Interfaith and Family Violence – Violence against Women

Presenters at the Interfaith Forum on Family Violence and Violence against Women

Melbourne: Religious leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions addressed faith responses to family violence and violence against women.

The Interfaith forum was held at the Islamic Centre of Victoria, for observance of the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women. It was organised to coincide with White Ribbon Day, an Australian initative generating community responses and participation in the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women. Maryum Chaudhry of the Islamic Centre of Victoria introduced the guests and opened the forum outlining the need for collaboration and interfaith responses to family violence and violence against women.

What Is Family Violence?

Domestic violence is typically defined as an abuse of power within intimate partner relationships. More specifically, domestic violence is the domination, coercion, intimidation of one person by another by physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and financial means within intimate relationships. Over the last decade, the more inclusive term “family violence” has been adopted in Australian public policy discourse and some community settings in acknowledgement that violence may also be perpetrated by other family and community members.

In Australia, approximately 71% of domestic assault incidents reported to the police involved a female victim, and 80% of offenders were male. Domestic violence perpetrated against women by their male partners remains the most common form of family violence in Australia.

Family violence is prevalent in all communities regardless of one?s ethnic or religious background, ancestral history, educational and income levels, age, health status or sexual orientation. Women and children are the major victims of domestic and family violence, and this abusive and violent behaviour is mostly perpetrated by male partners and / or fathers and stepfathers. In Australia, family violence is common in all geographic areas and within all socio-economic and cultural groups.

The Family Law Courts of Australia defines family violence as ‘conduct, whether actual or threatened, by a person towards, or the property of, a member of the person’s family that causes any other member of the person’s family reasonably to fear for, or reasonably to be apprehensive about, his or her personal wellbeing or safety.’ The common forms of violence in families include spouse and partner abuse, child abuse and neglect, parental abuse and sibling abuse.

Examples of physical, sexual and other abusive behaviour include:

  • Hitting, kicking, slapping, choking or other forms of assault
  • Forcing a partner to do unwanted sexual acts or forcing a child to perform any sexual act.
  • Refusing to let you see friends or family
  • Threatening to hurt you, the children, other family members, or to take them from you
  • Disconnecting the phone, locking you in the house
  • Controlling all the money
  • Repeatedly insulting you at home and/or in front of others
  • Smashing objects, breaking walls, furniture etc.

In many families, violence is not an isolated incident but occurs on an ongoing and often escalating basis.

Jewish Task Force Against Violence

Jewish Taskforce against Family Violence

Ms. Deborah Wiener, Chair of the Jewish Task Force Against Family Violence spoke of a movie called Crime after Crime and outlined the cycle of insidious, creeping, hidden violence which resulted in the victim being jailed for 27 years, simply for responding to years of violence against herself. It took 7 years work by pro bono lawyers to free her.

The story tells us that anyone can turn; anyone can hurt another. Violence is not simply physical or emotional; violence can extend to taking the cheque-book, the credit card and refusing a person any money of their own.

Violence doesn’t happen “out there”; it happens right here in our community; in every religious group in the community, in every ethnic group.

A 41-year-old-lady approached the Jewish Task Force and shared her encounter with a rabbi; even though the lady stood in front of the rabbi with a black eye, the rabbi became nervous, refused to respond, and turned the lady away with no help – for her husband was a person of high repute in the community.

This introduced both the context Rabbi’s responding to violence, the work of The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence together with The Rabbinical Council of Victoria’s ground breaking publication, “WILL MY RABBI BELIEVE ME? Will He Understand?”.

This is a book which may be utilised by any minister of any religion. You may read about the Book Launch.

White Ribbon Day

White Ribbon Day

Andrew O’Keefe, Chairman of White Ribbon Foundation of Australia addressed the gathering. Mr O’Keefe made two distinctions: violence between men (which tends to be a one off event, often fuelled by an incident) and violence between men and women, which tends to be part of a pattern ~ between husband and wife or couples living in a relationship. Elements of the pattern can be

  • principally between intimate partners
  • who have an emotional connection
  • which has prolonged ramifications
  • and it is something the human race does, worldwide, everywhere, in every culture, every religion, every faith or belief system

An illustration was given; the three main questions encountered by the White Ribbon Foundation are:

  • Why doesn’t she leave? This is the wrong question. The real question should be Why doesn’t he stop hitting you?
  • What about violence against men? This tends to be incident related rather than relationship based.
  • Why did you become involved in White Ribbon? It was the right the thing to do. Basic human rights aimed at stopping abuse all around the world are founded on truth.

Mr O’Keefe told that there is a factor uniting of all religions … their desire to understand the difference between right and wrong. He mentioned The Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, those who founded religions. They are liberators of the oppressed, they raise the downtrodden up; he cited a Surah from the Koran – “Oh you who believe stand up firmly for justice“. Justice is at the core of all the religions of mankind, and is the attempt of religious leaders to make sense of chaos and restore order in the world.

Solving violence in families and violence in any relationship is the core of the call to justice – right at the core of the mission of our religions.

Treatment, Mr O’Keefe said, was a range of options and targetted to a variety of audiences. Treatment must go beyond an appeal to men to men seeing women as equals, and deserving of respect. This is a basic human right. Women are not tools of men, and are not tools in relationships.

Star of David

A Rabbi Speaks

The next speaker was Rabbi Ian Goodhardt, rabbi of a community in Caulfield, who has experience in Mediation, as a family law mediator. In mediation, it is important to understand dynamics. Violence is often the culmination of a series of events, fruit of a pattern of coercion and control. The result is the reduction of personal freedom, and a lack of a sense of control over one’s own life.

Rabbi Goodhardt is a great storyteller, and shared one tale about a relationship where the implicit threat of violence caused immense psychological harm to the wife. Rabbi Ian reminded us that violence does not have to physically occur, and the threat of violence is just as damaging.

Rabbi Goodhardt shared that he and the JTAV had been frequently challenged on the issue of responding to domestic violence; approaching a problem that does not exist in the community, and even, creating a problem by raising the issue. Finally, people began to accept and understand that there are no boundaries in the community where family violence or violence against women happens.

Rabbi’s, after completing the training for responding to family violence and violence against women, are approached immediately after training. Something in the training opens the heart. The training seems to confer or evoke some energy or aura around the rabbi which makes people seek them out for assistance.

The real response to this problem is that this is not a problem women have to solve, it is a problem that men have to solve. Men have to take the consequences for what they have perpetrated, and men have to take steps for their attitude to change. The more men that change, the more women who will be safe.

Islamic Council of Victoria

The Islamic Response

Sheik Mohamadu Nawas, head of the Victorian Board of Imams addressed the gathering. The experience of imams was this was an emotional issue, often seen as a powerplay in a relationship.

Sheik Nawas congratulated White Ribbon for raising the issue of violence against women and told that it was a very noble task to undertake. He had been involved in initiatives to seek reform to section 7 of the Family Law Act (Australia). He had recently researched material on domestic violence and downloaded reports from the Australian Law Reform Commission on this matter, some 1,440 pages of reports; this illustrates how heavily these issues weigh on the community and the government.

The Islamic point of view is – he spoke of his own teacher in Malaysia – the foremost scholar in this area of family law. His teacher asked him, “Why do muslims have to pay Mahr to the woman?” (A gift from the groom to the bride at the time of marriage in Islam. Often translated as “dowry,” a term which is misleading as the mahr remains the property of the bride after marriage.)

Sheik Mohammadu told that his reply to his teacher was for the bride and family to enjoy the gift.

His teacher replied, the mahr means that the man will look after the woman all her life, in the home, the family, and protect the woman; it also means that materially, I will protect you all of your life. The meaning of the gift is that the husband will give full protection to his wife in all matters.

Islamic teaching in this area begins with “Harm is neither tolerated nor inflicted” in Islam. This principle applies to all forms of life, and from this, a large body of teachings and counsel has been derived. From this, cruelty to a woman is considered to be one of the grounds for divorce.

In Islam there are many hadiths about violence against women; this has been brought up in our meetings recently and will continue to be the subject of sermons. In Islam, it is not fitting, it is not “macho” to hit a woman, at any time. It is not manly to release anger against another. A man someone who has self control, who can control his anger, and emotions and not direct them onto others. There are many teachings to this effect in this particular area, in Islam.

Sheik Mohammadu Nawas addresses the forum on Islam and domestic violence against women
Sheik Mohammadu Nawas addresses the forum on Islam and domestic violence against women

Violence against women has also occurred against women who have migrated to Australia. The Victorian Board of Imams and the national authorities are working together for imams to be trained in this area of domestic disputes, and to establish a board of arbitration to deal with such matters in the community. In 2009 we took 12 imams to train in domestic violence, so this training will be utilised in the community. The training is also important, as it helps imams to identify the triggers for domestic violence.

Australian Imams will have boards of dispute for domestic matters in every state. Also, we have introduced a new pre-nuptial agreement for people intending to marry.; Most are not interested in these matters, and just want to get married. On the reverse, it has “terms and conditions” which each side will satisfy from the faith perspective in the marriage itself. One of the conditions to which people sign is that no harm of physical, emotional, psychological kind will be inflicted by any party upon another in the married state.

Sheik Nawas quite powerfully shared that there is full committment among Australian Imams to reducing family violence and violence against women, and that much more proactive actions will be undertaken by Australian imams in this area.

Stop Violence Against Women

A Christian Response

The next speaker was Rev. Scott Holmes of the Anglican Church, Melbourne. Mr Holmes is Co-ordinator of the Northern Interfaith Respectful Relationships Project. Training in the area of family violence and violence against women, is moving from reactive, that is dealing with the results of family violence, to proactive – examining and preventing the causes of family violence. The is no systematic training in this area of human conflict for ministers nor for those who are in preparation for ordination.

In many faith communities, women may have stereotypical roles, or very small roles. Few faith traditions have females in ministry or leadership roles.

He raised three core issues: the first was “It doesn’t happen in our community“, something that prevents recognition of violence per se. This is due models of piety and spirituality which engenders a reluctance to be open and honest about the dark side of life. Christian spirituality needs to shift from images of living with moral goodness to living with authenticiy and integrity about the way Christians live their lives.

Another challenge centres upon epistemology, how scriptures are read within faith communities and the nature of divine revelation in the area of Truth. This is a privileged truth. Using revelation as a source of Truth over and above other models of recognising truth about what is happening in a community or in a relationship causes a failure to see what the truth might really be. Scriptures are all authored by males; there are no female authors of any scriptures. Is scripture used to influence the ways we think about women?

The final challenge is gender based. In scripture, God is gendered as Male; Jesus, the saviour, is male. Scripture, rites, rituals, are not gender neutral, but rather, focussed around a male, self-revealing divine figure. In order to end violence against women, we have to think deeply about our theology of God, and our theology of humanity.

Rev. Scott Holmes has been involved in developing policy in the Anglican Church specifically around the area of violence protection for women. You can read about the work of Rev. Scott Holmes on Stopping Violence Against Women.

Women who are Refugees

A recent enquiry into violence experienced by women who are refugees in Australia has considered the responses of religious leaders to these women victims of violence:

One of the major women’s service providers in Mt Druitt observed that generally women contact community and religious leaders first, or influential people in the community to intervene to save the relationship; on the other hand they will seek service providers’ help if they plan to leave the relationship. However, many community leaders and religious leaders try to cover up domestic violence. They do not provide appropriate response or support to both victims
and perpetrators. Bilingual workers also identified the role of religious leaders “as important point of contact for women.”

‘Most Sierra Leone clients preferred community leaders, pastors and extended family members to intervene in issues of domestic violence; extended family members, non-relatives were also welcomed.'(IWSA workers)

Whilst recognising that leaders were seen as “conservative” and “in favour of men” and “wanting to hold onto their power and position within the community by maintaining their conventional roles”, it was argued that “religious leaders cannot be excluded according to Western definition of progressive“. To effect change, ‘all leaders must be trained, including the traditional ones.’

“Whether we like it or not, women will use community and religious leaders. It is in our interest to train leaders on these issues if we are interested in helping women.” (Bilingual counsellor)


Go to White Ribbon Day Website

Visit the Jewish Task Force on Family Violence

Read Rabbi Ian Goodhardt on Family Mediation

Read Christian Strategies on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne Website

Read the Northern Interfaith Network’s Respectful Relationships Project

Stopping Violence Against Women – Project of the Anglican Church

Visit the Faith Trust Instiute (USA) – working together to end sexual and domestic violence

ICV President Hyder Gulam presents a memento of the Forum to White Ribbon Chairman Andrew O'Keefe
ICV President Hyder Gulam presents a memento of the Forum
to White Ribbon Foundation Chairma, Andrew O’Keefe

Debbie Wiener of Jewish Task Force presents a copy of Should I tell my Rabbi to Sheik Nawas
Debbie Wiener of the Jewish Taskforce against Family Violence presents a copy of
Should I tell my Rabbi to Sheik Mohammadu Nawas