Interview With Salma Abugideiri, Peaceful Families Project (PFP) Trainer and Consultant
The Annual Ramadan Domestic Violence Awareness Campaign is a partnership between TMWF and local imams. This partnership aims to cultivate peace in our homes especially given the emphasis during this holy month on self-improvement and reflection. The campaign’s goal is to educate the community regarding how to recognize as well as prevent domestic violence (DV), and to highlight sources that are available to help.
The Peaceful Families Project (PFP) is a national organization, which assists TMWF in its campaign. PFP is an educational and resource program dedicated to ending DV in Muslim families. Salma Abugideiri is a PFP trainer and consultant. She is also a licensed professional counselor providing individual and family therapy in private practice in Virginia, and has authored and co-authored several articles, books, and training manuals. She explains that PFP defines healthy relationships and DV through the Islamic perspective. It offers training and develops resources, but does not offer direct counseling services. It educates imams and offers community workshops.
Abugideiri says, the Qur’an and Sunnah (the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh]) are used “to shift people’s attitudes.” The Islamic teachings help guide individuals to answer such questions as: Is it ok to make a police report? In what case is it ok to talk publicly about what is going on in your family? What are the roles and rights of each spouse? When is it ok to go to a shelter? Etc. Abugideiri highlights, “We use Islamic teachings, and we talk about DV under the context of oppression. As Muslims, we have a mandate to stand for justice and fight oppression. That’s how we frame what we teach.”
Abugideiri highly values education and sees it as the best way to promote awareness and prevention. She highlights the importance of premarital counseling as an educational tool. There is a great deal of research that supports its effectiveness in nurturing and maintaining healthy relationships.
Premarital counseling “prepares people and helps them think through what their expectations are, what their vision is of their relationship… to make sure that when they are considering someone for marriage, they are making wise choices…[and are] marrying people that have a common vision…common goals…[and] helps them learn good communication skills.”
Abugideiri further elaborates on the benefits of premarital counseling as “not only can it prevent divorce, but it can also allow couples to have a more stable start and to know when they need to seek help.” She stresses that while she strongly advocates premarital counseling, it does not prevent all problems, “but it provides couples with some tools… [It can teach] healthy relationship dynamics, [so that if] a few months into the marriage there is DV occurring… a problem that was not avoided, people will seek help much earlier than they do to get early intervention. That is the hope [of premarital counseling] and the research does bear that out.”
When PFP trains imams, PFP encourages imams to require premarital counseling as a prerequisite before they issue a marriage certificate. PFP has found that there are now many mosques that have made it a mandatory requirement. However, not all mosques do, and some couples, who do not see the need or do not understand the importance of premarital counseling, seek out such mosques. Nevertheless, premarital counseling, premarital workshops, and couples workshops are becoming an emerging trend.
When asked if she thought public awareness campaigns are working, Abugideiri says she sees a definite difference over the twenty plus years that she has been a practicing counselor.
“I have seen a huge shift from people being very reluctant not only to seek counseling, but also to even go into the field as a professional.” She adds, “When I started…I might have even been the only licensed mental health professional in private practice in my area [Northern Virginia] who wanted to practice with the Muslim community. Now…that people are coming forward…we can accommodate the needs.”
She applauds imams for having helped to increase awareness and create an attitude shift regarding DV, as well as general mental health issues, which have made a difference in the way that people come forward. She admits that, “My dream has always been that people would think of mental health like they think of dental health…that they would have well visits or check ups.” She cites that recently she has been encouraged by some young couples who have spoken publicly at workshops, saying, “We are going for mental health check ups, relationship check ups. We love it, [and] we want everybody to do it.”
Abugideiri does make the distinction between the response of the community to DV and mental health issues. She says that with mental health, as in issues of depression or anxiety, the individual is seeking help for him or herself. However, there is a greater resistance to admitting the need for help with DV, because that involves the whole family.
“The issues are a little bit different in that it is not just an individual that is going forward for treatment. It is an individual who is coming forward saying, ‘My family is broken’ basically. So there are a lot more people impacted when someone comes forward, and the community is still very conflicted about filing police reports, going through the court system, seeking actions that are much more public. Ultimately, it can lead to the family splitting apart.”
There is still a great lack of understanding of DV. An individual who needs to seek mental health counseling might mistakenly believe that prayer and a strengthening of faith are sufficient to combat anxiety and depression. The DV victim might also be mistakenly convinced that it is shameful to talk of divorce and/or to get law enforcement involved. Additionally, the DV victim might stay in an abusive relationship without seeking help because they mistakenly believe their tragic situation is their fate, so it is their duty to be patient and endure the abuse.
In her private practice, when there is active DV, Abugideiri focuses on the victim and the perpetrator as individuals not as a couple. First she ensures that the victim is in a safe place. She emphasizes that DV counseling is very different from individual mental health issues. Depending on the situation, counseling as a couple may not be an option. The treatment approach depends on the issues involved. If children are involved, there is an emphasis on their safety as well as breaking the cycle of violence. In the PFP workshops and trainings, “we talk about the impact of DV on children and the importance of understanding that nobody is doing any favors to a child by keeping them in a violent home. We talk about the impact psychologically, the legal impact, the health impact, all of that.”
By the time people have come to see a counselor they have overcome whatever stigma they had about coming forward. The initial hurdle is actually calling to make the appointment. Some victims make appointments several years after having heard of the counselor, citing being embarrassed, or ashamed to make the call. Unfortunately, it is sometimes not until things get really bad, or the crisis is unbearable, that people call.
Abugideiri concludes that every person in the community can make a difference in preventing or ending DV simply by “learning about the dynamics, being aware when they see things happening around them…when we hear people making comments that are either disparaging to women or that misrepresent the Islamic perspective on relationships, people should speak up.”
Additionally, when the community is aware of DV and someone notices “somebody may be in an abusive relationship they should give them information about resources, whether it’s TMWF or whether it’s the National DV Hotline. If someone discloses to a friend that they are in an abusive situation…simply by listening and believing what they are telling you, you are making a difference. We have at the PFP website some tips, under DV facts.”
Abugideiri emphasizes, “I think it is very important for people to know that it is everybody’s problem. It’s not just a woman’s problem. It’s not just the problem of the person who has been abused. But all of us in the community are impacted when there is violence in our homes.” She highlights the need to break the cycle of violence that repeats from one generation to the next “because those kids are impacted, when they grow up and become teenagers they are bullied or become bullies. When they grow up and marry they might be abusive or victimized. We want to reverse the cycle. Everybody needs to realize it is everybody’s problem.”
DV awareness must be an on going conversation within the community, “Just try to think of something that…might have an impact, even if it is simply…[to] speak about the issue, don’t be silent.”
Abugideiri ends on a positive note stating that things are changing for the better with people becoming more aware and more imams around the country who are understanding of the issue. There are more resources for Muslim communities around the country, such as social services organizations, shelters, hotlines, counseling services, and DV organizations.
“We still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of people who need to be trained but there is definitely progress. The more that we work as a community to address this issue, the more of a dent we put into it.”
1 The late educator and activist, Sharifa Alkhateeb began PFP in 1998 as a survey of 63 Muslim leaders and their congregations, which was sponsored by the Department of Justice to investigate violence in the Muslim community. Alkhateeb founded the existing organization in 2000, to address the findings of that survey which showed 10% of the congregants’ families had experienced DV. The survey focused on physical and sexual abuse, but not emotional, verbal, financial, or spiritual abuse. PFP has been both an independent organization (2008-2015) and a program of other organizations due to sustainability and funding issues. However, these structural changes have not changed its purpose and work. As of 2016, it is currently an initiative of United Muslim Relief.