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Culturally Sensitive Support: Sahara’s Response to Domestic Violence

The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre's (MWRC) domestic violence helpline is providing a safe and non-judgmental space for Muslims and BME women. And their new Sahara service is ushering in a much needed era of culturally and religiously sensitive support, for survivors with recourse to public funds.

'a thousand words' commissioned by Scottish Womens Aid and Zero Tolerance. Copyright Laura Dodsworth

“I felt I had the label of being a Muslim, someone who wears the hijab, someone who looks different and has different beliefs and values. I was teaching my culture to my legal advisor when fighting for my assets and financial settlement. I was judged for not walking out. It was not that easy to do. It was a relief to have found your organisation. I only wish you had more branches to offer much-needed support to BME women in need”

While domestic violence occurs across cultures, BME women in particular face additional hardships when leaving their abuser due to a lack of diversity within frontline services, contributing to misinformed beliefs as well as increased racism.

A research report looking into The Criminal Justice System shows that 48 percent of women felt that they were treated differently and dismissed by the police because they were from BME backgrounds.

In Scotland, the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre (MWRC) have launched Sahara – a new service to tackle this issue.

Accessing Support With No Recourse to Public Funds

MWRC has been operating a helpline for Muslim and BME women experiencing domestic and sexual violence for 10 years. Sahara, launched in November last year provides support for migrant women who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF). This means they can’t claim benefits or any other financial assistance from the government. Often this includes women who are seeking asylum or on a spousal visa.

In the last three years, caseworkers have supported 1074 women affected by domestic violence. With Sahara, the caseworkers anticipate supporting more women, particularly those in precarious circumstances as service users are subject to immigration controls because of the Home Office’s hostile environment.

Research from the London School of Economics, estimated that of the 1.8 million adults with NRPF, 32,000 survivors of domestic abuse would engage with specialist services each year if they weren’t restricted.

In Scotland, migrant women experiencing domestic violence can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain under the domestic violence rule, allowing them to apply for certain benefits. A Freedom of Information request made by The Guardian found that the number of applications rejected, made on the basis of the domestic violence rule, increased by more than half from 12 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2016.

Additionally, making this application can put women at risk of destitution if they are forced to rely on their abuser for financial support. So women are advised to first apply for financial support through the Domestic Violence Concession (DVC). But to even qualify for this you have to meet stringent criteria.

One caseworker said that sometimes women will come directly to the organisation having “Left their home, packed their bags and came here by themselves with their kids, saying, ‘I can’t go back home, I’ve made a decision, I want to leave that space.” For these women navigating the system feels even more daunting.

The helpline operates across Scotland with a base in Glasgow and women can call between 10am to 4pm from Monday to Friday. Women are either signposted to the appropriate services and if they have NRPF they are assigned to one of the two Domestic Abuse Advocacy (Idaa) Trained, caseworkers.

Redefining Muslims and BME Women’s Experiences

The caseworkers hope to change women’s experiences from the moment they reach out for help. Through their cultural and religious understanding of Muslim and BME women’s experiences, they are filling a crucial gap in mainstream services, recognising the profound impact of these factors on women’s circumstances and decision-making processes.

As well as supporting women, the caseworkers are providing advice to other domestic violence services in the area on how to support BME women. Furrah Riaz the Helpline Manager at MWRC explains that support services need to have an understanding of how racism and class position affect Muslim and BME women’s circumstances and the treatment they might receive when accessing support.

She adds that women have also had: “Lot of issues with the police, losing statements, being insensitive to what women are going through or not understanding it. It’s already so scary for the woman to go through the process in the first place.”

Language support at the helpline also plays a significant role in women’s ability to seek help. When women call they feel an instant sense of relief, as the service provides support in Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic, along with other languages when needed. Furrah believes that “Language is so powerful, and people don’t always understand the importance of how big a barrier it can be.”

A report from the Communication Barriers Working Group found that 24 percent of women received no language interpreter when reporting domestic violence to the police. For many women, this can become another barrier to finding safety, causing further isolation and loneliness.

The caseworkers want to bridge the communication gap and are familiar with the type of language used to keep survivors silent. For example, the word sabr [meaning patience in Urdu] is weaponised against survivors to convince them not to escape their abuser, placing responsibility on survivors and perpetuating stigma around domestic violence.

“Women are told that their marriage is not working out because they must have done something wrong. Women have told us that they’ve asked for help from the community in the past… and they’re told to put their heads down and kind of get on with it. So women’s stories not being validated is already a massive barrier for them,” one caseworker said.

Redefining Who the Perpetrator Is

Invalidation and abuse can be difficult to combat, particularly when it comes from family members, who justify abuse as preserving the family’s ‘honour’, referred to as honour-based abuse. In Scotland, there is currently no official definition of honour-based abuse, but a 2014 Scottish government statement explained that:

‘The terms honour-based abuse, honour crime, honour-based violence and izzat [meaning reputation or honour in Urdu] embrace a variety of incidents or crimes of violence (mainly but not exclusively against women), including physical abuse, sexual violence, abduction, forced marriage, imprisonment, and murder where the person is being punished by their family or community.’

A report from Save Lives found that at the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference, a meeting where statutory and non-statutory agencies discuss individuals at high risk of serious harm or murder because of domestic abuse, only 11 percent of agencies recorded cases of honour based abuse. If the perpetrator wasn’t a current or ex-partner the abuse wasn’t recorded. This is because, under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, the primary perpetrator has to be a current or ex-partner, not a family member.

The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre’s latest report on honour-based abuse found that most women felt that emotional abuse from mother-in-laws was the most common within the extended family. The organisation feels that honour based abuse from family members should be considered abuse. This has led to the launch of MWRC’s Extended Family Abuse campaign which is opening up the conversation and redefining abusers to include in-laws and not just intimate partners.

Furrah and the caseworkers add that this change can’t just stop on an institutional level but the support has to come from people in the community too. Although they’ve had several referrals from religious spaces there is still a need: “For the community to hold perpetrators to account. It’s one thing to say that you don’t know about it, but when you do you need to make sure faith and culture are not being used to subjugate and control women.”

One of the most popular services provided by MWRC is the female Muslim Scholar helpline where women can ask questions about Islam and their rights. Some abusers will use misconstrued religious testimonies to prevent women from leaving by saying it is sinful for women to file for divorce. The helpline grants them a safe and private space to ask questions to someone well-versed in Islamic scripture and can provide them with the correct knowledge. By equipping women with the knowledge, Sahara grants them agency and the ability to make their own decisions.

The Path to Healing

Beyond the helpline, MWRC offers a comprehensive range of resources to support women in rebuilding their lives. “We are a one-stop-shop as we have a befriending service because women might be feeling isolated when they’ve left a violent situation. There’s the Women’s Friendship Group, we have CV and English classes, financial advocacy, and we provide help with applying for benefits.”

“We like to empower women because if they’re coming from an abusive relationship and they have been belittled, disempowered, they have no self confidence. So we want to help them to do things for themselves.”

Furrah emphasises the necessity of a tailored approach, acknowledging that traditional services may not effectively cater to the diverse needs of these women. The helpline stands out as a beacon of support, offering a more culturally sensitive and understanding environment, bridging the gap that doesn’t exist within mainstream assistance and supporting women subject to the Home Office’s hostile environment. By breaking down these barriers and providing invaluable assistance to a community often underserved by conventional support systems.

If you or someone you know has been affected by domestic violence you get in touch with the Sahara helpline by calling 0808 801 0301. To learn more about Sahara you can visit the MWRC website here.

Other support services include Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline, open 24 hours a day, and is available for non BME women. To get in touch call 08000271234.

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by Fiona Grahame, The Orkney News