BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
At a time when the Muslim community in New York City was under close scrutiny following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and domestic violence in that community was at its highest peak, one woman stepped up.
Robina Niaz, an immigrant from Pakistan and a domestic violence survivor, founded Turning Point for Women and Families after her own personal turning point.
In 1990, Niaz moved from her native country with a graduate degree to Long Island with her then-husband, who was a United States citizen. Shortly after their move, he became physically abusive. After three years, Niaz realized that she had had enough and parted ways with her abuser. She then moved to Queens, where she has resided for the past 25 years.
“When I was restarting my life after the divorce, I had to start from scratch, even though I had a graduate degree from Pakistan,” said Niaz. “I had a wonderful job, had traveled the world and was doing well, but when trying to get a job in New York, it was as if I had nothing. Neither my education nor my experience from Pakistan would be recognized.”
Niaz spent a number of years volunteering for nonprofits that aided victims of domestic violence, one of which was the Queens Women’s Network—also known as WomenSafe.
“It was the right thing to do—to help women who had suffered abuse and needed help to get out of their marriages,” Niaz said. “I had just come out of an abusive marriage myself and often wondered what women who didn’t have the advantages that I had would do in a situation like that.”
Since her degree proved to be useless in the United States, Niaz worked an entry-level job full-time while she attended Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work.
But as Niaz was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after she graduated in 2000, the 9/11 terrorist attacks dealt her community a blow.
“The Muslim community has been under attack since then,” said Niaz. “And Muslim women who were suffering from abuse were especially vulnerable without anywhere to go for help. People in our community would not talk about domestic violence in the aftermath of 9/11—the silence isolated the women and shut them out completely.”
Niaz said that she was laid off from her job in what she believes was a result of discrimination against Muslims.
In 2004, Niaz used her area of expertise to launch Turning Point for Women and Families.
“I looked within my community and saw that we had no services for Muslim women who were being abused,” said Niaz. “Domestic violence is something that many women struggle with every day. It shatters their self esteem and confidence.”
Niaz said that abuse is about power and control and that most abusers prey on their victims due to insecurities and the need to have control over someone else.
“When women come to [Turning Point] to seek help, they often explain the abuser’s behavior by saying, ‘He abused me because he had a bad day at work,’” said Niaz. “But this is the abuser’s excuse. In reality, it is about his need to have power and control over the victim, who he knows is vulnerable.”
Niaz said that when women are being abused, their children are also frequently being abused.
“As soon as I started Turning Point, I realized that we can’t just work with victims, but we must educate young girls and women about the issues, dynamics and causes of domestic violence, so that they know and recognize the signs early and protect themselves,” she said.
Niaz said that approximately 70 percent of boys who witness their mother being abused grow up to be abusers and approximately 70 percent of girls who witness their mother being abused grow up to be victims.
Niaz said that, in recent years, women have made strides in society—however, the issue of domestic violence appears to have magnified and is not going away.
“There is media attention to issues of abuse, sexual assault and harassment now,” said Niaz. “The silence has broken and women are not ashamed to go public. But we must not forget that women and girls have always endured abused and many still continue to suffer in silence.”
Niaz noted that there are a number of factors that make situations even more difficult for domestic violence victims—for example, there is no system in place that forces men to support their families without women being forced to go to court, often for years. As a result, many women become discouraged and return to their abusers as they often cannot afford to keep a roof over their children’s heads, have minimal work experience or cannot speak English, Niaz said.
She also noted that some men use their religion to justify their abuse, Niaz said.
“There is nothing in Islam that justifies or condones abuse,” said Niaz. “We remind Muslim women not to believe men when they claim that Islam gives them the right to abuse. Since many women of faith turn to religious leaders for support, [the leaders] also need to be trained and educated in this area, so they understand the dynamics and issues at play and address it appropriately.”
Niaz said that starting her nonprofit in New York City was a challenge.
“I was deeply concerned about the absence of culturally sensitive services for Muslim women who were victims of domestic violence,” said Niaz. “When I started Turning Point 13 years ago, I faced a lot of criticism from within the community for shining a light on a negative issue, reminding me that Muslims were in enough trouble already. I would have to go to great lengths to explain to my community members that there is no shame in me doing this work.”