Nov 182016

By Nadiah Mohajir

leaf-409258_1920As we continue to work on raising awareness on sexual assault in Muslim communities, there are a number of common myths and misinformation that are important to address. Perhaps what is most concerning about these myths is that they are often reinforced by respected religious and community leaders. Misinformation and myths about sexual assault can have some very serious implications.

First, these myths promote ineffective methods of sexual assault prevention and reinforce gender stereotypes. Namely, this inevitably puts the onus on women to cover because it assumes that men can’t seem to control themselves around them. Second, these myths often are laced with victim blaming, pressuring survivors to remain silent about their abuse. When such rhetoric is further perpetuated by those in leadership positions in the community, it is further alienating survivors into darkness. Third, this perpetual cycle of misinformation is a disservice to survivors and denies them their rights to justice and healing.

Finally, when these myths are reinforced by those in positions of respected leadership, it further sets the tone for how sexual assault will be addressed in the community. More often than not in these communities, it is not addressed, or addressed inadequately, further intensifying the survivor’s trauma.

Below, we have included several myths and facts about sexual assault that have been circulating on facebook and other social media among religious and community leaders. These posts are not only disturbing because of the sheer misinformation that is being spread, but also because of the large numbers of likes, shares, and comments that further validate and applaud these attitudes. Such posts are extremely dangerous because they perpetuate rape culture in our communities, and are triggering to survivors who may come across them.

MYTH: Sexual violence is a sin just like premarital sex and adultery (zina in Arabic).

FACT: The act of zina (premarital sex/sex outside of marriage) is the act of engaging in extramarital consensual sexual intercourse, while sexual violence is where consent is inherently absent. Therefore to speak of sexual violence is in the same context as consensual sexual sins is a disservice to victims. Sexual violence is not about the sex. It is not about sexual gratification or two individuals actively going against religious code. Sexual violence is about the power and control a perpetrator has over his or her victim. It is an act of horrifying violence that has a tremendous impact on one’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual safety. To talk about zina in the same context as sexual assault is extremely offensive to the survivor experience.

MYTH: Dressing modestly, wearing hijab, and gender segregation are preventive actions one can take to protect themselves from sexual assault.

FACT: Hijab or any other clothing does not protect a woman from being sexually assaulted or abused. Often times, assailants have attacked fully clothed women. Furthermore, the rate of sexual assault isn’t much lower in predominantly Muslim countries, where women are fully covered every day and society is generally segregated by gender.

MYTH: If one only interacts with other females and close relatives, they will not get raped or sexually abused.

FACT: Although an overwhelming number of assailants are men, women can be abusers too. There have been situations where a woman has assaulted another woman or girl, or boy. Similarly, many assailants are close male relatives, such as one’s father, uncle, or brother.

MYTH: It is impossible for a person to sexually assault a married partner.

FACT: It is absolutely unlawful for one to harm their partner in any way. In Islam, both spouses are granted rights and responsibilities. One of those rights is the right to sexual intercourse (for both spouses). Often times, this is misinterpreted to mean that the man has unlimited sexual access to his wife, and that consent isn’t really needed. Islam highly values the institution of marriage, encourages both spouses to act with kindness, love, and mercy with each  other, and consent to sexual activity is very much a part of the equation. So while the rights to intimacy and sex exist, there is no implication whatsoever that the spouse may seek this right violently or forcefully.

MYTH: If you were drunk or had sex before marriage and were sexually assaulted, you deserved it and God is punishing you.

FACT: This is another tactic that the community uses to shame and blame the victim. While religious code does not permit substance abuse or sex outside of marriage, it does not justify the act of violence against another. Islamic tradition states that suffering is not tied to sin. Plenty of people suffer who never deserved it. Similarly, plenty of people do wrong and never see the consequences of those actions in this world. This world is not a place of retribution as Muslims believe the afterlife is for that.

The unfortunate reality is that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of sexual assault some time in their lifetime. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these numbers are any different for Muslim communities. That means that it is very likely that we all know at least one survivor and it is our collective responsibility to raise awareness and work toward prevention. If you or someone you know was sexually assault or abused, know that it is not your fault, you are not alone, and there are resources to help you.

Sexual violence is a complicated problem, and one that is not addressed through many of the simple solutions that these myths promote. To assert that the sexual assault will be solved if we only adopt stricter religious code such as dress and gender segregation demonstrates a simplistic and poor understanding of a complex and nuanced issue. More than this, reinforcing these myths is horribly irresponsible and further perpetuating the cycle of abuse by silencing victims and further enabling their perpetrators. It is no longer acceptable to be allow community and religious leaders who do not have the professional training or expertise on sexual assault to continue to spread these myths and misinformation. We can do better. We must do better. The safety of our communities depends on it.

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 Amanda Quraishi

breakthrough-460889_1280In the face of the kind of tragic loss of human life such as the massacre that took place in Orlando last weekend, I am increasingly frustrated by the immediate response by groups to reject, deflect, and remove any and all nuance from the conversation – simply because they don’t want to be implicated as part of the problem.

But Omar Mateen didn’t come out of a vacuum.

I see people arguing about what his REAL motive was. Was it that he was Muslim? Gay and closeted? From a strictly patriarchal family? Mentally ill? Was it the fault of gun rights activists? Donald Trump? Who has blood on their hands? There is an eagerness to pin this crime on another group that I fear has less to do with preventing future such incidents, and more about covering our own backsides.
Well you know, it might be all those things working in confluence. Maybe his inherent homosexuality was repressed by his patriarchal upbringing and a religious community that rejected and oppressed his identity as a gay man. Maybe he felt that the only way to heaven was to take out his self-loathing on a bunch of other gay people. Maybe in his identity crisis he was easily swayed by the religious rhetoric of violent extremists who preached a way for sure salvation through killing. And maybe the culture he lived in was one that made access to weapons of warfare available to anyone and everyone who desires to use them for evil purposes.

From the Muslim community I see statements like: “Ok so can we talk about homophobia (or gun laws or mental illness) since we are clear now that Islam isn’t the motive?”

No. No we cannot. But we CAN talk about how gay Muslims are repeatedly dehumanized and oppressed in Muslim spaces using holy texts, and how cultural trappings and family hierarchy reinforces feelings of shame, self-loathing and desperation for homosexuals– and in fact for any free expression of natural sexuality. And how this environment breeds unchecked homophobia. We can talk about the absolute failure of leadership in the Muslim communities to INSIST on welcoming and affirming LBGTQ Muslims.

We can talk about how easy it is to ignore warning signs of violent behavior and religious radicalization. We can talk about how successful religious extremists are at messaging online to exactly the kinds of Muslims who are disenfranchised and/or dealing with an identity crisis here in the west. We can talk about how the Muslims who do try to address violent extremism within the community are demonized and ostracized themselves.

I know it’s hard to politicize nuance, but let’s go ahead and set our agendas down for five seconds and get real.  As Muslims, when we see a member of our Ummah (community) perpetuate something as ghastly as murdering 50 innocent people in the holy month of Ramadan, it is time to stop and reflect on what part we had in failing him.

As a Muslim, I am truly concerned about the way violence done by Muslims is being used to implicate our entire faith tradition. But in an effort to defend our religion, we can’t gloss over the ways we’re failing members of our own communities. There’s a marked difference between saying “this is radical Islam” and saying “these are Muslims committing terrorism”. The former is meant to demonize Muslims in general for a political agenda and create distrust of those who follow Islam. The latter is the truth. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of what is happening to young Muslim men and women under our noses, we are going to lose any moral authority we have in the public sphere.

Religion is more than just holy texts. It’s community – Ummah. Mateen came from our Ummah. The fact that Muslims’ immediate public responses are to deflect certainly does nothing to add to our credibility—individually or collectively.

Amanda Quraishi is a writer, activist & technology professional from Austin, TX.

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 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 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.

Dec 112015

By Nadiah Mohajir

Islamophobia is at its peak. Recent terror attacks, mass shootings, combined with anti-Muslim rhetoric by some of our politicians have contributed greatly to fear and hatred against Muslims. Consequently, many Muslims, who have lived and worked in this country for decades, are anxious and fearful of things that were once daily routine: going to the grocery store, sending their children to school or Islamic school, or boarding a plane. While all Muslims face the threat of Islamophobia – as well as anybody who looks like a Muslim – women who wear the scarf are facing a particular struggle: to keep on keeping on, to replace the scarf with another covering such as a hat, or, to remove the scarf entirely.

The scarf, most commonly known as “the hijab” has been a topic of debate in many circles for centuries. Scholars, feminists, general community members, and others have debated its necessity, its purpose, its social implications, and its political implications. It has been both a tool of empowerment and a tool of oppression, depending on who you talk to.

What’s interesting is that the while term “hijab” has a multitude of connotations and has the ability to elicit feelings of pride, faith, shame, guilt, and resentment all at the same time, it has also become a social construct that is man-made. When most people refer to “hijab” they are actually referring to the khimar, or head scarf, that Muslim women wear and is mentioned in the Quran. “Hijab” has become a social institution that allows society – both Muslim and non – to focus on what is externally present, measure one’s religiosity and modesty by whether or not it is present, and to serve as a symbol of Islamic identity, regardless of whether or not the woman who is donning it chooses to identify it as such. In many cases, the hijab has become not only what identifies a Muslim woman, but defines a Muslim woman.

I write this as a woman who wears a head scarf, and so far, has not chosen to remove it. Yet, it is not my honor. It is not my protection from the male gaze. It is not my self-worth, nor is it my identity, any more than the pants that I wear are.  My scarf is just that – my scarf, a piece of cloth that I believe God ordained me to wear. Nothing more, nothing less. So do I believe it is obligatory? Yes. Do I believe it is obligatory in all circumstances and for all women? Absolutely not, just like most things in Islam are not.  As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah taught me for many years, we have an obligation to protect our faith, but above that, we also have an obligation to protect our life and our sanity. So while the scarf may be obligatory, it remains a piece of cloth. It is not one’s cultural or religious identity, and every woman should take circumstances into account, and do what they need to in order to protect themselves – whether it is taking off the scarf, replacing it with a more ambiguous head covering, reciting your daily prayers and litanies, taking self defense classes, carrying Mace, or some combination of the above. Those circumstances are different for each individual – deciding to wear the scarf (or not) is an extremely personal decision and one that is solely between the individual and their Lord. Yet, the debate and decision has become one that is made as a collective – ignoring the reality that people have different struggles, different weaknesses, and different strengths, and consequently, denying women their personal agency.

Because many of our sisters are living in fear and struggling with what – if anything – they should do about their scarf, many scholars, community leaders, and community members – both male and female – have shared their thoughts on the topic. And while well-intentioned, and aiming to empower women to stay strong, I worry that many have chosen to defend why Muslim women should keep wearing the scarf, by using a shame-based approach, or pressuring and guilting those who are struggling to continue wearing it. Many have also attached notions of honor, identity, and self-worth to wearing the headscarf. This, in my experience, is actually quite disempowering, because these arguments remove one’s personal agency, and instead further denigrate and alienate those who are truly struggling with wearing the scarf. Moreover, when we reduce a woman’s identity and honor to a piece of fabric, we are, albeit in a different way than those who objectify women as sex objects, nonetheless still objectifying her.

As someone who works intimately with Muslim women and girls on issues of identity, self-esteem, and sexual and reproductive health, I find this approach problematic and dangerous. In the last five years, many women and girls have shared with me their stories of struggles as Muslim women in America, of reconciling their Muslim identity with their American one, and of finding a balance between their Muslim values and American ideals with respect to modesty, dress, relationships, love and sex. And while the struggles differ for each young woman, and cultural context and background also largely contribute to their narratives, a common theme across all stories – regardless of ethnic and racial background, level of religious conservatism and practice – is that women and girls inherently carry with them much shame and guilt throughout their lives. This is a function of both their inner critic and self-doubt as well as the daily scrutiny that they are subject to from all around them. Many women and girls are constantly in a conversation with themselves, negotiating with themselves and others around them what is modest, what is socially acceptable, what their identity and reputation is tied to, and what makes them a “worthy” person or Muslim. What’s most important to consider is that many of them have shared with me that they feel the most empowered when they are given the space to safely explore different choices, and the personal agency to determine what is best for them and their lives.

Shame-based approaches to promote certain values and ideals are dangerous because they often result in feelings of unworthiness and resentment. Additionally, such approaches are most often used by people who hold a lot of privilege – people who wear the scarf and don’t find it to be a daily and personal struggle like some others may. People who generally have strong community connections and social supports to turn to and retreat to. To some, wearing the scarf comes naturally. To others, it may be their biggest struggle. Some may come from a family that accepts their decision to wear the scarf, while others may receive much hateful push back. The fears I may feel with respect to my scarf, living in a diverse, liberal urban community may be very different than the fears my sister may feel in small town America.

The irony of this, is that although we are living during time where it may not be safe to be Muslim in America, in some ways, we may also be a threat to ourselves. Often times Muslim communities are themselves spaces that are culturally, physically, and socially unsafe, and that are disempowering and suffocating for our Muslim sisters. In our efforts to uphold certain values and practices – whether we are talking about the wearing the scarf, abstaining from sex until marriage, or even prayer – what we often deny others, particularly our sisters, is personal agency. The personal agency to develop a strong sense of self, understand their values, and make decisions that are not motivated by fear or shame, but rather a commitment to serve their Lord.

As such, it is dangerous to engage in modesty-shaming – shaming those who don’t fit our criteria of modest – we don’t know who we are alienating and we don’t know another person’s struggle, and we are inherently supporting that culture of shame and fear. Our sisters must feel the cultural, physical, and social safety to do what they think is right for themselves and their families. As my friend and colleague Hind Makki writes, “Take it off, keep it on, do what is right for you and your family, dear sisters. But please don’t be afraid.” And I would add to that, please don’t be ashamed. Hold your head up high regardless of your decision, and be confident that only YOU can own your story, and your relationship with your Lord is sacred.