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Beaten black and blue

Domestic violence is still a taboo subject in the gulf. We know it goes on, but what is being done to alleviate the problem? Where can battered women escape to, ask Sarah Bladen.

Every morning of the week, Farah, 34, wakes up and has a cup of freshly ground coffee, drops her six-year-old son Amr off at a private school and then goes to her pilates class. Meanwhile her wealthy Emirati husband negotiates lucrative business deals abroad. To the outside world, Farah is living an enviable lifestyle – a whirlwind of shopping sprees, spa treatments, charity events and family holidays. You don't see her tears of anguish behind her big, black Versace shades.

And her bruises and cuts are always hidden underneath her designer outfits. She carries on as normal, despite her shameful secret: about once every two months, her husband turns into a maniacal bully. He might push her face into a bowl of cereal, kick or slap her and insult her with a tirade of derogatory names. Then she'll hear the front door slam while she is left sobbing, wondering what on earth she has done to deserve this. Later that evening, her husband might turn up smiling holding a Damas jewellery box. Farah, relieved to see his loving and generous side again, forgives him and prays he won't hit her again.

Similar stories of domestic violence exist all around the world; wife-beating cuts across wealth, religion, and culture. In the West, there is well documented information on the subject. Shockingly, in America, a woman is beaten up every five seconds.

A Veil of silence
Here in the Gulf region, there are no real statistics; a veil of silence still surrounds the topic. In Manama in 2005, a conference combating female abuse and discrimination called upon Gulf countries to establish a regional centre to ‘collate regular statistics on violence against women.” So far, this hasn't happened. In the existing environment in the Middle East, many abused women feel trapped and hopelessly isolated. There are hardly any support groups, counseling services or refuge homes in the region.

According to Dr Ushari Khalil, Director of Humanitarianistics in Dubai, who runs workshops on domestic violence, the UAE is gradually coming to terms with domestic abuse, but at the moment this country is not equipped to deal with the problem. “This issue needs to be addressed systematically by the UAE government,” explains Dr Khalil, “and it will take time and money. Unfortunately, an effective social support system will not emerge as quickly as Dubai's luxury tower developments. Anything less than a national plan of action is mere tinkering (such as the workshops I run), and will not alleviate the suffering of abused women”.

There have been individual efforts to address such social woes. Sharla Musabih, an American married to a local, set up a shelter in Dubai with a group of Western women in 2001. The City of Hope as one of the shelters is known is situated in a secret location and over the last five years, it has housed many abused women. It also caters to trafficked prostitutes and other desperate women.

City of Hope
It hasn't been easy running such a controversial shelter. Since it was started, Sharla has received hostile phone calls by people calling for it to be shut it down. One Sunni cleric saw the shelter as a threat to the conservative culture here and Sharla was deemed a ‘suspect foreigner who is inciting women against their husbands'. This hasn't deterred the strong-willed volunteer who receives frantic phone calls almost every day from women who are being maltreated by their husbands.

She does advise these women to initially contact the human right's department of the police, although she admits that often these officers have had little or no experience dealing with domestic violence cases.
In fact, one expatriate (unwilling to be named) witnessed a disturbing incidence of the police handing a domestic abuse call. “There was a huge commotion going on from the apartment next to mine,” she says.

“So me and a few neighbours went to see what was going on. It turns out the husband had thrown his young Arabic wife against the wall and terrified, she called the police. When they arrived they asked her nationality, the next minute the police were sharing a cigarette with her husband. It was sick.”

Dr Erik Voerman, Psychiatrist from the Counselling & Development Centre in Dubai, offers psychotherapy to a handful of abused women from all nationalities. Many of his patients are well-educated and well-traveled women.

Jekyll and Hyde characters
According to him, the situation is particularly isolating for local women in arranged marriages. “Most of the husbands were successful, charming men,” explains Dr Voerman. “However these Jekyll and Hyde characters sometimes only exposed their mean, abusive side five months into the marriage. By this time, it's harder to escape. Both families usually have a mutual respect for each other, and the wife is keen not to fracture the relationship. She often feels too embarrassed to tell anyone about the situation.”

But what drives seemingly respectable men to hit and demean their loved ones? In a society where the husband's authority is declining and the wife is gaining importance as the manager of the domestic unit and a professional, some men are beginning to feel threatened. “Abusive men are insecure and afraid,” explains Dr Voerman.

“In order to alleviate their fears, they often become control freaks. I have seen modestly dressed Emirati women who tell me their husbands are abusing them because of their refusal to wear the abaya. These men are highly jealous and possessive. Honour is also a big issue for them – they worry that their wives may have an affair.”

Broken self-esteem
It is well-known that battered women end up with their self-esteem in tatters – many even blame themselves. “Many of the women who come to me in secret,” admits Dr Voerman. “They can't confide in friends or family for fear of judgment and reprisals from their husbands. This isolation and burden can cause them to become ill. Abused women often suffer a myriad of other side-effects including tension headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue and depression.

Physical violence is always accompanied by the verbal and emotional torture. These men are often super critical of their partners picking up on their flaws and blowing them out of proportion. Verbal abuse which can include mind-games, belittling comments, name calling and shaming in public often leaves deep emotional scars.

One of the most worrying aspects of domestic violence is children witnessing the emotional and physical torture. “This is particularly alarming,” says Dr Voerman “Boys become aggressive and some repeat the same behaviour later in life; girls might grow up thinking its normal and some end up in abusive relationships themselves. One female Emirati patient of mine told me her own son kicks her and calls her names just like her husband does.”

Surprisingly, many of the women treated by Dr Voerman don't want to leave their husbands. “Many locals still see divorce as having negative repercussions from their family and very often they are financially dependant upon their husbands. One of their biggest fears is losing custody of their children. The husbands often say to them things like ‘If you leave, I'll take the kids,” explains Dr Voerman.

“These women beg me to tell them how they can stop their husband's from beating them up. It's so frustrating because unless their husbands undergo intensive cognitive therapy, it's highly unlikely they will change. And yet, these men are often quite macho and would never consider going for therapy and so nothing changes.”

No way out
So, what happens to these women? “They often stay in abusive relationships and carry on living a double life. All I can do is prescribe medication, listen to their problems and suggest ways of alleviating the problem....There is nothing much I can do. Exceptionally, one Emirati patient filed for divorce and now I am helping her to rebuild her self-esteem and confidence.” So, unless major governmental changes are implemented in this region, then many women will stay in unhappy, abusive marriages.

Men are the protectors and guardians of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they (i.e. men) spend (to support them) from their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will (or nushooz) and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) separate them in beds (and last) beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. Surahi An-Nisa (4:34)

Of all the Qu'ranic passages about men and women, this is perhaps the one most often misunderstood or misused by both muslims and non- muslims. Islamic preacher Yahia Maquiran from Dubai sheds more light on one of the English translations of this controversial verse.

On initial reading, it seems as though this translated verse is justifying physically hurting your wife if she is out of line. How do you deal with that?

Firstly, Islam is a religion of peace and it does not tolerate violence against women, men or children. The Prophet Mohamed (PBOH) told men to love their wives as they love themselves. “Love and affection must characterise the relationship between a husband and wife (30:21)

This verse should not be taken out of context and it is only sick men who have interpreted it to mean it is okay to hit their wives regularly.

A mixed reaction. Some people have misinterpreted this verse and wrongly assumed it is an anti-female sentiment. However, the majority accept it because they truly believe in whatever Allah has prescribed for the good of mankind. And those who are familiar with the Qu'ran realise that the Islamic religion respects and honours women.

The Wise (Allah) knows that a person can sometimes be affected by an atmosphere of disagreement and feelings of hate, and then Satan can destroy the existence of the family. For this reason, the Qu'ran has tried to find a way to purify the emotions and return clarity into the relationship.

The man's role should be as al-qiwaamah (being in charge of the household). He is supposed to be the protector and provider. He should provide love and care as well as food and shelter. Since men are meant to be the head of the household, they should have some authority to make decisions. The authority of the husband should not be thought of in terms of the authority of a ruler, but more like a shepherd protecting his flock.

If however, the wife carries out deliberate ill-conduct based on ill-will, this can be described as rebellion (or nushooz), then the first step is to ‘admonish' her – the husband should bring to her attention some relevant teachings from the Qu'ran. Of course, this only works if the man has a good character. The husband must practice what he preaches to his wife, for the Qu'ran condemns preaching to others what we do not practice ourselves (2:44)

The next step is to sleep in separate beds so that time apart might encourage the wife to change her ways and the husband to re-consider his own actions. If separation fails to work, then it is suggested that men use light beating. The Prophet said in a famous speech that the beating should be ghayr mubarrih ie, in such a way that it does not leave any marks or cause any hurt. It should not be on the face or any other sensitive parts. So perhaps it is meant to be a little like lightly smacking your child – it's a disciplinary, yet harmless action. Some scholars say it should be administered with a folded scarf, while others are of the opinion that it is not advisable at all.

Source: Arabian Woman
Posted: 26/06/2008

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