South Asian Women's Sanctuary in South Florida

Photo Credit: Lolostock/Shutterstock

Every year, millions of women experience emotional and physical abuse at the hands of intimate partners. Over the years, resources and legal protections for such women have grown dramatically, from hotlines and counseling to social services and shelters, to assist them in recovering to be free and independent of their abusers.

But if you don’t speak fluent English, or your immigration status is in limbo, or you are new to the U.S. and your partner is the only person you know, there are huge barriers to seeking and getting the right help.

In South Florida, a coalition of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus are helping survivors in their own communities, knocking down those barriers, long-standing cultural prejudices, and misinterpretations of religious values that work against women in compromised positions.

Often, the cases we have are of women who get married overseas, come here with their husbands, and then have nobody to turn to when things go bad.

The Miami-based Nur Center has been a shelter for abused women for the last decade, housing up to eight survivors at a time for up to three months each. It’s run by and for women with origins in South Asia, whether they are immigrants themselves or have family members who are. Nur means “light” in Arabic, and South Asia includes Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, a wide swath of land with diverse cultures, languages, and faiths tied by geography and colonial history.

In the last year, the center has combined forces with Sahara, a Miami-based referral-support organization for South Asian women survivors, to become a full-fledged service center, offering language interpretation, community education, counseling connections, job training and more to help South Asian American women get back on their feet.

“We long ago noticed that there was a gap in our community, where there were women — often immigrants who were in pain and powerless as they tried to escape the grip of their husbands,” said Tehsin Siddiqui, who is president of the Nur Center. “They would seek out existing organizations and services in Miami but run into hurdles, be it language or people not understanding their culture. So we stepped into help.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, around 20 people per minute are physically abused by a partner in the U.S. Most victims are women. In total, the coalition found that more than 10 million men and women are physically abused by partners each year.

Data and studies on South Asian women and domestic violence are harder to come by. A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association found that 40% reported having experienced intimate-partner violence, but its sample size was limited to a small group in Boston. A newer study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Family Violence, found that 38% of South Asian American women in the U.S. experienced “some form of abuse” the year prior. It looked at a sample of 215 women in the country who had South Asian origins.

Kicked Out of Their Homes with Nowhere Else to Go

While English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole are the most common languages in Miami, the Nur Center offers pro bono legal assistance in Urdu, Hindu, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Arabic, as well as social-worker services in those languages. While many shelters in Florida provide spiritual services for Christians and Jews, the Nur Center partners with Muslim imams, as well as Hindu and Sikh priests, to minister to women in physical and spiritual need.

“Often, the cases we have are of women who get married overseas, come here with their husbands, and then have nobody to turn to when things go bad,” said Siddiqui, 38, who is a physician’s assistant by profession. “Most of the women are abandoned — they have either been kicked out of home, and are literally sitting outside their home or the mosque. We have partnered with community groups and leaders so people are aware they can call us.”

The bare-bones operation, which was initially funded using donations and the retirement savings of a local male community member, today has one full-time staffer who works as a social worker, victims’ advocate, and facilities manager. There are about 35 women who are Nur Center clients each year.

“We are making a dent in what for women is often a cycle of violence and isolation, one where the abuser holds huge power and makes outside connections so much harder for women,” said Siddiqui. “They’ll use false ideas about men being allowed to control women because of religion or culture, even though our cultures believe men and women are equals in partnerships. We are lucky to have imams and religious leaders who back us up and support us when they hear these ideas from men and women.”

Anju Kanwar, Ph.D., an Atlanta-based scholar who is an instructor at ECE, Emory University, and whose research focuses on gender, race, and class, said groups like the Nur Center offer a desperately needed service.

“In addressing the issue of South Asian women and domestic partnership violence, one has to look at what background a person comes from,” said Kanwar (Rise Global Initiative). “You need to look at language proficiency, a person’s image of themselves, what kinds of social systems and justice systems they are used to, a person’s education — there are so many factors that come into play. The situation is different with every person, even if you share an identity as South Asian. There has been a disconnect between the actual value of women in society and how they are treated in society. We must change that.”

In South Florida, Siddiqui said success to her comes in the form of one case and one woman at a time. A Muslim, she said she’s seen immense change in her lifetime alone insofar as how members of her faith treat abuse.

“It used to be that this issue was just kept under wraps, talked about quietly or in secret, even though our religion teaches us that men cannot beat up women, that husband and wife both have rights and should live with respect and honor for each other,” she said. “But now we have imams who will give sermons on domestic abuse, who will come to us if they hear from women who are being hurt, who are advocates. The change is real in our religious community and in the broader South Asian community. And there is still far more to do.”


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