Mar 122014
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

Is there a difference between sexuality and sexualization? How can we determine if our young girls want to dress sexually because they feel empowered, or because they feel pressured to fit in?  The age at which girls are expected to dress sexually has become younger and younger, and if we don’t teach young girls to push back on those pressures, we will not be preparing them for when they will need to make decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.

The recent uproar and controversy surrounding the Made in Bangladesh American Apparel ad featuring a topless Bengali woman illustrates that many, including the model herself, can no longer distinguish when an expression of sexuality is healthy, and when that expression is actually an object of sexualization. Tanzila Ahmed writes a thought provoking letter to Maks, the model featured in this ad, exploring the balance between being expressive and “exotified and commodified.” She continues to explore this, writing

“You think you chose to be creative —  but in actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.”

So how do we distinguish when a young person is displaying a healthy expression of their sexuality versus being an object of sexualization? Dr. Leonard Sax explains offers one distinction in his book, Girls on the Edge:

“Girls today are bombarded with the notion that revealing your body is a valid means of self-expression, even a manifestation of ‘girl power.’ As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to reveal their bodies in order to empower themselves. Boys don’t have to take of their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn’t either.

Sexuality is good, but sexualization is bad. Sexuality is about your identity as a woman or a man, about feeling sexual. Thats a healthy part of being human, a healthy part of becoming an adult. But sexualization is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others. Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look.”

He continues to explain that younger girls are being pressured to dress sexually, and often times, before they even are aware of their own sexuality. So, in other words, they are socialized into thinking that dressing that way is the norm, and to dress that way is pleasing to others, and an empowering and healthy way to express one’s sexuality. This desensitization leads to a “no big deal” type attitude toward anything sexual, ultimately desensitizing girls, and making them more accepting of partaking in sexual activity to gain boys’ pleasure and popularity, not because they feel empowered. The pressures to dress a certain way are very strong and embedded in subtle and not so subtle messaging in music, videos, and advertising. Even a simple stroll through the girls’ clothing section in any department store is enough to see our young girls are expected to dress sexually well before they are even aware of their sexual desire. So what can we do to help our girls feel better about themselves and not feel inadequate when they do not give in to the pressures of dressing sexually? Here are a few tips.

  1. Talk openly and frequently with your daughter about her thoughts on the matter. As your daughter gets older, she will become more aware of the pressures around her. She will begin to notice her friends may be dressing more provocatively, and may also feel frustrated at the perceived instant popularity some young girls are awarded, and may correlate it to the way they dress. Ask your daughter to share with you why this frustrates her, and ask her to think about what she may think are healthy ways of self-expression. What motivation do young girls have to dress sexually? What are the benefits and disadvantages? Also ask her to think about the messaging she is getting from female celebrities and the media. What standards of beauty are female celebrities setting? What gender stereotypes are they reinforcing? What makes a woman empowered? What qualities define a musician or actress’s talent?
  2. Begin helping your daughter build her sense of self well before the teenage years. The teenage years are by far the most confusing, and overwhelming, with the sudden physical, emotional, and social changes adolescents are forced to go through at once. It is very easy for young people to feel pressured to compromise on their values, or more importantly, begin questioning the values they have been taught throughout their childhood. Suddenly, what the popular girl in school is advocating seems to make more sense than the “archaic” values that parents have been advocating. Furthermore, it is very easy for a young girl to become obsessed with an ideal, and attaching her self-worth to it – whether that obsession is being thin, being fashionable, playing sports, pursuing a particular hobby, or excelling in school If a young girl’s preoccupation with a specific ideal leads to an obsession, she is risking losing her self-worth if that ideal disappears.  A strong sense of self, one that is based on values and character, and her spiritual relationship with God, rather than external capabilities or interests, protects her from losing her self-worth. So for example, a young girl who defines herself as the “smart girl” may become paralyzed if she is ever faced with a challenge that she finds difficult, one that she may not succeed at and lose her “smart girl” status. Developing a strong sense of self will also help young girls to fight off the pressures to dress a certain way to please others, as they won’t feel as strong a pressure to define themselves by how they look, but rather by the values they stand for. In addition, it will help them push back on even stronger pressures, such as participating in risky sexual activity or other risky behaviors.
  3. Exemplify the confidence you want them to embody. A young girl looks up to the older females in her life to set the tone. If the important women in her life do not exude confidence about how they look, dress and feel, they are likely to not view that kind of appearance as beautiful or appealing. Even if you find yourself being critical of how you look, try not to allow her to catch on to your lack of confidence (and try to work on raising that confidence!).
  4. Nurture your daughter’s healthy self-expressions and creativity. We all have preconceived notions of what matches, what looks good together, and how one should dress in certain occasions. The beauty of children is that they do not enter the world with these preconceived notions or expectations. Allowing them to explore their creativity and self-expression early on will foster confidence as they make decisions when they get older. Expecting them to adhere to certain fashion norms (such as no gym shoes with party dresses, etc) will only make it harder for them to push back on the more unhealthy fashion norms as they get older, like wearing makeup and dressing sexually at a young age.
  5. Help them develop a healthy body image. Teaching your daughter early on the difference between sexuality, which is about who you are as a person, and sexualization, which is objectification for the pleasure of others, will help her identify her motivations for how to express herself through dress. Teach her to think critically about the contradictory messages she gets from the media, about what society expects of women and the methods through which women are objectified. When a young girl has a positive body image, and loves her body for what it is, she is less likely to want to objectify it for others’ pleasure, but rather more likely to cherish it and give it its due respect. Her empowerment will not come from what she chooses to wear or not to wear, but rather from somewhere deeper within her self.
  6. Similarly, teach her to be media literate. Challenge her to think critically about the ads and the messaging she is seeing. Is that ad really selling cologne? Or is it selling sexuality and beauty? What techniques are advertisers using to sell their product? What feelings of inadequacy are they trying to appeal to? Teaching young people to critically think about and challenge the media’s messaging and imaging enables them to be more aware of when women are being objectified and to not fall prey to the advertising techniques.
  7. Have similar conversations with your sons. We would be missing an important part of the equation if we don’t have similar conversations with our sons. If we don’t start also challenging the norms our young boys are socialized to, we’re not making progress toward changing the discourse, we’re only creating a greater rift between the genders. It’s essential to teach our young men to challenge the messages they get, and to learn early on about how to respect women, instead of sexualizing and objectifying them, and how to honor sexuality in a healthy and respectful way.

These are just a few tips as we think about pushing back on the sexualization of girls, and objectification of women. It is crucial as to help our young girls develop a strong sense of self and positive body image, as it goes hand in hand with healthy sexuality and responsible decision making.

Jan 312014
 
originally published on altmuslimah.com
by Nadiah Mohajir
Cultural stigmas have existed for thousands of years, yet never have I ever been more haunted by the unfortunate effect they have on mental and physical health outcomes. As a One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) Community Ambassador, I brought together a diverse group of young women and girls to talk about self-esteem, peer pressure, and its relationship with making healthy, responsible choices.
During the icebreaker, I asked the young women to shout out the first words that came to mind when they heard the term “teen pregnancy.” Responses included words like, “failure,” “no life goals,” “peer pressure,” and “money.” Then, I asked how their assumptions would change if I added the word “Muslim” in front of teen pregnancy. Not surprisingly, the conversation suddenly took an even more serious and grave tone, with the Muslim girls in the audience shouting words like, “family disownment,” “social suicide,” “actual suicide,” and even “abortion.” When asked to elaborate, one of the girls stated, “it’s hard to mess up even slightly in a Muslim household.”It is unfortunate that our young women in the Muslim community feel that it is “social suicide” for a Muslim girl to become pregnant out of wedlock, and that many even associate it with self-imposed death and abortion. What’s sad is that these feelings are actually a reality for a certain population of young women in New York City: a study in New York City following young Muslim women who are sexually active found that the abortion rate was 100% for those who became pregnant out of wedlock. The unfortunate reality is that these women would not be asked whether or not they wanted an abortion, but rather, which type of abortion they wanted.

Undoubtedly, these are social constructs our community has imposed on itself and that are further propagated by the fact that we do not have any institutionalized support systems for our young women. The assumptions on the white board during the ice breaker about teenage pregnancy are indicative of the fact that we have no systems to help our young women and that we must bring about institutional and cultural change in order to move in the right direction. The impact of the cultural stigma surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock in the Muslim community is astounding, and is leading to some very grave, but often preventable, circumstances. It’s probably most tragically telling that our young women feel that their only choice is abortion if they become pregnant out of wedlock. In this particular case, women are not making this decision because it is offered as a choice, but because they have no choice. So, in this respect, because of the way Muslim society has enforced and reinforced these stigmas for generations now, we cannot call ourselves a pro-choice or a pro-life community. How’s that for irony?

What’s going on in our community? Why do our women feel that there is no room for imperfection and there are no second chances for making the wrong (culturally or religiously unacceptable) choice? The Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) did not teach such intolerance; nor did he endorse continual denial of the problems that exist in society. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse are all realities for the Muslim community, and have been for decades. Rape and mental illness are tragic circumstances that the victim should not be blamed for. These problems don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.

What’s more interesting is how we discuss the issue of teenage pregnancy. In a recent conversation with Sahar Ullah, co-founder of Hijabi Monologues and performer of “Light on My Face” on January 9, 2009, she explained that discussing teenage pregnancy as a “phenomenon” is much easier than personalizing the issue. In other words, on the surface, pregnancy out of wedlock is wrong and unacceptable and it is very easy for members of the Muslim community to point fingers as detached individuals from the situation. However, personalizing the story of a young woman and describing the complexity of the factors that may lead a young woman to partake in sexual activity, such as low self-esteem, the need to be loved and desired, and the pressure to not lose the man that she loves, make the story a lot easier to sympathize with and the issue a lot harder to ignore.

We must stand up and work together to come up with a solution, a way to address these issues. While some of these issues are sensitive, controversial, and many would be opposed to endorsing them, the issue is not whether or not we should (or shouldn’t) endorse them. Offering resources and support for these individuals does not equate to endorsing their decisions or lifestyle, as the community falsely believes. However, not offering them anything will further alienate them from society and push them to take extreme measures, as demonstrated by the cases described above. More importantly, prevention of these problems will not even be an option – how can we attempt to prevent problems we aren’t willing to admit even exist? We cannot wait for the problem to face our family members before wanting to make a change. Every young woman is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, or someone’s friend, and it is our collective duty to provide them with a safe space to have the option to live a healthy life and be able to receive communal support in their most difficult of times.

Changing attitudes and combating cultural stigmas that have existed for generations are not easy tasks, but we cannot keep letting our young women rely on abortion because the community finds it easier to ostracize those who become pregnant out of wedlock instead of providing them with healthy alternatives and coping strategies. We must welcome open discourse and education to raise awareness about these problems, and must work together as a society to develop long-term solutions. It is our responsibility to create a safe space for these individuals free of judgment and full of hope – whether it is through shelters, clinics, or community centers – and have a sustainable support system to give these individuals options to make healthy choices and help each other through these circumstances. Only then can we begin to think about reducing the incidence of problems such as teenage pregnancies, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases in our community. The power of education and open discourse cannot be overstated in its impact on changing attitudes; accepting that these issues exist in our communities is just the first stepping stone in the right direction.

Jan 222014
 

originally printed at http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/reclaiming-my-life-after-sexual-abuse/

By Sarah Rashid

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung

“The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” – Caroline Myss

Since I was 8 years old, I have felt as though two starkly different versions of myself existed inside me, constantly at war with each other. One version grew up as expected, appearing as a confident adult woman to the outside world. The other remained a stifled, insecure child imprisoned within. Echoing in the dark chambers of my mind, I would hear an adult’s voice yell, “Why can’t that pathetic child get it together and grow up?” Then the next moment a child’s voice would cry, “How can that woman be so heartless as to hate me and leave me behind?” I was haunted by the child’s cries for help as she begged my adult self to hold her hand, so they could grow together and be at peace. I was filled with self-loathing as the woman hurled hateful insults at her for not being able to keep up on her own. How little my adult self realized the damage she was doing to them both by ignoring that child.

For most of my life I thought there could be nothing worse than anyone knowing that I was sexually abused as a child. The fear and shame I felt had so much power over me, that the only way I managed to cope was to push my feelings as far away from consciousness as possible. Breaking through this state of imprisonment and now being able to share my story with the world has been the most painful and yet most empowering experience of my life.

It started with my friend Hinna*, who had recently come forward about her childhood sexual abuse and curated an art exhibit dealing with her trauma. I remember hearing her say the words over the phone and feeling my heart stop as I struggled to maintain my composure. I wondered, “How was she able to speak about it with so much strength, whereas I could hardly get the words out and was paralyzed by the fear of sounding weak if I did?” I had heard many others speak up before, but never a fellow South Asian American Muslim, and never someone I cared for so deeply. These unique factors were enough to turn my world upside down. In my lifelong effort to try and forget my abuse, I had ended up so entrenched in self-hatred and self-neglect, that I could care for someone else’s situation far more easily than I could care for my own. Then when I was forced to face the glaring difference between the compassion I felt for Hinna and the disgust I felt for myself, a flip switched inside me, and I suddenly felt the urgent need to face my own unprocessed trauma, still bleeding like an open wound.

In the 20 years since the abuse happened, all my energy had gone into trying to ignore it. I minimized it and pushed myself to be the strongest person I could be to prove to myself that it didn’t affect me. I studied karate, I put on a tough persona and I learned to preemptively squash any perceived attempt by someone to take even the slightest emotional or physical advantage of me. I thought that’s what I had to do to gain control over my life. However, the truth all along was that the abuse profoundly affected me on levels I didn’t even detect. On a subconscious level, I thought I must have done something to deserve it and therefore must be an inherently horrible person. Without an outlet to release my anger, I turned it in on myself and sometimes those close to me. It impacted my ability to form trusting relationships with others and, most importantly, my ability to love and trust myself. Both of these skills being so vital to the human experience meant that every aspect of my life had been impacted, that far too many decisions I had made in life were directed by this crippling fear and anxiety, that self-hatred had become “normal” to me. Nothing was more infuriating than having to acknowledge all these effects, and yet at the same, finally confronting their root cause was the key to overcoming them.

Soon after speaking with Hinna, I found a therapist and spent an intense 9 months learning to process my trauma and building up the courage to come forward. I was especially terrified because my abuser is an uncle of one of my closest childhood friends, and I had no idea how she or her family would react. Sexual abuse is a difficult enough topic for any community to deal with, but compounded with the taboo-phobia of the Muslim community and the extreme shame attached to discussing anything sexual, this task felt unbearable. But what kept me motivated even through the toughest parts was scraping together at least enough self-respect to know that I didn’t deserve to keep suffering for what happened to me. I didn’t want to live in a world where victims have to carry the burdens of crimes they didn’t commit while perpetrators get away with them. For my own sanity I had to do my part to try and change that, however slightly, and without a doubt Hinna’s courage is what gave me the courage.

I first talked to my mother, crying so hard that it felt like hours before I finished saying everything I had written down. She embraced me and cried, so grateful that I had broken the silence between us. My mother and I had a difficult relationship since I was 13, when I first came forward to my disgracefully incompetent middle school guidance counselor. Carelessly slumped on a chair in her stuffy office, she watched coldly as I mustered all my courage to tell her something that I had been struggling to understand for 5 years. Her dismissive reaction was re-traumatizing enough at that moment, but it wasn’t until years later that I came to fully grasp how much damage she had done. Moreover she forced me to tell my mother without providing any follow-up support. My mother was heartbroken, but had no idea how to deal with it or how to emotionally support me, and I was too young to know what kind of help I needed. She shut down, leaving me to assume that I was supposed to do the same. This left an unmentionable tension between us, and I learned to just shut up about it and suffer silently while putting on a happy face.

The terrible results of my first attempt to come forward are largely why minimization became my coping mechanism from that point on. I maintained the capacity to feel overwhelming compassion for other abused people in stories I heard, because deep down I related to what they were going through, but I always minimized my experience in comparison to theirs, trying to convince myself how “lucky” I was that I hadn’t gone through “worse”. Growing up South Asian and Muslim, it was all too easy to minimize my trauma when reading the most horrific stories of war and cruelty from overseas. However this self-neglectful thinking only deepened my pain. Whenever I felt bad about my situation, I would beat myself up for being “weak”, the one state I could never bear to be in again. It took me far too long to understand that comparisons meant nothing when it came to trauma. All that mattered was how it made me feel, and as I grew older it became harder for me to keep ignoring the fact that my pain was becoming more disabling over time.

Coming forward this second time, 15 years later, I was mortified of getting equally malicious and unhelpful reactions. But this time, thanks to Hinna’s example and the help of my therapist, I knew what I needed and I was going to make sure I got it. I had struggled with self-hatred, PTSD and Depression long enough. I had become so stunted and stuck in every area of my life that at this point, it was a matter of either walking through the fire or continuing to lose my desire to live.

I had no idea how difficult the next 8 months would be. My mother helped me come forward to my brothers, who then helped me come forward to my father. I was so relieved that they believed me, and that I had their love and support, but I hated having to see people I care about hurt so much, which is one of the many reasons that kept me silent all these years. I remember watching my father go through all the different stages of emotion while struggling to maintain his tough façade. My family members had very different ways of coping than I did, which often meant they couldn’t help me in the ways I needed them to, but simply being able to share my burden with them went a long way in taking some of the weight off my shoulders. I even wrote a scathing letter to the guidance counselor and the school’s principal, detailing every way in which her carelessness hurt me, with the hope that it might spare some other students the same pain.

In the middle of this process, my therapist had to take a leave of absence. To continue getting the emotional support I needed, I kept pursuing mental health professionals until I found the right fit. I went through many therapists, which became emotionally exhausting and frustrating, but ultimately it was worth the trouble once I found the right one. And with the added help of a great sexual assault counselor, I got through the scariest stage of all: coming forward to my friend and her family. I was terrified that I might lose her, that even if she did believe me our friendship could never be the same again. Our families had been close for decades, but I wasn’t sure that was enough to withstand this upheaval. As I sat in front of her, shaking and blinking through blurry tears as I tried to tell her as gently as possible, I had no idea how amazing she would be in that moment. She reacted with compassion, love and support, despite how hard it was to hear that it had been her uncle. It was painful to watch her father, who’s like a second father to me, grieve over the fact that his own brother had abused someone dear to him. As depressing as the whole process was for everyone, we helped each other get through it with love and compassion.

I was extremely fortunate that my friend’s family reacted exactly as I needed them to. Oftentimes people don’t know how to respond to news of sexual abuse (which is the result of our communities refusing to talk about it). Therefore denial and anger are often the knee-jerk reactions. However on top of the terror of coming forward, negative reactions can be permanently damaging to the victim (as I had experienced at 13), and I’m so grateful that this is not how my friend and her family reacted. They believed me, they grieved with me and prayed for me, and they have continued to support me throughout my healing process. My friend’s father courageously confronted my abuser, which meant everything to me, and told his relatives with the hope that it would help any other children who may have also been abused come forward and get help. My friend and her family demonstrated a level of humility and self-sacrificing love that still overwhelms me, and I hope that as Muslims continue to address sexual abuse more openly, more people will develop the courage and perspective to respond as they did.

It took a frustratingly long time to get the point of coming forward, but my patience paid off. I had been terrified of the potential drama that might erupt, but when the moment came there was very little drama to deal with and I was able to handle it. For almost a year I had constantly doubted whether all the pain I had to go through was worth it. Would coming forward actually help me or only make me feel worse? How would people look at me? What if I had gotten so used to my self-loathing, divided persona that I couldn’t handle living any other way? It’s counter-intuitive, but even when you feel imprisoned, you become so dependent on those walls that it’s terrifying to imagine how you can live without them. Perhaps hitting rock bottom and having little left to lose is what allowed me to maintain just enough grit to patiently get through the process. After a year’s work, after my abuser was confronted, I finally started to feel the relief and liberation I had only dreamt of until then. The burden was finally being lifted off my shoulders and placed where it belonged, squarely on the perpetrator.

As I expected, the coward denied it; and I was a constant heap of anxiety as my friend’s father told his relatives, people I grew up with, and I was left wondering if they even believed me or were in denial. Surprisingly, what got me through those months was literature. I used up every spare moment devouring dozens of novels that allowed me to escape my surroundings as I waited for this hurricane to pass. I kept away from my community and focused on working with my counselor and therapist to rebuild my relationship with myself. Doing so allowed me to face the inevitable tension I encountered with my friend’s relatives. I was able to maintain enough perspective to remember that coming to terms with news like this is a long process and that, depending on people’s previous life experience and emotional maturity, they need varying amounts of time to process it. Having the support of close friends and family and a good counselor and therapist is more than I could have asked for, as I know that sadly many victims are not so lucky. I had prepared myself for the possibility that I would not be that lucky, and knowing that I had the strength to go through with the process anyway was a huge step in learning to love and trust myself.

A few months ago, I finally had a major breakthrough. Until then I had struggled with letting go of my self-loathing and learning the language of self-acceptance and love. It was one thing to tell myself to have self-compassion, but a much longer and more elusive process to actually start feeling that compassion. There was no way to rush that feeling, I just had to do what I could to help myself and hope that eventually it came. I remember waking up one morning and feeling inexplicably different. Until then I had been caught in a tug-of-war between pretending that the abuse had no effect on me just to get through the day and acknowledging the impact of my abuse only to feel crippled by pain and rage. That morning it was suddenly easier for me to acknowledge the abuse without the paralyzing reactions. This didn’t mean I had less of a right to feel hurt or angry by it; it simply meant that I was learning to love and comfort myself enough to start feeling safe again. I felt more in control. I no longer felt powerless. While before I couldn’t bear the thought of people knowing, I now suddenly stopped caring if my abuser or anyone else knew how much he had hurt me. He no longer had power over me. I felt like a stronger and more genuine version of my old self, someone who could be loving and be loved.

I strongly believe that this breakthrough came as a result of finally listening to my instincts and feeling my way through the trauma rather than denying it. Although that meant making up for decades of suppression by feeling intense anger and sadness for a concentrated period of time (which unsettled people close to me), it was a necessary step in learning to comfort myself in a way I had never been able to do before.

In sexual abuse recovery there is often reference to an inner child who was developmentally stunted by the abuse and needs to heal before a survivor can feel whole and move forward. I started imagining her, the terrified 8 year old girl, the girl I had long hated. I started hugging her, telling her how strong she is and letting her cry in my arms. This is what she had been needing all these years. She needed me to love and stand up for her, which I couldn’t do until I stopped suppressing my trauma. I’m doing my best to make up for all those years of neglect. Now whenever she feels angry, I support her in feeling through it, and whenever she feels sad, I’m there to comfort her. It makes all the difference.

Deciding to face my abuse and get help was the best decision ever I made. I learned that allowing myself to be vulnerable was not the same as weakness; instead it gave me more strength. Though oftentimes I felt like I was getting worse before I got better, I now know that every little moment of genuine positive or negative emotion I experienced ultimately contributed to my healing. Learning to feel through my pain and anger allowed me to feel all my emotions more fully and to start enjoying life more authentically. Healing from trauma is an ongoing process, but thankfully I believe the hardest part is over, and I can finally move forward in life in a way that feels genuine and much less directed by fear. I can embrace the joy of falling in love with myself and being who I want to be. The sudden outpouring of self-respect and confidence since my breakthrough made me realize that these qualities have been with me all along, they were just being suffocated and masked by my self-hatred. All these changes brought me to a more hopeful place from which I could share this story, that I hope will help others who are struggling to heal from any kind of abuse or trauma. Everyone is different and has his/her own challenges to face, but as Hinna’s example taught me, knowing that we’re not alone can mean the difference between suffering and healing.

Going forward, the woman and child in me are learning to reconcile and communicate. They have found common ground in their shared strength. This is largely due to my counselor once telling me, after many failed attempts to get me to have faith in myself, “You have survived one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through. Don’t you realize that you can handle anything?” It took me a long time to let those words into my heart because I still felt like a victim, not a survivor. But I realized having been through this whole process that she was right, and I can be proud of myself as a child for surviving and as an adult for demonstrating a level of strength and patience I didn’t even know I had. My experience will unfortunately always be a part of me, but it doesn’t define me, and now I know how to deal with it if and when the pain and anger arise again. Come what may, I can now trust myself to get through anything, God-willing. When I think of this, my inner child stops crying and smiles confidently. Then we high-five each other, hold hands and walk excitedly into the future.

*Friend’s name changed to protect privacy.

**********

To learn more about engaging the Muslim community in ending sexual violence, please refer to HEART’s collaborative toolkit: Engaging Muslim Communities in Ending Sexual Exploitation: A Toolkit and Resource Guide. Download here: Toolkit Ending Sex Exp

Jan 082014
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

Originally published on altmuslimah.com in 2010

A few days ago, my kindergartner came up to me and, as usual, relayed the happenings of her day. I patiently listened to her stories as I prepared dinner, until she started to tell one that demanded more immediate attention. “Mommy,” she said, “Kayla told Emma today that she is ugly, but Rachel and I told Emma she is beautiful and that we needed to have a talk with Kayla.” “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Does it really start this early?”

HEART Women & Girls was recently contacted by a 5th grade Islamic school teacher who distributed a survey to her students, asking them about the challenges they face in their day-to-day routine. Shockingly, two-thirds of the sixth grade girls and a little less than half of the fifth grade girls complained of “bullying” as a specific problem they struggle with.

Unfortunately, these girls are not alone. As HEART continues its discussions with educators and administration in Islamic schools, the issue of bullying is becoming increasingly apparent, calling for more urgent attention. In a recent workshop targeting fifth through eighth grade girls at a local Islamic school, we learned that more than 75% of these girls identify bullying as a major issue at their school. Moreover, the problem was not exclusive to relationships between boys and girls, but prevalent within same-gender interactions as well.

So, what’s going on with our youth? According to studies presented in My Body, My Self, 75% of girls aged eight to 10 years and 81% of 11 and 12-year-old girls expressed concern about fitting in with their peers. It seems then that most pre-teen girls share the same insecurities and anxieties about who they are and how they assimilate into the larger group. Yet, many of these girls feel the need to protect themselves from this realization, and resort to bullying and teasing others in order to feel empowered. Although many of them may have experienced the terror of victimization, they still seize every opportunity they can to torment others.

As HEART’s surveys and workshops in area Islamic schools indicate, harassment between peers is so rampant and far-reaching that even private Muslim schools, where most share the same faith, customs and values, are no exception. One Islamic school educator told us of a girl who received several emails from a classmate suggesting that she “kill herself because she was fat and ugly.” What’s more unfortunate is that the school did not have the proper staff or programs in place to address it effectively. This concept of “cyber-bullying” has led to disturbing trends, where emails, chat messages and other types of social media platforms are used to bully and condemn another girl. With a simple click of a button, a humiliating picture or a hateful email can circulate throughout an entire student body, and, within a few seconds, haunt a girl for the duration of her academic career. We can attribute this brutality to the omnipresence of technology and the increased distortions of beauty standards reinforced by an overly sexualized media.

The need for our girls to meet narrowly defined and stringent standards of beauty and to feel accepted by their peers has had some very serious, unhealthy consequences. Those who bully are more likely to engage in antisocial and delinquent behavior as adults, while the bullied have increased feelings of fear and anxiety that affect their levels of concentration and self-worth and often persist throughout their lifetime, leading to social isolation. According to the DOVE Self-Esteem Fund, “Self-esteem has an effect on every aspect of a person’s life. When girls and women feel good about themselves, they are more likely to engage in life, enjoy social interactions, and live up to their full potential.” On the other hand, when girls do not feel good about themselves, or are anxious about what people will think about them, they are less likely to participate in class, take leadership roles, and take a healthy risk of trying new activities.

It is imperative for us to stand up against bullying and empower our girls to unite and learn from each other’s strengths, rather than delight in each other’s apparent weaknesses. Many public schools today have taken a zero-tolerance policy stance on bullying – a short-sighted approach that may reduce bullying on school grounds, but does not address the problem of the bully him/herself, who can continue to harass in unsupervised venues. While there is not one easy solution to eliminate bullying from our girls’ lives, schools can employ a variety of strategies, including increased monitoring where bullying is expected (bathrooms, playgrounds, etc), reducing unsupervised time students have during the school day, and offering teachers training sessions on how to effectively address bullying. Most importantly, adopting self-esteem or character-building programs into the school curriculum is often very effective in building leadership and camaraderie in the school.

While parents send their children to Islamic schools with the hope of acquiring religious knowledge in addition to secular knowledge, it is important to remember that most schools – public or private – do not incorporate self-esteem courses into their regular curriculum. Consequently, it is crucial for parents to supplement their child’s education with character and self-esteem building activities, through continued and open conversation, as well as structured classes. More importantly, parents should keep in mind that bullying is not any less extreme in Islamic schools where the student body is more culturally and religiously homogenous.

Bullying should not be an issue in any community, Muslim or otherwise. Our basic value as human beings is that we treat others as we want to be treated, and I was sure to emphasize this to my kindergartner when she told me about her friend Emma. I know that this was but the first of many conversations I am to have with her as she continues to encounter these situations. However, my genuine belief is that by continuing the dialogue and making a concerted effort to understand the environment in which our daughters are growing up, we will be taking a crucial step toward raising confident girls who stand up against what is wrong.