Asma Hanif runs a shelter for battered Muslim women in Baltimore.
Asma Hanif runs a shelter for battered Muslim women in Baltimore. Dianna Douglas/NPR
As families come together over the holidays, the victims of domestic abuse are often sequestered in shelters — a situation that's especially difficult for Muslim women, because few facilities meet their cultural and religious needs.
At one home for Muslim women in Baltimore, women from different backgrounds recently gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner together. Oil splattered on the stove, and Asma Hanif, the woman who runs the center, joked that the night's dinner would be the end of her.
"In Iraq they don't have high cholesterol?" she asks a Kurdish woman standing beside her. "This is going to kill us."
The Kurdish woman — whose name is being withheld to protect her safety — laughed. "No, no, it's OK," she said. Wearing makeup and fitted jeans, the woman said the center is now her home and she would "never" go back.
"Right now, I'm really happy. Really happy," she told the group.
The woman said her marriage was so bad — the beatings from her husband were so severe — that she had no choice but to get out, even if it meant leaving her three children behind.
She left without knowing where to go. She slept in her car for a month. Eventually she bought a plane ticket and somehow, ended up at the shelter, Muslima Anisah.
"It's very good," she said, referring to the shelter. "It's helping me ... because it's food, it's house, it's everything."
In this cozy kitchen, she joked with the other women about how differently meatballs are cooked around the world. Another Muslim woman, from Chad, fried potatoes as her version of meatballs cooked on the stove. It was a cheery scene that quickly unraveled. Suddenly, the Kurdish woman broke down.
Hanif adjusted her lavender headscarf and took a deep breath. She hugged the Kurdish woman and they both cried.
"It's OK, you never have to go," Hanif said to her. "I'm here, we're here together. It's OK."
The women here said the tears flow almost every day. Hanif said she knows first hand what it's like to be on the street after leaving a home filled with abuse.
"I've been where they've been, and I understand," Hanif said. "One of the main things I'd like people to know, those of us who are here, we're not bums."
A Refuge Sensitive To Muslim Beliefs
The women are here for many reasons. It's a sanctuary and an escape. It's also a place where they can live and pray without having their faith questioned.
"My biggest problem was that if you send a Muslim woman to be counseled in a shelter that's run by Christians, then what the people say is the reason why you're being beat is because of that religion. We do not want Islam to be the focal point of domestic violence," Hanif said.
Indeed, domestic violence knows no religion, but not all shelters are sensitive to Muslims, Hanif said.
"There may be situations — such as, there would be men that were there, or there wasn't any place for them to pray, or maybe there was an issue with the food," Hanif explained.
At Muslima Anisah, people take their shoes off at the door. There's no pork in the kitchen. A section at the front of the house is reserved for prayers.
"This is the prayer area; we pray five times a day," Hanif said, showing off the area.
Hanif is a nurse by trade, not a social worker. Running a battered women's shelter wasn't part of her plan. But over the years, she treated dozens of abused Muslim women at a health clinic.
One memory stayed with her: a woman who came in with a broken jaw.
"One of the Muslim women, her jaw was wired, and I remember her saying that now she could lose some weight because she had to suck her food through a straw," Hanif recalled. "We didn't inquire about it. We laughed with her. I remember we didn't do anything about it."
But not long after that, she decided to intervene.
'Society Doesn't Want Them'
Now, it has been 12 years since Hanif set up this home in a residential neighborhood in Baltimore. She lives there even though she has three grown children.
Hanif is African-American, but most of the women she takes care of are immigrants.
"They have nowhere to go. Society doesn't want them. Their family doesn't want them, and the man who beat them doesn't want them," Hanif said.
Hanif said American women can turn to their community for help; they know the legal system better, and they know their rights. Most of the immigrants, including the Kurdish woman, speak little English and have even fewer resources.
The Kurdish woman pointed to pictures of her children taped to the wall beside her bed. "Two sons, one daughter," she said.
She said she phones her children all the time, and she vows she will see them again. But after eight months at the shelter, she is adamant that she won't go back to her husband — the man her parents told her to marry when she was 15 years old.
Helping the women and hearing their terrible stories has taken a toll on Hanif.
"I hear their voices in my head, crying. It wears on my soul. I used to be a happy-go-lucky person, but now I carry a lot of sorrow," she said.
Hanif said she's not trained to operate a shelter, but she does it anyway. She does it for all the women she's been able to help — and those she couldn't.