Few weeks ago I received in my home a victim of domestic violence. After being taken to a shelter by the police, her social worker knew that a shelter would not be a safe place for her to stay as she spoke no English and had been in Canada only for a month. Thus, I was asked by a friend to host her for a few days while she could “stand on her own feet.”
Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse in Muslim communities – From Zerqa Abid
This girl, who is barely an adult, was brought to Canada for the purpose of marriage to a man more than twice her age from her same culture. The husband used to work for the family and in order to consolidate the tribal bonds they agreed to give their daughter away in marriage for a dowry of $1500 Canadian dollars that were paid directly to the father against Muslim law but according to cultural traditions.
Canada is supposedly in a crusade against marriages of convenience, underage marriage and the alike. While marriages of convenience are thought to be an evil targeting Canadian citizens because of their privileged citizenship status, underage marriage and arranged marriages are said to come from the “other.” Nonetheless, this girl, who was betrothed at the age of 14, was given a marriage visa to enter Canada and no immigration bureaucrat gave it another thought.
Her life in Canada for the month that she was married was spent living in harsh conditions with an abusive husband who was finally picked up by the police. The police, while fulfilling their duty, expressed in numerous occasions that such a case of domestic violence was only possible among “brown” populations.
Even when we know that domestic violence permeates all societies, and Canada is no exception, they saw the case as an example of a Muslim brown woman being abused by a Muslim brown man and therefore needing the non-Muslim white men to save her.
In no occasion it was mentioned that Canada had failed, from the beginning, to identify the situation and the overall marriage arrangement. It was also never discussed what this girl’s future would look like in Canada after her divorce was completed as her marriage visa would not be valid anymore.
In the mean time the husband attempted contact (despite a restraining order) and issued death threats to the girl bridging the terms of his probation in this way. But once she was living with me, the police considered that she was “safe” and saw no reason to address the threats, the late phone calls and the attempts to locate my house.
Impact of Violence Against women in Canada – From Stats Canada
In addition, while she stayed with me, I soon realized that an immigrant Muslim woman with little knowledge of the language and the Canadian context was bound to become a “sexual commodity.”
Our Muslim community was less than supportive… everyone expressed disgust for her husband’s abusive behaviour but no real support was provided. This was not new to me… I had written about it before. Similarly, her cultural community was quick to suggest a new marriage for her; when this did not work they tried to convince her to go back to her husband “because it was better for her.” For some others, hearing of a soon-to-be divorced young girl meant an opportunity to take up a second, third or fourth wife despite this amounting to criminal charges in Canada.
And while it is painful to realize that there is no support among your community, in this case we were able to fight off their attempts to control this girl’s sexual choices.
Weeks later she had managed to land a job in housekeeping, where she would not require advanced language skills. Nevertheless, that did not go very well either. Knowing the situation and that she was brand new to the country, her boss made sexual advancements to her. After rejecting him, she quit the job and did not go back. Because she still received support from provincial social services we had to give notice of this fact to her social worker, who at the same time, informed the police. While the police had been, somehow, understanding of the domestic abuse situation, there was no empathy on the sexual harassment issue.
The policemen looked at us in a scrutinizing manner and asked me how was that possible? Was it that she was making it up? Was it that she was giving these men a reason to make sexual advancements?
It was one of those circumstances when one really regrets having the police involved. Due to the fact that she was not divorced just yet, the police also brought along questions on immigration… was she looking for a new husband so she would not be deported? Was she trying to take advantage of Canadians?
The girl, limited in her understanding of the situation and her surroundings in general, did not perceive the assumptions being transplanted into her domestic abuse case. However, this all sounded very familiar to me as Muslim women have been prevented from dealing with domestic and sexual abuse effectively in Canada. The most famous case being that of N.S., who has not been able to deal with her sexual abuse case due to her niqab.
Now, while this girl remains in Canada waiting to go to court for the charges against her husband, she faces a bigger trial: What is life going to look like afterwards? For her, going back home is not an option as her family did not react very well to her leaving her abusive husband. However, in Canada she is faced with becoming a sexual commodity within and outside her community and with little or no support from the institutions that suppose to back her up.
As a convert I have heard numerous times that white converts face challenges dealing with the system because their choice to marry non-white men and wearing hijabs proves challenging for Canadian institutions, and the police often seems to think that because they chose Islam and a Muslim man they do not deserve the help. Yet, when it comes to the non-white Muslim women it seems that system deserts them once “brown men” are not the only threat…
What is wrong with this picture!