Offering a hand to their sisters

A group of Muslim women aims to aid co-religionists who don’t seek help due to cultural barriers
Lavina Melwani is a freelance writer.

August 17, 2005

A group of Muslim women from various ethnicities are volunteering their efforts to help other women of the same religious background who face spousal or child abuse, poverty or discrimination.

The volunteers for Turning Point, a new social services agency aimed solely at women from the Muslim community, are working to provide outreach, counseling and support.

The volunteers had gathered for their first meeting recently in an office in Queens that has been sublet to the organization by a community supporter who has also loaned them furnishings and computers. The women cut across a wide spectrum – African-Americans as well as women of Pakistani, Egyptian and Moroccan descent.

“The Muslim community is very diverse and it is spread out in many different languages and cultures,” said Robina Niaz, executive director of the organization she founded in April. “There’s no one organization that all Muslim women can identify with and we are hoping that Turning Point will be that organization.”

Niaz has been a social worker for 13 years and has seen the hurdles that Muslim women sometimes face in mainstream agencies. The goal of Turning Point is to empower the women and make them aware of their rights. Niaz said that the group deals with an average of five new cases every week.

“We help them find strength within themselves to be respected as Muslim women and not worry about being judged as a Muslim,” Niaz said. “That’s what most of them are afraid of when they go to mainstream organizations.”

Sometimes, the women are also fearful of turning to their community for help as well, Niaz said.

She explained that in situations of abuse, the women are often reluctant to turn to their religious leaders because they are afraid of being judged or thought of as bad Muslims.

Niaz described the case of one woman who was brought into the country as a new bride and was physically abused by her husband. The woman did not tell anyone about her ordeal. But in one incident, the neighbors heard her screams and called police.

There is now an order of protection against her husband, Niaz explained, and the woman is living by herself in a basement apartment.

“Shelters also are often not familiar with the Muslim way of life,” Niaz said. “Women have complained about being served pork or non-halal food, and not having a place to pray. So that’s a huge challenge we have.”

The volunteers, who will receive training from Niaz, include both working women and students. At one meeting, they brainstormed about ideas for community outreach, support groups and fundraising.

“We do have so many initiatives in our home countries, but we don’t have enough here, and this is where we live and this is where we are from and this is where we will be all our lives,” said Arshia Sultan, a volunteer who is Pakistani-American.

Niaz’s efforts have received support from some three dozen Muslim community leaders, including the imams of mosques, as well as businessmen.

“It not only unifies the Muslim community, but also addresses some very important issues in our community, such as domestic violence,” said Aisha Al-Adawiyya, executive director of Women in Islam, a nonprofit social justice organization based in Manhattan and a Turning Point board member.

“The creation of such an agency is well overdue,” Al-Adawiyya said.

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.


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