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A few weeks ago, the online world blew up in response to the allegations – and later, leaked video – of an American football player, Ray Rice, beating his then-fiancée into unconsciousness. Within the online Muslim American community, the topic was hotly discussed and debated. Nuances were examined, resources shared, and experiences spoken of, all with the intention of unpacking the complexities of the Rice incident. With the variety of organizations, experts and resources present within the Muslim American community to combat domestic violence, as the Muslim American community develops further, the voices engaging in conversations around domestic violence have become more diverse, extending top-down initiatives by faith and community leaders. As we come close to the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act in the United States, the slowly-shifting tide of public condemnation of abuse seems to be reflected in the views of Muslim American communities.
Last February, Rice and his then-fiancée (now his wife) got into an altercation at a New Jersey casino elevator, which ended up in her laying unconscious on the floor and the police being called. In response, the National Football League refused to undertake any sort of long-term disciplinary action. After criticism, the NFL announced a harsher policy for domestic violence, although nothing more was done towards Rice – until September, when celebrity gossip website TMZ released elevator surveillance footage. Suddenly, decisions were being made at the NFL that only took hours. Rice was finally terminated. Although action was taken, it was taken in response not to the actual crux of the issue – the domestic violence – but the public uproar. Even amidst the uproar, articles, statuses and tweets questioned why Rice’s wife stayed to begin with, as though the issue was simply black and white. It is clear that, even with legislation in place, our legal systems are still slow to respond to intimate partner violence. Since 2000, domestic violence incidents have accounted for 85 of the 713 arrests of NFL players. On a wider scale, one in every four women in America will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, with an estimated 1.3 million women physically assaulted every year. Too often, domestic violence seems like something foreign and far off – but the Rice incident brought it right back to the consciousness of the American public.
Within the online Muslim American community, the subject of Rice’s violence – and his wife’s response – was on the minds of many. Conversations arose on social media around the topic of why she remained with him after the beating took place – reflecting a similar confusion that had been seen in the greater American diaspora. However, what soon rose above the fray was a dedication among different religious leaders, thought leaders and community members to spread a more unwavering refusal of tolerating domestic abuse. One of the religious leaders that spoke out, Imam Omar Suleiman, made a firm statement, concluding with:
“I hope and pray that as a community we can educate young men (and sometimes women) on the impermissible vile nature of abusing one’s spouse. I also pray that we can empower our sisters that are in those situations rather than shame them. And finally, I pray that we can establish effective support systems for sisters who choose to protect themselves and their families by moving on from abusive relationships.”
Responses to Suleiman’s Facebook post were positive, ranging from sheer relief on the part of survivors of domestic abuse, to affirmations by general community members. Interwoven amidst their joy in having a leader advocate for their rights, some survivors of domestic abuse saw the conversations around the post as an opportunity to raise questions about the permissibility of speaking about abuse experiences, requests for Islamic legal rights, and ways to prevent abuse within the community moving forward.
Articles were published on how to identify domestic violence, written from a religious perspective, that provided a wholesome approach rather than simply falling back on the age-old refrain generally prescribed on women suffering from domestic violence: just make duaa (supplication to God).
The online Muslim American community stepped up to the task of creating a more holistic, understanding conversation in response to the Rice incident, instilling in many the hope that perhaps this signals a new era in terms of the old fall-back of re-victimization, blaming and harassment that typically takes place surrounding an incident of domestic violence. With more organizations and leaders within the community focusing on promoting awareness and education around the issue of domestic violence, it seems like we’ve entered into a new kind of conversation, and rather than discussing #whyshestayed, starting to look at #whathedid, instead. We still have a long way to go when it comes to discussing the more nuanced issue of emotional abuse, an issue that needs to be discussed more widely within Muslim American communities, but is not as recognizable as physical abuse. While these trends offer hope, our community still has a problem of approaching issues only when a major event – like that of Rice’s assault – takes place. It is my hope that the responses to the Rice incident signal a lasting change in the making.