Culturally Sensitive Shelter for Homeless Muslim Women

Adam Sennott

Muslim shelter 2Pictured: Representing shelter room sponsors Malden Masjed from left-Sister Khadijah, Laila, and Fatima

For Muslim women, living in a homeless shelter comes with an added layer of difficulties. At times, they are unable to eat the food that is served due to religious restrictions and can’t remove their scarves when men are present since that would violate their religious beliefs.

Malika MacDonald, national director of ICNA Relief USA’s Shelter Network has worked with women who have been harassed and even attacked in public shelters for praying. And talking to male staff about their struggles can be “extremely uncomfortable,” MacDonald said. “Often times councilors will say to them ‘well, you know, doesn’t your religion oppress women? Doesn’t your religion call for this type of treatment of women?” MacDonald said. “It’s not very uplifting.”

Over the past 11-years, ICNA Relief has worked to provide a home for homeless Muslim women where they can feel safe and comfortable. The organization runs more than a dozen transitional homes across the United States, including New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. While the 179 women and 69 children who live in these homes are predominantly Muslim, women of any faith are welcome, MacDonald said. In fact, ICNA’s Baton Rouge facility houses mostly non-Muslims referred by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, she noted.

“We initially started this program to provide a safe, culturally sensitive shelter for homeless Muslim women,” MacDonald said. “But we don’t exclude anyone.” ICNA Relief opened its newest home in Boston on April 29. The Amal Women’s Center can house up to 12 people, including children, and offers counseling, personal healing, case management, and professional development.  “It’s about empowering women,” MacDonald said.

The Center adheres to many of the same standards traditional shelters do, MacDonald said. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed and the organization has a zero-tolerance policy towards violence. Though unlike other shelters, pork is not allowed inside the home and men are not allowed to enter unless their presence is announced beforehand “so women would have the opportunity to properly cover if they chose to,” MacDonald said. “We want to be able to respect that privacy, that modesty that they observe.”

Women also can feel comfortable with whatever religion they practice, MacDonald said “Women are welcome to pray however they want to pray, or not,” she explained. “It’s up to them if they want to pray. I mean, we have Muslim women who pray, we have Muslim women who don’t pray. If a Christian wanted to say their prayer however they want, that’s perfectly fine.”

In addition to providing a culturally sensitive home for women, the center also offers professional development opportunities, MacDonald said. As part of the program, residents are required to fill out an action plan when they first arrive explaining what their interests are, past work experience, educational background, and what short and long-term goals they’d like to set for themselves.

“Part of the action plan is, we want to see if they have a resume,” MacDonald said. “If they don’t, we want to really help them develop a resume, [and] if they do have one we’ll help them develop a better one.

“We have a computer lab available so they can do online job [searches],” MacDonald said. “We’ll also post job opportunities and job fairs for them, [and] we’ll be doing mock interviews to really show them how to handle an interview and nail that interview.”

Residents will fill out a weekly log detailing where their experiences such as applying for work or services, as well as what accomplishments and struggles they encountered. Residents also have the option of attending counseling and support groups, but “they’re not mandatory unless we feel that the resident may be struggling.” MacDonald said that most residents welcome the opportunity “just to talk,” and that she hopes the center will provide a space for women to “heal and develop themselves in a caring way.”

 She said she would like to see the women at the center “become leaders in their own lives. “I truly believe that is possible,” MacDonald said.