Jan 182017

*This is the written text of a recent speech given at an MLK Shabbat

passport-315266_1280by Nadiah Mohajir

I wanted to begin by sharing the story of the grandmother I inherited more than nineteen years ago. I met her when I was just seventeen years old at my friend Tariq’s home. I had imagined meeting a traditionally dressed, Urdu speaking, Pakistani elderly woman, – you know, the picture of a Pakistani grandmother. Instead, I met an outspoken, English speaking, cheerful, energetic vibrant career woman. She was simply known to all of us as Amma, a term of endearment in Urdu typically given to the matriarch of the family. Unable to contain my excitement, all I could remember saying to Tariq, in typical 17-year old bubbliness was “OMG, your grandmother even wears PANTS!”

I eventually married Tariq, we spent many days and nights with Amma, listening to her tell childhood stories of my husband and his brother. I watched her beam with pride as she met each of her great grandchildren, three of whom are my own children. But what I will remember most about Amma is her ability to make you her own the minute she met you. Our Amma was never stingy with her love and affection – no matter what your identity, gender, race, social class. Amma always connected with you on shared humanity. I remember the first time she met my own grandmother, she embraced her tightly and told her they were sisters.

Two years ago, at the age of 83, our beloved Amma returned to her Creator. In the days leading up to her death, we as a family convened around her, remembering her in all the ways she impacted us. It was during those precious conversations that I learned the details of her incredible journey to America.

Amma was born into a generation and in a country where education and career opportunities were limited for women – marriage and family were prioritized. Despite this, she never complained but rather quietly pushed through with her own feminism.

In 1974, Amma excitedly approached her husband with a wild dream – “We are going to America.” Her husband, our Pappa, bless his heart, chuckled at her – this was an inconceivable idea. Pappa asked her to return to reality – preferably in time for dinner. Kindly ignoring him, Amma persevered with critical hope – dreaming of this unfamiliar land, this promise of opportunity, and requested her brother to sponsor her. Mere months later, Amma was on a plane headed to Chicago, Pappa and her children to follow soon after she settled, secured employment and was able to sponsor them. She landed on a snowy day in Chicago, and our beloved Amma was just as determined as before.

After arriving at her brother’s house, she immediately asked him to teach her how to use the el train, so she could look for work the next day. For a second time, Amma was teased for being naive. “It doesn’t work that way,” she was told. “You can’t just learn the transit system just like that, let alone get a job the day you land.” This didn’t stop our Amma. She was on the brown line the next day, navigating the Chicago transit systems with just a map and limited English skills. That night, she came home and proudly declared that she had secured her first job in America, a mere 24 hours after she landed. Amma’s American dream was becoming a reality sooner than anyone anticipated. This American dream, that many others have also come searching for, including my own father, had been made possible by the struggles, the hard work, the many “firsts” of our American ancestors such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

Today we are gathered to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King. While we all know that Dr. King’s legacy is much more than his infamous “I have a dream speech” speech, these words are repeated over and over to our children as a cornerstone of American history and represent much of what he was fighting for, during a time when many believed it all to be inconceivable.

Dr. King had a dream that America would be a certain way: that a little black boy or girl could one day have the same opportunities as their white neighbor, attend the same schools and sit on the same buses. This dream inspired many around him: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, and many others to continue to push to demand equality, dissolve segregation, and build the America we know today. From civil rights to medicine to even going to the moon, many of the advancements that we know of in America today are because of our African American brothers and sisters and the foundation they laid for all of us.

And, more personally for me, Dr. King’s vision also facilitated that a woman, our Amma, could also dare to dream an inconceivable dream. It enabled her to come from a highly patriarchal society with limited opportunity, and instead be emboldened by her own conviction and belief in a better life for her own family, and with hard work and determination – actually achieve it – singlehandedly mind you.

And so, my family is the children of immigrants. We are doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers and activists and entrepreneurs. We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices and struggles made by our grandmothers, who came in the 1960s and 70s in search of opportunity. The promise of opportunity that their Muslim, brown skinned, headscarf wearing grandchildren and great grand children would have the same opportunities as their White peers. But we must never forget that we are also indebted to the struggles and resistance of the many Black slaves and civil rights activists – many of them also Muslim – that paved the way for our immigrant grandmothers to seek these very opportunities. It was through their fight for civil rights that America became the America that our Amma came searching for.

This same America, where today, my children learn Quran and about their faith in a beautiful mosque built by Muhammad Ali, on the South side of Chicago, the very roads that giants like Muhammad ali, Malcolm X, and Dr. King himself – led their movements. And it is on these same roads, where my house sits, that inspired me seven years ago to have my own version of daring to dream as I embarked on my social justice journey: building a nonprofit called HEART Women & Girls, which creates spaces for Muslims to learn about their bodies, sex, and sexual assault, in a way that is safe, accurate, free of shame, but also inspired by our faith tradition. We work alongside Jewish and Christian communities to build alliances, and address sexual violence together. We dream of a world where women and girls are valued for their character, and not for their skin color, body type, or what they wear. We dream of a world that women are free of guilt, shame, oppression, and violence, so they are able to make informed and empowered decisions about their sexual health in a way that aligns with their values.

And as with any social justice work, there are hard days. There are days when this work seems impossible, and just simply exhausting. Yet, the meaning of my social justice journey beginning on the very same roads these great Americans walked is not lost on me. To be surrounded by their histories and legacies, the institutions they built and movements they ignited, is nothing short of God’s plan for me: my family came here in search of opportunity, for a better life, but also as God’s greater plan for us to continue this search for Truth and Justice.

Dr. King’s search for Truth and Justice were founded on a simple principle that many faith traditions share: that all men and women are created equal, despite differences in the color of their skin, religious identity, social class, or gender and that we all have a right to belong. His entire movement was founded on this concept of shared humanity, and he once wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality…. Our struggles are really one: a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson he taught me is about compassion, which also happens to be a core value in Islam. Compassion that I believe, goes hand in hand with Justice, another core value in our faith traditions.

You see, compassion isn’t just about being kind. It’s about seeing the other person’s shared humanity, something that both Dr. King and Amma modeled effortlessly. And when you see that shared humanity, calling out for justice when you see oppression comes naturally. And so, compassion and justice are fundamentally linked – without compassion, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no compassion.

These values sit at the core of both our faith identities and our American identities. And while our unique identities might be different from our neighbor, it is our diversity that gives us strength collectively. God tells us in the Quran: “We have created you into many nations and tribes so you may know one another.” Likewise, an important theme in the Hebrew Bible is hospitality, and caring for others, as is noted in the Hebrew Bible: [God] loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothing. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners.

We must look past skin color, the headscarf, and the yarmulke, and build deep relationships based on our shared humanity, hope, and determination. We live in a time where xenophobia, islamophobia, anti Semitism, and racism are at peaks that they haven’t been in many years, but giving into these fear and threats is giving up our privilege of daring to dream: I for one, am not ready to do that. Not as Amma’s granddaughter.  Not as a Muslim woman. And certainly not as an American.

So let us know one another and come together – on this blessed day and those that we will have together in our future – in critical hope, in compassion, and in justice. I ask you to join me as we stand together in solidarity, and continue to fight for the dreams that our grandmothers dared to have and our forefathers died protecting.

Jan 182017

by Alia Azmat

sunset-690240_1280This morning I woke up, scrolled through my social media accounts, and found this. Curious and excited by the title, I wondered what this author had to say to someone like me. Then I read it. I read about how my biological clock is running out. I read about how I need to lower my standards, to find Mr. Suitable instead of Mr. Perfect (for me). I read about how I need to give [men] a chance because they are “surprisingly lovely.” I was told to look my best. That it is unreasonable to believe a man or his family could want, or desire me, for qualities beyond my body. I was NOT told to think critically about what I’d like my life after marriage to look like. What qualities I bring to a relationship, what qualities and markers of faith I am willing to negotiate with a potential partner or spouse.

What hurts is knowing other young women and girls are reading what I consider to be a toxic article about their worth and the importance of their existence in this world. The letter below is the letter I wish I had read this morning. This is the letter I wish someone had shown me as I turned 26. Muslim or non-Muslim, Asian, Arab or another ethnicity, maybe there is an alternative way to thinking about ourselves over 25.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
You are not being “too picky,” “too proud,” “too selfish.” Life doesn’t stop once you have a ring on your finger. Life doesn’t start when you have a ring on your finger either. You are not expired. You are not unlovable. Your worth is not tied to your marital status, or ability to make babies, or keep house. Your worth is tied to your existence. Your humanity.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe this “narrow window of opportunity” is a system of oppression, one which values women’s youth, fertility, physical beauty, their ability to perform demure femininity. Maybe you do not fit that mold. Maybe you fit that mold but are not interested in sharing that with anyone. Maybe you haven’t been satisfied with suitors. Maybe some suitors did not allow you to express your version of a complete woman. Maybe some suitors were not willing to work alongside you. Maybe some suitors forgot their own humanity in engaging with you. You deserve to be yourself. You deserve someone who honors your humanity.

Maybe you fell in love, but your family didn’t accept him. Maybe you fell in love but he didn’t share your faith tradition. It is not your fault for having hope. Maybe you found someone, connected with someone, planned a life with someone, only to have his family reject you. Maybe the only place to put the pain of that rejection was within yourself. Maybe you were told it was your fault he touched you, cheated on you, stole from you, betrayed you.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe you are South Asian, maybe you are Arab, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese, a convert to Islam, maybe you are Christian woman, a Jewish woman, or another woman of faith who has been told by friends, family, cultural, and religious messaging that you are not enough, without a spouse. Maybe you are single because you had the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship. Maybe you are widowed and still grieving the loss of your life partner. Maybe you are managing parenthood on your own. Maybe you are 26, 30, or 36. Who decided 25 means we are unwanted?

Maybe this is how the patriarchy works. Maybe you have started to believe being alone is abnormal, or aberrant. Maybe God calls upon the lonely, maybe God calls upon, and encourages solitude.

Maybe you believe you aren’t beautiful enough. But, beauty is an edge of becoming. Maybe you sit at the edge of emerging fullness, maybe your grace and elegance and respectful, autonomous character, your desire for justice and equity, are qualities invisible to the superficial eyes of a culture which expects and thrives of solely bodily objectification. Maybe you were told you are too large, too dark, too loud, or not loud enough. Maybe you were told you make too much money or not enough money. Maybe you are too educated or not educated enough. Maybe you have hurt yourself, starved yourself, drank yourself into oblivion trying to meet unattainable, unjust cultural expectations of yourself. I am here to tell you, the drive to do more, be more, eat less, weigh less, whiten-up, dress down, are constructed to control you, not him.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Maybe your younger sister got married before you. Maybe your dad is upset you would rather pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D. than “settle down” right now. Maybe your mom wants to see you happy, but doesn’t know what to tell the local aunties about your singlehood. Maybe you feel obligated to talk to suitors to reduce the tension bubbling in your family. Maybe they also fear the uncertainty. Maybe your disability has stopped suitors from coming into the door. Maybe you aren’t interested in male suitors.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE BRAVE. Maybe you have been punished, instead of celebrated, in the past for using your voice. You are brave when you say, “I am worthy, I am enough, it is not my fault, I am not a burden”, silently to yourself. Maybe these whispers are new forms of dhikr. Maybe you refuse to be silenced. You are brave when you silence the self-doubt. You are brave when you invest in yourself and have the courage to say, “no” to a suitor who will suppress your dignity, your personhood. You are brave when you let yourself feel angry, feel sad, feel hurt by how much society expects from you without asking what it can do for you. You are brave when you pursue your dreams, when you reach out to help another, when you embrace the uncertainty of what being single/divorced/widowed at 25+ means for you.

You are brave when you request to talk to your family or friends on the impact #muslimgirlmicroaggressions have on your well-being. You are brave when you honor your trauma. When you reach out for help with your depression, your anxiety, your PTSD, your social nerves — all natural and appropriate responses to existing at the intersection of identities. You are brave when you make space for yourself to grieve the loss of opportunities. You are brave when you hold on to your faith identity. You are brave when you work through feelings of guilt and shame related to your single-lady existence. You are brave when you give yourself permission to be yourself. To be anything less than “perfect.” You are brave when you say “yes” to your journey towards radical self-love, self-compassion, self-acceptance. You are brave when you leave your home, though you may want to stay home, covered up.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,

Yours in solidarity,

Alia Azmat is a trainer for HEART Women & Girls and is currently also pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology.

Jan 182017

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 7.41.45 PMAs Co-Founder and Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, I am pleased to share our growth and impact over the years through our annual report. Through this report, you will see just how exponentially we have grown in the last three years, with a primarily virtual and volunteer staff.

With your support, we have had an incredible year and have accomplished so much, including:

  • Expanded our programming to college campuses across the country, reaching five times as many participants than previous years,
  • Developed publications, toolkits, and fact sheets which have been downloaded more than 25,000 times,
  • Presented at eight national conferences,
  • Offered one on one support and advocacy to dozens and dozens of survivors,
  • Provided professional development training to approximately 120 professionals representing numerous organizations, including Planned Parenthood, Rape Victim Advocates, and Title IX coordinators at local Universities,
  • Built a national staff of accomplished, diverse Muslim women who are experts in public health, medicine, mental health, and reproductive justice,
  • Attended two White House events, and
  • Raised over $60,000 just this year alone.

Our work plays an integral part in offering the community accurate sexual health information and in supporting survivors on their journey toward healing and justice. But, we need your continued help. Given the political climate, our work is more important than ever. Unless we take action together, it is likely we will see less federal support for reproductive and sexual health education and sexual assault awareness. For the last seven years, we have been working to dismantle the shame and stigma around sex and sexual violence, and we have made incredible inroads despite a small budget and limited resources.

In the next three years, we hope to:

  • Expand our programming to reach up to  five additional cities
  • Train 250 leaders and reach 3,000 more participants
  • Double our number of publications
  • Hire our first paid, full-time staff members

We remain more motivated now than ever to continue this work, promote gender equity, and advocate for reproductive justice for all. We invite you to join us in this timely effort. Please browse our annual report, learn about our work, and make your gift today.

With Eternal Gratitude,

Nadiah Mohajir, MPH
Co-founder & Executive Director
HEART Women & Girls

Nov 202016
photo by Mat Schramm

photo by Mat Schramm

Dear Survivor,

We’ve had a long, challenging election season. In many ways, election night brought it all together in a way most of us could have never imagined.

There aren’t enough words to describe the emotions we are feeling. The election results were incredibly painful. We’d like to say that we’re surprised, but we know that racism and misogyny are real, and that rape culture and violence against women is ingrained in our society. The election of Donald Trump – a candidate who made numerous offensive statements and is accused of being a sexual predator – was just a horrifying visual manifestation of it. It was a reminder of the reality that we live in a society that ignores abuses of power – especially when it is perpetrated by people of privilege. It was an all too triggering reminder for those of us who have been the victims of such abuses of power and how loud we have to scream and still not be heard or believed. All the progress we have made seems erased, and our intersectional identities and lived experiences ignored. I think all of this is especially hard when we know that these systems of oppression are at the very root of what we are fighting against: gender inequity, violence against women, rape culture.

We don’t know what the next four years will be like. But, we do know that we live in a day and time where people are not willing to be silenced any more, and that we at HEART will work even harder to be heard and to uplift the voices of those we serve. Your continued courage and bravery speaking up about your lived experiences as a sexual assault survivor are both inspiring and an example of your resilience. By speaking up, sharing your story, and insisting on change, you are not only raising and awareness on an injustice that is far too common in 2016, but you are protecting so many from being abused or assaulted in the future. What you’re doing is hard, and ultimately will require a culture shift. It will not happen overnight, and with so many who are so opposed to this work, it may even take much of our lifetime. But we are more motivated than ever to continue this work.

We see you. We hear you. We believe you.

We are so proud and humbled to serve alongside you as we continue to work toward progress, and your commitment to truth and justice is our daily inspiration.  Yes, it may seem like we’ve taken many steps back and there is still so much left to do, but there is reason to hope. And for us at HEART, you all are that reason.

Eternally grateful for your courage,

the team at HEART Women & Girls

Nov 202016

originally published on mvslim.com

justice-311699_1280by Rafia Khader

This summer a respected Imam in Chicago pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The case of the Chicago Imam shattered our blithe assumptions that just because something touts itself as “Islamic” it adheres to an Islamic ethos based on mutual respect. Sexual violence is a reality in the Muslim community; the case in Chicago is not an isolated one. But how do we find real solutions that address the problem? A facile approach that hearkens to an idealistic vision just isn’t going to cut it.

Just this week, I came across a Facebook post which read that the promotion of sexual health and sexual violence awareness in the Muslim community is “advocating a completely un-Islamic, secular, liberal perspective on sex.” The solution offered: gender segregation or khalwa in Arabic.

Gender segregation, according to this “Facebook Scholar” would prevent the vast majority of the opportunity for sexual misconduct. “If our institutions abided strictly by khalwa standards […] we would all but eliminate this problem.” While he does allow for the possibility of sexual misconduct to occur even when his definition of khalwa is implemented – the case of the Chicago Imam, if nothing, forces him to admit this fact – he’s very clear in his belief that gendered spaces are the solution to all the sexual ills the Muslim community faces. While I am not a victim of sexual violence, I attribute many of the sexually dysfunctional ways of thinking in my own life to this concept of gendered spaces. I remember one time when I was working at an Islamic School, a male teacher come to the office to give me something. Instead of making eye contact and acknowledging my presence, he spoke to me with his eyes on the floor. I’m sure he did this out of respect, but respect was not what I felt. I felt dehumanized. Read More

Nov 202016

by Nadiah Mohajir

Words written sex education in the notepad.Recently, many loud voices have been critiquing HEART’s work and misrepresenting our positions on sexual health and sexual violence. While we absolutely do not expect everyone to be on board or even comfortable with our approach, we are strongly opposed to the tactics that have recently been used on social media. Perhaps, the biggest irony of the situation is that the individuals that have criticized  us for our lack of Islamic ethics, have chosen to denigrate our work in a way that also is the antithesis to Islamic ethics and the Prophetic example: through bullying, intimidation, namecalling, and most importantly, spreading untrue information. This type of religious shaming and hateful rhetoric is exactly what we have been speaking out against. We are not interested in engaging in a game of internet bullying. However, we do believe it is necessary to correct the misinformation that is spreading about our work.

The Quran instructs us to be maintainers of justice, even if it means we have to speak up and challenge our own communities. For years, we have heard Muslim women and girls share their struggles with body image, depression, unhealthy relationships, sex, and all too often, sexual violence. They spoke of not having access to culturally­-sensitive information and resources, and being afraid of seeking them because of the stigma and shame associated with sex and sexual violence in Muslim communities. Read more.

Nov 182016

By Nadiah Mohajir

leaf-409258_1920As we continue to work on raising awareness on sexual assault in Muslim communities, there are a number of common myths and misinformation that are important to address. Perhaps what is most concerning about these myths is that they are often reinforced by respected religious and community leaders. Misinformation and myths about sexual assault can have some very serious implications.

First, these myths promote ineffective methods of sexual assault prevention and reinforce gender stereotypes. Namely, this inevitably puts the onus on women to cover because it assumes that men can’t seem to control themselves around them. Second, these myths often are laced with victim blaming, pressuring survivors to remain silent about their abuse. When such rhetoric is further perpetuated by those in leadership positions in the community, it is further alienating survivors into darkness. Third, this perpetual cycle of misinformation is a disservice to survivors and denies them their rights to justice and healing.

Finally, when these myths are reinforced by those in positions of respected leadership, it further sets the tone for how sexual assault will be addressed in the community. More often than not in these communities, it is not addressed, or addressed inadequately, further intensifying the survivor’s trauma.

Below, we have included several myths and facts about sexual assault that have been circulating on facebook and other social media among religious and community leaders. These posts are not only disturbing because of the sheer misinformation that is being spread, but also because of the large numbers of likes, shares, and comments that further validate and applaud these attitudes. Such posts are extremely dangerous because they perpetuate rape culture in our communities, and are triggering to survivors who may come across them.

MYTH: Sexual violence is a sin just like premarital sex and adultery (zina in Arabic).

FACT: The act of zina (premarital sex/sex outside of marriage) is the act of engaging in extramarital consensual sexual intercourse, while sexual violence is where consent is inherently absent. Therefore to speak of sexual violence is in the same context as consensual sexual sins is a disservice to victims. Sexual violence is not about the sex. It is not about sexual gratification or two individuals actively going against religious code. Sexual violence is about the power and control a perpetrator has over his or her victim. It is an act of horrifying violence that has a tremendous impact on one’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual safety. To talk about zina in the same context as sexual assault is extremely offensive to the survivor experience.

MYTH: Dressing modestly, wearing hijab, and gender segregation are preventive actions one can take to protect themselves from sexual assault.

FACT: Hijab or any other clothing does not protect a woman from being sexually assaulted or abused. Often times, assailants have attacked fully clothed women. Furthermore, the rate of sexual assault isn’t much lower in predominantly Muslim countries, where women are fully covered every day and society is generally segregated by gender.

MYTH: If one only interacts with other females and close relatives, they will not get raped or sexually abused.

FACT: Although an overwhelming number of assailants are men, women can be abusers too. There have been situations where a woman has assaulted another woman or girl, or boy. Similarly, many assailants are close male relatives, such as one’s father, uncle, or brother.

MYTH: It is impossible for a person to sexually assault a married partner.

FACT: It is absolutely unlawful for one to harm their partner in any way. In Islam, both spouses are granted rights and responsibilities. One of those rights is the right to sexual intercourse (for both spouses). Often times, this is misinterpreted to mean that the man has unlimited sexual access to his wife, and that consent isn’t really needed. Islam highly values the institution of marriage, encourages both spouses to act with kindness, love, and mercy with each  other, and consent to sexual activity is very much a part of the equation. So while the rights to intimacy and sex exist, there is no implication whatsoever that the spouse may seek this right violently or forcefully.

MYTH: If you were drunk or had sex before marriage and were sexually assaulted, you deserved it and God is punishing you.

FACT: This is another tactic that the community uses to shame and blame the victim. While religious code does not permit substance abuse or sex outside of marriage, it does not justify the act of violence against another. Islamic tradition states that suffering is not tied to sin. Plenty of people suffer who never deserved it. Similarly, plenty of people do wrong and never see the consequences of those actions in this world. This world is not a place of retribution as Muslims believe the afterlife is for that.

The unfortunate reality is that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of sexual assault some time in their lifetime. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these numbers are any different for Muslim communities. That means that it is very likely that we all know at least one survivor and it is our collective responsibility to raise awareness and work toward prevention. If you or someone you know was sexually assault or abused, know that it is not your fault, you are not alone, and there are resources to help you.

Sexual violence is a complicated problem, and one that is not addressed through many of the simple solutions that these myths promote. To assert that the sexual assault will be solved if we only adopt stricter religious code such as dress and gender segregation demonstrates a simplistic and poor understanding of a complex and nuanced issue. More than this, reinforcing these myths is horribly irresponsible and further perpetuating the cycle of abuse by silencing victims and further enabling their perpetrators. It is no longer acceptable to be allow community and religious leaders who do not have the professional training or expertise on sexual assault to continue to spread these myths and misinformation. We can do better. We must do better. The safety of our communities depends on it.

Nov 182016

*Trigger Warning for sexual assault

This past weekend, survivor advocate an HEART board member Jenan Mohajir performed a story that she has been working in partnership with Chicago’s 2nd Story to produce. Her first performance this weekend came in the midst of a national outrage related to the surfacing of a video in which Trump brags about his entitlement to sexual assault.

This story delves deep into Jenan’s experiences working to support the brave men and women who came forward last year with allegations of sexual violence against prominent imam Abdullah Saleem, and other perpetrators, at his Quran school, Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Illinois. A civil and criminal case began simultaneously in February 2015.
After a long criminal case, Abdullah Saleem plead guilty to all charges of sexual assault in August 2016. The civil case still continues.

This is the story of a survivor and his advocate. You will hear about the devastation, vicarious trauma, and helplessness one feels during a situation like this. You will also hear about a woman who was inspired by her faith to continue to serve these brave individuals, and to channel the inner strength to be able to show up for them in a way the larger community was not able to.

Listen below to a powerful story. Please take care of yourself as you listen to it. According to rainn.org, we know that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Even though these statistics are not specific to any one community, we have no reason to believe that these are any different in the Muslim community. If you, or someone you know is a survivor, know that you are not alone, and know that there are many people out there who want to help you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us or any number of other organizations and hotlines that are committed to helping survivors find healing and justice.
This story was produced by 2nd Story and performed at Pub626.

If you are specifically a victim of Abdullah Saleem or a different perpetrator at IIE, or anyone else, please do not hesitate to contact us if you need help, services, or just some place to talk, by emailing us today at heartwg@gmail.com.

Nov 182016

by Nadiah Mohajir

wedding-964415_1920Sex is described as many things: it can be an act of passion for some, physical gratification for others, a necessity for procreation, an act of worship for people of faith, or some combination thereof. It is also a word and experience that is often loaded with many emotions: joy, love, and all too often, fear, shame, and stigma.

One of the challenges of beginning this conversation is that historically, sex and sexuality have been seen as uncomfortable subjects across most racial, ethnic, and religious communities. In Muslim communities, the strong notions of privacy and modesty are often conflated with the shaming of feeling sexual desire, which creates an environment hostile to open discourse, let alone operating outside of religious code. This lack of open, nuanced conversation has long-term consequences: it instills shame and unhealthy attitudes toward sex, which many women carry into their sexual relationships, both within the framework of marriage and outside of it. Read more here.

Sep 162016

courtroom-144091_1920by Nadiah Mohajir

HEART Women & Girls initially was founded to focus on improving access to sexual health information and education in Muslim communities. As we held workshops across the country, we quickly realized something: once facilitators set a safe space and gained the trust of participants, the sheer number of stories of sexual violence that were shared were overwhelming. As a result, we quickly made the deliberate decision to include sexual assault awareness education in every one of its sexual health workshops. We believed that it would be a disservice to participants to not also cover topics such as boundaries, consent, and healthy relationships in our sexual health education programming. While discussing sexual violence is different than discussing women’s health, these two topics intersect in the experience of being a Muslim woman, understanding one’s body, and exercising bodily autonomy.

Last year, the importance of this work was more evident than ever. A young woman came forward with allegations of sexual assault against a prominent Chicago imam, Abdullah Saleem. HEART board and staff, along with a team of volunteers, publicly supported her, and within days, received dozens upon dozens of phone calls and emails from survivors of the same perpetrator. We began connecting these young women to the resources they needed: legal services, contacts in the criminal justice system, therapists, and awareness materials.

Of the numerous survivor stories related to this case that HEART initially collected, five survivors chose to move forward with civil legal proceedings, as reported in the New York Times in February 2015. The Illinois States Attorney filed criminal charges shortly afterwards. Both cases have been proceeding – and on August 25, 2016, Abdullah Saleem entered a plea bargain for both charges in the criminal case. This means that the criminal case was resolved out of court through a process of negotiation.  As a result, the victims do not have to face the exhausting ordeal of going to trial and testifying in front of the defense, which typically utilizes tactics that humiliate and tear down the witness.

The importance of this milestone is one that should be recognized. Abdullah Saleem has plead guilty and was sentenced to two years probation and must register as a sex offender. The survivors – both those participating in the criminal and civil cases, but also those who are watching silently from the sidelines, are able to witness some semblance of justice being served in this world. Those that worked to advocate and support them, in a community that is reluctant to address this issue head on, have found some reprieve on this uphill battle. Those that were worried more about the community’s or perpetrator’s reputation than enveloping the survivors in an embrace of mercy and safety, can no longer deny the power of justice being done despite their continuous pushback every step of the way.

This case and its public reaction highlighted the need for HEART’s work more than ever and illustrates some important takeaways:

The incredible courage of survivors

The bravery, courage, and resilience of the brave young woman who first came forward, and the many women and men who followed, sought legal assistance, including those that just called to say, “me too,” is unparalleled and should be at the forefront of every sexual assault discussion. These are men and women in our communities who knew full well that many would not believe them and knew the hostility they would face. Some of these men and women were disclosing to their families for the very first time, and beginning a very personal and private journey to healing and justice. These men and women lived with these experiences for months,  years, decades, and came together in their own ways to very loudly and strongly say “No more,” so that no one else has to endure what they experienced. These men and women, who have not revealed their name or face publicly, but do have a story for all to hear regardless of their community’s unbelievable silence. This is what you call incredible courage and resilience.

Lack of awareness

Many Muslims don’t have the knowledge or the language to identify sexual violence. They often incorrectly attribute sexual violence to being limited to rape, and end up minimizing or ignoring all other abuses. Instead of identifying the actions of abuse, they are often excused as behaviors that “men/boys/elders do.” We also have found that many survivors don’t have an understanding of what is happening to them or even a basic understanding of their bodies and sexuality.

Lack of first responders or resources

There are not enough resources or first responders and professionals trained to address the needs of Muslim survivors in a religiously and culturally competent way. Among the stories we collected, we learned that often times, some of the first people Muslim survivors disclosed to were their local imams, teachers, and school administrators. Yet, due to limited training and knowledge, these individuals often missed the mark in offering a victim-centric response and connecting the survivors to the help they needed. Additionally, we also learned that the secular resources were also not meeting the Muslim communities’ needs. The organizations lacked the culturally competency to be able to provide an appropriate service to those who sought help. Muslim survivors also admitted to not even knowing that resources existed for them in the first place, and didn’t have the tools to appropriately navigate that system.

High rates of underreporting

We know that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in this country, with nearly 68% of sexual assaults never being reported to law enforcement. From our work with Muslim survivors, we know that the likelihood of not reporting is even higher among Muslims, due to the shame, stigma, and lack of awareness associated with sexual assault. While the data specific to Muslims, or even faith communities is limited, anecdotally, we have seen that more than 85-90% of survivors in the Muslim community do not report to law enforcement. To gain a better understanding of some of the barriers facing survivors and reporting, please watch this short video we developed.

This is just the beginning

This particular criminal case is over after nearly two years while the civil case continues.  This was the work of many survivors, advocates, professionals, and experts coming together from the anti-sexual assault movement, law enforcement, legal services, media, and social services. Each one of these parties played a crucial role in shining a light on the stories of these brave survivors and demanding accountability and justice. A number of elder community members even made it a point to be present on each of the court dates to show their support for the survivors. The need for this kind of collaborative approach cannot be underscored. Yet, so much more work needs to be done. There is a dearth of research on the needs of Muslim survivors. There is a dearth of culturally-sensitive resources, services, and information available to Muslim communities on sexual assault. And there is a great need for all of us to work collectively to build safer spaces for our survivors and to hold their abusers accountable, so that those who are violated are heard and believed and no longer have to suffer in silence.

We, at HEART, are motivated more than ever, to continue building on this work. We hope to produce more resources, lead research studies focusing on the needs of the Muslim communities, and implement awareness workshops and trainings for community and religious leaders. The responsibility is on all of us to build safer communities for the most vulnerable. I hope that you can join us as we continue this crucial work.