Apr 262017
 
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This letter was originally published by Rape Victim Advocates. It is part of a series by Kat Stuehrk, Northside Prevention Educator at Rape Victim Advocates, developed for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2017 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Theme, “Engaging New Voices”.

Dear Faith Community Leader,

Sexual violence is a spiritual issue. As the topic of sexual violence has slowly become less of a taboo subject, plenty of information has become available about how abuse and rape affect someone emotionally, physically, and even socially or financially. But it’s not as frequently acknowledged that sexual violence can affect folks spiritually.

Survivors of sexual violence may experience a crisis of faith, or they may simply wish to speak to someone about how their faith can play a role in their healing. A natural place for survivors to turn may be a faith leader, or others in their faith communities.

 Faith communities are a place of sanctuary, hope, and safety for folks of all ages. As a leader of your faith community, you know better than anyone that there are people who look to you as a figure of both support and knowledge.

In turn, your role comes with a great deal of responsibility; responsibility that may feel intimidating given the sensitive nature of sexual violence. In order to learn more about how faith community leaders might embrace this responsibility with confidence, compassion, and grace, I spoke with members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths about their experiences within their respective communities. I wanted to know- how do leaders in your faith community discuss sexual violence, if at all? What does your religion say about sexual violence? How can leaders in your community become more adept at responding to survivors who need support?

Throughout my conversations, some clear commonalities arose. I learned that while there are always exceptions, throughout various faith communities, issues of sexuality are rarely openly discussed in a religious context, let alone issues of sexual abuse and assault. While it is understandably difficult to be the one to broach these topics with members of your community, I wholeheartedly believe that children and adults alike need a safe space to discuss sexuality and sexual violence, with a religious lens, regardless of which faith community they belong to.

Shame also arose as a common theme. Many religious communities stress the importance of purity and rarely discuss sexuality in an open way, which can lead to internalized feelings of shame around the body, sexuality, and especially sexual violence. Silence, secrecy, and shame all compound someone’s trauma. While most people understandably want to believe that sexual violence doesn’t happen in their community, we know that it occurs within every kind of community, regardless of religion. When communities try to shroud or deny survivors’ pain, or fail to support people who are suffering, the suffering tends to get worse and the survivors become more and more isolated.

For example, if a teenage girl is experiencing sexual coercion within her relationship with her boyfriend, but the extent of her knowledge of sexuality within a religious framework is that of abstinence until marriage, she may be less likely to speak with someone in her faith community about her unhealthy relationship, for fear of being judged, shamed, or misunderstood.

In other words, successful support for sexual violence survivors within a faith community is a two-way street. First, the survivor must reach out to someone in their faith community, and then that person must respond appropriately, and support the survivor in accessing what they need to heal. However, it is unlikely that the survivor will reach out at all if sexuality is considered shameful within a religious context, or if the topic of sexual violence has never been addressed within their faith community.

Normalizing sexuality, and providing a safe space for members of your faith community to address sexuality, will aid in cutting down some of the shame-based barriers that survivors of sexual violence may have that stop them from reaching out to you or others in your community. This safe space could take the form of confidential discussion nights on different topics, including healthy relationships and sexuality, an anonymous forum in which members can ask questions, or even addressing sexual violence outwardly during services. Questions to spark discussion could include, “How is sexual violence a spiritual issue? What does our religious text say about sexual violence? Where can our community members go for support if they have concerns about sexual violence?”

These suggestions may seem extreme, or difficult, but I believe that addressing the issue is imperative. Failing to talk about sexual violence within your community won’t change the fact that it is affecting someone in your community right now. When members of your community suffer in this way, the entire faith community suffers. Pain that goes unacknowledged can fester and snuff out hope, compassion, and justice, the very things that faith communities strive to create and nurture.

Fortunately, you don’t have to make these changes alone. Folks like myself, who work at rape crisis centers, offer free and confidential support to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones, and are eager to work with faith communities to address these intersections. For the spiritual wellbeing of your community, I urge you to think about ways you can create shame-free spaces for survivors of sexual violence to heal. Faith communities are some of the strongest, most compassionate groups in our world, and extending that compassion to survivors of sexual violence is a natural next step.

Sincerely,

Your Local Rape Crisis Worker

Apr 192017
 
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*Trigger warning for sexual abuse

by Aya Khalil

Five. I was sexually abused at an age where I didn’t even have enough life experience to properly process and identify what was going on. Not by a random stranger. Not by a family member. But by someone whom the community trusted: someone who taught children how to read and memorize Quran, God’s holy book. Someone who abused his power and religious authority to hurt children. As an imam and a sheikh, he had a wealth of Islamic knowledge and an entire community turned to him for spiritual guidance. A Muslim. A teacher. A role model.

**

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photo credit: Aubrey Harding, sparethekids.com

Twenty-eight. I’m a teacher, a journalist, a mother, and a wife. I had forgotten about the incident for twenty years, until I had a child myself. And then I remembered.

I have been teaching my almost three-year-old daughter the proper terms for private parts since she was two. I remind her that her body is hers and that nobody can force her to hug or kiss if she didn’t want to. Even if that meant offending a relative or going against cultural etiquette and expectations. “If you don’t want to hug someone, it’s okay,” I tell her. “You can say no. You are strong. Your body is yours. Never keep secrets from mom or dad. We trust you. We won’t get angry at you. We are here to keep you safe. We will always believe you.”

A well-intentioned relative or friend will repeatedly ask her “can I have a hug?” I smile, and say, politely, but firmly, “Aw, it’s okay, she’s not really in the mood.” That friend or relative will probably get offended. But that’s okay. I would rather have everyone get offended by my daughter not forcibly kissing or hugging someone than the horrifying experience I went through when I was five.

**

Five. It was at an Islamic school in New Jersey. I was in kindergarten. I had recently immigrated with my parents a couple of years back. We wore cute little white and grey uniforms with a white hijab. He sat at his desk in front of the class and recited Quran and we would all repeat. Then he would call a student, one-by-one, up to his desk. And it would happen right there, behind his desk, where the other students couldn’t see. He would continue reciting and have us repeat. But we knew what he was doing, yet nobody said anything to him or anyone else. We were just five.

**

Twenty-eight. I’ve been teaching preschool at an Islamic school. Sometimes I pause in the middle of a lesson when I call on a student to come up to write on the board, remembering what that was like when I was their age. I hope and pray none of my 23 students ever experience what I endured. I never ask my students for hugs, although other teachers often do. A high five will suffice. If a child does get too close to me, I take a step back. If a child wants to hug me, I let them, but no clinging. Just a quick hug and let go.

**

Five. I was always taught to tell my parents everything and not to lie. And so, when I told my parents what happened, they believed me. As should all parents when their child says they were abused. Yet, when my parents called another student’s parent, she denied it. My parents believed me and called the police.

I vividly remember police cars and shining, bright lights in the dark of the night. My parents drove to the Islamic School and he was arrested. They wanted me to see that and know that they took what I said seriously. Five-year-olds should not have to watch an Imam, a man of great respect in the community, being handcuffed and put away in the police car for abusing children. For abusing me. But I watched, confused, betrayed, and in disbelief. Why? This was a man who parents trusted him with their children. This was a man who the community looked up to for spiritual guidance and to uphold morality and goodness and our faith that we so treasured. This was a man who should have instilled the love of the Quran in children. Yet he used the most beautiful words – the words of God – as an accomplice to commit the most horrid of acts to those who did not yet have the agency to even understand it.

**

Twenty-eight. A couple of months ago we searched for a preschool for my daughter. Male teacher? Male coach? Male music teacher? Islamic school? Quran school? Why did it all make me feel uncomfortable? “One of the lead teachers will always be with the kids when they play soccer with the coach,” another teacher assured me.

I had already declined a top-notch school because the music teacher was a male. Trust no one, I thought. Should I just say no to preschool and enroll her in full-time elementary school in a couple of years?. Yet, I wondered how would I let my daughter interact and socialize without me being there. I just need to help prevent it. And that starts with me.

**

Five. My parents took my brother and me out of the Islamic school and enrolled us in a private school. We later moved out of New Jersey and attended both public schools and Islamic schools. They often brought Quran and Arabic teachers at home, and stayed with us during the lesson. My parents were also probably the only ones who wouldn’t let us sleep over at friends’ houses. In fact, they wouldn’t let us spend the night at the Mosque when they had Qiyam El Layl (Night prayers) for high school students Ramadan. I remember envying my friends who brought their sleeping bags and snacks to the Mosque during Ramadan and my dad would come pick me up at midnight. But now I understand why they did that. And it’s what I will do with my own kids.

**

Twenty-eight. A couple of years ago when I was in high school, Hajj season came during winter break. I had the honor of performing Hajj with my sister, mom, and older brother. I felt safe. Well, at least I thought I was safe. I was sexually harassed in front of the Kabah, while making tawaf.

Safe spaces. Holy places. Schools. Mosques. Mecca. Kabah. It doesn’t matter. No matter how safe and inviting these places might seem to be, one needs to be prepared and mindful of what’s happening around them. I’m writing this to remind everyone that sexual abuse is real in the Muslim community. I’m tired of making it a taboo topic and hiding it and pretending it will never happen. I’m tired of blaming the victim and shaming Muslim women. And I’m so tired of believing that imams or religious scholars are perfect and the community siding with imams who clearly sexually abused women yet people accuse the victim of being a liar because the imam is “well-respected in the community and old.” I am a Muslim woman and I was sexually abused at two places should be safe havens in our faith. I am writing this to tell you that Muslim women, regardless of what they’re wearing (hijab or no hijab), how old they are, where they from, how they look like, can be sexually abused, even in the holiest of places by the holiest of men.

I am so glad organizations like HEART recognize and speak about important topics like sexual abuse in Muslim communities. Read more about them and check out all of the resources they have available on how to prevent sexual abuse and how to heal. If you are a victim of sexual abuse, contact them.

Aya Khalil is a freelance journalist, educator and blogger. Contact her at www.ayakhalil.blogspot.com.

Originally published November 10, 2015

Apr 122017
 
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by: Anonymous


I sat at the intersection waiting for the red light to turn green. I thought to myself that if it turns green by the time I count to three, then I’ll do it. I counted; one, two, three…. the light remained red and I began to tear up, how could I have gotten to a place where this seemed to be my only choice of salvage? Shame and disappointment streamed down my face, then the light turned green and I started to drive. I was physically behind the wheel but by no means was I mentally present. My intention to crash the car was not to die, not at all, that would be a sin and besides, I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to be removed from life for a few months so that I never had to explain what had happened, to anyone. As a nineteen year old Muslim girl, choices seemed slim and that appeared to be the only choice that didn’t place me a dishonorable position.

My family dynamics were strongly rooted in the Islamic faith. It dictated the way we thought and behaved on a daily basis. I had no knowledge or awareness about sexual health; I gathered information through context clues on television, books, and peer conversations at school. I remember feeling shameful for my curiosity, but at the same time was fascinated by the concept of connecting with someone through your body. From my peers, I gathered that sexuality was not a safe topic to discuss without being severely judged. I formed the core belief that speaking about sex was improper, immodest, and sinful; therefore, acting on anything of the sort prior to marriage was something I could not comprehend.

It was not until I was nineteen years old that I met someone who discussed sexuality openly. I was a freshman and he was a fifth year senior at our college. Gradually, we became good friends; he was one of my first male friends which disrupted my understanding of boundaries. Another core belief of mine was the assumption that all Indian/Pakistani boys were ‘good guys’ and would protect me from harm. Throughout our friendship, there was an apparent power differential; I was a naïve, sheltered freshman and he was someone who was exposed to enough of the world to understand emotional maturity and interpersonal dynamics; both of which I had no foundation in.

As time went on, this boy took on more of a mentor role than one of a friend. He single handedly became the biggest influence in my life. As time went on, he gradually managed to slip in blame, shame, criticism, and name-calling into our interactions. He weaved truths and non-truths together. He constantly told me I was ugly, annoying, weak, and had ‘unattractive dark-skin tone’; the list went on and on. I started to believe him and began to overcompensate the ‘ugly’ me by taking on the ‘pleaser’ role. I began to suppress my intuition and follow a path of behaviors that would lead me to feel wanted and needed by others, especially him.

He would share jokes related to sex and because I had now taken on the ‘pleaser’ role, I would laugh, often without even understanding the meaning. He would invite me into discussing these topics and then label me a nympho for participating; again, mixed messages. One day he asked me a personal question related to masturbation, soon thereafter, those personal questions began to escalate and I distinctly remember something inside of me did not feel at ease. His questions turned into actions with me, and as much as my intuition was screaming, the sounds were muffled by the desire to be wanted. I did what he wanted to and I pretended to enjoy my time. If at any point he felt resistance from me, he would mention how I was ‘uncool’ and not the ‘exploratory’ type he thought I was. He would constantly belittle me before and afterwards say that no one would want me unless I was more sexually experienced. He said he was doing me a favor by teaching me.

I began to think I was falling in love with him; I began to believe that this was a healthy form of attachment because I had no model or comparison of what a healthy one looked like. I began to believe I would stick it out until he also loved me too; because in my mind I could not be touched by more than one man, it had to be him who I marry.

While this was going on, I would spend my days in bed either sleeping the guilt away or laying there for hours replaying my ‘sins’ from the night before in my head. I felt violated but I didn’t understand why because I had given consent; I chose to interact with him; therefore, it did not make sense for me to feel grossly exposed. I would challenge my intuition that was screaming ‘fear’ by thoughts of self-blame, telling myself I had a responsibility in this too. It made logical sense to me at that time. It didn’t occur to me why I kept going ‘voluntarily’ to his place. It didn’t occur to me that all the reasons I was doing what I was doing were far more than I could comprehend at that time and had nothing to do with my perceived consent.

I stopped going to classes in college due to being in bed most of the day. I would spend my days in bed, and nights either on campus with friends or with him. He would never let me spend the night at his place, so I would have to find somewhere to crash at 2am until the next morning when it was a reasonable time for me to go home as I lived with my parents. One night he had smoked weed and acted more forcefully; my pleasing laughs that night were much more panicky; never did I say no or stop. Therefore, I consented… right?

During our entire friendship, no one knew we were close friends. We hid our friendship; or I should say more like he hid our friendship and I followed his lead. He knew I would never tell anyone, for my own self-preservation and for his. He was fully confident that I would protect him and he was right. He had set the parameters such that there would be no accountability.

I started to drown; I started to become more recluse and withdrawn from my friends and family. Every minute of the waking day, I would re-play episodes of what happened in my head, a way to punish myself over and over again. The punitive notion instilled in me as a child told me I deserved this pain. Then I received a letter in the mail, it was the end of the Fall semester and the letter read I had failed out of school due to my substantially low GPA. As a South Asian daughter of immigrants who highly value education, this incident threw me over the edge. The letter read that after the Spring semester is complete, I could re-apply into the university. My head spun around in circles. What would I do for a whole semester? What would my parents think? What would we tell people? What would be any solid reason to be absent from school for an entire semester? …Which leads me back to being at that that traffic light, wondering if I should crash my car, wondering that if I was in the hospital for a few months then that would be a rational reason to tell everyone why I took a leave of absence.

For the first time, things began to appear more clearly about my relationship with this boy, or should I say man. There were so many contradictions that I began to question. How could someone that I go to the Mosque to pray Taraweeh with also be the same person that I felt violated with… and on the same night? How could someone who is perceived to be always right, also be wrong? I made a promise to myself and had all intentions of ending the friendship. I visited him once after that while I used my sister, unbeknownst to her, as my protection as she waited in the car. As soon as he heard my sister was outside waiting, he backed away from me, something I never had the voice to demand he do. I gathered any belongings I had left at his place and told him I would see him later. I didn’t know what later meant but all I knew was for the time being I would be unable to see him. I spent the entire Winter break in my bed or on my prayer rug; I repented for hours and hours every night. I would hold Sujud and just cry; my tears were so familiar to me by then that it seemed unnatural to go a day without them.

I eventually told my parents that my GPA was too low to return; disappointing my parents was a grief all on its own.  My parents never asked questions about the reason behind my low grades, they assumed my lack of motivation in school was due to their own poor parenting and began to spiral down their own dysfunctional patterns of self-blame.

Soon thereafter, I was able to speak with each professor about raising my grades and by a miracle, I was able to change my GPA and continue on with the Spring semester. Although each professor did offer to change my grade which I am thankful for, they could tell something hurtful had happened to me; however, none of them asked or offered emotional assistance. The shame and non-intrusiveness attitudes reaffirmed to me that I was alone in this whole mess that I had indeed created for myself.

The next semester, I focused on myself, my grades, and God. However, while I tried my best to rely on my inner strength and God to lead me, the man who was once my mentor was out of my life but not out of my head. The man would email me frequently for years. I secretly felt important that he could not forget me. Even though the unhealthy behaviors had stopped, the unhealthy emotions remained present.

Life went on; and I met another man in my mid 20s and the pattern continued just in a different form; he would constantly belittle me, shame me, call me names and tell me repeatedly I was unattractive, yet I continued to date him. Patterns don’t just end; interventions are needed for change to occur in life.

The beginning of my intervention was when I went through a vigorous graduate program which focused heavily on self-awareness and growth and I finally began to understand healthy relational dynamics. I had a-ha moments about the men in my life and the unhealthy patterns of our relationships. I nurtured a loving and non-punitive relationship with God, understanding there is a significant flaw in dichotomous thinking. During this heightened self-awareness, I also had a small inclination that perhaps what happened to me when I was a freshman/sophomore in college was a form of abuse; however, I was fearful to process these thoughts with others. What if no one believed me? I mustered up the courage to go to a counselor and I told this woman something I had not told anyone in my life; that I believed I was abused and that my consent was not valid. My worst fear was confirmed; she did not believe me and asked if I was over exaggerating the event in my mind in order to punish him. I was devastated. It confirmed that indeed I had consented and I was to blame. I would never tell another soul.

One day I was in a semintablet-1910018_1920ar for domestic violence and the term sexual coercion came up. A very brief definition of sexual coercion was mentioned: a tactic used by perpetrators to intimidate, trick or force someone to have sex with him/her without physical force. I began to learn more about power and control, emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, minimizing denying and blaming, male privilege, and coercion. And yes, I finally understood, in my story, there was not consent. My inner self began to grow confident enough to disregard if anyone didn’t believe me because I believed me and that’s all that mattered.

I tried to discuss dynamics of power and control with close friends and extended family; however, most of them fired back, stating brushing my views off as “extreme feminism.” As a result, I suppressed my thoughts and refrained from sharing with close friends and family. I confided in myself and sadly, that was my reality.

Years went on and throughout more ups and downs and downs again, I started to learn what a healthy sexual relationship looked like and I started to be drawn to healthier people rather than toxic ones. I eventually met and married my husband in my mid 30s; the healthiest relationship I have had thus far. I told my husband what had happened in my life and without hesitation, he believed me; what a corrective emotional experience.

When I heard about HEART Women and Girls, I was in disbelief that there was an organization which addressed the same issues I feel passionate to educate the Muslim community about. The lack of sex education has hurt a staggering number of Muslim girls and women. In efforts to shield and protect our children, we are leaving them completely exposed for harm and abuse. It is for this reason that for the first time, I wanted to write down my experience. If you take anything away from this story, please know that there are people in the community who will believe you. There are people in the community to help you, and who are legally and ethically bound to so in a confidential way. You have a right to be educated and a right to be heard.

Once in a while when I find myself at that same traffic light, I take a deep breath in and remember that I am not just physically in the driver’s seat but I am also mentally and emotionally behind the wheel of my life. Now when the light turns green, I exhale a breath of gratitude and keep moving forward.

Apr 052017
 
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by Fatima Noor

Survivors, like me, whether from rape or domestic abuse, silently throw rants of blame against ourselves. The gaze our eyes lay on our reflections is one filled with shame. Our hearts electrocute our bodies with self-disdain with every second that ticks away. The intimate insides of our bodies curse us with feelings of filth. Every cell of our beings screams with questions beginning with who, what, where, when, why and how. Memories raid our minds and sacrifice our little-to-nothing sleep. With seconds of an attack, we, as survivors, become our own worst critics.

In my previous blog entitled “Confessions Part 1: My Sisters (11)”, I wrote about my conversation with my sisters about my rape. Unfortunately, it failed to go as well as I anticipated. Understandably, they were shocked and some of their words added insult to injury. So, as a follow up, I thought I would discuss in detail about the do’s and don’ts when speaking with a survivor.  I put together this list based on my own experience and with help from other organizations, like HEART Women and Girls, Know Your IX and RAINN.

  1.  Don’t demand or even expect to know the details of what happened, who he is or when it occurred. The incident was terrible and the last thing we want is to re-live it all over again. Instead, remind yourself that this is our story and allow us to navigate through it in the manner we believe is right for us.
  2. On the contrary, if we want to share our story, whether in a public or private forum, don’t throw roadblocks, in the form of guilt-trips and threats, in our way. We may have a desire to help others or this may be a way for us to feel empowered. Rape is an act of control and perpetrators expect and hope that their victims will be hush-hush about it. Talking about the assault is a way for us to get the power back in our hands. So rather than “shushing” us up, help us take back the stolen reigns of our decision-making power so that we may pave the path of our recovery.
  3. Don’t give us a difficult time or call us “selfish” when we practice self-care. Encourage us to take care of ourselves, especially when it relieves us from the hustle and bustle of our daily chores. Support us to partake in soothing activities such as painting, reading or crocheting. Help us run a few errands so that we may catch a few extra zzz’s. Urge us to try something new, such as learning to play an instrument. Come with us for some recreational activities, like a movie, coffee or bowling. Many of my friends inspired me to write about my trauma and its surrounding issues to help me cope; this blog is a result of the support I received!
  4. Don’t doubt our sanity or challenge our authenticity with questions or statements like, “are you sure you were raped?” “he doesn’t seem like that kind of guy,” or “this doesn’t make sense.” By doing so, you provoke one of the greatest fears of not being trusted. Rather, believe us and in us and avoid ripping, breaking, damaging or hurting us even more.
  5. Don’t demean us by questioning “why didn’t you learn from your past?” “what were you wearing?” and “why were you there?” all of which sting and put the blame on us. Rather, console us with warm, welcoming phrases like, “I am sorry” and “it’s not your fault,” which may help replace the intimidating voices of our assailants that threatened our peace of mind.
  6. Don’t challenge us with questions of what and why we did or did not do something. We were shocked, hurt, confused and scared. We did the best we could considering the severity of the situation. As much as we wish, there is no manual guide that we could flip through in order to deal with the ordeal. Many of us have regrets and we beat ourselves up for the decisions that we did or did not make. If you come along in our life, help us to look forward using what we learned from the past without any blaming and shaming.
  7. Don’t throw out haunting accusations of “why didn’t you see this coming?” or “this never would have happened if you had done x, y or z.” After all, we are only human and not fortune tellers. If we knew this was our destiny, we probably wouldn’t have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead, hug us, hold our hands and stand by us as we bleed out the agony from within and all around us.
  8. Don’t get frustrated at our ups and downs that we undergo. One day we will be able to laugh and go out with friends and the next day we could be feeling suicidal. One week, we may not shed a tear, while another week may be filled with sleepless crying nights. Instead, give us positive feedback like “you are doing great” or “it is natural to feel this way.” Be patient with us as we move four steps forward one day and eleven steps back another day.
  9. If we choose not to talk to you in detail because you are our loved ones, don’t be offended, jealous, angry or cold. Rape is a crime that occurs in private and involves intimate details, making us uncomfortable talking about it, especially to the closest people in our lives. And most likely than not, we don’t want to hurt you. Knowing this, encourage us to seek help with professional therapists and friends or family with whom we are comfortable with. The purpose is for us to heal in the long run. I will be the first to admit that I opted to talk to my friends and therapists over my family members both during the domestic abuse and rape.rose-1751742_1920
  10. If we pull away from you, don’t ignore us or get upset with us. Chances are we naturally let our emotions get the better of us. Understand the extreme situation and follow up with us, text us, call us, smile at us, sit next to or with us or send us small tokens that show your appreciation with us. After telling one of my good friends about my trauma, she graciously delivered four dozen pinkish-peach blooming roses to my office. Then a few days later, we met up for dinner, where she allowed me to “vent.” These small gestures brightened up my week.
  11. Don’t undermine the gravity of the trauma based on the details of the assault: number of times the assault occurred (once vs. ten times); relationship with the perpetrator (significant other vs. stranger); length the assailant and victim stayed together (immediate breakup or being together for months after the rape); when it occurred (last week vs. ten years ago); and whether there were use of weapons and/or threats. Rape is traumatic no matter what the surrounding atmosphere is. Being raped by a spouse may be just as disturbing as being assaulted by a stranger. In addition, just because the abuse occurred years ago, doesn’t mean that we have healed. Therefore, always be a supporting friend who will help replace what we lost with joy, laughter and smiles in our lives. The man who raped me never used violence or weapons and I stayed with him for two years after the assault. And dealing with him day after day for that timeframe caused me even more agony and trauma than what I had originally undergone.
  12. Don’t belittle the incident by linking it to sex, love and intimacy with claims that “it was just sex,” “at least this wasn’t your first time,” “he was expressing his love,” or “take it as a compliment.” Rape is a violation of our body and is a crime of manipulation and power over someone. It doesn’t leave behind feelings of love; it leaves traces of not just physical damage, but mental and emotional as well.
  13. At the same time, don’t say that we allowed our “nafs (an Islamic term meaning our selfish desires) to consume us; this is again a form of blame.  It was abuse, not any type of desire that fell upon us.  Yes, we may have been interested in pursuing a relationship with the perpetrator initially, but there is no correlation between the attack(s) and our desire for a companion or love.  When I had initially told someone about my situation, she said that I was desperate for a companion which is why I allowed the rape to occur and why I stayed with the rapist.  That pierced my heart so terribly that I refused to confide in her ever again.  Understand, rape is a crime and abuse and is never the fault of the victim/survivor.
  14. Don’t make excuses for the perpetrator, i.e. “maybe he was having a bad day,” “that’s how man was created” or “he was attracted to you.” No, we don’t want to hear these excuses and no, they are not justifiable or valid. Rape is wrong regardless of the reasons.
  15. Don’t approve the assault just because there was flirting, dating or sexting. Physical touch is not the same thing as words plastered on an email or whispered on a phone call. These shouldn’t even be factored into the equation.
  16. Do not minimize sexual assault to only instances involving penetration. Sexual assault can occur even if the only kissed the victim or never even saw the victim naked. A violation is a violation despite the degree of it. Rather than focusing on the actual assault or assailant, keep your attention on us survivors and accompany us on our journey of recovery.
  17. Don’t make decisions for us and don’t corner us into defending the decisions we have previously made. Questions like “why didn’t you tell anybody?” or “why haven’t you filed a report?” are subtle ways of advising us on what we should or should not do. As an alternative, allow us to be the driver of our healing, moving in the direction we choose. Of course, give us advice if we ask you, but never force us into things we don’t want to or stop us from taking certain courses of action that we want to. Some of us may choose to file a police report, while others may choose to become an activist and even others may want to put the past behind them to simply heal.
  18. Don’t share our story with others, even if it is with another family member, without our permission. It was an honor for you (and not your right) that we revealed this personal aspect of our life to you. We confided in you because we respect and trust you so please reciprocate that respect and trust. It is our story, our life and our trauma; let us unveil it the way we want, when we want, to whom with want, in the manner we want and with the details we want.
  19. Don’t avoid us, treat us differently, view us as damaged goods or make us feel like a burden. We need all the support and love we can get because there is no cast to heal our broken trust, bandage to hide the pain or glue to put back our shattered hearts. One of the comments I had heard during this ordeal was “you’ve done enough to your family” (ouch). That was one of the most gut-wrenching allegations that stabbed me in my heart. We appreciate souls who can be my constant sanctuary enveloping me in their pure goodness, trust and love.
  20. Don’t spout out statements such as “God is punishing you” or “God wanted this to happen.” When life fails us, all we have is our faith in God. When you paint God as the one who caused this, although we know deep down He is the planner of all things, it doesn’t help. We want to see Him as our savior, not as one who harms us. As an alternative, pray with us and for us. Together, we can ask Him to cocoon our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to make our healing easy, quick, painless, special and beautiful.
  21. Don’t ask us to be the better person and forgive the rapist. He doesn’t deserve any empathy or forgiveness especially when he doesn’t even seek forgiveness or acknowledge that he did anything wrong. Forgiveness may or may not happen considering something so precious was stolen from us. Leave it up to us to forgive or not as we go through our healing process. It has been two years since I was raped and 28 years since I was sexually molested and I still cannot forgive those men.
  22. Don’t pester us to “get over it,” “put it behind” us or “stop thinking about it,” regardless of whether it has been one year or 20 years since the trauma. Realize that each soul is distinct, has different strengths and weaknesses and lives with unusual surroundings and varying degrees of a support system. Some of us know and trusted the attacker, while others didn’t. Some of us continue to live within the same vicinity as he does whereas others live across the country. Some of us have nearby friends and family to support us, while others do not. Some of us have access to counseling and others have nobody to talk to. In addition, the after effects of rape haunt us like a shadow for the rest of our lives, so most of us will never really get over it.
  23. Don’t insensitively make claims that it could have been worse and tell us to be thankful with comments like “at least you’re not dead.” Yes, that is ultimately true. At that time, though, death would have been a better alternative than living through this grief. And at that moment, the gravitational pull of our pain is so strong that we cannot fathom there could be a worse situation than ours. As an alternative to this, help us count our blessings of health, a job, loved ones and anything that is positive to keep our chin up without harshly telling us to be grateful.
  24. Never think our loss is not a loss, saying “it’s not like you lost anything.” Yes, we did lose something! And that thing is far more precious than money. Just because our dignity is not valued through dollar signs does not mean it is not a loss.
  25. Don’t stereotype us as “that” type of woman. There is no one kind of woman who gets raped. Instead, degrade that horrendous act and help us see our strengths, like our character, personality, inner and outer beauty and intelligence.
  26. Don’t attempt to understand the rape and/or abuse or the emotions tied to it.  An outsider who is watching or listening to the abuse unfold will not and cannot understand what led to the assault or why, we stayed, if we did, with the perpetrator.  Even we, the survivors cannot comprehend or digest anything when we are tangled up in the trauma.  The confusion, shock and weakness consume us and make our life a jigsaw puzzle that awaits to be put together. Instead, be our lifeline to whom we talk to when and if we need it.
  27. Don’t claim to know what we are going through. Your spat with your significant other, the work politics that you faced last week, your bad hair day or not having gotten the 2% raise that you were expecting are not valid comparisons to the ordeal that we have been through. Instead, acknowledge the gravity of our pain, don’t pretend to think you know our agony and actually tell us you have no idea what we are going through.The antidote to our pain is not to shame, blame, shun, scare, lecture or guilt-trip us, as we already do a spectacular job of this ourselves. Instead, support us, honor us, love us, console us, commend us, elevate us, encourage us, talk with us and make it about us: for once, let it be victim-centric. Be our moon that is always ever-ready and present to radiate in the darkest of moments with your illuminating light and intensifying beauty regardless of whether we acknowledge you or not.

This post was originally published on the author’s personal blog, Echoes of Her Voice.

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.