Domestic violence is an issue that significantly affects our Muslim communities. 53% of American Muslims experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. And 1 in 3 Muslim women experience intimate partner violence in the US. We need to talk about this. So we reached out to Dr. Nahla, an advocate for survivors of abuse and mental health content creator, to use her expertise to have a deep interview with Dania Ayah Alkhouli, a poet, educator, nonprofit manager, and survivor of domestic violence. This is a conversation everyone needs to hear, so share it with your friends!
Dr. Nahla: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me Dania. How would you like to introduce yourself to the Vela community?
Dania: My name is Dania Alkhouli, I’m a Syrian writer, editor, author born in Southern California. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I utilize my skills as a writer and activist to speak about this important topic that is seen as taboo in the Muslim community.
Dr. Nahla: A lot of this work is done by “experts”, but the way that it is framed is not sensitive or appropriate. What do you wish people knew about domestic violence victims or survivors that they don’t know?
Dania: What I wish everyone knew about being in an abusive relationship, or in a domestic violence or gender based violence or even intimate partner violence situation, is how blindsiding it can be. How insidious it is. People just assume it's very obvious. They think it's a situation or relationship that victims enter willingly. As if we knew and decided to go ahead with it anyways. Abusers don’t come with clear cut labels that say, “Hi, I am an abuser.” They actually show up with their best foot forward and give you the best impression. Whether it's an intimate partner or a friendship, you’re just mesmerized by the goodness they illustrate in the beginning. It can actually be really refreshing because you think this is so different from the mainstream experience, especially for us Muslim women trying to find a partner for our future. We are going through a lot of bad experiences with men. It’s been really hard to find a decent man in this world, so when one seemingly shows up, you think this is so incredible. They say everything that doesn’t seem too cliche, that just feels good. You believe it. As women we’re told, “You have to give men a chance, you can’t dismiss them, you’re running out of time.” So I think people don’t realize that it’s not obvious, not so easily noticeable in the beginning. It’s really that critical beginning phase that’s so important, because if you can catch those red flags, you can save yourself later, but again it’s not always that noticeable.
The other thing I wish people knew about domestic violence is that there is so much that affects you mentally. There is a mental paralysis that affects you while you’re in it and it’s not easy to see that it's happening. So much that leaving is almost severely impossible for so many people. Society often doesn’t take into account the immense needs a victim has in order to be able to leave. From financial resources to genuine family and community support to mental health stability. By mental health stability I don’t mean just finding a therapist, I mean being in the right state of mind to understand what is happening right in front of you. To reach that point of “I need to get out of here” or “Now I am ready to leave.” All of these things play a significant role in understanding why a victim/survivor is in that situation and why they haven’t left yet.
Dr. Nahla: That describes so many situations I have seen. You mentioned that “they don’t come with a warning label, or disclaimer” that this is going to be an abusive person. There is a misconception in the Muslim community, and the world in general, that those who do fall victim to domestic violence are a particular kind of person. It takes a particular kind of stereotype that they want to be able to imagine, maybe so they can believe: “it couldn’t be me”. What would you want to say to dismantle that stereotype?
Dania: There are way too many stereotypes associated with domestic violence. I would say, think of it like a disease. It doesn’t choose its victims, it happens, to anybody. I had people who said, “I’m not surprised that someone like you would be a victim.” I had the worst things imaginable said to me, but there really is no certain type of person who is a victim. There are men who are victims. Victims are anybody. To state that there is a certain type silences the reality and the gravity of the situation. There is nothing that I can say to completely destroy that stereotype except that I have a Masters degree and a background in social science and marriage and family relations, and I’ve written books and performed poetry on women’s empowerment, and I still became a victim. It’s not like he showed up and said, “Hey, I’m an abuser, you still in?” He actually said, “I’m so impressed with everything you’ve accomplished in your life. You’re such an empowered woman and that is appealing and attractive.” How many Muslim men actulaly say that? The moment you give them the green light, they start digging their claws in and you start getting stuck. Your mentality is severely affected and you know something feels off, but it’s hard to leave and figure out what’s going on.
My ex-husband had known me since I was 17 and seven years later our relationship started. So he had actually been “researching” me for all that time, through community/events, through asking people about me, through social media. So by the time he showed up, he had a healthy amount of ammo to use against me. To seduce me. To play the game right. It’s not always obvious. Not always someone uneducated or from a specific socioeconomic background. It can be literally anybody. I’ve seen it in work spaces too. You build a relationship with someone and they start using you, blackmailing you, harassing you, and you feel like you can’t get out because you don’t have the resources or the means. There are so many factors that go into play, that it’s actually really unfair and ignorant to stereotype a victim.
Dr. Nahla: Ultimately, there is no stereotype. Domestic violence or intimate partner violence can affect everyone and anyone. And if I could go off, and be a little contentious, I would say in fact it affects the most strong-willed, intelligent and confident women. Because abusers prefer to be associated with that kind of image, in order to protect their own image.
There was a comment that you received where someone said “oh I’m not surprised that it happened to you”, what about the friends and family, the loved ones, what did the ones who truly stuck around do differently for you? And can you recall those really special moments?
Dania: To start off I don’t think I would have been able to make it through as well as I did without my family’s support. From what I’ve seen, with other women who are stuck in abusive situations, they actually don’t have the family support or else they would have been able to leave. For me, it is utmost gratitude for my family. The first moment I can think of is my mom saying, “The door is always open.” I’ve had friends whose parents told them the door is not open, so don’t even think about coming back, you’re your husband’s responsibility. So I am grateful to have my family simply being there for me, welcoming me back, giving me space without outward judgement. And I say outward judgement just because we’re all human. Of course my parents had questions like, how could we have protected you? I am their first born, I’m their only daughter, it was a big thing for them to experience. But having them welcome me back like that, is probably the most memorable keepsake that I hold.
It gave me the space, the physical space, the mental and emotional space, to be able to get out completely and start again. Having the ability to cry and grieve in peace as I needed to at home. Because what people also don’t understand is that survivors have to grieve. It is a loss. Both a positive and a negative experience of loss. There is a grieving process. I think a lot of people don’t understand that. I had so many people ask, “Why are you sad? You dodged a bullet.” And I would respond, I didn’t dodge a bullet, it grazed me, and there is so much I have to deal with in the aftermath. I can’t say the overall community was as receptive or supportive but I had friends here and there.
Dr. Nahla: That’s so beautiful that your family did that. I wish that was the norm, but it is not. Going into the sequence of things, if you’re comfortable sharing. From the moment that you thought, ok this is abuse, this is domestic violence- because I know it may not have happened the first time, the second time, or the tenth. It might have been a few times to call it what it is and actually attach that language. From that point, the attempts at leaving, the attempts at trying to end things amicably. Can you describe that process and how difficult it actually was to leave?
Dania: It’s interesting that you talk about moments of realization. For me I don’t think I fully acknowledged that it was domestic abuse until after I left. It was actually a moment with my youngest brother, who was 17 at the time. I was wearing my mom’s clothes at home and he asked me why I was in her clothes. I told him because my husband (at the time) didn’t let me take my suitcase when I wanted to come home. My brother thought that was so strange and paused before saying, “Wouldn’t that be considered abuse?” That was the first time I associated this word with what I was experiencing, because when you’re in it, you work really hard to make excuses. “Oh, today he’s like this because of this.” It became an entire relationship of me thinking he’s just an angry person.
I thought, I have to figure out if it’s me, because the gaslighting was on fire in the relationship. Everyday was a gaslighting experience. There were a lot of moments in the relationship where I thought, something is wrong and I need to figure this out. But it was reaching a point of suicidal ideation, something that I’d never reached in my life before, that made me say, “Whoa, Dania, you want to kill yourself? Something is really wrong here?” But every time I tried to figure it out, he would sense I was sobering up and distancing from him, he would completely change. The love bombing would resume and I would think, I must be overreacting and being too emotional so I need to become a better fiance/wife. Just hearing my brother say that term, abuse, made me flashback on the entire relationship. Here is the insidiousness of domestic violence. I think in a lot of communities we assume that if it wasn’t physical or sexual, something with actual tangible evidence that people can see, it’s not domestic violence. And I heard that a lot after I left. “That wasn’t domestic violence because he actually didn’t beat you up.” This was coming from people who were actual medical doctors.
As I replayed the relationship, I started to recognize the extremely subtle build up that led me to contemplate suicide for the first itme. That led me to suffer from 2-3 severe anxiety attacks per week, where I didn’t even know what was happening. I was losing myself. That definitely solidified my decision to file for divorce.
With regards to moments of trying to leave in the relationship, there were a lot of them, but whenever he sensed that, or if I even discussed something not working or making me uncomfortable, it was a trigger. I was never allowed to blame it on him so I always internalized the blame. I didn’t realize that discomfort was my intuition screaming, “Bloody murder, please get out!” I had never ignored my intuition before, but that is the immense power of the abuse. It made me tell my intuition to tone down so I could trust someone else who was trying to control me. If I tried to leave, he would resume the love bombing, promise to change and make things better, and for three days it would be better, but then it would just go back to the abuse.
This next point is something I’ve only recently started to talk about, but around two weeks before the wedding, I tried to call it off. I knew I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life. He went ballistic, threw things, threatened me and my family, and I knew I couldn’t call off this wedding. He immediately followed that up with love bombing and I convinced myself that I was the problem, that I wasn’t trying hard enough to make this relationship work, so I have to stay and try. But I realized later I was on my own timeline, and this is something I tell a lot of people when treating and dealing with victims: know that they are on their own timeline. It’s not up to you when they need to leave and when they should because we (the victims) have to reach a level of conviction and certainty. A level of seeing what wasn’t being seen before. Knowing, hey, I’ve done everything I can and I am now ready to leave. I’ve reached this confidence in myself and my abilities to get out.
Dr. Nahla: You did describe something important about leaving on your own terms. Not pushing that onto somebody who is in a situation where from the outside, it is in an abusive relationship. When you’re in an abusive situation, that person has made you question everything that you know, you believe, that’s in your gut. So of course, you’re going to not just doubt yourself but believe that you’re the reason it’s happening and you’re the only one that can fix it. They are not to blame. They are not even capable of fixing it.
That leads me to the question of: how do you cope with the emotional damage, and the trauma and being able to heal from that? You said “I didn’t dodge a bullet, it grazed me”. So what does that actually mean, and what does healing from that look like?
Dania: Just to go back to the point of how people on the outside see it differently. A lot of times an abuser is the most presentable, incredible human being on the outside. When I was doing my research on my ex-husband premarriage, and asking people about him in the Masjid and the community, people would say you’ve hit the jackpot, you’ve won the lottery, this man is the greatest man out there! Even during the relationship people would say, “You’re so lucky you have someone who loves you this much, look at what he does for you.” There was so much gaslighting from the outside. I would wonder how people couldn’t see or understand why I was so unhappy. I had people tell me being this stressed early on in a relationship is normal because you’re two different people trying to get to know each other, but now I know that isn’t the case.
I know that there was a lot of mental affliction that came from this experience. The healing journey is not linear. In the poetry space we say that all the time. When we’re doing art therapy and writing about grief, we remind our students and ourselves that it’s not a rigid timeline. It’s sometimes one step forward, two steps back and starts with that grieving process. I had one Auntie who said, “It’s just a speck of dust on your shoulder, brush it off.” But divorce is hard in general without abuse. It’s a break up. I was excited to start a future with him. It’s someone that I trusted with my body, my soul, my mentality, my personality, my social life, and they betrayed all of that. I had to grieve that. I was grieving myself -- who I was and not being able to go back to the same exact person that I was before.
But I was also grieving the good times. People have the stereotypical understanding that abuse means that it was bad 24/7. There were many great things, the inside jokes, the romantic traditions we built with each other. There is so much to grieve. It’s a break up from somebody you thought you loved, that you were ready to commit the rest of your life to and start a future and dreams with. It doesn’t give survivors space to thoroughly heal when they are surrounded by people who don’t understand that it is a grieving process.
It took a while to heal. There were nightmares and insomnia. I remember the first time I felt like there was some healing was when a male colleague of mine at work made a joke and I laughed, knowing it was finally safe to laugh at a joke made by a man and not fear the repercussions of my husband. I knew that it wouldn’t accidentally slip out in the car in front of him and then I would have to hear an abusive episode and a lecture. It took me time to learn I could actually say thank you to a male server at a restaurant without getting in trouble. I had to recondition myself to a lot of things he had conditioned me into through fear. So the biggest part of my healing journey was learning to find myself again. Learning to make peace with who I’m becoming and how the change has been.
Nahla: You said something about an abusive person not being able to be abusive all the time, or they would not be able to function in society. So it makes perfect sense for an abuser to be an abuser in private, with people that they know and they’ve manipulated enough to keep quiet and who wouldn’t abandon them. It’s difficult for me to reconcile that there are so few people who agree with what you just said. That an abusive person is abusive even if they are good other times of their life. And the healing process is reconciling, yea he was good to me sometimes, but he was bad to me all the other times. And you have to reconcile those two people and grieving the person you thought they were.
What would you want to see change in future generations that will inevitably see abuse, whether it's directly or indirectly through their friends and family? How would you want to support future generations in recognizing signs of abuse, in educating individuals?
Dania: You just said a word that’s so scary, but true. Inevitably. They are inevitably going to see it. I published a book of poetry on my experiences in 2017, after recovering from the divorce and abuse. It was a risk for me, but I got so tired of the way that my Muslim and Arab community was reacting to this, whether it was brushing it off, or belittling the gravity of what domestic violence actually is, but I decided to push through, because I might not end domestic violence single handedly. I’m not going to prevent other women and girls from finding themselves in this situation, but I might at least be able to educate them on those subtle things that happen that they should not ignore. The first book release, there was an Arab man with two preteen daughters who asked. “What lessons do you have to give us so that I can make sure my daughters don’t make the same mistake that you made.” I told him I wouldn’t call it “my” mistake. My mistake was trying to pursue a halal relationship in marriage. I did my research, I did everything by the book. He was the one that was abusive. I can’t call that my mistake. My parents taught me to be confident, it’s not like I was feeling sorry for myself and a guy came around and gave me some nice words I fell for.
I still think there’s room to hyper educate girls and women to be overconfident, where even kind gestures that seem genuine are put through a lens to double check before we trust. It makes it sound like we have to live on eggshells further then we already do, but that’s one form of education. I’m really grateful to see social media has become a space of sharing insight and definitions, like what gaslighting and love bombing is, but it’s not enough without first hand experiences. For example, being able to say thank you to a male server at a restaurant and not being afraid that you will be abused in the car on the way home. These are things that we have to talk about. That is how someone, male or female, who is in that relationship, will become aware.
I wrote a blog article two months after my divorce and I had so many people reach out and say, “I’m in a relationship, it hasn’t been great, but I never thought about it as abuse until I read your article because there are small signs that you mention, and they seem so relatable.” It’s the storytelling first hand narrative, by someone who has done the healing work, that is so powerful. It’s in the details, where someone who is starting out in a relationship, can hear it and start picking up on these things. We don’t talk about that, especially in Muslim and Arab spaces. I’ve been to a couple of DV awareness events in a Masjid and no one who was speaking actually experienced it. My experience and my work and my growth is valid enough to be a resource to these “experts” to educate both girls and boys.
I also think we need to do more work on our boys. It’s not being drilled in well, what’s appropriate and what’s not. The patriarchy is still alive and well. Then there is the spiritual abuse. The number of times I heard, “You’re going to go to hell if you don’t do this,” or “You’re not a real Godly woman because you did/didn’t….” Religious manipulation and cultural manipulation are heavily used to empower boys/men and threaten girls/women to stay. We need to bring to the forefront those religious sources that empower women, that talk about consent, that talk about healthy marriages and relationships. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Dr. Nahla: A huge part of healing from abuse involves self-forgiveness. For those moments you stayed longer than you wish you had, for going back, for abandoning yourself, and for doing the things that you needed to do in order to survive. How have you changed and how have you approached self-forgiveness?
Dania: I love this question. To me self forgiveness was that moment of coming to peace with my humanness. Accepting the idea that, inshAllah, I have and always will put my best foot forward in everything that I do. I will learn from the inevitable mistakes that come my way. It means knowing that I am human. That I didn’t do anything wrong. Coming to terms with that took a while -- understanding that it’s okay I ended up in an abusive relationship, that there is nothing to be ashamed of, despite a community (and even a therapist) that victim shame me. Self forgiveness was the moment that I shed that shame. I am not ashamed of being divorced. I am not ashamed of having been in an abusive relationship, because that only means I’m human. That only means I had an experience. It doesn’t reduce me, it doesn’t taint me.
Self forgiveness was learning that this experience changed me and that I’m not going to go back to being who I was, but that that’s okay. I wish I told myself that, or accepted that, when I first left the relationship. In the beginning I was fighting so hard to go back to who I was before my marriage, but the moment I surrendered and thought, “I am a new person and I can learn to love her,” that was the moment I started really healing. When I reached the point of self forgiveness, I also reached the point of forgiving my ex. I don’t mean that we’re on good terms. It just means I forgive what happened so I can move on in my life. I accept what has happened and it doesn’t need to weigh me down. Self forgiveness was coming to terms with all of these things and actually moving forward knowing who I am and who I’ve become.
I would also add that over 70% of survivors don’t consider leaving as a point of success. We have a high standard of what succeeding or healing means. We need to look at leaving was in fact our first success and InshAllah it will get better. I try to emphasize that you can see me now, but it took me seven years to reach this point. I didn’t value the choice of leaving as a true accomplishment and success like I should have. We’re blaming ourselves for being in such a bad situation that leaving doesn’t seem like a success, but we should appreciate and value that because it took a lot of courage and that’s our first step forward.
Thank you Dania for bravely sharing your experiences with our community and for your work educating others about domestic violence. Follow @lady_narrator to learn more about her incredible work and writing.
Thank you Dr. Nahla for taking the time to have this important conversation with Dania, and the work that you do advocating for holistic mental health. Follow @imdoctornahla for amazing educational content around mental health.
For those who want to directly help domestic violence survivors, 100% of proceeds of Brave Purple is going towards Asiyah Women’s Center. The center provides housing, therapy and many other services to survivors of domestic violence. And to our Vela community, please share this article with any one you may think could benefit from it.