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
 

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
 

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 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.

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.

Jun 242016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

courthouse-1223279_1920In January 2015, a Stanford undergraduate student sexually assaulted a young woman. The woman, unconscious at the time, was assaulted behind a dumpster. Two graduate students riding past the scene were able to stop the assault and detain the perpetrator – Stanford champion swimmer Brock Turner – until the police came. A little over a year later, the jury found Turner guilty on three counts of sexual assault, with a maximum of 14 years in prison.

But last week, Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in county jail and three years probation because the judge feared the “severe impact” a longer sentence would have on the star swimmer.

How’s that for your daily dose of justice?

This case brings up many important reminders. I call them reminders, and not lessons, because they are not new findings; rather, they are what most anti-sexual assault activists, experts, and advocates have been saying for decades…Read more.

Jun 242016
 

By Sahar Pirzada

candle-335965_1920I am sitting on an airport chair at 7:45am in Northern California. This is the 5th time I have had to travel in the span of a month. My heart is filled with all sorts of mixed emotions. I am tired. Actually not tired, but exhausted in every sense of the word, yet there is still a small bulb of energy pulsing in my heart that is keeping me going. I’ve had a knot in my chest since Wednesday and I’m waiting for an hour to myself where I can cry and release the pressure.

Yesterday, I facilitated a community forum about sexual violence for the Muslim community at a college campus. A female Muslim student of 23 years old bravely shared her story of being sexually and emotionally abused by her close friend for the span of 6 months. She shared the details, the raw emotions, the thoughts running through her head and shared her pain with a room of 100 community members in the most beautiful, vulnerable and humble way. She was not there for herself, she was there for them. She was there because her love for her community drove her to share herself with them so she could change the culture of victim-blaming, to change the cultural stigma around abuse and to uplift the story of her abuse and the stories of the 4 survivors before her who had suffered in silence at the hand of her abuser. As she spoke, I sat quietly next to her and held on to her strength with all its delicate power resonating through the room.

I sat there, yesterday, in admiration of her and of the community leaders who had made the forum a possibility. Today, I continue to marvel at how timely these young people mobilized around this issue. Earlier last week, on Wednesday one of my students called me to share this survivor’s story with me. The student wanted to support her friend in whatever way possible and so she reached out to me and asked for help. What am I currently noticing about the connection between my spiritual identity and organizing? I am noticing that I now have a purpose. That I now have influence. That I now have power to change my faith community to practice the values at the core of our religion – mercy, justice and love. After a 7 day workweek, I eagerly hopped on plane once again on Sunday evening to join the student leaders who I pray will lead my community to greatness some day. I met the survivor and we shared our stories and sat in peaceful discomfort on the grassy lawn of the college campus. We were joined by the organizers of the forum at a cafe where we mapped out the agenda: renewal of intentions, safe space guidelines, video of a survivor story, definitions, types of abuse, reasons why survivors don’t report, reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships, responding as individuals and institutions in a victim-centric way, resources and, of course, the survivor’s truth. We closed the event off with a powerful supplication. A brother wept as he asked God to open our eyes and hearts. With a stream of tears rolling down his cheek he prayed that the community show up when needed and support survivors. He asked for forgiveness from his Lord for being blind and not showing up sooner. We sat in silent prayer for another minute, we all took a deep breath and left the space realizing what we just did as a community is just the beginning.

Insha Allah (God-willing).

Sahar Pirzada is HEART Women & Girls‘ Lead Trainer on the West Coast. She actively works to promote sexual health and well-being, and advocates for victim-centric approaches and information for all sexual assault survivors.

May 042016
 

by Henna Khawja, M.S.W.

IMG_3613

vocal.org.au

*Trigger warning: Following article includes the topic of sexual abuse and sexual assault

I have often found myself wondering, “Why don’t people love their children just the way they are?” Individuals spend a lot of time thinking about conceiving, trying to conceive, getting fertility tests, being pregnant, giving birth, fostering and/or adopting. The baby arrives and they are perfect – healthy and alive, soft and all theirs. At what point does that perfect child become “not enough?” Too dark, too fair. Too skinny, too curvy. Too lean, too muscular. Too feminine, too masculine. Hair product. Diets. Fair and lovely. Copious amounts of tutoring. Shaming. Neglect. Abuse.

In my eight years outside of university working as a Social Worker and Counsellor, I have seen pain and trauma in many, many forms. Women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands, children who have been molested by their family members, young men and women who have been forced into marriage at a young age – these individuals often come into counselling with one common denominator: they feel at fault, they feel wronged, but ultimately, they feel that they are to be blamed for their experience. They feel like helpless victims.

Now, as a mother to a beautiful baby girl, I wonder how my child – who I gracefully carried in my womb for thirty-seven and a half weeks – could ever be “not enough.” I want her to experience nothing but positivity in life – boundless self-love, unconditional love from family and friends, unbreakable self-confidence, admirable self-respect, compassionate faith, innate leadership skills, and merciful romantic love, when the time is right. I want my daughter to become a strong-willed, graceful, intelligent and opinionated woman – perhaps an academic, an artist, an athlete, a writer, perhaps a Social Worker like me, but most definitely whatever she defines as her calling. That said, why would I ever want her to feel like a victim? It is the role of a parent to uplift and empower their child, just as it is the role of the Counsellor to uplift and empower the folks that they work with.

On the topic of women’s rights, the debate of politically correct discourse is often relentless, often ignorant, sometimes inspiring, but rarely empowering. A common discussion within the topic of sexual abuse or assault is “Survivor” versus “Victim.” As an advocate for individuals who have experiences of violence in their lives, I am unapologetically an advocate for the former category. It is my strong opinion that any individual – male, female, cisgender, transgender or transitioning – who has had an act of violence committed against them is undoubtedly a Survivor (insert all of the positive emojis and Beyonce .gifs here).

From a theoretical perspective, there are many academic frameworks and counselling approaches that support using the phrase survivor – Strengths-Based Perspective, Client-Centered Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Anti-Oppressive Practice, Empowerment Theory – to name a few. When an individual has experienced a form of violence, they are made to feel powerless, betrayed, out of control and perhaps hopeless. Using a negative phrase such as “victim,” a word borrowed from Western legal discourse, only further disempowers them. In many cases of violence, individuals find themselves amongst the mess of the legal system – a process that inherently deems a person a victim to their circumstances. The legal process then proceeds to shame, demonize, question, doubt, slut-shame and discount the individual’s narrative, all in the name of due process and “justice.” Imagine going into such a lengthy, nuanced process already feeling like a victim? Now imagine beginning that same process by saying to yourself, “I am a Survivor.” Which scenario would be more gentle on your heart?

Survival for Survivors is diverse, complex and beautiful. It occurs on the daily in the most mundane of ways for the average person, but there have also been noteworthy, inspirational cases which are worth mentioning. When Anita Hill was repeatedly sexually harassed by her supervisor, who was a Judge at the Supreme Court of America, she survived by seeking justice and ultimately opened a nation-wide, if not international, discussion on workplace sexual harassment. Jane Doe was raped by the notorious and serial “Balcony Rapist,” and she survived by launching a lawsuit against the Toronto Police, arguing that investigators were negligent for not making the public aware of the rapist. These women not only sought justice and healing for themselves, but they went above and beyond by ensuring safety and protection for the general public. Male students at Brown University brought their campus sexual assaults to the attention of the administration, and they survived by advocating for themselves, raising awareness about male sexual assault, and bravely continuing their studies on the very campus where their traumas occurred. The good people at FORGE noticed that more than half of the attendees of their monthly meetings had disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused as children, so they promoted survivor-hood in various transgender communities by conducting nationwide research, organizing conferences and providing nationwide training to social service providers. When individuals from various faith communities disclosed that they had been sexually abused by a religious authority, they survived by seeking assistance, justice and ensuring protection for their fellow brothers and sisters in faith. Individuals who are differently abled experience sexual assault and confide in a trusted individual or reach out for help from a worker, they survive through self-advocacy by allowing themselves to ask for help.

As you see, survival comes in many different forms – it is not always graceful, or loud, or even visible to most. With this particular form of violence, survival can look like:

  • Simply waking up in the morning
  • Getting out of bed and starting your day
  • Disclosing your experience to a loved one, a Counsellor, a Lawyer, a Teacher, or your own journal
  • Learning and identifying your triggers
  • Engaging in self care
  • Seeking counselling
  • Pursuing an order of protection
  • Writing about your experience
  • Returning to a place that reminds you of your experience, or alternatively, deciding to finally avoid said place
  • Creating art about your experience
  • Meditating
  • Praying

When working with Survivors, I want for them what I want for my daughter – to feel nothing but positivity; to heal and to mourn in a healthy manner, to feel supported, to be loved, to feel safe, to seek and hopefully obtain justice in light of the injustice(s) that occurred during their life’s journey. I want Survivors to know that they did not choose to be abused, that the abuse occurred to them. I want Survivors to know that they are not their circumstances, and with (a lot of) hard heart work, they can rise above their pain. I want Survivors to value their worth, and to undoubtedly know that they are “enough.” I want Survivors to know that they are not to be blamed for what happened to them. Individuals who have experienced child abuse, incest, sexual assault, molestation, forced marriage, rape, secret marriage, cyberbullying or have been forced to hide their identity in any way – know that you have survived your circumstances, you have not fallen victim to what was done to you, and I see you as a Survivor – even if you are not ready to do so yet.

Henna Khawja is a Registered Social Worker with years of training and practice from Toronto, Canada. Henna joined the HEART team in 2014 as Consultant and Facilitator. After completing her Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) at Ryerson University, Henna transitioned to the University of Toronto to pursue her Master in Social Work (M.S.W.) specializing in Social Justice and Diversity with a Collaborative Degree in South Asian Studies. Since graduating, Henna has focused her practice on both clinical counselling and grassroots advocacy in Toronto, Canada; Islamabad, Pakistani and Zanzibar, Tanzania with a variety of community-based and corporate organizations. Henna’s expertise thrive in working with women and youth on the topics of anti-oppression, crisis intervention, trauma therapy, expressive arts therapy, domestic violence, honour-related violence, forced marriage, interfaith dialogue and narrative therapy. You can email Henna at henna@heartwomenandgirls.org or follow her on Twitter @mskhawja.

May 042016
 

by Sahar Pirzada

*Content Note: Post discusses rape and marital rape

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credit: familyplanning.org.nz

It is common practice to ask before touching something that is not yours. The same rule applies to bodies. A husband does not own his wife or her body and must ask before touching it. She is the sole owner of her body and has the right to decide who can touch it, how, when and for how long.

This concept seems to have been lost on not only some Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir in Malaysia, but some Muslim people in general who do not believe that marital rape exists in Islam. Rape is rape. Whether it is between strangers, friends, a dating couple or a married couple – the action of forcing a person have sex with them without their consent (or forced consent due to emotional coercion) is rape.

As a Muslim woman, I believe the rights granted to me by my religion are just and fair. I, therefore, have a vested interest in proving marital rape is forbidden in Islam because if it weren’t, then what does that mean about the worth of my sexual agency in a marriage? My passion to educate women about their sexual and reproductive rights became much more important to me several months back, when I conducted a workshop for Muslim women in Singapore.

One of the aunties approached me after my talk and asked “Can I really say no if he wants to have sex? Won’t the angels curse at me if I say no?” My heart broke as she went on to explain to me how she would ask her husband every night before going to bed if he wanted anything from her sexually, but she was rarely in the mood and was asking merely out of obligation as his wife. The conversation raised many questions about physical intimacy, sexual rights and consent in the context of Muslim marriages. The assumption in the room was that by signing the Islamic marriage contract, a woman has legally consented to engaging in sexual activity with her partner any time he demanded it. In the case of the aunty, she consented, even when she did not want to have sex, out of fear of a spiritual punishment. The question then remains- is this willful and informed consent? Making sense of this situation requires us to take a closer look at interpretations of religious texts and judgements about the expectation of women to have sex with their husbands.

First, there are certain hadiths one can refer to that are used to justify the requirement for women to say yes to her husband’s sexual requests. In Sahih Muslim, The Book of Marriage (Kitab al-Nikah), 3368, Abu Huraira (may Allah pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying:

When a man invites his wife to his bed and she does not come, and he (the husband) spends the sight being angry with her, the angels curse her until morning.];

Secondly, there are influential figures such as Ustaz Abdul Hakim Othman of HTM, who believe and openly decree that marriage legalises a Muslim to have sexual relations with a woman. “Your body is to be used by your husband, to put it crudely. When you marry a woman, there’s no need to get consent [for sex], no need at all,” he said.

It is easy to see how these messages can be read negatively by both men and women. For men, they may believe their wives should submit to their sexual requests. For women, they may believe that it is their religious obligation as wives to say yes.

There are, however, alternative understandings of Islam that support a woman’s right to consent to all forms of sexual activity within a marriage. Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front is one such individual who is speaking out against the patriarchal interpretations of Islam. He is quoted in MalayMail Online having said “Any imposition without her consent is basically an assault on her rights as an independent human being. If this imposition without consent is termed marital rape, then marital rape it is.”

Shaykh Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes during a lecture for Sacred Path of Love explicitly denounced marital rape and also noted that the hadith about angels cursing women was in reference to women who use sex as a tool to manipulate and control their husbands.

After finding less than satisfying interpretations of the angels cursing hadith online, I consulted with local Indonesian scholar Dr. Nur Rofiah who explained how the hadith can not be understood in a vaccuum. It should be understood as a part of a collection of verses from the Quran and other hadiths that discuss marital relations. In the Quran, you have a verse that notes husbands and wives being garments of each other – this indicates an equal relationship between them. She went on to explain that the hadith about the angels cursing women refers to instances where the husband is inviting the wife politely but the wife refuses arrogantly to have sex with him. Marriage allows men and women to have sex with each other but forbids cruel treatment and consent should be obtained actively and not assumed.

Another shaykha from the US provided me with a similar explanation of the hadith:

“It is her legal right to refuse and accept any physical relationship. If she uses her right abusively ( to manipulate him and use his sexual needs as a tool against him to get what she wants or out of a desire to punish him) the husband still has no right to force her. Rather, the hadith admonishes her and warns her of her punishment with Allah and His angels. If a woman is tired or sick or just doesn’t want to engage in relations  and she is not using her refusal as a means to hurt her husband, there is no negative spiritual consequence to her refusal. Such a woman would refuse in a kind way (as opposed to abusive) and whether her husband understands or not, is not on her once she has communicated to him with ihsan. The hadith is meant for women who cheapen the marital bond and relations to a weapon they can use against their husbands. Even then, the hadith reminds them that they may have the worldly right to refuse in an abusive way, but they don’t have the ethical right.”

Her explanation presents a far more nuanced understanding of the hadith, as opposed to the literal reading that people are so keen to adopt, and therein lies the key difference.

In understanding any religious obligation, we are often confronted with numerous conflicting passages of the Quran and hadith, all of which are rooted in very specific contexts. We must constantly challenge ourselves to think the best of our religion and question interpretations of religious texts that promote injustice. If there is ever a situation where an individual is being physically, emotionally or spiritually harmed in the name of Islam, we need to not just brush it off as “those aren’t Muslims who say that” but work to understand their perspective and offer positive alternative perspectives. When in doubt – refer back to the character of the Prophet (S) and the core teachings of Islam that simply put, ask us all to do good in this world. In my Islam, emotional blackmail, coercion and rape are not part of those teachings.

originally published on beyondhijabsg.wordpress.com

Sahar Pirzada is Lead Trainer, West Coast for HEART Women & Girls.