, and it was due to girls like Fatima who came forward to seek help. Cases where law enforcement would take them back to the same abusive households that they tried to escape. In some of these cases women were found murdered. Even if we use the excuse that our criminal justice agencies are yet not educated on forced marriages, then Shaima also represents the overwhelming number of victims of domestic violence who are murdered the moment they leave an abusive relationship. The question that should have been asked is did anyone ever do a domestic violence screening as Shaima was seeking a divorce from a court. Both of these women interacted with the criminal justice system, and yet it wasn’t enough to prevent the murder of Shaima.
Even more devastating than the response of the criminal justice system is the barely existent response to victims of abuse in the Muslim community. With the exception of a few passionate and motivated advocates and organizations, there is massive silence on acknowledging the existence of abuse. There is a culture of denial in our community that foremost states that if you are a true Muslim that you cannot possibly face abuse. In the cases that someone does dare to come forward and break the silence and the misconception, they are heavily stigmatized, shamed, held accountable for their own victimization, and in extreme cases are thrown out of the community. The stigma and shame is so powerful that we will hold the family of the victim accountable for what has happened, hence stating the victim has dishonored the family. In all of these instances stigma, shame, and dishonor is rarely applied to perpetrators and offenders. In the past few months as someone who has been conducting a study on the state of response to crime victimization in the Muslim community, the level of impunity that abusers enjoy in the Muslim community has been frightening. Perhaps I am biased because I feel more connected, but when I have heard reports of mosques whose funding boards have asked Imams to not work with domestic violence victims, we have a serious problem. When people have reported that know of sisters who have come forward multiple times seeking help from the mosque, and couldn’t receive any help because nobody believed that the brother who prays next to them can turn into an abusive individual behind closed doors, that shows us Shaima and victims like her aren’t individual incidents, they are taking place because of a culture of denial and victim-blaming that we have created.
Therefore on this one year anniversary of Shaima’s murder, I ask that we work towards ensuring justice for Shaima by creating a culture in our community that acknowledges the existence of abuse and creates safe spaces where there are no more victims. A safe space where those who think of committing abuse can seek help and those who are the victims of such violence can receive our support. It means creating a counter culture that demands respect in relationships and abandons gender hierarchies that pave the road for power structures that lead to the exploitation and abuse of individuals. On the most concrete level it means creating measures to detect, respond, and prevent abuse. Unless we don’t work to create such safe spaces, we will continue to witness the murder of many Shaimas.