Giving hope to Muslim women in Ireland

Amal helps women with court cases, language problems and safe houses

Hanan Amer  is the founder of the group Amal – a support group for Muslim women who are victims of domestic violence. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Hanan Amer is the founder of the group Amal – a support group for Muslim women who are victims of domestic violence. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

When her life turned upside down, Hanan Amer, an Egyptian living in Ireland for 30 years, started to look outwards instead of inwards and found a new purpose, helping troubled and often isolated Muslim women to navigate the workings of their adopted country.

The 56-year-old mother-of-three, who had worked as a social worker in her native country, came to Dublin with her husband to start a new life.

Over the years, the couple set up three businesses: a halal shop, a fish and chip shop and an internet cafe. But when the recession hit more than 10 years ago, they lost their business interests. Amer’s husband couldn’t cope. The marriage broke down and he left about eight years ago, leaving his wife with the children.

Amer had to start all over again. A car accident means that she can’t work so she gets by on a disability benefit. But that hasn’t stopped her from reaching out to her community. In 2013 she founded an organisation called Amal, which is the Arabic for “hope”.

Amal is a Muslim women-led service responding to the needs of Muslim women in Ireland. It was recently awarded €35,000 from the Social Innovation Fund Ireland, to enable Amal to employ a co-ordinator. That role has been filled by Niera Belacy.

I found that the men were controlling their wives’ lives a lot and I tried to help

Amer got to know Muslim women in the Dublin Mosque on the South Circular Road. “Some of the women have problems such as domestic violence [against them]. Some of them are not educated and don’t have the language. Also, I found that the men were controlling their wives’ lives a lot and I tried to help.”

Amal now has seven board members, one adviser, one employee and 15 volunteers. Amer would really like office space to run the organisation separate from the mosque. The mosque, she says, is about religion, and there is resistance there from its leaders when it comes to acknowledging family problems.

But the mosque is also a place where the women gather, attending coffee mornings on Wednesday, organised by Amal. As well as a way of meeting other Muslim women and building up relationships based on trust, workshops can be accessed there as well as art and craft sessions.

No week goes by without Amer having at least two or three cases on her hands. Amal, through a project called Camp (cultural advocacy and mediation project), ensures that the Muslim women are accompanied to family court services or services for domestic abuse. The women may need translation services or the prevention of discrimination in various situations.

The service is culturally appropriate. It helps the women access health, mental health, family support and immigration services. Amer would like to see a shelter or a safe house being made available to Muslim women in need.

“The man can treat the wife as if she doesn’t know anything. He can make her afraid to go outside. Some of the men are afraid that if their wives are with other women, they will get ideas and try to change the way they deal with their husbands.”

Amal has started to go into direct provision centres in Roscommon, Portlaoise and Mosney, giving Muslim women second-hand clothes and toys for their children. “I had difficulty going to these centres. I fought with everybody. Now the Government lets me access these centres. The women there have come from wars and have lots of problems. They can be depressed.”

We try to tell the men to be easy with their wives because the prophet Muhammad said this

Amer says Muslim women in Ireland are often not allowed to leave their homes. “It’s not actually a cultural thing because if they stay in their own country, they are allowed to go out and visit their families. But not here.”

In an effort to make the family dynamic more egalitarian, Amer says she tries “to do some lectures for the men asking them to change how they treat the women. We give talks after Friday prayers. We try to tell the men to be easy with their wives because the prophet Muhammad said this. In Islam, you have to be really nice to women and take care of them. That is the Islamic way.” Amer says racism isn’t as bad in Ireland as it is elsewhere in Europe. “But everywhere, you find some good people, some bad people. If you asked me about racism in Ireland about 10 or 15 years ago, I would have given Irish people an excuse for being racist.

“Ireland is a small country and suddenly opening the door for everybody is something I felt. I found too many people from eastern Europe and Africa [were coming in]. I got scared. I didn’t want it. But you get used to the new people from different countries.”

Women who wear burkas can experience abuse in Ireland. “I try to give training to the women if something like that happens. I show them how to defend themselves. I’m working with the gardaí also. They try to help if they can.”

Amer’s children have integrated well. Her eldest son is an environmental officer. She has a daughter who has just finished studying fashion and is now working in London. Her youngest has recently completed her Junior Certificate. Amer is selflessly helping Muslim women and is looking forward to increased governmental and NGO partnerships.

Amal can be reached at 089 612 2893

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