The Asiyah Center: Inside New York City's first Muslim women's shelter

The Asiyah Centre: New York's first Muslim women's shelter
7 min read
08 March, 2024

For millions of Muslim Americans, mosques offer religious solace, a space for gathering, and community engagement. However, in times of urgency, growing numbers of Muslim survivors of domestic violence have been found sleeping in mosques thanks to a lack of inclusive and accessible resources.

In response to this void, the Asiyah Center was established as an emergency centre specifically aimed at Muslim and BIPOC victims of domestic violence and abuse.

In the five years since it opened, it has gained large-scale attention as an innovator of cultural competency within shelters and social work, both in New York and nationally.

"For my parents’ generation, discussions about domestic violence are so taboo and honestly, people don't even know what domestic violence looks like"

Asiyah: 'A pillar of New York's Muslim community'

Founded in 2018, Asiyah was established as harrowing details quickly emerged about why survivors avoided the large network of New York City shelters.

From hijab bans to being deliberately fed pork to frightening encounters with male staff, these refuges were effectively transformed into centres women would avoid even in their eleventh hour.

“Dania Darwish and Mohamed Bahe found that in New York City, no emergency shelters provided culturally competent care for Muslims and communities of colour,” said Arianna El Haloui, Asiyah’s Programs Manager on Asiyah's founders as they first encountered survivors retreating to local mosques.

As the only shelter in the city that serves halal food, offers prayer space, and provides modest clothing, the all-female staffed Asiyah Center has established itself as a pillar for New York’s Muslim community.

In Arabic, Asiyah means ‘the caring one’, and the centre caters its care through culturally responsive services, positioning it as a pioneer in protective and therapy resources.

“Our goal is to empower the client,” Arianna explained to The New Arab

Discussions of domestic violence and survivor safety reignited nationally with the Supreme Court’s hearing and ongoing deliberation of United States v. Rahimi.

The case examines if the government can ban those under domestic violence orders from obtaining firearms, potentially impacting the community work emergency shelters do.

Meanwhile, shelters like Asiyah have remained steadfast in their commitment to client and centre safety. 

By focusing on clients as individuals and not as a collective, Asiyah’s programming team finds bandwidth for culturally conscious work.

Staff members' efforts to serve meals from clients’ countries of origin, for instance, offering clients space to cook freely with resources readily available.

In their 2022 fact sheet, the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence reported 204,313 domestic incident reports, of which 71 were homicides.

Patterns of domestic violence don’t discriminate by race, ethnicity, and religion either, with the Center of Disease Control and Prevention reporting that one in three women and one in four men have reported severe physical violence from an intimate partner.

Despite the indiscriminate prevalence of such violence in the US, shelters often employ universal and systemic operation, rather than individual-focused care, a goal Asiyah aims to achieve.

The cultural consciousness was lacking in therapy spaces as well, where understanding of Muslim and BIPOC family structures, backgrounds and more were lacking.

“There are some aspects that we see as very unique to certain Muslim and cultural communities. For lots of our clients, their abuse is not coming from a spouse — it’s coming from family members,” said Arianna.

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What does the Asiyah Women's Center do?

The focus on holistically understanding clients’ backgrounds, cultures and communities has allowed Asiyah to focus on individual empowerment outside traditional therapy, which can lead to the dismantling of stereotypes, according to Asiyah staff.

“It isn’t really a shelter, but more of a home,” said one of the New York University Muslim Student Association (MSA) board members who asked to remain anonymous.

The MSA has collaborated on events and donation drives with Asiyah in the past, attempting to widen access to discussions around domestic violence in the Muslim community.

The board member emphasised the efforts Asiyah takes to offer spaces for safe discussion, saying, “It was wonderful. Having a space for both men and women to talk about these topics promotes awareness to prevent violence.”

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Asiyah’s prioritisation of its clients is what has resonated with most people, expanding the centre’s reach via social media. With over 51,000 followers between Instagram and TikTok, the centre’s creative initiatives have positioned it as an innovator in emergency care.

Their most viral TikTok with over 2.1 million views posted in July 2023 details a Barbie-themed party Asiyah threw to celebrate an 18-year-old survivor’s acceptance into a prestigious university. The girl, who first contacted Asiyah when she was 17, was being forced into marriage, as her parents prepared to move her abroad and marry her to a 40-year-old man.

Such circumstances are not unusual to Asiyah’s staff, who say that spikes in calls typically come around large sports events, and even more harrowingly, at the end of the school year.

“The younger clients are, the more likely they are a forced marriage client,” says Arianna.

"There are some aspects that we see as very unique to certain Muslim and cultural communities. For lots of our clients, their abuse is not coming from a spouse – it’s coming from family members"

The 18-year-old survivor moved into Asiyah Center on her 18th birthday, leading staff to organise a large function for her birthday and college acceptance. With the video’s popularity, the Center also raised over $15,000 for college support and supplies via crowdfunding.

Asiyah prides itself on the creativity accompanying its culturally aware programming, which also recently went viral as the centre advertised a job posting for an “Aunty in Residence.”

With staff all under 31, Asiyah’s employees were eager to bring in older women, who are lauded and respected within BIPOC and Muslim communities for their wisdom, expertise, and skills.

Despite the cultural emphasis put on respect for elders, Asiyah’s all-female staff expressed disappointment in a job sphere that lacks value placed on the life skills older women bring.

The aunty-in-residence role challenged the ageism that is all too common in the American workplace, empowering the traditional skills they possess.

The job posting boasted a 55 and over requirement, along with asks like “remind us to take our vitamins and stay away from unhealthy men.”

The comment section on Instagram quickly flooded with people wishing similar centres existed across the nation, questions of young women asking if their mothers could apply, and discussions surrounding the frowned upon nature of domestic violence discussions among elder generations.

“For my parents’ generation, discussions about domestic violence are so taboo and honestly, people don't even know what domestic violence looks like,” said the NYU MSA board member.

Discussions within the Muslim community regarding domestic violence are key to the centre’s future, said Asiyah staff. As the centre celebrated its 5th birthday in October having already served and sheltered 500 women and children, expanding its services and constituency is next on the agenda.

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The centre is taking on immigration workshops, ESL courses, job preparation and more —including courses designated for men. The hope is to bring men into the discussion because “men need to know these things so they can call out injustices when they see them and call out rhetoric when they hear it” said Arianna.

The expansion of services into immigration-related work is key for the same reasons the centre’s creation was crucial — such services catered to Muslim and BIPOC communities are just not there yet.

The Asiyah Center is also moving to a larger space to accommodate more than double its current capacity, with plans to add other locations across the city.

In following suit with its name, the Asiyah Center is eagerly expanding the reach and quality of its care around New York City.

On their new initiatives, Asiyah’s staff excitedly agreed: “It’s a long time coming.” 

Suha Musa is a freelance journalist and Masters student in NYU’s GLOJO programme. Suha is deeply passionate about the representation of Muslims, political relationships between the West and the Arab World, and media accessibility. She is also deeply interested in researching the current conflict in Sudan.