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Forty years ago, NDP MP Margaret Mitchell rose in Parliament to address the issue of domestic violence during question period, based on her experience hearing from battered women as a member of the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Affairs. But her opening remarks, in which she recounted that one in 10 husbands regularly beat their wives, were met with derisive laughter and heckling from a number of fellow MPs. “I don’t think this is very much of a laughing matter,” she was forced to respond.

Around the same time, in the early 1980s, budding journalist Anna Maria Tremonti was experiencing the very trauma recounted in the committee hearings. Like so many women, she carefully hid all signs of intimate partner violence (IPV) from the outside world, and she went on to become a high-profile reporter, hosting The Current on CBC for many years. However, the emotional scars never really healed. Now – in a tremendous act of public service – she has courageously shared details of the pain and shame that she has carried privately for decades, in the podcast Welcome to Paradise.

Canada has come a long way in recognizing the issue of IPV, but it remains damaging on many levels. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days, and children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as children from non-violent homes. Domestic violence also threatens a woman’s path to economic independence: roughly 40 per cent of victims found it difficult to return to work, while about 8.5 per cent said that they lost their jobs because of it.

As Nova Scotia’s inquiry into the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history examines the role of intimate partner violence, a recent U.S. study found that more than two-thirds of mass shootings from 2014 to 2019 stemmed from violence toward partners or family members, or are perpetrated by shooters with a history of domestic violence toward their intimates.

While Canada may not have the prevalence of mass shootings as the United States, we are certainly not immune to the type of incidents described in that study. In 2015, Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were murdered by a mutual ex-partner in Ontario. After hearing testimony into the triple femicide last month, an inquest jury made 86 recommendations in response to the murders, including a recognition of femicide as a distinct crime and manner of death. It also called on Ontario to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

Indeed, researchers have described the potential rise of IPV incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic as a “shadow pandemic”. Lockdowns increased the risk factors for IPV, owing to enhanced financial stressors, lack of space for women to leave the home, isolation from support systems and lack of privacy to call for help.

IPV occurs across faiths, cultures, and income groups. However, immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence owing to economic dependence on male partners, language barriers and a lack of knowledge about resources.

Within Muslim communities, there are a number of issues that exacerbate the potential for domestic violence. In some circles, there is tacit religious approval of beating one’s wife as a means of control and discipline. I still remember wandering into a bookshop on Toronto’s Gerrard Street while shopping for a wedding dress some 25 years ago, and reading a tract by an imam who counselled men to beat their wife on the wedding night. There needs to be unequivocal, repeated condemnation of all forms of domestic violence by imams when addressing their congregants.

Another issue is the concept of “sitr,” or concealment. Muslims are advised not to publicize the faults and mistakes of others. However, when the fault results in harm to another individual, there is a duty to report such behaviour to stop the harm. Unfortunately, some take “sitr” to an extreme, deeming spousal abuse as a “private matter,” without any consideration given to the harm inflicted. The limits of “sitr,” seen through the lens of harm prevention, need to be reconsidered.

In recent years, however, denial has given way to acknowledgement and efforts to remedy the problem. Sakeenah Homes, founded in 2018, has provided culturally appropriate services to women, children and families facing homelessness, violence and poverty. And since 2015, Nisa Homes has opened nine shelters across Canada, providing refuge and care to more than 1,000 women and children. These spaces can empower and give hope to the vulnerable, allowing the broken to be rebuilt.

The scourge of IPV will not disappear anytime soon. We must address it with resolve to protect the most vulnerable – and never lose sight of the inherent dignity, resilience and strength of each and every woman forced to traverse this most difficult path.

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