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

feature-consent-stop-sexual-violence-oct-2014_700x538

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.

May 042016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

originally published on altmuslimah.com

sUp until a few years ago, Jian Ghomeshi was known to many Canadians as a singer, musician and radio broadcaster. In 2014, he gained notoriety for a much more sinister reason. Ghomeshi faced 23 separate allegations of sexual assault. Despite the fact that there were multiple brave women who came forward with their stories, the court acquitted Ghomeshi due to insufficient evidence on March 24, 2016.

So what precisely is sexual assault? Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

The recent acquittal of Jian Ghomeshi is not unusual as many defendants in sexual assault cases walk free, leading one to wonder if the criminal justice system is truly protecting those who it claims to protect. Read more….

May 042016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

As we embark on Sexual Assault Awareness Month, you will hear many important facts and information about sexual assault, its impact, its prevalence, and how we can begin working toward prevention. This year, at HEART, we would like to raise awareness on why victims don’t tell. Disclosing sexual assault is a complicated and personal decision. Often, victims tell and are not believed or are blamed. Other times, they don’t tell because of the numerous emotions they may be feeling. Join us throughout the month as we explore these reasons in depth, listen to survivor stories, and begin thinking about ways we can make our communities safer for our survivors. We introduce this month, which begins tomorrow, April 1, with our latest video project on why victims don’t tell. We hope that you find this video informative, and that you will share this video with your family and friends. Most of all, we hope that it challenges you to think about the role you can play in supporting sexual assault survivors moving forward.

May 042016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

The Academy Awards, to me, are like Superbowl Sunday: they are never missed and usually watched with the company of a number of friends. In the past, the “pregame show” – the red carpet – has been watched much more meticulously than the actual show itself – hearing the interviews, seeing the dresses, and who the movie stars are interacting with has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.

Something happened at this year’s Academy Awards – similar to this year’s Superbowl with Beyonce’s Formation, and Grammy’s with Kendrick Lamar’s powerful performance – that deemed it different from the past years, that made the pretty dresses and celebrity gossip no longer the forefront of the discussion between my friends and I: the undeniable activism raising awareness on important social justice issues such as race, sexism, and sexual violence. Not only were these complex and nuanced issues being discussed before the Oscars by many activists and critics, these issues were openly addressed on stage at one of Hollywood’s largest events.

From the obvious longstanding #oscarssowhite discussion to the red carpet journalists being challenged to talk to actresses about more than just who they were wearing, to some really powerful demonstrations honoring the resilience and courage of gendered-based violence, I am still thinking about this year’s academy awards.

One issue, in addition to race, that was given much attention was that of gender based and sexual violence. Vice President Biden’s urging the audience to join him and the White House to end sexual violence through the It’s On Us campaign, Lady Gaga’s emotional performance with fifty survivors, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s win for a film on honor killings, and Spotlight’s win for best picture represent a powerful shift in our culture despite how ingrained and systemic sexual violence and gender based violence is: it is no longer acceptable to remain silent on injustices like sexual assault and honor killings. These “wins” at the Oscars were two reminders for me: first, that there are multiple avenues to raising awareness and art, film, and music are powerful tools to do so. Second, while on the surface, it is natural to weighed down by the heavy, tragic issue of sexual assault and honor killings, these are stories of courage, resilience, and survival.

And so today, I am hopeful. While working to raise awareness on difficult topics such as sexual violence is often disheartening, and sometimes feels like progress is moving at a snail’s pace, I am also consistently moved by the courage and resilience of those who refuse to remain silent – both of the survivors themselves, and the many others who work to support them – from their advocates, to the artists that tell their stories, to our very own Vice President. I am hopeful by the realization that we are entering a new era of activism, one that brings together technology, art, and everyday people, one that permeates our most beloved American past times – from the Super Bowl to the Grammys to the Oscars – and one that challenges the masses to stand up against the many injustices in the world.

 

 

May 042016
 

by Sobia Ali Faisal

To best understand the relationship between misogyny and sexual health I’ll begin this piece with a comprehensive definition for each term.  

Misogyny: “[M]isogyny is primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world  (i.e., a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to men‘s standards (i.e., tenets of patriarchal ideology which have some purchase in this environment)” (Manne, p.2). In other words, misogyny is systemic oppression of women, within patriarchal societies in which women are expected to adhere to patriarchal expectations, otherwise face punishment.   

Sexual health: Sexual health “is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled” (World Health Organization, 2006).

We all are aware that sexual health is not something which is explicitly discussed in Muslim communities. However, subtle messages and lessons regarding sexuality and sexual health are being relayed to women constantly and these messages place a heavy burden on them.

  • “Wear a long shirt when you go to the mosque. You don’t want the men to see your curves.”
  • “Don’t get too comfortable/friendly with the boys in your class.”
  • “Keep your voice down in the mosque. The men shouldn’t be able to hear you.”
  • “If a man sees your hair your wudu is invalidated.” (Yes, I was told this once.)
  • “Don’t stay out past dark. People will talk.”
  • “You don’t need to know those things until you get married. And then, your husband will teach you.” (Though this message may not be explicitly stated, there are ways in which this message is relayed.)

None of these statements mention sex or sexuality explicitly, but they all send a clear message. “You, woman, are a sexual being whose curves and voice will sexually excite and distract men, who, upon seeing your hair, will have thoughts so dirty YOUR wudu will be invalidated. Also, getting friendly with the boys in your class will inevitably lead to sexual relations and if you stay out past dark people will assume you’re out there having sex with men. Oh, and if you know about sex before you get married then your husband will assume you were out having sex with men and he won’t respect you. So just let him teach you because he knows from all the sex he was out having with women, like most guys do.”

Women’s sexuality, in Muslim communities, is too often defined in relation to men. The attitudes, views, opinions, and thoughts of men are given priority over the reality of women’s lives. Women’s behaviour is strictly regulated to the meet the patriarchal expectations laid out by men. And, as a result, women’s behaviour is often viewed in sexual terms such that women are policed to behave in ways that do not “force” men to behave in sexually “haram” ways or that ensure people know you are not engaging in “unlawful” sex. When women do not adhere to these expectations, or are assumed to not be adhering to them, they are faced with derision, disrespect, and sometimes ostracization and isolation.      

This is misogyny. And enacting this misogyny in the name of religious duty or obligation is a form of spiritual violence, in which women are denied access to religious and spiritual attainment because they fail to meet patriarchal expectations of women’s behaviour.

So how is this misogyny harmful to women’s sexual health? Because it denies women bodily autonomy, having a detrimental impact on the physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality. It denies women the choice to decide what is and isn’t sexual, safe, coercive, pleasurable, violence. It conflates non-sexual behaviours (how long our shirts are) with sexual ones and disguises sexually violent ones (coercion) as sexually healthy (sexual education) or natural (men can’t control themselves).

It places the burden of modesty and honour on the shoulders of women, consequently victim-blaming women for any sexual disrespect and sexual violence they may endure.

It assumes women to be recipients of sex placing them in danger of being abused and manipulated, or in a situation of unpleasurable and uncomfortable sex. It shames women regarding their own sexuality and their bodies, a shame which can have an impact on their self-image, including their sexual self-image, and confidence.

So how do we address this? The answer is simple, yet one that meets a lot of resistance. Stop being misogynistic. Obviously, this is much, much easier said than done. We have had centuries of misogyny built into not only our culture, but also our interpretations of religion. This will take a lot of work and will require that we challenge those very patriarchal notions that so many of our values and beliefs are premised upon. But this needs to be done, one little action, one little step at a time, if we want healthy communities.

A few steps to begin this process:

Stop sending girls and women these harmful messages and start sending boys and men messages that instill the unconditional respect of women.

Educate girls and women on sexual health and give them the tools to make their own decisions on what is and isn’t healthy for them.

Stop defining women’s sexuality in relation to men. Women do not exist to sexually please men. It seems like it should not need to be said, but women are whole and holistic people, and sexuality only one part of our being. Let women, and girls, define and decide what we want.

Recognize women’s right to bodily autonomy. A woman can choose to do with her body what she wishes. No one else has the right to decide for her nor to infringe upon her autonomy.

This is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. However, if we, as a community, begin with these few basic steps, we will be on the road to a sexually healthier community.

Sobia Ali-Faisal received her PhD in Applied Psychology from the University of Windsor in 2014. She currently resides in Canada.