Executive Director, KARAMAH
I want to tell you about the case that changed my life. Five years ago I started my legal career at a legal services organization in my small, southern hometown. To say that I had led a sheltered and privileged life would be a gross understatement. I am chagrined to admit that had I not gotten a job representing DV survivors, I would not be aware of the horrors, battles and barriers that 1 of 4 women deal with. My naivety extended most acutely to my own faith community. I grew up in a safe and loving Muslim community. Divorce in our community was almost unheard of and stories of abuse were never shared. When I decided to take a job in my hometown, I was sure that I would never encounter my community professionally. I was wrong.
A year into my job, I inherited a case that highlighted the many barriers women of color, particularly immigrant women, face. My client was a Muslim woman. She married a Muslim man in a European country. He was successful—with a high-ranking job and a matching paycheck. She, too, was educated. Their love story was transcontinental. After their wedding, she came to the US with her husband on a student visa. That’s when their fairy tale ended. The husband began his onslaught of abuse, often physical, more often psychological and emotional. His reign of terror did not extend only to her. When he learned that she was having a daughter, he vowed to kill her. During the pregnancy, the umbilical cord was around her baby’s neck. Her husband told her that this was a good thing—it was the noose that would kill the baby so he wouldn’t have to.
She came to me seeking a divorce. She had already been denied a protective order. He was more believable than her. She testified in broken English, and he was a professional—an upstanding citizen. That is when I learned about language access and his privilege—barriers she had to overcome for people to believe her story. When the case began, her husband challenged their marriage. He said in open court that they had never been married. As a devout woman, she was concerned about social stigma surrounding pregnancy out of marriage. Her husband’s denial of their marriage diminished her. Shortly thereafter, the husband moved out of the house. He had no obligation to support her or their child—no court order securing their maintenance. When asked if he was the father to establish paternity, he denied it. The DNA test proved he was the father of the child but only after several weeks. She waited for the DNA results for weeks without any financial support. Around this time, he stopped paying her tuition. Now her legal status was questioned—she became undocumented. She had never called the police out of fear and distrust of law enforcement—another common issue among women of color. Because she had never called the police, she was not eligible for a U Visa.
To attain a VAWA visa, she had to be declared married. The court decided that her marriage ceremony lacked certain requirements to be recognized as “legal” in the country in which it occurred. My client was denied a divorce on the basis that she was never married. All of her belongings, her home and all its furnishings, were deemed to be his separate property. He brought a moving truck to the house and took everything—leaving her in an empty home with nothing except her baby’s car seat. He took the car.
At the time, I was at a loss as to how to help her. She did not have the ability to work—she had no legal status in the US. She had no financial support except for the promise of future child support. She had no family in the US and was isolated from her entire community. She was embarrassed—not wanting to be judged as a failure.
After exhausting all options, I took her case to KARAMAH. Luckily, KARAMAH’s founder Dr. Azizah al-Hibri was lecturing in my town at the time. As an Islamic scholar and lawyer, I knew she could help my client get an Islamic divorce—if for nothing else than for the peace of mind that she was no longer tied to her abuser. We are still helping my client…her main concern now is that she does not want her daughter to be stigmatized because a court said that her parents were not married. These, and countless stories just like hers, are what fills our days at KARAMAH. Many think that DV cases are simple—your client is abused so you go to court and get a protective order or a divorce. The story that is not often told is the one of my client. Simply having access to justice is in itself a privilege that many women are denied.
Aisha Rahman, Esq. is Executive Director of KARAMAH and also serves as the head of the organization’s Family Law Division. Ms. Rahman received her higher education at Emory University and The University of Tennessee College of Law, where she was a staff editor of the Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy and headed the Muslim Law Student Association. Ms. Rahman came to KARAMAH from legal services where where she was a staff attorney litigating cases on domestic violence. In her hometown, Ms. Rahman chaired the Social Justice Committee of the Shura (consultative council) at her local mosque.
YWCA’s Week Without Violence is an annual campaign that takes place nationally and communities across the country to end violence in all of its forms and wherever it occurs. As the largest network of domestic service providers in the United States, YWCA is focusing our efforts on ending domestic violence – NOW. Everyday YWCA addresses the root causes and immediate needs associated with domestic violence. As we mark our 20th annual Week Without Violence, we invite you to join us. To learn more visit www.ywca.org/wwv and join the conversation with #EndDVnow.