Islamic Women's Patron: Honors for the Protector of Battered Muslims

Nothing about this Garden Grove home–with its warmly stained pine kitchen cabinets, fresh fruit on the table, a ladybug crawling on the window–hints at the complexity of the lives of the women who live there.

It is a shelter for battered women, and one of the few in Southern California that serves Muslims who, for complex religious and cultural reasons, think they cannot go anywhere else.

Haitham Bundakji, a prominent member of Orange County’s Islamic community, created the unusual shelter two years ago, because, he says, “it is taboo . . . so taboo for a [Muslim] woman to get to the point where she has to leave her house.

“If she went to any other shelter . . . it would be extreme humiliation,” he said. “I’ve made a home here so [Muslim women] don’t have to go into the ‘system.’ ”
Bundakji is one of 17 people and organizations being honored today by the Orange County Human Relations Commission. The awards ceremony marks the commission’s 30th anniversary.

Bundakji is being honored partly because of the shelter but also because he devotes much of his life to working with cultural groups that traditionally mistrust one another, commission officials said.

He is the first Muslim chaplain for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Garden Grove police. And since he bought the shelter in 1996, he said he has poured $400,000 into the structure.

Four women live there now. It also is used for prayer by homeless Muslims, who can go into the gray-and-blue tiled foyer when they cannot go to a mosque.
Bundakji says he created the shelter for selfish reasons–“to get an award from God and ask him to bless my family,” as he puts it. But also, he says, because it helps women who not only are tangled in souring marriages but who are balancing traditional Muslim ideas about marriages with more liberal Western attitudes. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Anaheim, said the shelter is invaluable, providing a critical sense of culture and religious continuity for Muslim women.

“There is a red line of when you will break out [of a marriage]. If you go to, say, a county shelter, it is like breaking out to a point of no return,” he said. “The Muslim shelter is not the point of no return.

“This is the balance of cultural and physical safety. If they go, they are with strangers, but at least they are Muslims. It’s the closest thing [women] can get to cultural safety.”

That ultimately was the reason he created the shelter, Bundakji said: “I met a woman a few years ago, and she went to a shelter provided by the county. . . . She would never forgive her husband because she had to go out of . . . the Muslim community.”
Bundakji believes the shelter, anonymous and unspectacular, offers the chance for salvaging troubled Islamic marriages. The women who go there tell him it keeps them within the circle of their community. “And, by the grace of God,” Bundakji said, “they need that.”