In this month (March)’s “Inspiring Sakhi” series, we feature Robina Niaz, a previous Sakhi Board member and Founder of Turning Point for Women and Families. Robina has been a source of great inspiration and support to Sakhi, and survivors of domestic violence. Here’s her story in her own words:
I migrated to New York in 1990, after getting married and came into a situation I did not expect or anticipate. My ex-husband was a dishonest man who lied to me about many aspects of his life. I experienced tremendous emotional, psychological, verbal and financial abuse. During and after my marriage I faced many challenges and it took a long time for me to sort my life out.
With just a family friend who was 4 hours away, I was largely on my own as I tried to find legal resources and access my rights. I had hired a lawyer who turned out to be abusive as well! Instead of helping me achieve my goals, he tried to push me into a settlement with my ex-husband that would be beneficial to him, not me!
During this time I met one of Sakhi’s board members, an attorney. Although unable to get me free legal assistance, she helped me understand my case, guided me and connected me with Queens Women’s Network, a group that helped displaced homemakers. While my divorce case was pending, I was invited to speak with Sakhi’s support group members. I volunteered my time, shared my story and challenges I faced and the lessons I had learned. The idea was to reassure other women that they were not alone and there was light at the end of the tunnel.
My case also eventually settled and while the amount I received was meager and not even a fraction of what I deserved, I felt grateful for getting my life back.
I moved into a rented apartment without any furniture and remember sleeping on the carpeted floor, finally feeling free. I knew no one could kick me out and held onto my faith. The beauty of faith and spirituality is that it steers you through life’s biggest challenges.
As I settled into my new life, I thought about the many friends I made at Sakhi, and many were struggling to find their way. I often wondered that if I, with a graduate degree, a decade of work and travel experience, fluency in English and unconditional family support (even though they were in Pakistan), faced so many challenges how difficult it must be for women at Sakhi who didn’t have these advantages.
This realization was a turning point for me.
My work was cut out for me and I got started right away! I took up at an entry level job at Victims Services (now Safe Horizon), got trained in domestic violence and immigration counseling and rape crisis intervention. With a full time job I continued to volunteer at Sakhi and joined its board in 1994. I continued to volunteer with Sakhi for 12 years.
As a Sakhi volunteer, sometime in 1994, I accompanied a woman to court hearing. She was a Sikh woman who had been hit by her husband while she was holding her infant son. After being hit, she fell to the ground with her son. The neighbors heard her screams and called 911. She was taken to the emergency room and both she and her son were examined. Doctors found that the baby had a hairline skull fracture and she was accused of not being able to protect him! Her son was taken away from her, she became homeless and was living in a Gurudwara. As I waited with her in the courtroom she pointed out her abuser who was chatting with another Indian man. Since her court appointed attorney did not speak Punjabi and the woman did not speak any English, I asked for permission to accompany her to the hearing. I was allowed strictly on the condition that I would just be an observer and not say a word. As the hearing started, I found out that the man the abuser was chatting with was the court-appointed interpreter! He interpreted everything the abuser said correctly but when the woman spoke he told the judge what he felt she ought to be saying. The only person in the courtroom other than the abuser who understood what was going on was me! I was outraged at the way and realized the woman would not get any justice if the judge didn’t know the truth. I stood up and asked the judge to adjourn the hearing. The judge agreed after I explained to him what was going on and asked me to give a statement. Unbeknownst to me, during this time the interpreter was waiting outside the judge’s office and threatened me after I came out. I was terrified!
This experience generated a lot of conversation at Sakhi and was the beginning ofSakhi’s Court Interpreters’ Campaign.
In 1997, I left Sakhi’s board to go for graduate studies at the Social Work Schoo, Hunter College. I continued to work full time in the area of domestic violence area and served on many other boards later. In 2000, Sakhi’s then Executive Director Prema Vohra asked me to take her position as she was stepping down. I was not ready to take on such a big responsibility and declined.
After the 9/11 attacks, everything changed in NYC. There was so much fear and mistrust in the air. While I continued with my job, it was hard to ignore the fact that people were judging you simply because you were Muslim. A few days after 9/11, I was with my friend Sunita Viswanath agonizing over the backlash on Muslims and how painful it was. As we brainstormed together Sunita challenged me by asking “why are the Muslims not saying anything?” I remember feeling helpless and insisting that Muslim leaders were indeed saying a lot but the media was not reporting it. And then I challenged her back asking if she would join hands with me and help organize a peace rally in the heart of Manhattan. She agreed and we invited Purvi from Sakhi to join us too. We set the date for September 23, 2011 after Friday prayers and naively believed that a peace rally/vigil co-sponsored by Muslim leaders would not be ignored by the media. I reached out to the Muslim leadership and got 11 leaders/organizations to sign up as co-sponsors. The day before the event, on Thursday at 4.45 pm I got a call from the Parks Department informing me that our permit for a gathering at Madison Square Park had been revoked! We would not be allowed to use a sound system or have police protection. I knew it was because we called it a Muslim Peace Rally. My first task was to inform all the Muslim leaders/organizations about this. Fearful of unexpected consequences, all except one group withdrew. We decided to go ahead with just one brave Muslim leader among us, Imam Talib Abdur Rashid. Almost 500 people turned up to show their support, but very few Muslims came and while there was media galore no one covered it.
This was yet another turning point. I felt that I was thrust into a leadership role almost overnight being called upon to speak on behalf of my community who felt under siege. I stepped up and became an anti-war and civil rights activist protesting against and the treatment of Muslims in post-9/11 America. I can’t say that I was not fearful for my own safety but doing the right thing took precedence over everything else.
In 2004, after being laid off from my job for the second time in two years, I stepped back to reflect and figure out my next steps. I knew that our community was badly under-resourced as it struggled to find its feet in the aftermath of 9/11 and women and girls were trapped and lost in the confusion. I knew I needed to establish an organization that would offer Muslim women and girls the safety they needed and so Turning Point for Women and Families was founded in December, 2004. We all know that domestic violence is an epidemic that transcends culture and religion and is stigmatized and under-reported in all communities. However, for the Muslim community, this issue is compounded by cultural and linguistic barriers and the hostile post-9/11 environment making it difficult for Muslim women and girls to break the silence and seek help from non-Muslim or mainstream organizations. Serious issues like racial profiling, hate crimes and forced detentions have made many fearful of accessing services. Perpetrators use this fear and financial dependence of women to keep them trapped in abusive marriages and a lack of timely response often places women and children in heightened danger.
This December, Turning point will turn 10 years old. There have been many challenges along the way. Drawing strength from my faith, I learned to rely on myself, taking on challenges that are thrown unexpectedly. I am proud to say that I’ve seen a real shift in how the Muslim community addresses and responds to domestic violence. While there is still much silence and denial, there are a lot of bold young people, male and female leaders and imams who are stepping up to give voice to this important issue.
I am often asked what I mean by jihad. My answer is simple. Jihad is my own daily inner struggle to overcome my nafs (ego) and be the best human being I can be. There is a verse in the Q’uran, in which Allah says, “I do not place on you a burden heavier than you can carry.” Now, when I look back on how my life has evolved, I feel grateful for the marriage that didn’t work out. Allah had chosen a different path for me and I found my calling through the challenges that came my way. I believe that those of us who find an opportunity to respond to our calling are the most fortunate.
I’ve had many challenges lately, including a fractured foot last year that has taken a while to heal. It has slowed me down and reminds me of my dispensability. I know that I have to pass my role on to someone younger who can take this work forward.
A man well ahead of his time – my father was my biggest inspiration. He always insisted that his daughters deserved the best of education and the same opportunities as his sons. He passed away at age 64 but every day he tried to make a difference in other people’s lives.
One day years ago, he gave me two pieces of advice that I hold close to this day. He said: “people who never do anything worthwhile, are never criticized, and while that is the case” he reminded me “never forget that you are not holding the universe in your hands; you are not indispensable.”
So I do what I can, and trust that the rest will play out as it is meant to.