Hanif welcomes a new resident to this home in Baltimore, Md. "I like to call it a home, not a shelter," she says. Hanif has been striving for the past 27 years to provide a safe environment for Muslim women while empowering them through classes and programs. >Photos by Aeysha Chaudhry
I am 27 years woman. I got married in 2004 with he. It is an arrange marriage. My husband stidied from US. He acts some times strange but I thought he gets tired from his work. I gave birth to my first daughter. She get sick instead of taking to the doctor he use to abuse me. My life was difficult during that time. My parents use to call him to make him calm down and relaxe and mom was concern the way he acted with me but she was quite. There be days he pick fight with any reason and beats me. The life became more difficult after giving birth to my second daughter. He touch my daughters wrong. I say no in that private. Please help me I have the two girls. I want to go save my kids future I am more concern about them as compared to anything else. I am all alone. So why I call for you.
Asma Hanif receives emails, letters and calls like this every day, typically several a day, from Muslim women across the country and around the world, desperate to escape domestic violence or homelessness. This woman was in India and said she needed airline tickets for herself and her daughters to get to Hanif’s shelter in Baltimore; she had a U.S. green card. Hanif shared her plight through a listserv for the Muslim community in the Washington, D.C. area, hoping someone’s heart would be touched enough to provide donations. Aisha (not her real name) now lives in the shelter with her daughters, along with two dozen other abused Muslim women and their children.
Hanif has been answering the call of people in need for almost 30 years, as a nurse, midwife, chaplain, teacher, advocate, community organizer and champion for the underprivileged.
Based in Baltimore, she cares for the city’s homeless and uninsured through a variety of community initiatives. When budget cuts forced the city to cancel nurses’ contracts in inner-city schools, she asked principals if she could volunteer to provide school and sports physicals so kids could stay in school, and off the streets. She also provides physicals for children with special needs so they can participate in the Special Olympics. Hanif founded “Healthy Solutions,” a neighborhood clinic that serves Baltimore’s needy of all faiths. As part of her “Love Thy Neighbor” initiative, she coordinates a back-to-school health fair, a local food pantry and “Chili Bowl Sunday,” a 20-year tradition where Hanif and her four children serve chili and distribute clothes to the homeless before kickoff. Last year, she was honored at a Baltimore Ravens football game with the “Community Quarterback Award” in recognition of her commitment to helping others.
During the recent riots in Baltimore, Hanif helped those who slipped through the headlines. A mother and her 7-year-old special needs son watched their house burn down when a neighboring business was torched. Hanif prepared care packages with food and store gift cards for this now homeless mother. “The most common inaccuracy regarding homelessness is that it will never happen to me.”
Hanif founded Muslimat Al-Nisaa in 1987, a nonprofit that provides health, education and social services to Muslim women and children. The idea originated when she studied nursing at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and saw that doctors were not always sensitive to the needs and modesty concerns of Muslim women, often unintentionally. It was through providing healthcare to Muslim women that Hanif learned of the problem of domestic violence. When a woman would come to her clinic, she would often be accompanied by her abuser, who would want to come into the examination room with her, she says. Hanif would insist that she needed to see her patient alone. “And then for the first time in her life, she would be alone with someone she could trust, who she knew wouldn’t share her business. It makes me so sad, you know, because the stories, they break your heart.”
Hanif and Dr. Maryam Funches, a social worker Hanif met at Howard, decided to set up a home for these women. They spent two years doing a comprehensive study assessing the need for such a shelter, gaining community support and figuring out budgets, programming and funding. It’s all captured in a big blue binder that Hanif shares with me. She flips through letters of support, press articles and signatures, neatly arranged in plastic sleeves. Despite their efforts, Hanif and Funches didn’t get the funding they had been promised. Frustrated but undeterred, they decided to open the shelter anyway. Hanif rented a house that could serve both as a shelter as well as a home for her and her four children, as she didn’t have the funds for two separate places. Sadly, Funches died before the shelter opened in 2007. Hanif continued the effort as a sadaqah jariya (ongoing charity) for her friend.
Muslimat al-Nisaa is a multifamily dwelling on a quiet street in a residential area of Baltimore. It has eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, three kitchens and two living rooms. The bedrooms have bunk beds, and there is space for congregational prayer on the main floor. At full capacity, it can accommodate 50 women and children. Currently, there are 27 people living there. Each story Hanif shares is laced with pain, even the one about its capacity. She tells me about a mother and her four children who slept in one bed because they had been abused for so long, they were too scared to let each other go.
Hanif emphasizes that it’s not a shelter in a traditional sense, but a home. “HOME” is also the acronym for the services provided — Housing, Occupational, Medical, and Educational. Women live together, sometimes for extended periods of time, cook for each other, attend weekly meetings and pray together. As there are women from different cultures and backgrounds living together, each having experienced severe trauma, tensions can flare up. Hanif deals with each one, from a broken blender and stolen food to antagonistic attitudes and hurt feelings. “The estrogen in the shelter alone is reason you need someone constantly managing the sisters.” But there aren’t enough funds for a case manager or a program assistant.
The aim of the program is for the women to become self-sufficient, based on individual circumstances and needs, by pursuing education, getting training or finding employment. Each month, a self-sufficiency coordinator meets with several women to assess what help they may need and whether they are meeting their obligations to stay at the shelter. There is often a waiting list to stay at the shelter and limited funds, so difficult decisions are always being made.
Hanif asked me to join a recent meeting, along with someone who was interested in volunteering. We met five women and got a glimpse into their lives, personalities and struggles. One woman with three children arrived about a month ago and had not found employment beyond babysitting. Her attitude was confrontational and defensive, and she had already created divisions among the women. Another woman, in a black abaya (long robe), veil and gloves, did not make eye contact with any of us; her young son was fidgeting on the sofa. She was withdrawn, sullen and indifferent about staying at the shelter, saying she had other community support. Another, with several advanced degrees and a positive disposition, was accommodating, grateful and willing to help the other women with legal issues and transportation. She had an idea for a business and was eager to develop it, despite her serious health problems. It was the last woman we met whom I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. Her face was gentle and searching, her scared sad eyes revealed more of her story than her words could express. She came from North Africa to the U.S. last year and didn’t speak English. She got married and was trapped working day and night at her husband’s shop. Her husband had affairs with other women, beat her, berated her to keep quiet, and then filed for divorce. She kept motioning with her fingers as if she were locking her lips, repeating, “But I don’t talk. I don’t talk.”
Hanif tries to give voice to the issue of domestic violence, particularly in the Muslim community where she feels it’s not recognized as a problem and therefore not addressed. When Aasiya Zubair was beheaded in 2009, the community took notice. But Hanif says this kind of violence has always been going on, and continues to go on. “Domestic violence is criminal, it’s not religious. It has nothing to do with Islam. We say this Muslim man beat this Muslim woman. No! This abusive man beat this woman.” It’s important to separate the crime from the religion, then perhaps Muslim women will get the help that women of other cultures and faiths get, she says. “When a person is behaving as an abuser, they’re no different than any other criminal beating on someone.”
The fact that the Muslim community does not acknowledge domestic violence as a problem has made it harder for Hanif to get funding. She is clearly frustrated that after so many years, she still must beg for funds to keep the shelter open. “People tell me, ‘Alhumdulillah (thanks be to God) sister, you are doing a good job; we will make dua (pray) for you.’ But what I need is to make sure the bills get paid.” People don’t understand what it takes to run a shelter, she adds. For example, they want to know why the water bill is so high — some months it can be $2,000. “They don’t understand that it’s very difficult to tell someone who’s come from abuse that they can only take a three-minute shower, that, no, you can’t wash all that pain and sorrow away. I can’t say that.”
People are quick to give advice on how things should be done or to complain about what isn’t being done, but are slow to come forward to do the work or raise funds, she says. “That hurts my feelings. I’ve given up everything I have. There is nothing more that I can do.”
I first met Hanif a few years ago when MoverMoms, an NGO that promotes community service and volunteerism, did a project to raise funds for Muslimat Al-Nisaa. We painted pottery, which Hanif sold at an auction to raise funds. This year, I invited her to share her personal story at MoverMoms’ Inspiration Day, and spent time getting to know her at the shelter and the clinic. “I’m not sure if my story will be inspirational. It seems very, very sad.”
Hanif’s journey started with her grandmother, who was a maid for a physician in the South. “Actually she was a maid-slave. She didn’t get any money, no benefits, and she worked from sunup to sundown.” One day, she told her employer-doctor that she had a knot in her stomach. He told her not to worry and to forget about it. “That was the knot that turned into the cancer that killed my grandmother,” says Hanif, with anger tempered by tears. “Because she didn’t matter, my grandmother didn’t matter.”
Hanif says her mother always told her to go to school and become a nurse. “When people are hurting, they don’t care what color you are,” her mother would say. “When they’re in pain, they will be grateful for your presence, for your service. You could even be purple.” Purple would later become Hanif’s favorite color.
Hanif went to Howard on a scholarship to study nursing, then to the Medical University of South Carolina on another scholarship to become an advanced nurse practitioner. She graduated in 1978.
During her training, she met people like her grandmother, poor and uninsured. “I couldn’t save my grandmother, but I could help people like her.” She was dismayed by the way patients were treated, especially the poor. She herself had experienced humiliation, and recounts a time when she went for an examination and the person at the front desk didn’t understand her paperwork. Someone from the back yelled out that the papers indicated that Hanif didn’t have insurance; the entire waiting room heard. Instead of retreating, Hanif decided to claim the moment. “Did you get that,” she said loudly, “I’m a poor person, I don’t have any money.” From that moment, she says she decided she would never allow anyone to feel disgraced in that way, regardless of money, race or religion. “We are all children of Adam.”
Hanif was raised Baptist and went to Catholic schools. She began questioning her faith when she was a teen, as it didn’t provide the answers she was searching for. In the summer after her second year at Howard, a number of things happened that made her gravitate toward Islam. She was working the night shift at a fast-food restaurant near campus, where a group of Muslim men would come to clean up. One would walk her back to campus since it was dark, and on the way, the topic often turned to religion and Islam. Hanif also remembers two women whom she noticed on campus, one with her hair covered and the other dressed in white, like an angel, selling incense. The latter turned up in her nursing class and they became friends. She invited Hanif to join her at the masjid (mosque) for classes. “I remember the women at the masjid being so beautiful. They had this noor (light). I remember thinking these women are so full of peace.” Hanif started learning about Islam, and many of the answers she sought became clearer. At the same time, Hanif had a dream about the word “Ramadan,” but had no idea what it meant. At maghrib (sunset prayer) of the day she took her shahada (declaration of faith), October 3, 1973, was the first of Ramadan. “Allah had already chosen me,” she says with a smile.
Hanif got married during her third year at Howard. She later moved to Atlanta, incorporated Muslimat Al-Nisaa, had four children, and got divorced after 15 years. Her marriage is a topic she doesn’t want to talk about, except to say that her ex-husband is a wonderful Muslim and a good father. Growing up, Hanif was the emotional, bubbly one, everyone else was serious and rational. “And lo and behold, I end up marrying someone who was exactly like them, and not like me.” But she concedes that maybe her idealistic notions of love got in the way of making her marriage work. “I’m a hopeless romantic. I can’t help myself. I want to be in love. I want to be happy. I want to feel giddy. All that kinda stuff,” she says, sharing a side of her she rarely reveals. “But that’s eluded me all my life.”
When Hanif was living and working in Atlanta, her brother, with whom she was very close, contracted HIV. Her family was afraid to take care of him, so Hanif looked after him in her two-bedroom apartment. She remembers that time as one of the happiest in her life. “I had my home, I had my children, I had my clinic, I had my brother. I didn’t have all these stresses. I wasn’t feeling any sadness then. I just loved my brother, I just loved him so much,” she says getting emotional. He used to take care of Hanif growing up, and after her parents got divorced, he was the most stable person in her life. “The last time he got sick, he said, ‘Sis, I hurt every day of my life. Please let me go.’ That’s when I realized, he was just hanging on for me,” Hanif says in tears.
Her brother’s death caused her overwhelming sadness. Hanif no longer wanted to stay in Atlanta. She decided to close the clinic, give away most of her things, and head to New York to live with a friend and work as a nurse. Her eldest son and daughter came with her; her twin boys stayed with their father and joined her later. En route, she stopped in Baltimore to celebrate Eid with friends. The next day, when Hanif called her friend to say that she would be arriving in a few hours, her friend told her that she had reconciled with her husband and that Hanif could no longer stay with her.
“So what does that make me? It makes me homeless.”
Hanif found an abandoned building in Baltimore, disinfected one of the apartments with bleach and lived there. Her daughter’s cat took care of the mice, she laughs. She found a job with a temporary nursing service, and then as an independent contractor doing children’s physicals. She used her first paychecks to get her Maryland nursing license. With the money she earned doing physicals, she set up the Healthy Solutions clinic. She stayed in the abandoned building until she founded the shelter, then she and her four children moved in there.
Hanif runs the shelter on her own with the help of her now-grown children, a few volunteers and a small board. She often quips that she had to give birth to her staff. Her children have been her biggest support, she says, and have worked at the shelter in varying capacities. “They have stood by me from the outset.”
The stresses of working at the shelter 24/7 have taken a toll. “I’m always sad. I’m sad now. And I’m lonely. It’s just that people don’t want to hear that.” She admits that sometimes she feels resentful of the women in the shelter, because they get to leave. “And I’m like the mouse in the cage, running around the wheel. I can’t ever get off.”
She copes by thinking of the women she’s been able to help, by turning to Allah – and by wearing the color purple. She started wearing purple after her brother died and now it’s become a coping mechanism. Hanif dyes things purple, wears an amethyst or puts on lavender scent. All her hijabs and jilbabs (long, loose garment) are purple, as are many items in the shelter and clinic, including prayer mats, curtains, even clocks. When I visited her one day, she was holding a purple window fan someone had given her. Another time, she was surrounded by a dozen purple suitcases, sorting through donated clothes. “I paint this happy place in my brain. I’m tricking myself.”
The last time I spoke to Hanif, she had received seven calls or emails from desperate women that day and was exhausted. She received a call at midnight from a woman in a hospital in Buffalo; her husband had beaten her and her child so severely that the child needed 21 stitches. At 4 a.m., a woman from one of the “‘Stans” called her and said her father and brother were abusing her; she didn’t know whom to turn to and found Hanif’s number online. Hanif spoke to her for 45 minutes, while the woman cried and cried. Later, Hanif got a call from a woman convert in Florida who said her family had been torturing her because she accepted Islam. The masjids couldn’t help her. Then Hanif was scheduled to meet an abused woman at a particular location, but the woman didn’t show up. Hanif was scared to think what might have happened to her.
“This is how my day is. This is why I haven’t spoken to my father in three weeks, why I don’t get to brush my teeth for days sometimes.” She says the run-up to Ramadan is always the most challenging. “Shaytan (devil) is having one last hurrah before Ramadan,” she theorizes. On days like this, Hanif tells herself that she’s not going to do this anymore, that she can’t take any more pain.