May 042016

by Nadiah Mohajir

originally published on

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.

May 042016

by Nadiah Mohajir

Facebook Thumb2The act of reporting is one of the single most courageous acts ever. The revictimization is so overwhelming, the social, emotional and physical consequences can be so overwhelming, that many find it nearly impossible to report. Because of this, the likelihood of it being a false report are slim to none, with only about 2%-8% of reports being false. As the third in a series of articles on sexual assault prevention (read part 1 here and part 2 here), we have included for you the basics of what you can do when someone discloses to you that they have been sexually abused or assaulted.

What you can do to Support Victims

Step 1: Believe them. The first, and most important, thing you can do for any victim when they disclose to you that they have been abused or assaulted, is to believe them.

Step 2: Encourage professional support. Familiarize yourself with the local resources in your community so that you can refer victims if necessary. However, remember to meet them where they are rather than telling them what they should  be doing. Of course, the most ideal course of action is to go to a hospital to get examined and go to the police to file a report. However, the victim may not be mentally ready to do this just yet. Remember that being sexually assaulted is an act that strips the victim of his/her control – it is much more important to empower them to make their own decisions rather than telling them what to do. Of course, this is more appropriate for older victims, and not young children. For a complete list of victim support organizations, please refer to this resource and the list below.

Step 3: Report if you are a mandated reporter. The guidelines for mandated reporting and who is a mandated reporter differ by state, but generally, mandated reporters are: teachers, principals and other school personnel, social workers, physicians, nurses and other health care professionals, law enforcement, clergy, and board members. For more information on your state guidelines, please click here.

Step 4: Maintain the victim’s confidentiality, especially if the victim is a minor. Nobody needs to know the identity of the victim and there are crisis centers and advocates that are trained to hep you continue to offer the individual support they need without having to reveal their identity to others.

Step 5: Offer a victim-centric (one that protects the victim and makes him/her feel safe). If both the victim and abuser are part of the same institution, make sure the victim feels safe while the investigation proceeds. For example, the victim in a school may need:

  • To request a class room change
  • To request a specialized homework or exam schedule from their teachers
  • Additional counseling sessions
  • To be physically separated from their abuser (if they share the same office space or classroom space)

What you can do to Prepare your Institution to Properly Respond to such Allegations

Facebook Thumb

credit: Mat Schramm

Those in leadership positions at institutions often wonder what steps they should be taking to ensure that the institution is prepared should they have to address allegations. Below are some steps that organization leaders can start taking in order to ensure that they can address a situation swiftly and appropriately.

Step 1: Create policies and procedures. Bring best practices regarding policies such as making sure you have up-to-date manuals, security cameras, and other staff and facility policies in place that put in place preventative measures in your institutions. Make sure that your staff is reminded of these policies, and that these policies are readily available and accessible on your institution’s website. Develop a standard process to follow should your institution be made aware of allegations. Things to consider are processes

  • to inform parents and other constituents of any supposed danger
  • to take the necessary preventive measures with the abuser (does he/she need to be suspended? or removed from interacting with young children, etc)
  • to address the victim needs in a way that is confidential and empowering
  • to investigate if there are more individuals that have been victimized by the alleged abuser

Step 2: Hire a counselor specially trained to address complaints. If your institution already doesn’t have a trained social services professional or counselor, consider hiring one. If funding is an issue, consider sharing such a professional between two or more institutions or partnering with a local crisis center to serve this role until your institution is ready to bring one on full-time. You can also designate a few staff members to be trained as victim advocates by taking a 40-hour training by a local crisis center.

Step 3: Develop a procedure to collect anonymous reports. Often times, people do not report abuse that they suffered or witnessed, out of fear of being penalized for coming forward with that information. Not having a procedure for anonymous reports can be a significant barrier for someone who has endured or witnessed something. Many universities are now developing a system where students can submit anonymous complaints to a confidential, third party service.

Step 4: Develop a procedure to resolve complaints. Once you receive a complaint, it is imperative to address it in a timely manner. Not considering it seriously or delaying a response can be very disheartening to a victim, and also gives the abuser the opportunity to continue to victimize others. Work with a crisis center or other trained professionals in developing an objective and fair process to address victim complaints in a way that still honors the privacy and needs of the victim.

Step 5: Have students and staff and faculty engage in annual trainings, as well as ongoing awareness and education efforts throughout the year. It is important to note that simply having one training a year is not going to prevent sexual assault from occurring at your institution. Preventing sexual assault requires a shift in the organizational culture and tone, and it is necessary to have ongoing awareness and education efforts throughout the year, and not just at the beginning of the year.

We recognize that many Islamic institutions may not have the budget to incorporate all of these changes at once, and so we recommend an excellent way to fill the gap is to partner with their local rape crisis center and social services to help meet those needs while enough funding and resources are secured to bring such services in-house.

Important Resources to Keep on Hand*


National Sexual Assault Line – 1-800-656-HOPE

Rape Crisis Hotline 1-888-293-2080

DCFS Number for Mandated Reporters – 1-800-25-ABUSE (1-800-252-2873)

Illinois Domestic & Sexual Violence Hotline – 312-745-3401 toll-free number: 1-877-863-6338





National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network


National Sexual Violence Resource Center Publications Database – extensive database that allows you to search by topic

Project Callisto – an empowering, transparent and anonymous way to report sexual assault on college campuses (not yet available on all campuses)

Engaging Muslim Communities In Ending Sexual Exploitation

Talking to Kids about Sexual Violence: A Parent’s Guide to Age-Appropriate Conversations

HEART Women & Girls Publications

* this list is no where near comprehensive, and we will continue to build this list.

Jan 142016

by Amina Darwish

Imam Tirmithi narrates a hadeeth where Abu Bakr [may God be pleased with him] said: “O Messenger of Allah! You have become gray.” He said: ‘I have gone gray from (Surat) Hud (11), Al-Waqi`ah (56), Al-Mursalat (77), `Amma Yatasa’alun (78) and Ithash-Shamsu Kuwwirat (81).”

Surah Takweer (81) describes the horrors of the Day of Judgment: the sky falling apart, the movement of the mountains and the pairing of the souls with their bodies. The first consequence of the souls being returned to their bodies is the mau’uda being asked why she was killed. The mau’uda is the infant girl in pre-Islamic Arabia that would be buried alive by her father – the man that should have been her biggest protector – out of fear that one day she would bring shame to her family. Pre-Islamic Arabs were made up of tribes that were often at war, thus inflating the value of sons who could carry arms over daughters who could be captured and turned into the property of their enemies. But on the Day of Judgment, humanity would stand in silence as that little girl pleads her case and speaks for herself. The Quran’s description of these events had turned The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) hair white.

I wonder what then would the Prophet (peace be upon him) say of how we treat women and girls that were victims of sexual violence. Would it turn his hair white? Like the mau’uda their only crime was being a girl. And like her, their voices are often silenced. We need to understand the nature of sexual violence. It is not about lust. It is about power. It is about physical control that translates into a power structure that goes against the essence of our humanity. In pre-Islamic society, where patriarchy was completely ingrained into the culture of the warring tribes, the potential of shame that may be felt by the patriarch of the family or the tribe was given precedence over the pain felt by victims.

Islam was sent to change the ignorant ways that existed before it, when right and wrong were based on power and strength and not virtue. This reality was all too real for women, slaves, orphans, and anyone else society had deemed powerless and unworthy of their humanity. In carrying on the tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him), it is not enough to rid our communities of specific practices; we also must rid ourselves of a culture that blames the victims for crimes committed against them.

AbulFath AlBasti, the famous poet says, “Oh servant of the body, how much you complain about maintaining it. Do you seek success in something that is fleeting? Realize your spirit and complete its virtues. Your humanity is in your spirit, not your body.” Blaming the victims for the harm that has come to their bodies also effectively dismisses their spirits and acts like they are nonexistent.

There is a sexual nature to such attacks, but because the consent of the victim is removed, the aspect of thulm, or injustice, supersedes the sexual nature of the crime. Therefore, sexual assault is not comparable to fornication, or zina, because the victim does not give consent. To compare zina and sexual assault would be like asking for two witnesses to a robbery as a comparison to needing two witnesses to financial transactions. The two are incomparable because of the oppression and the removal of consent from one of the parties. No victim chooses to be sexually assaulted in the same way that no one asked to be robbed.

Another problem of blaming the victims is that it accepts an out of control sexual desire of the perpetrator as fact and dismisses the sexual pain of the victim. When it comes to sexuality, Islam holds men and women equal and does not belittle the sexuality of women. This fact is highlighted in the hadeeth narrated in Tirmithi and Sunan Abi Dawud when the Prophet (peace be upon him)  was asked about the ritual purification after a sexual experience, and he stated that in these matters, “Women are the partners/ counterparts of men.”

These concepts culminate in the story of Sumaya (may God be pleased with her). She is the first martyr in Islam, and her murder was graphic. If you do not want to hear the story, this is the place to stop. Abu Jahl, who is the Pharaoh of this ummah, tortured her, her husband and her son. He tried to break her will, and she spat in his face. He was so angry that he drove a spear between her legs until it came out the other side. He couldn’t break her will, so he decided to physically control her body to exert his power. That is the nature of sexual violence. Her murder was violent, sexual and in clear sight of her husband and son. Her husband did not make it out alive. Part of the torture was the psychological warfare of torturing her and sexually hurting her in clear sight of her husband and son. When we hear about abuse, you can choose to side with Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her), who is a hero in Islam and was promised Paradise from Allah’s messenger (peace be upon him) or you can look at the victims with the disdain Abu Jahl had in his eyes when he killed her.

Blaming victims for what they have endured is beyond unconscionable. It is also in clear opposition to the message of the Prophet (peace be upon him) who elevated them instead of putting them down. The scholars of our tradition have passed down these lessons in tact and no one had any shame in telling the story of Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her) as it was. She was a hero to all the believers and she will remain so till the end of time. May God be pleased with her and her family. The sexual violence that she endured did not take away from her martyrdom. It did not cause her or her family shame. This example stood in clear contrast to Arab society at the time. In fact, the pride the Muslims took in Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her)  and her family was a clear message to the tyrants in Mecca that the will of the Muslims could not be broken.

The bodies and spirits of victims must be protected. The goals of the Sharia, as defined by Imam Ghazali, maintain those rights for everyone. It is an Islamic imperative to protect those rights for everyone especially those who were wronged or oppressed and stand up to the oppressor. This is especially true when someone within the Muslim community is the perpetrator. God says in the Quran (4:135), “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”

People who abuse the trust the community put in them do not deserve 70 excuses any more than a murderer or a thief. Rather, it is those who are wronged that deserve the community’s protection and understanding. They also deserve to not be questioned about how they became the victims of such abuse. The 70 excuses can be given to victims, but excuses cannot be made to justify an oppressor. In fact, if we were truly acting out of love for the perpetrators, we would stop them from being able to continue the oppression. Facing their victims is scary, but it is nowhere near the fear of having to face God knowing that you have taken the rights of others. Justice cannot be separated from Sharia, and we owe it to the victims to protect them. If we do not stop sexual offenders in our communities, we are complacent in the assault of their future victims.

In the climate of Islamophobia, some may be reluctant to report abuse; however, we have learned from the experience of the Catholic Church that not reporting abusers ultimately hurts the entire community instead of only holding to account the few abusers. We must also help the victims and not revictimize them through unjust or insensitive social expectations. They need to heal from the hurt they endured. Their spiritual and psychological well-being may depend on such community support. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Sexual abuse is a dark part of humanity that cannot be hushed or wished away. Sexual abuse can only be addressed by forcing it out of its darkness. We must support those who speak out against the abuse they endured. May God help heal our hearts and give us the strength to live out the compassion and justice our Prophet peace be upon him so perfectly embodied.

Amina Darwish is a graduate of the Qalam seminary under the guidance of Sheikh Abdul Nasir Jangda. She is the Muslim chaplain at the University of Cincinnati. She earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from Kuwait University, a MS in Industrial Engineering and PhD in Chemical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. She worked as an adjunct faculty at the University of Cincinnati Clermont and as the content development coordinator at the Muslim Youth of North America. She is a recognized national youth advocate and speaker.

Jan 142016

*trigger warning for sexual violence

by Rafat

I remember lying in my bed staring out the skylight window, after my former husband would have had his way with me, wondering to myself what my parents might be doing this moment? Were they sleeping soundly in their beds?

Like many young Pakistani American women, I married a man my family ultimately approved of. We were from two different countries, but were set up by acquaintances we had in common. It was an extremely traditional courtship – his visits were supervised. With occasional exception for a dinner at a restaurant, we were not allowed to be alone – even in a car. Even then, things depended on the whims of my parents who may have thrown a kebab-mein-hadee (literal translation bone in kabob, aka third wheel) into our dinner plans in the form of my brother, cousin – or cousins.

Our long distance courtship was relatively smooth. Aside from my family’s occasional mild critiques or inquiries into his professional background, he checked all the required boxes: he was well educated, from a seemingly decent family, most importantly, he was an observant Muslim. Our families spoke to friends of friends for references and, like that, his family’s proposal was accepted.

While our courtship was smooth, things were not always perfect. We were guilty of a variety of social faux pas, like incessantly chatting on instant messenger, to everyone’s ire. Once, we were caught with his arm around my shoulder; another time, standing too closely together while casually talking. In those instances, we were gently reminded that too much proximity between us as an unmarried couple might only hurt us in the long run. We understood well that these safeguards were meant to protect us and ultimately we respected them. On top of everything else, we had several interests in common, such as our mutual penchant for social and political justice, and oddities like kickboxing. After my period of istikhaara, (special prayer for guidance) things came together even smoother. It was a good sign.

Unlike the old image of the sorrowful Desi (South Asian) bride, I was happy on my wedding day. I treated myself quite generously to massages, facials, and lots of shopping. I was also incredibly meticulous with planning. Aside from the food that was much spicier than it was supposed to be and the florist who did a dreadful job with my flower arrangements, everything came together rather effortlessly on the day of. My entire family gave me away in a picturesque way. And while my bouquet wound up being a third of the size it was meant to be and looked ridiculous in photos, I managed to overcome the minor flaws, centered in the belief that I had sensibly crafted my destiny down to every detail of the wedding – the family favorite caterer, the music that was cultural but without lewd, suggestive lyrics, and my most beloved Imam.

That my fiancé and I were well matched was undeniable. I knew for certain that I was marrying the right man and had no doubts about it, nor that we had courted inappropriately. Marriage is serious business and it was important to us that we enter into it with as many blessings as possible. Sweating the small stuff by that point was well beyond my sense of bliss.

When things began to go wrong so early into our marriage, I didn’t necessarily see it as a foreshadowing of what was to come. I wanted to believe in the values and ideas I was taught about marriage: that it takes time for a newlywed husband and wife to get to know one another and for their marriage to settle into peace. We had gone about our marriage with what felt like boundless blessings from our families and communities; I was convinced that he and I were destined to succeed. So I put in the work and I made myself entirely emotionally and physically available to my new husband, with the hope that things would inevitably work themselves out.

It didn’t take long for me to start seeing the red flags. Two weeks into our marriage he began yelling at me in public. A month in, instead of enjoying my very first Eid as a new bride, I hid in the bathroom at the local mosque away from the inquisitive eyes of the community, controlling my tears after he spent the entire morning screaming at me about socks. Despite his habitual outbursts of uncontrollable rage, I very rarely pushed back on my husband in the first year and a half of our marriage.

Everything was incredibly confusing. Only a few months earlier, this same man had been doting on me, calling me the prettiest girl in the world, vowing that he wanted to help me reach paradise and making the promises all hopeful brides-to-be want to hear. Despite the very prudent nature of our courtship, to my shock and horror, I sensed very quickly that my new husband was a completely different man than the one who came to visit me and my family during our courtship – a fact that I was to remain in denial of the whole of our marriage. By the time I had come to learn of his true nature, we were already married. Hence, I spent four wretched years of my life haunted by my own denials. Instead of enjoying married life, I anguished daily, tormented by a futile search for even a hint of a specter of the gentleman who courted me. I was desperate. And despite what everyone around me tried to tell me about family, I was alone.

On full availability mode, I also very quickly became the default go-to person to get things done at home, on top of having a job of my own. It also meant that I was expected to be available to his family, no matter the time of day. It’s not that I was unhappy about carrying out a traditional role, it’s that rapidly over time, in spite of my attempts to try and make things work between my husband and I, I got less and less from him in return. Four months into our marriage, he stopped sleeping with me. From that point until the very end of our marriage, the man I called my husband and his entire family, remained complete strangers to me.

As if navigating the world as a new bride isn’t bewildering enough, being thousands of miles away from home and family only serves to exaggerate the day-to-day commotions of newlywed life. As situation would have it, my husband and my in-laws were the only people I knew in this new life that I lived and I wound up being wholly reliant on them. I often felt as if my life had been left to chance and I was forced to operate in this new world purely on trust – trust that the people who now considered me “family” would honor their duty to care for me. My fate did not account for other outcomes.

Thousands of miles of distance between people conceals our daily nuances from one another – the details of which are powerful enough to alter perspectives.

My ex-husband began to rape me about a year into our marriage – often on a nightly basis. On some occasions, I believe he violated me out of sheer boredom. Our chemistry was extremely short lived and boredom set in approximately six months into our marriage when it became evident that our life together was never going to be as important to him as his unremitting need for video games and nightly outings with friends who had fancy cars and reckless driving records. Nevertheless, every time he violated me, I believe he did it simply because he could.

My ex-husband also regularly taunted me by insisting my family didn’t care about me. It was the one thing he said to me that I never could devise a retort for. Not from a rational perspective. It’s not that I believed him. I know for a fact that my family would have been outraged if they learned about the abuse. It’s that underneath it all, there was a rather thorny truth: it was that our marital arrangement worked somewhat like Russian roulette. From his point of view, my loving family placed me into the fateful pass of probability and then disappeared from my life. In the end, did it matter how he turned out? To them, he checked the necessary boxes that made it probable that he was a good match for me. However, I quickly realized that you can never know a person truly until you are married to them, as most abusers do not show their nature to the outside world. They are more often than not, charmers.

Despite the fact that it is obviously counter-intuitive to place a child’s life into the hands of complete strangers, culturally, it is normal practice when it comes to our daughters and their nuptial destinies. Sometimes I can’t help but to wonder if our families actually grasp the hazardous messages some of our day-to-day norms convey – that our daughter’s lives, for instance, are insignificant enough to leave to probability; that our daughter’s lives matter less than a set of rules – or at least the appearance of one. Yet, these traditions, these systems, is all that they know, and ones that have served generations successfully. In the end, in the name of upholding our traditions and expectations, our daughter’s lives, despite her biggest dreams, her many achievements and countless talents, are reduced into oblivion. It was the reason why my mother-in-law took credit for my qualities, erasing my entire upbringing in the process. It was the reason why even my in-law’s friends repeatedly insisted that my in-laws should be more important to me than my own family, because a woman ultimately belongs to her husband and his family. My education and employment were swiftly reduced into conversational details, significant enough to exhibit to members of their community, yet trivial enough to become a nuisance in a conflict of interest.

Even my ex-husband grasped the fact that under the guise of traditional marriage, my foundational structures of support had been entirely stripped from my life, as he frequently liked to remind me, often verbatim, there were no consequences for his crimes against me. In this new life I lived, there was no accountability – not for him, not for his family. It was in that vacuum that a group of perverse and cruel strangers had their way with me.

My ex-husband carried out the worst of it all in the small hours of the night when his crimes against me would be completely concealed from the world. In those hours, there was no one I could reach out to, nor any place I could go. The only option I had was to wait for the arrival of the morning when he and I would both rise and get ready to go to work.

Over the course of our marriage, it was in those few hours of duress that eventually my mind atrophied over compulsive thoughts that this was what my life had come to. In those moments, those thoughts often led me to wonder about my parents. There was always a strange overwhelming sadness I felt, one that I can’t quite describe, knowing that they were sleeping peacefully in their beds while this was happening to me. Ultimately, my parents entrusted my life to a stranger because they genuinely believed in a system that was designed to keep me safe and happy. Right or wrong, when it comes to marriage and relationships, it is the only system they have ever known and one they presumed to have worked well. Nevertheless, it wound up being the most dangerous experience of my life.

The author of this post has chosen to write under a pen name.


Jan 142016

by Sameera Qureshi

The day after I moved to D.C., I attended a community event. I was a little early, having not figured out that Google Maps tends to over-estimate the amount of time it will take on the Metro to get somewhere (!!). Someone else had checked in for the event. I “Salaamed” them, we introduced ourselves, and I wandered into the bookstore section to browse while I waited.

The guy I had introduced myself to told me he needed to use the bathroom and would be back (too much information, I thought to myself). He then approached me and started to chat (something about being on someone’s campaign team, blah blah blah), not noticing that I was more interested in the books than what was spewing out of his mouth – which was a lot of self-endorsement. I then tried the “let me grab my phone” tactic to send him another hint since my short answers and flat affect weren’t doing the trick. But he still hung around, even looking at my phone and commenting “oh, wow, you’re so good at closing your apps when you’re done.

That was plain creepy and I started to lose patience with the space invader.

The event opened up and I took a seat at a table across from some women, since their table was full. The dude came and sat at my table. I turned my chair to face the women and introduced myself. We started chatting but it didn’t distract me from the fact that this guy was sitting at my table. There was an empty table behind the women, so I switched seats, and continued chatting with them until the event started.

The space invader was sitting by himself until he was joined by a friend. I wondered if he was a space invader too.

When the event was over, I was waiting to speak with the organizer, and the dude was waiting to take a photo with the speaker, a well-known Muslim (geez…). He then hovered close to where I was speaking with someone and when I was done, handed me his business card with his email address scribbled on the back. I forced a smile, said thanks, and he left.

I tore it up and threw it away before I headed out to the Metro station.

I’m sure this has happened to many people – someone is too clingy, resulting in awkward moments and trying to find a subtle way of saying “leave me alone!” before you actually have to say those words. For me, situations like this cause greater anxiety than perhaps for others. While I’m definitely dealing much better with past trauma, there are remnants I’m learning to cope with, and one is the feeling of safety when I perceive that my personal space is being invaded.

The part of the brain that is responsible for “gut” type feelings such as anger and fear is called the amygdala. It’s a primitive part of the limbic system (the emotional centre), developed pretty much at birth, and is subconscious in the way it perceives anger and fear. Childhood experiences play a large role in determining the sensitivity level of the amygdala (i.e. as does our time in-utero, genetics, etc). While the amygdala is somewhat under our control, since we can use the frontal lobe to change our thoughts to then change our feelings  (i.e. the prefrontal cortex for all of you brain nerds out there), adverse childhood events (called ACE) such as exposure to forms of violence, abuse, trauma, etc can impact it permanently. So while I’m definitely not triggered by situations as I used to be before EMDR therapy (see here for information), I do feel remnants of anxiety-like feelings in situations where I (i.e. my amygdala) perceive my personal space is being invaded.

Given the high statistics related to sexual assault/abuse (1 in 4 women by the age of 18, and 1 in 6 boys by the age of 18), there are many individuals within all communities who are living their lives with the aftermath of trauma. Within Muslim communities, this statistic holds strong. From my personal experience of running sexual health groups with young Muslim women, I’ve had approximately 40% of attendees in groups disclose that they have been sexually assaulted/abused. We are dealing with a very serious problem that no one seems to want to speak about. The impacts are numerous, and incredibly individualized at the same time. No two amygdalas are the same, and note that negative events are stored much stronger in our long-term memory than their counterpart positive memories.

The impact of trauma is numerous, but one that I am much more cognizant of (given the stage of life I’m in) is the impact on forming a relationship. While many people looking to get married have numerous qualities they’d be quick to rattle off about their potential spouse (I have a similar “list” as well), for me, safety is number one. If I feel as though my personal boundaries are already being invaded, or there’s a chance based on someone’s demeanour, behaviour, or how he initially treats me, the amygdala alarm goes off and it’s done. It can be as simple as something that was emailed or texted, to an action in person, to observing how someone acts in public around others. That person will either hear from me or see from me that I do not feel safe in his presence. Hence the clingy dude described above. I had to “escape”. Him being that close to me, without my permission, was making me feel agitated and restless. The only way to diffuse these feelings was to get out of the situation.

Which leads me to bring up the topic of consent – men don’t know enough about this concept, and Muslim men are not excluded. Consent is the notion that explicit permission must be gained from the other party before any sort of physical intimacy is initiated. It works both ways for men and women (note: I realize I’m using heteronormative language, since I’m writing about my own experiences). I believe that consent extends into entering someone’s personal space. The dude above didn’t ask if he could sit at my table. He didn’t attune to the fact that I was browsing books with my back turned towards him, walking away from him, and replying to messages on my phone, since he continued to attempt a conversation. Call this a lack of basic social skills or blatantly ignoring them, but it relates to consent. I don’t know who are you and you’re entering into my space without my permission.

I am very cognizant of the fact that one of the primary feelings I need to have in a relationship is that of safety. I’ve rehearsed in my head how to disclose my past trauma to someone when I need to/the time is right, for the sake of them understanding where I’m at and what I need to feel safe. I’m aware that my level of knowledge on trauma and sexual assault/abuse is perhaps higher than the average person, so I’ve even rehearsed how to break down the whole brain-body-memories connection in order to respond to the potential question of “but it happened so long ago!’ My needs around safety are non-negotiable, as they shouldn’t be for everyone. I would not waste time on someone who fails to understand that I can’t change what I’ve experienced, and I didn’t choose to live with the consequences of someone’s assertion of power and control over me.

Given the statistics of sexual abuse and assault I mentioned above, I know that there are many other Muslim women and men who are living with the aftermath of trauma. No two people respond the same to traumatic events, and thus I cannot extrapolate and generalize my experiences. However, I do hope to offer some tidbits of advice to anyone out there who is a survivor of trauma and is attempting to form a relationship or is currently in one and struggling:

1. Know what trigger points you have, if possible, think about the thoughts you’re having and how you feel as a result.

For example, I’d be triggered when I was running a child sexual abuse education program at my previous job. I’d also be triggered when I’d be standing in line at the grocery store or a cafe, and would perceive that someone was standing too close to me. I started to write down trigger points and the feelings (and thoughts) I’d have as a result. Cognitive awareness is incredibly important. Don’t analyze the triggers quite yet or judge how you feel – it’s all about writing down the facts. Trigger -> Feelings and Thoughts.

2. Explore if seeing a counsellor is something you’d benefit from outside of the support network of friends you have (if you’ve disclosed your trauma).

I knew I had to seek professional help a year and a half ago when being triggered was preventing me from doing my job without breaking down at home. The event would play itself in my head over and over again, and I could feel my muscles tensing up. I started seeing a counsellor who used a cognitive-behavioural approach. After six months, I didn’t feel as though it was making a difference. I then heard about EMDR through a colleague. Three sessions later and I can’t tell you the world of difference it made, I’m incredibly blessed. EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is worth looking into, it is very well researched and has great outcomes.

3. Know what you need from someone before getting into a relationship, or if you’re in one, how you plan to communicate your needs with your partner.

This can be incredibly challenging given that we’re all at different stages of dealing with our trauma (it’s not the same linear process for all survivors), with talking about it, and with being vulnerable in disclosing it. There’s no set way of doing this, it’s based on your comfort level, the point in the relationship that you feel it’s important to disclose your situation, your read of the relationship with the other person, etc. If you need support with this step, consider speaking with a close friend you trust about it, or call a hotline that specializes in supporting survivors. There are people out there who are willing to support you – including myself. Although I’m not a counsellor, just so you know!

4. Plan to communicate on a regular basis with your partner, as needed, to check in.

A healthy relationship requires constant and consistent communication – and how you’re feeling in the process of coping with trauma could be one of these topics. Of course, these conversations should only happen about aspects that are relevant to the current situation at hand, and based on your comfort level. Most of the time, they could be initiated by you, but if your partner checks in with you about what you’ve spoken about and your needs, that’s even better. If your relationship is at a point where professional help is needed, for any reason, definitely consider both attending counselling.

5. Take care of yourself!

I know this sounds cliche in every sense of the word, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do what you want and need to do. Being triggered sends a cascade of the stress hormone cortisol flowing through your bloodstream. The effects of cortisol include increased heart-rate, agitation, tenseness, and so forth. Think about what would help you diffuse these feelings. Research indicates that the best way to deal with increased cortisol levels is physical activity. So whether you prefer a slow and meditative yoga class or a lactic-acid inducing HIIT session – do something movement related to help you in the moment. Then think about what other self-care strategies could help – including journaling (there’s a lot of research on writing and healing from trauma), speaking with a friend, expressive arts, going for a walk and getting fresh air, prayer, meditation, etc. Think of these activities as a toolkit to be used for both intervention and prevention purposes.

Having blogged before about sexual assault/abuse within the Muslim community, we’re not doing enough to educate children, youth and families; we lack spaces where survivors can feel safe getting the support they need; we don’t speak with young adults about consent and gender roles; and so much more. I am certain that there are couples out there in many different stages of their relationship where at least one party has been sexually assaulted/abused. I really hope that these individuals have the support they need. If you’re one of these individuals and you’re struggling, please reach out to me here or check out, a non-profit I’m contracted to work with. They offer a plethora of resources including “Ask a Question,” where trained experts in sexual health will answer or direct to resources anyone who has a question. It’s completely anonymous and free.

I pray that no one has to endure any form of trauma. Unfortunately though, sexual violence is rampant, and Muslims are not excluded. The least we can do is educate ourselves, and communities play a role in ensuring that members receive credible information – not only about sexual violence, but any and all forms of abuse. Just as communities focus on religious education, so too should they focus on social and health related education.

Sameera Qureshi is the Director of Education, Canada for HEART Women & Girls. For the last several years she led sexual health and sexual assault awareness programming for the Muslim community in Calgary and other Canadian communities. Most recently, she has moved to Washington, DC, where she hopes to continue similar programming. If anyone is interested in hosting an workshop or training in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) for Muslims around sexual violence (i.e. across the lifespan and for any audience), please contact HEART at the web address above or comment on this post.

originally published on

Dec 112015

by Nadiah Mohajir

In light of the conversation about sexual assault allegations and our responsibility as a community to support victims, I thought it would be appropriate to share some gems from the Symposium on Sexual Assault on College Campuses that I attended two weeks ago, as well as The Hunting Ground documentary which just aired on CNN on November 22. Now, although both the symposium and the documentary focused its discourse on sexual assault on college campuses, I do believe there are a lot of parallels to sexual assault cases at religious and community institutions. As the second of a series of posts on institutional responsibility (see first post by Samar Kaukab here), I share with you some important food for thought.


Survivors may carry a lifetime of physical, emotional, and social consequences with them.  Sexual assault is an extreme violation of one’s physical and emotional safety, and often victims face a lot of scrutiny from the greater community. People questioning their credibility. People questioning why they didn’t stop the assault from happening or what they did to cause the assault. People questioning why they didn’t disclose earlier. And then people blaming and shaming them when they actually do report. One of the main reasons survivors do not come forward is because they know how the community will respond and will be facing a lot of victim blaming. The Hunting Ground explores many aspects of the survivor experience. One of the survivors in the documentary reflects on why she didn’t stop her assailant, the challenges she faces in reporting the crime, not being believed, and then later leading a national movement helping other campus survivors get justice. She explains:

“When you’re scared and you don’t know what is happening to you, you just lay their and hope you don’t die….The vicarious trauma that I suffer from when I have to re-live my experience when others tell me their stories is often overwhelming…but it’s also the reason I get up in the morning. I would have done anything to have had someone believe me and support me.”

Other survivors shared their devastating experiences of turning to self harm and dropping out of school, because of the amount of victim blaming, shaming, and threats they received for coming forward about their assaults.


Sexual assault is often a premeditated or targeted crime. There is a culture – especially on college campuses – of “scoping” out vulnerable victims. Perpetrators spend some time gaining trust from their victim before assaulting them. They may buy their victims gifts or shower them with praise, and may behave like they are protecting them from harm. On college campuses in particular, they may buy their victims a drink, or use alcohol and other drugs to incapacitate them. Then, after the assault, they may place the responsibility back on their victim. Moreover, perpetrators make it easy to believe that they are innocent and they are being wrongly charged.  Why? At the symposium, Dr. Alan Berkowitz explained that perpetrators are generally outwardly very good people – they may be star athletes or have fantastic grades and even be a model citizen.  Perpetrators often don’t believe they did anything wrong. In fact, some perpetrators may even pass lie detector tests and cry – because they *genuinely* don’t believe they did anything wrong. Most importantly, if a perpetrator is not held accountable for their actions, they are more likely to repeat the crime. Put simply, many perpetrators – even as high as 50-88% of the time – are repeat offenders.


The sexual assault is bad, but the institutional betrayal can often be worse. Many of the survivors in the Hunting Ground film shared that the sexual assault was horrible and terrifying in and of itself, but the institutional betrayal and lack of timely response (or any at all) was even more re-traumatizing and detrimental. Many of the institutions featured in the documentary either protected the perpetrator because he was a star athlete, part of a fraternity, or chose to look the other way so as to protect the brand of their institution. Put simply, survivors are being perceived as liabilities that need to be dealt with, rather than perpetrators.


We are looking at prevention wrong. A one-hour sexual assault awareness session at orientation in the beginning of the school year is not enough to prevent sexual assault from happening at institutions. This also applies to the community at large. Many institutions are looking at their prevention efforts as including developing a policy manual and hosting a two hour talk for adults or children and thinking their job is done. It’s not. Moreover, we aren’t doing enough to respond to sexual assault when it happens in our institutions. While we can’t entirely eliminate sexual assault from ever happening, we can absolutely prevent the perpetrator from assaulting again. And majority of the time, they do. Again and again and again. How many victims is too much before we speak up?

Current efforts to raise awareness are missing the mark. As Dr. Gail Stern of Catharsis Productions explained, current education approach to raising awareness is flawed because we are still debating:

  • what rape is
  • how serious is is (was there penetration? did he really rape her or just kinda rape her? etc)
  • who is truly responsible for it (what was she wearing? Was she drunk? What could she have done differently? etc)
  • how or if it is truly preventable
  • we are obsessed with compliance and policies as a means of prevention
  • we have a lack of institutional leadership that is willing to take a hard stance on this and
  • we have a belief that a 1 hour sexual assault presentation is enough to reduce the number of assaults happening.


Addressing sexual assault at institutions requires a multi-pronged approach.  One panelist suggested a three pronged approach:

  • Prevent: Engage in comprehensive, ongoing prevention and awareness education for all students, staff, and faculty.
  • Respond to complaints: implement a process that allows victims to report in a confidential (or even anonymous) manner and respond to victims within 12 hours, including offering them accommodations to prioritize their safety in the interim as the investigation continues, and
  • Resolve (in a timely manner): Investigate the case, listen to both the survivor and the perpetrator, examine all other evidence (like facebook messages, tweets, etc) and implement disciplinary action in a timely and efficient manner.

We hope to expand more on the above three approaches in an upcoming post.

Institutions do not need to behave like they are a court of law when responding to allegations. Dr. Diane Rosenfeld explained how we have to separate a “criminal justice response” from a civil rights one. We – as a community – have the benefit of not being held to the same burden that lawyers have in a court of law. We do not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 strangers. We have to simply gather “preponderance of the evidence” to prove there is a hostile/unsafe environment. Similarly, we must distinguish between “false or disproven” and “unfounded” from “insufficient evidence” One means it didn’t happen, while the other acknowledges that it could have still happened, but cannot be proved in a court of law. Similarly, when talking about beyond a reasonable doubt, we must remember that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a TRIAL right, not investigative right.

If we believe that sexual assault isn’t preventable we will never foster a culture of change. We have got to change the discourse. It is no longer okay to continue to silence the victims and stand and defend perpetrators. What kind of message are we sending to those who need us the most? That we value the reputations of our institutions and perpetrators more than the personal safety of those who have been violated. Sexual assault is a crime. But it is also a moral issue and we need to treat it as one. I will end with Dr. Stern’s powerful words:

“Rape isn’t wrong because it is a crime. It is a crime because it’s wrong.”

Stay tuned for a follow-up post that will elaborate on some recommendations for best practices for institutional responses.

Nov 142015

originally published on

by Samar Kaukab

There’s been much talk recently about the responsibility of communities and institutions (schools, organizations, community-based organizations, etc.) when someone among its ranks is accused of domestic or sexual violence. We often hear: “Let the legal system play out…innocent until proven guilty…This is not our job but law enforcement’s,” and so on.

To what end does this passive approach take us when it comes to these particular issues? From my perspective and the perspective of many others who professionally work in this area, the above approach results in the following:

  1. An unconscionable amount of victim blaming that perpetuates an environment in which victims are not safe to come forward with their stories
  2. Our institutions, schools, and communities recusing themselves from any responsibility to take action

All of this, while an accused perpetrator is treated the same as he ever was for all practical and perception based purposes.

To to the contrary, here, Major League Baseball’s updated policy as it relates to domestic violence and sexual assault (as of this past August) will be put to the test. What’s important to note are a few things:

First, what’s promising about the policy is that the MLB policy is proactive. Meaning, a guilty verdict or plea isn’t required for the commissioner to act. The commissioner and the three-person arbitration panel can act without or before a legal proceeding occurs.

Why is that important? Because we all know the prosecution rate of the crimes of domestic abuse and sexual assault are jarringly and unjustly low in the American legal system. This allows the MLB to act bypassing the nonsense notion of let’s wait and see and “let the justice system decide.”

*** Our communities, schools, and institutions should take note. ***

Second, unlike the NFL, which gives commissioner Roger Goodell power over discipline and arbitration, MLB has established a three-person arbitration panel that consists of a representative from league, a representative from the players association, and an “independent arbitrator” to oversee appeals of sanctions. There is no minimum or maximum sanction.

Third, the league has also established a mandatory education program for all MLB clubs, majors and minors, and a 24-hour helpline in both English and Spanish that is available for players and families who need assistance or have questions. MLB has also said that it will provide perpetrators with a treatment plan, including but not limited to possible counseling sessions.

This isn’t a perfect system by any means but it is *far* better than what other sports leagues propose. And, I will say it is far better than what I see happening in our American Muslim communities, where pursuing justice and being morally upstanding is an actual communal and individual obligation.

If the MLB can make progress, so can we.

Samar Kaukab is executive director of Arete at University of Chicago and a board member of HEART Women & Girls.