Photo Credit: Abeer
Years ago, I interviewed a young Muslim woman who was born in Iraq and had lived in Libya and Dubai before her family immigrated to Canada. Alea and her older brother, Nasir, were studying engineering at the same university. Alea did not consider herself particularly religious. She didn’t wear a hijab but she prayed daily, avoided pork and alcohol, and fasted during Ramadan. She found it difficult to make friends at university because most of her classmates were male. Her parents didn’t want her hanging out with non-relative men unless Nasir was with her. When she tried to make friends with other Muslim women students, Alea found them either too religious or too open to things she didn’t want to do, like drinking. Trying to socialize often resulted in grief. Alea was very unhappy and spent most of her time alone. She went to student counseling services but didn’t find it helpful:
I saw them once and then I just stopped ‘cause I didn’t feel comfortable. Like, ok what’s the point in going and telling them, and they can’t do anything for me because I understand it’s a cultural thing. And in my point of view its very wrong culture, but I have to live with it because it’s my culture right? Like either I can run away from the house and live my life independent but then I am going to lose my family, right? So it’s kind of you have to decide: either live with it, or . . . But I couldn’t leave my home for sure, my parents are the most important thing in my life.
Alea loved her parents but disagreed with the Iraqi-Muslim values which compelled them to control her social life. A counseling professional could not help Alea navigate the conflict between her love for her family and her critique of their patriarchal religious/cultural practices. Alea saw her problem as all or nothing – love her family and accept their values or leave them.
While Alea didn’t call the experiences with her family abusive, they had a negative impact on her mental health. She couldn’t find someone who could help her navigate her love for her family along with a renegotiation of her religious/cultural background. From a faith perspective, this is a normal developmental process for a young adult. It is unfortunate that a counsellor couldn’t help her, but not surprising, given that most public service professionals in Canada have no training in working with clients from minority religious groups. This is also often the case when a religious survivor of family violence seeks help. Few domestic violence service providers understand that women’s ethno-religious values and practices are potential resources that can be harnessed in the face of challenges.
Secular professionals need information and training in order to learn how to ask questions about the importance of a survivor’s cultural and religious beliefs and practices, become familiar with the different religious and cultural resources in their local communities, and encourage religious survivors to negotiate the impact of their experiences of abuse on their beliefs and practices. Religion is not a static set of rules to which believers assent once and for all but rather a way of life. A religious life is a continual encounter between everyday realities and the stories, symbols and practices of a religious group.
One example of Muslim women’s negotiation between their faith and contemporary culture is the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE). WISE is a faith-based movement that was created by leading Muslim women scholars, activists, artists, religious and civil society leaders from more than 25 countries. WISE asserts that gender equality is an intrinsic part of Islam and violence against women should never be tolerated.
Catherine Holtmann, 19 March 2022
 Alea and Nasir are pseudonyms.