HOUSTON — Words tumbled over words as the young Pakistan-born cosmetologist unleashed, in a single breath, a tidal wave of woe.
Rootless in Houston with a new husband and his tyrannical mother, she was forced to scrub and wash, denied food and battered daily with insults. In the face of the older woman’s raw anger, the husband — “a good man” — was helpless.
“My mother-in-law,” the young wife said, her narrative ending in sobs, “treated me like a slave.”
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2bMn2oC ) reports the story is a troubling one of bright hopes dashed.
Rosie Khan, director of Shifa Community Services’ center for abused women, has heard many such laments.
“The woman cannot go anywhere. It’s just the husband and wife living in the city. The woman doesn’t work, can’t go back,” Khan said. “The man starts beating her up and throws her out of the house. Somehow, she finds our name and we come and bring her to the center.”
Over its eight years, the women’s program, part of a larger effort to provide affordable medical care to low-income Houstonians, has provided safe haven to about 25 abused women. In October, the nonprofit will launch a vastly expanded program capable of housing a score of women and their young children.
The new shelter, open to all who need help but, as in the past, serving a large Muslim clientele, will provide free meals and secure lodging along with psychological and career counseling, legal help, transportation and dental and medical care.
With approximately 117,000 Muslim residents, Harris County has the state’s biggest concentration of Islamic faithful. Pew Research Center estimates that 65 percent of American Muslims were foreign-born.
“As Muslims,” said Shifa vice president Dr. Moein Butt, “our obligation is to help each other.”
Khan says, “Muslim women are as free as other women.” But others noted that patriarchal Middle Eastern cultures can contribute to dysfunctional — even violent — domestic life.
“Divorce is frowned on. Often times, divorced women are seen as a burden. They become their parents’ responsibility,” said Aarti Goswami, counseling and client services director for Daya Houston, a multi-faceted organization serving south Asian families.
Women frequently are economically dependent on husbands. Even those with marketable skills may face language barriers and other challenges to finding employment, Goswami said. Children further complicate leaving a troubled marriage.
Nusrat Ameen, Daya Houston’s senior director for training, education and projects, observed that the Quran stipulates a husband’s role as “revolving around the moral principle of treating the wife with kindness, honor and patience.”
Still, she said, male-centered cultures can foment domestic violence against women, she said. Ameen suggested that Quran verses sometimes cited to support spousal abuse have been misinterpreted by men to support inappropriate behavior.
Hind Jarrah, executive director of Plano-based Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, concurred that the Quran’s edicts are subject to erroneous interpretation. “For us as Muslims, we must rely on the Qur’an but also what the Messenger did in his life,” she said. “Muhammad never laid a finger on any of his wives. He never used violence.”
Other women’s shelters in the metro area on occasion have referred Muslim clients to Shifa, and word of the new shelter’s opening was greeted with enthusiasm.
“There’s certainly plenty of need to go around,” said Vita Goodell, executive director of Richmond’s Fort Bend Women’s Shelter. The Fort Bend shelter provided training to Khan and other key Shifa volunteers.
Khan, who, with her pediatrician husband Dr. Laeeq Khan, helped found the nonprofit 15 years ago, noted that the organization has served a cross-section of Houston’s diverse population. In addition to the women’s shelter, it operates four medical and two dental clinics in the Houston metro area.
“Shifa,” said Khan, “is the Persian word for ‘healing.’ “
Butt said Shifa decided to launch a purpose-built women’s shelter — initially abuse victims were housed in apartments and a private residence — when the need for a larger refuge became apparent.
On several occasions, he said, women were “standing on the side of the road” after angry husbands drove them from their homes. Islamic Society of Greater Houston staffers called on Shifa to intervene after the desperate women pleaded for help. “That’s what led Rosie to propose a systematic way of addressing the problem,” Butt said.
Khan, a Pakistan-born economist, said the new shelter — like the medical and dental clinics — largely will be staffed by professional volunteers. A paid house mother will live on site. The location of the southwest-side facility is confidential to ensure the safety of the occupants.
The shelter, partially funded through a $1 million federal grant, will provide a complete modern home environment. It features a commercial kitchen, communal area, laundry, computer stations and children’s play room. It has a large, fenced backyard.
“We try to keep the women six months,” Khan said, adding that the length of residency is tailored to clients’ needs. “Every woman’s situation varies. Sometimes they are able to stand on their two feet very fast. Sometimes we keep them another three months. We can’t send them out unless they’re ready to face the world.”
Khan said the shelter will be equipped to house women, their daughters and sons younger than age 8.
Khan said older boys, prone to internalizing the dysfunctional norms of a troubled household, sometimes are given to aggressive behavior. Women with such children still may be housed in off-campus apartments, she said.
Beyond offering its array of counselling services, Shifa also, on some occasions, funds job training and provides for transportation needs.
“When they get work, we try to help them by buying an old car,” she said. “We keep pushing them, helping them to build self-esteem.”
The mother-in-law-afflicted cosmetologist, who spoke anonymously out of concern for her safety, credited Shifa with turning her life around.
“My husband is a good person,” she said, “but my mother-in-law treated me like a slave. My husband told me I had to respect his mom, that she was his mother.”
Days at the family apartment increasingly became hellish.
The older woman hectored the young wife, repeatedly ordering her to perform household chores and demanding that she be “obeyed.”
“My husband was at work, and I was with my mother-in-law,” she said. “I couldn’t go anywhere. She told me I had to slave all the time.”
The woman first found refuge at a women’s shelter in a suburban city. Already near capacity, the shelter turned to Shifa for assistance.
“They called us, and we went to pick her up,” Khan recalled.
Shifa housed the woman for nine months and paid for training she needed to obtain a Texas cosmetology license.
“They supported me — morally, physically and financially,” the woman said. “Rosie Khan is an angel.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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