Muslim Women Who Become Homeless Have Limited Options

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007

They sleep in mosques. Or on the streets. Or in Christian-oriented shelters that might hold prayer meetings or services at odds with their own religious beliefs. For Muslim women without a place to live, particularly those who have been battered or are immigrants, being homeless can test their faith at the time they need it most.

When Muslim women are sent to shelters that serve the general population, they are often exposed to lifestyles that challenge their faith, such as drinking, abusing drugs, eating pork and undressing or bathing in front of others, says Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of Washington in Silver Spring. They return from such shelters "with sad stories," he says.

The Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee estimates that several hundred Muslim women are homeless in the Washington region, based on U.S. Census Bureau data and local surveys. That is a small fraction of the homeless population and of the estimated 250,000 Muslims in the region, but local Islamic leaders say the problem has grown in recent years. Kahn said homelessness in the Muslim community was almost unheard of several years ago.

Some Islamic leaders have begun to raise money to establish more shelters that cater to the Islamic community. There are now just two serving the Washington-Baltimore area, according to local mosque leaders. The leaders said they were unaware of any in Northern Virginia.

A four-bedroom, one-bath shelter in downtown Baltimore, the al-Mumtahinah home, holds 12 women. When the brick rowhouse is full, shelter director Nadia Auxila McIntosh squeezes women into a sitting room or dining room. The Islamic Center of Maryland runs another shelter in Gaithersburg, with room for six to eight.

Social workers, clerics and lawyers who work with Muslim homeless women said most were driven from home by abusive husbands or are unable to work because of their immigration status, leaving them without money for housing. Some face both troubles.

"If a battered Muslim woman is also an immigrant, she may be that much closer to homelessness," said Mazna Hussain, an attorney with the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, a women's advocacy group in Falls Church. "If she doesn't have the right to work, she can't build up a safety net."

A woman who identified herself as Fatem, using the nickname her mother called her as a child in Mali, came to Tahirih for help after she fled an abusive husband in the area. She is now seeking an immigration status that would allow her to work without relying on her husband's income. She entered the country legally in 2002, but her husband refused to help her apply for permanent residency.

Fatem, who declined to give her full name for fear of retribution from her husband, said she has been staying with her daughter at a townhouse in Virginia that shelters homeless women of different faiths. The people who run the shelter are tolerant of her Muslim faith, Fatem said, but it is difficult to be homeless, to have nothing, to lose the respect of her family.

"I lost everything," said Fatem, who has two children from a previous marriage in Mali whom she has not seen in almost eight years. "I don't have anything no more. I feel really shamed for my family living in just a shelter."

But Fatem said she feared for her life if she stayed with her husband, a social worker.

"He made me hungry," she said. "He was sleeping with his ex-wife and made her pregnant. Every little money I make I had to give to him. He beat me. He pushed me to fall down. My daughter cried. She think I'm going to die."

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