What does it mean to have access to justice? In our work at KARAMAH, we find that access is one of the main issues affecting Muslim American communities. Many of the calls that we receive are referred to us by word of mouth. The reality is, especially in the realm of domestic violence and family law, that an essential part of domestic violence is isolation of the potential client. This isolation breeds lack of access to resources, especially culturally and linguistically appropriate services.
Last month KARAMAH traveled to Portland, Maine to train judges and lawyers on emerging issues in family law. There has been a rapid increase in the Muslim, Somali and other African populations inMaineand these populations are struggling with access to competent services. The Muslim family is not an emerging issue in theUnited States. Muslim marriages have been recognized early in our history, and the family law issues emerging from Muslim marriages have been around for a long time as well. So what is the real issue? With emerging, immigrant populations the courts are recognizing that these communities are having trouble accessing justice.
For the past 20 years, KARAMAH has been educating the legal community on issues affecting Muslims. The issues plaguing the Somali,Burundi, Ethiopian, Sudanese and other Muslim communities inMaineare the same that are afflicting other demographics of Muslim immigrants around the country. The courts want to provide adequate and effective interpreters, mediators and counsel but they are unfamiliar with cultural and religious values that can affect how a client will react to certain situations, and jurists feel trapped to make judgments of law when they cannot make findings of fact.
KARAMAH was represented by our Executive Director Aisha Rahman who spoke to an audience of over 200 judges and lawyers on cultural sensitivity—understanding that we all have biases and prejudices and the need to compartmentalize those to actually serve a person. We held a session on Islamic family law, addressing whether or not a husband or wife could get an Islamic divorce without getting a civil divorce and how that would affect their marital assets, child custody and child support payments. KARAMAH spoke to the historical context of oppression that many of these communities fled, and the impact that history has on dealings with authority, law enforcement and the community at large. Step by step, the participants understood that not making eye contact is not always a sign of disrespect and talking about the intimate details of married life are not only discouraged, but are disrespectful and shameful in some cultures. Most importantly, KARAMAH helped theMainebar understand the difference between culture and religion—both are beautiful and empowering but both are distinct and need to be treated as such.
Through sessions like these, KARAMAH hopes to educate the American, legal community on how best to serve the Muslim American community. We are not the other—we are a part of the diverse fabric of this country and we deserve access to justice and courts that make efforts to serve us competently and effectively.