Abuse of U.S. Muslim Women Is Greater Than Reported, Advocacy Groups Say

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Two months into an arranged marriage, Fozia Sadiq, a young Pakistani immigrant, found herself trapped in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, with a violent husband.

She says he routinely beat her and intimidated her into never going anywhere in public without him.

"My neck had so many bruises, and I had scratches all over my arms," Sadiq told FOXNews.com through an interpreter.

A practicing Muslim, Sadiq finally escaped in 2006, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

She says she stayed up all night reading the Koran and was physically abused by her husband for not cleaning up the kitchen the next morning.

"He yelled at her, kicked her and punished her," says Mazna Hussain, an attorney who is helping Sadiq remain in the United States.

"And when she was on the ground [during the beating], at that point she finally decided to leave before he killed her."

There are no solid statistics on the rate of domestic violence within the Muslim-American community, and it is difficult to determine whether Muslim women are victimized more than women in the general population.

But advocacy groups say Sadiq's story is not an isolated case.

On New Year's Day, two teenage Egyptian-American sisters, Amina and Sarah Said, were shot dead in Irving, Texas. Police are searching for their father, Yaser Abdel Said, who reportedly was angry with their American-like behavior, which included dating.

According to the girls' great-aunt, their father had been abusing them for years. She says they, along with their mother, fled after he threatened to kill the girls.

The great-aunt called the murders "honor killings" for bringing shame to the family, a charge Islam Said, the girls' brother, denies. Police say they are looking into motives.

Allegations that the girls were killed for dishonoring the family's name has brought greater focus on all forms of abuse in the Muslim-American community in what some say is a bigger problem than is reported because, they say, it is veiled in secrecy.

"I suspect it's happening a lot more than we think," says Hussain, who works with battered Muslim women at the Tahirih Justice Center in Northern Virginia.

"We hear again and again from [abused] women who say, 'I can't tell my parents back home because if they find out, my younger sister can't get married,'" says Meghna Gozwami, client services coordinator for DAYA, a South-Asian immigrant group that provides legal and financial assistance for abused families. The name "DAYA" means "compassion" in Sanskrit.

DAYA, which runs a domestic violence hotline, has seen a dramatic increase in distress calls --almost 20 times more -- in the last five years (from 189 calls in 2003 to 3,308 last year).

Click here to read more about DAYA.

It isn't clear if the increase in calls is due to more abuse or whether more immigrant women, exposed to America's open culture, have felt the freedom to seek help.

But Gozwami says she is sure that the women who call the hotline are afraid not only for their own safety but for fear that reporting the abuse will shame their families.

Those working to stop the violence say part of the problem is that women, often recent immigrants, face intense family and religious pressure to keep quiet.

Many Muslim immigrant women do not even know that they are victims of a crime. That's because in their home country it may be legal or acceptable for men to physically punish or even kill their wives and daughters for dishonoring the family.

And when an immigrant woman tries to get help, advocates say, an abusive husband often will threaten to have her deported.

"Within our community we are still struggling with the issue of domestic abuse," says Hadayai Majeed, who runs the Baitul Salaam shelter in Atlanta, which caters to Muslim women.

She says women and girls who come to the shelter sometimes have been physically punished for what their fathers, husbands and brothers believe is behavior that dishonors the family.

Dating a non-Muslim or not wearing a traditional head scarf can trigger a beating.

"This can be interpreted as being extremely rebellious or be an excuse for abuse," Majeed says.

Not only is this behavior culturally accepted in many Islamic countries, but it is encouraged. Last year a prominent Saudi cleric went on television to tell Muslim men how to properly beat their wives.

In the video he instructs viewers: "Beating in the face is forbidden ... even if you want your camel or donkey to start walking, you are not allowed to beat it in the face. If this is true for animals, it is all the more true when it comes to humans"

Click here to play the video.

Here in America, advocacy groups say those who turn to their community for help do not always find it, in particular from some religious leaders who, although they are in the United States, still hold to cultural traditions of their homeland and do not clearly reject violence against women.

"I had another client facing severe domestic violence from her husband, and her Imam kept going to the woman and persuading her to go back" to her abuser, Hussain says.

Author Phyllis Chesler, who writes about Islamic gender issues in the United States, believes domestic violence against Muslim-American women, not just immigrants, is covered up by an Islamic culture that treats women as second-class citizens.

"I'm not saying every Muslim family does it or that every Imam encourages it or that only Muslim men beat their wives, but Muslim men have control over their wives," she says.

"And monitoring the chastity of their women is an obsession, because if she loses it, or has a boyfriend or wants to marry who she wants to marry, this could be a death sentence."

The practice of murdering a woman or girl who is believed to have damaged the family honor is culturally accepted in countries including Jordan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.

According to a 2000 report by the United Nations Population Fund, as many as 5,000 women worldwide are murdered each year in so-called honor killings. But reported killings in Europe and North America have raised concerns that Muslim women in the West are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

The most recent case came in December when a Canadian teenager died after an alleged attack by her father over a dispute about whether she should wear a traditional Muslim head scarf.

To date, there officially are no documented cases of honor killings in the United States. The recent slayings of Amina and Sarah Said, however, have triggered a debate over whether this is the first, and if the deadly ritual has been exported to America and more killings are on the way.

Members of groups such as the Tahirih Justice Center say they are watching the case closely.

"There is a very conservative, twisted view out there about Islam," Hussain says.

Shariq Siddiqui, the executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, says some Muslims manipulate their faith and culture to justify abuse.

"I hate to use him as an example, but Usama bin Laden is doing this at a macro level, and Muslim-American men who abuse women are doing it at a micro level," says Siddiqui, who works with Muslim domestic violence victims through the Julian Center, a non-profit agency in Indianapolis.

But many are reluctant to quantify to what degree Muslim faith perpetuates the problem.

Practicing Muslims, even battered women, do not want to portray Islam as an abusive religion or demonize all Muslim men.

"There's domestic abuse in every community," says Rafia Zakaria, an Indiana University scholar and writer who is working to educate Muslims about spousal abuse.

"Like American women, Muslim women who are abused face psychological pressure from their abusers, and they're afraid to speak out."

Muslim-Americans just recently have started to confront the problem. Some domestic violence shelters have opened for Muslim women, mostly in big cities. And activists are beginning to reach out to sympathetic Imams who will teach Muslims in the United States that domestic violence is unacceptable.

Zakaria has launched a legal defense fund to support Muslim victims of abuse.

"I won't lie, it's a controversial problem to talk about," Zakaria says. "But the problem is within."

Fozia Sadiq knows that all too well. She was one of the lucky ones who got out of her abusive relationship.

"In my culture there are men like this, even well-educated men, who call women ignorant and backwards," she says. "But they are the ignorant ones."