Nov 202016
 
photo by Mat Schramm

photo by Mat Schramm

Dear Survivor,

We’ve had a long, challenging election season. In many ways, election night brought it all together in a way most of us could have never imagined.

There aren’t enough words to describe the emotions we are feeling. The election results were incredibly painful. We’d like to say that we’re surprised, but we know that racism and misogyny are real, and that rape culture and violence against women is ingrained in our society. The election of Donald Trump – a candidate who made numerous offensive statements and is accused of being a sexual predator – was just a horrifying visual manifestation of it. It was a reminder of the reality that we live in a society that ignores abuses of power – especially when it is perpetrated by people of privilege. It was an all too triggering reminder for those of us who have been the victims of such abuses of power and how loud we have to scream and still not be heard or believed. All the progress we have made seems erased, and our intersectional identities and lived experiences ignored. I think all of this is especially hard when we know that these systems of oppression are at the very root of what we are fighting against: gender inequity, violence against women, rape culture.

We don’t know what the next four years will be like. But, we do know that we live in a day and time where people are not willing to be silenced any more, and that we at HEART will work even harder to be heard and to uplift the voices of those we serve. Your continued courage and bravery speaking up about your lived experiences as a sexual assault survivor are both inspiring and an example of your resilience. By speaking up, sharing your story, and insisting on change, you are not only raising and awareness on an injustice that is far too common in 2016, but you are protecting so many from being abused or assaulted in the future. What you’re doing is hard, and ultimately will require a culture shift. It will not happen overnight, and with so many who are so opposed to this work, it may even take much of our lifetime. But we are more motivated than ever to continue this work.

We see you. We hear you. We believe you.

We are so proud and humbled to serve alongside you as we continue to work toward progress, and your commitment to truth and justice is our daily inspiration.  Yes, it may seem like we’ve taken many steps back and there is still so much left to do, but there is reason to hope. And for us at HEART, you all are that reason.

Eternally grateful for your courage,

the team at HEART Women & Girls

Sep 012015
 
Reflections on Culpability, Forgiveness, and Mercy

By Ustadha Zaynab Ansari

In March 2015, Imam Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, founder of the Institute of Islamic Education (IIE) in Elgin, IL, was indicted on charges of criminal sexual abuse stemming from a series of encounters between the religious teacher and an administrative assistant employed at the school. While the woman who initially brought charges is an adult (in her early 20s), other victims came forward with allegations of abuse reaching back over decades.

In the wake of Maulana Saleem’s arrest, the Muslim communities of the greater Chicago area—understandably shocked at the allegations—offered up a range of responses. HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual health awareness in faith-based communities, published a strongly-worded statement calling for justice for Saleem’s victims and swift action to move the case forward.

Other Muslim-led organizations in Chicago, however, put out statements that attempted to find a compromise between public censure of Saleem and silence toward his victims. Puzzlingly, the statements invoked the concept of adultery, which, in my view, was a distraction from the original issue: that a prominent religious leader allegedly used his position to victimize an unsuspecting woman and children. While all of the above statements were unanimous in their recognition that sexual abuse is prohibited in Islam, the different responses highlighted the tensions inherent in the various approaches embraced by Muslim leaders in Chicago and beyond. Sherman A. Jackson, a nationally-renowned scholar, elaborated on these tensions in an article published for the ALIM Institute, wherein he reminded readers that the accused reserves the right to make tawba (repent) for his actions.

In writing this reflection for the HEART Women & Girls blog, I would like to explore the notion of tawba further. Specifically, I would like to consider whether the act of tawba absolves one of his or her responsibility to submit to the legal process, reckon with the victims’ stories, and acknowledge the harm done by one’s actions. In other words, does tawba exonerate the (alleged) abuser from additional culpability toward his or her victims? And does tawba also require a reciprocal effort from the victims to forgive their victimizer? In other words, can the victims be compelled to forgive their abuser, drop charges, and “move on” because he or she repented?

Before I consider these questions, I would like to define the concept of tawba. Per classical Islamic manuals like Reliance of the Traveller, when a human commits a sin, that sin can be categorized as major or minor. The latter category of sins can be expiated by acts of worship, such as praying and fasting. The former category—major sins—can only be expiated by performing tawba, a process of atonement in which the penitent recognizes the sinful nature of his or her act, feels remorse, and resolves not to repeat the act. Additionally, if the act involved the violation of someone else’s rights, the performer of tawba must attempt to restore the victim’s rights. Furthermore, some scholars mention that if the act was tied to a specific environment, the penitent must take measures to change his or her environment.

While Saleem certainly reserves the right to make tawba—in fact, given the nature of the accusations, he is required to make tawba—does his repentance remove additional responsibility toward the accusers? I would argue, no. Tawba is a private spiritual act intended to make things right with God. The performance of tawba, however, does not remove one’s responsibility toward those who suffered as a result of one’s actions. For example, when I wrote about the issue of “blurred lines” between religious teachers and their students and the culture of celebrity we have built up around some of our scholars, someone contacted me with the critique that I had disregarded the role of tawba when I took my position. On the contrary, I do not discount the necessity or benefit of tawba for those who have committed wrongdoing; in fact, it should be part of their rehabilitation process. However, the possibility of their tawba does not preclude the community from addressing the fallout of their actions.

One of the hadiths that was most frequently cited in the wake of the IIE scandal was the hadith of “amr bil ma’ruf wal nahy ‘an al-munkar,” or enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. In this hadith, the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, exhorts the Muslim community to confront wrongdoing in one of three ways: changing it with one’s hand, or with one’s tongue, or with one’s heart, the latter being the “weakest in faith.” What this means is that we have an obligation to confront wrongdoing with direct action, and, in the event such action is impossible, then at least speak out. If saying something is not an option, the least we can do is detest wrongdoing in our hearts. Lest we think these measures only apply to those witnessing abuse, they also apply to the abuser. God the Exalted says in the Qur’an, “Believers, turn to God in sincere repentance. Your Lord may well cancel your bad deeds for you and admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, on a Day when God will not disgrace the Prophet or those who have believed with him” (Al-Tahrim, 66:8).

The term used in the above verse, nasuh, is reminiscent of a word in another hadith: Religion is nasiha. In the Qur’an, Allah calls upon the believers to turn to Him, making their repentance sincere. In the hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, links the practice of good counsel, or nasiha, to religion itself. In other words, there is a dialectic between community members and leaders, a mutual process of taking ourselves to account, and requiring those in authority to uphold certain standards of conduct. In this reciprocal relationship, we expect that those who commit wrong will sincerely repent, but we also reserve the right to advise them about their conduct. Returning to the responsibility of the abuser, he or she, after making tawba, is also required to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong per the Prophet’s directive. The abuser must take direct action to stop the abuse, acknowledge the nature of his or her actions, and despise those actions on a spiritual and intellectual level. Once this multilateral approach to wrongdoing is initiated, the healing process can begin. However, there must be recognition that the victims have the right to decide when—and if—they will forgive. In the case of the plaintiffs in the Saleem case, the majority of them have carried the scars of abuse for decades. It is not appropriate for the community (or the alleged abuser and his supporters) to demand that the victims simply forgive and forget. The victims must be given the space to determine what constitutes proper justice in their case.

In the Qur’an, we read, “God commands you to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice” (Al-Nisa, 4:58). If the restoration of trust is an imperative of justice, what then of the betrayal of the ultimate trust—the safety, sanctity, and inviolability of our children, under the guise of teaching them the word of God, no less! Yes, tawba is important, but so is the right of the plaintiffs to seek justice, speak out, and, I pray, have something of what was taken from them restored. And God knows best.

Mar 202015
 
The Role of Mental Health Professionals

HEART Executive Director Nadiah Mohajir, in partnership with Muslim Wellness Foundation, Dr. Sarah Syed from Khalil Center, and Sarah Rashid, participated in a virtual panel on effectively addressing sexual violence in the Muslim community. The 90-min panel featured presentations from each of the panelists, including a short discussion afterward.

In light of the recent allegations of sexual violence against a prominent Imam in Chicago, the following questions were addressed: How can Muslim mental health professionals help facilitate conversations about shame, stigma and healing? How can mental health professionals and the community at large work toward promoting a victim-centric approach, that supports survivors and their families through the healing process?

Participants included Nadiah Mohajir, who spoke on HEART’s work, Dr. Sarah Syed who spoke from the perspective of a mental health professional that works with survivors, and Sarah Rashid, a writer and artist, who spoke from the perspective of a survivor.

The webinar was very well received, with a particularly moving testimonial from one of its viewers.

“First and foremost, I would like to thank you for the call last night. I really don’t know where to start, but I have been through so much in my life and finally recognizing myself as a survivor and not just a victim. I could relate so much to Sarah. Everything on the call was so beneficial. Please let those sisters know everything they said was spot on….we heard everything they said and showed and it was food for my soul.

After the call, I woke up this morning like my spirit has been a sleep for decades, it is now awake, knowing more about myself and wanting to do more for me and others… Please keep me in the loop of this because my work is only beginning, there is so much that I would like to do for this cause. May Allah reward you well. Thank you.”

Below is the full webinar, please do not hesitate to share your feedback with us! A big thank you to the Muslim Wellness Foundation for inviting us to participate.

 

Oct 302014
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

This past weekend, HEART Women & Girls had the pleasure of co-presenting at the 14th Annual Diversity Challenge: Racial or Ethnic Discrimination across the Lifespan at Boston College. The 90-minute workshop had three goals:

photo 1 (4)

  • To understand the disparities and challenges in providing mental and sexual health services to American Muslim girls & women
  • To understand the critical link between mental and sexual health
  • To explore innovative strategies and solutions to address these disparities

The workshop was led by HEART co-founder Nadiah Mohajir and Founder of Muslim Wellness Foundation Kameelah Rashad. About ten individuals attended and stayed afterward to share their work, their overwhelmingly positive feedback and invite the presenters to their respective schools and organizations.  We are excited to see what partnerships and collaborations result from this experience.

 

Later that evening, HEART facilitators Nadiah Mohajir and Sameera Qureshi, who flew in from Calgary, Canada, trained over thirty Muslim college women at Tufts University. A collaborative event between Tufts, Harvard and MIT, the workshop focused on facilitating a discussion that explored the sexual and reproductive needs of Muslim women and girls, the barriers to feeling emotionally and culturally safe when seeking and processing sexual health information, and strategies that we can all start employing to create safer communities.

photo 2 (4)

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and the experience has planted the seeds for continued      conversation in the Boston community. In the words of one of our participants, “I just wanted to say  that the idea of creating safe spaces for women is brilliant. Not only just for women who need a safe  space but for other women to awaken and realize that there is a need for it. Thank you so much for (in  my eyes) beginning this type of movement. It is very necessary for a group of women who are very  much in the minority to first begin to welcome each other and be each other’s support before we can go  out in the world and be empowered.”

 

 

 

 

 

May 212014
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

In the short four years HEART has been working to raise awareness about the importance of reproductive health education in the Muslim community, too many young women have confided in me – both personally and professionally – about intimacy issues in their marriages. Many have shared with me their struggles to embrace their sexuality and sexual desire, while others have struggled with having little knowledge of their bodies. What is becoming increasingly common but still remains unheard of are the stories of those women who can’t consummate their marriages – many days, months, even years go by, as the couple remains unable to have intercourse. While it may seem shocking or unimaginable to some, the situation is unfortunately far too common, and there are numerous reasons for why this part of their marriage is not being fulfilled, including, but not limited to:

  • lack of knowledge about one’s body
  • unhealthy attitudes and feelings of intense shame and guilt related to sexuality
  • past history of sexual abuse or sexual trauma,
  • pornography addiction, and
  • a physiological and psychological condition called vaginsimus, among other sexual dysfunction conditions.

Vaginismus is the condition that affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons and/or menstrual cups and the penetration involved in gynecological exams. While the causes of this condition are not fully understood, “it is usually associated with anxiety and fear of having sex….though it is unclear whether the anxiety is a cause or a consequence of the condition.” Primary vaginismus can occur when a woman has never been able to have sexual intercourse while secondary vaginismus can occur later in life, due to childbirth or a traumatic event. Numerous factors can contribute to vaginismus, such as sexual abuse and rape, urinary tract and yeast infections, anxiety or stress, and general domestic violence or witnessing domestic violence. The condition is highly treatable and full recovery is possible, with the assistance of treatment including physical therapy and psychological therapy.

This brave woman, Tasniya, a Muslim American, has come forward and shared her story of identifying and addressing vaginismus in her marriage. (youtube link below) She struggled for many years before she successfully found help at the Women’s Therapy Center in New York. Here is her story, and you will see that there are many similar stories and testimonials in the Women’s Therapy Center’s youtube channel. What is most interesting is upon initial review of the various stories, there are numerous themes that are present, despite the race/religion of these women, such as,

  • all the women were virgins when they married. In other words, they came from communities and families that valued abstinence and therefore had very little, if not at all, sexual experience when they got married. Many of the husbands were also virgins or had little sexual experience.
  • they did not know who to reach out to for help because no one understood and they feared stigma and social isolation
  • they also believed they were the “only ones” having such experiences, and that no one would understand them.
  • they did not have pleasant experiences with tampons and ob/gyn visits, which could have alerted them of future intimacy issues
  • there was much guilt and shame associated with having the condition
  • the physical therapy and mental health therapy required involvement on both spouse’s parts, not just the wife seeking treatment

There are many important lessons to be learned from Tasniya’s story, including the following:

1) Parents must help their child(ren) understand their bodies from an early age. Tasniya attributes many of her anxieties and discomfort to not knowing the basic anatomy of her body and not having had those conversations with the adults in her family. She stresses that education and awareness is the first step to developing a healthy attitude towards one’s body and sexuality.

2) Most women do not come forward because they do not know where to seek help and fear being  judged. When asked about why young women don’t come forward and seek help, the responses are the same, across culture and other demographic characteristics: no one knows this exists, and often people respond with much disbelief and judgment. As one woman said “When someone asks you about how your marriage is going, you can’t exactly just come out and say that you can’t have sex. People don’t even know this condition exists, let alone how to respond to it.”

3) There are certain things we can avoid as a community to create safer, more respectful spaces. When a couple is struggling with something as serious as vaginismus, there are certain questions that can have a tremendous impact on one’s self-worth and mental well-being. The first, as Tasniya explains in her story, is the question that many people love to ask newly weds (and not so newly-weds): when will you have children? This question can be highly disturbing to one struggling with vaginismus, as it is extremely frustrating to not be able co have intercourse, therefore making the prospect of having children impossible. The second question is when people respond in disbelief – asking if such a condition is even real, and not self-imposed. “That’s like asking if the cancer that someone has is real,” Tasniya explains.

4) Imams, other leaders of religious and cultural institutions, and medical professionals need to be aware that vaginismus exists and where to send couples for help and resources. Tasniya explains how she sought the counsel of several imams, counselors and doctors without any luck. Awareness trainings are essential for those in leadership positions in the religious and cultural communities so that they can be properly equipped to counsel a married couple who may seek guidance. On the flip side, cultural competency trainings are essential for medical professionals and mental health professionals so that they have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural nuance and attitudes toward sexuality and marriage in the Muslim community and how that may influence the ability to have healthy sexual lives.

5) It is essential to instill a healthy, positive sexuality in our youth to prepare them for when they are in sexual relationships. Tasniya explains how she was never taught that Islam is a sex positive religion, and that sex is seen as a pleasurable and desirable act, within the framework of marriage. She explained how instead, she viewed sex and sexuality as dirty, shameful, and embarrassing, and she always associated pain and disgust with intercourse, which ultimately led to her inability to consummate her marriage. To read more about how to instill a healthy sexuality in youth, please click here. More importantly, it is really essential to speak with young women before marriage to prepare them for what to expect, where to seek help should they need it, and to make them feel like even if things don’t go as expected, they are not alone, and they have a support system.

It is essential that we start raising awareness about this increasingly common condition and seeking proper resources. The health of our marriages and communities depends on it. A recent article in India found that “vaginismus is emerging as a major cause of divorce in Kerala.” Quoted in the article is leading gynecologist Dr P A Lalitha, of Malabar Hospital, who says “Fear is the main reason behind this condition. Added to that, early marriages and lack of proper sex education add more oil to the fire.” Dr. Lalitha confirms a finding that HEART’s fieldwork has also uncovered – that the way society approaches sexuality – with fear – combined with a general lack of sexual education can lead to numerous intimacy issues. Furthermore, just listening to the numerous testimonials on the Women’s Therapy Center channel, I notice that despite the incredible diversity of the women, they all came from families that upheld abstinence. While abstinence in and of itself is a praiseworthy value, I do pose the following question: Are abstinence messages being relayed in a manner that lead to developing unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality and instill a general fear of sexuality instead of a positive outlook on sexuality?

As Wajahat Ali explains how often the “sex talk” is limited to a simple “don’t do it”, with the “it” not even being defined, he highlights why this is not only confusing for our young people, who develop and undergo the same adolescent changes as the rest of their peers, but it also creates a challenge for them to understand, find, and maintain healthy relationships. Using a driving metaphor, he explains “Muslim youth are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph with a spouse, 2.3 kids, and a suburban home without being taught how to start the engine and how to maintain the vehicle on its journey.”

As such, it is crucial now more than ever to begin having conversations about sex and sexuality – within an Islamic framework while being cognizant of the hypersexualized society we live in – with Muslim youth.The sheer amount of fear of intimacy, clash of expectations between spouses and sexual tension that is all too familiar to many Muslim newlyweds is contributing to years, if not a lifetime of marital discord and unhealthy relationships in our community. Moreover, the lack of culturally-appropriate sex education for our youth is leading to much confusion, risky sexual experimentation, and unhealthy attitudes toward sex.

Apr 142014
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

originally published on altmuslimah.com

******trigger warning*******

Just having returned from an intense karate class, Rania* reflected on her anger, and how tired she felt upon the release of her anger. “I just hate him,” she thought. “I really just hate him.” She sighed, and her gaze fell upon on the mug he gave her that she had used daily for more than a decade. “But part of me loves him too. Is that wrong?” Rania was 13 when it began. He was her 36-year-old-married-with-children uncle. The relationship began slowly, with just a few inappropriate comments here and there.

Then, it was a hug. Later, it became a more lingering hug, in a more private space. Before Rania knew it, she was in what could only be described as a romantic relationship with her uncle. Once she relocated and removed herself from the relationship, Rania had time to reflect on the 11-year emotionally intense and physically intimate relationship. “Was it abuse? Am I responsible because I let it happen?” This article will discuss the Rania’s struggle and will explore just how common similar situations are in the Muslim community.  The unfortunate reality is that Rania’s struggle is not uncommon, nor is it properly addressed in the Muslim community. Moreover, young women, who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated on what constitutes as a healthy relationship, remain ill equipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12. Seven percent of girls in grades 5-8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9-12 report having been sexually abused. This number does not include the many more who do not report their abuse, or who are unable to determine that they are, in fact, being abused. More than 90 percent of victims know their attacker, with family members constituting approximately one-third of all attackers. Victims are more likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as compared with those who have not been abused. Among the most chilling of statistics is that abuse victims are thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, and four times more like to contemplate suicide. As much as we may like to think that our religious or cultural values render us immune to these numbers, the Muslim community in the United States is not invulnerable to these issues. They just simply have not been exposed as often as they need to be.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rania, who refers to herself as Neighborhood Muslimah. She contacted me a few months ago, having come across HEART Women and Girls’ website, and wanting to raise awareness for her blog, which chronicles her musings on her experience with sexual abuse. Just a few minutes into reading her blog entries will take the reader into a relationship fraught with subtle coercion and sexual manipulation. Rania’s reflections are the first step to raising awareness about the importance of honest, candid dialogue coupled with sexual health education as a means to empower women and girls to identify when they are being abused, and how to respond.

As I spoke with Rania, she recalled how she was very young when the relationship with her uncle first became questionable. He was her maternal aunt’s husband, and both families were close. Rania’s parents would often allow her to spend her summer holidays in his home with his family. As their relationship progressed, she became dependent upon the attention and praise he lavished on her. They would engage in long conversations about history, politics and culture, and all the while Rania’s uncle would praise her for her maturity and insight. “He allowed me to feel stronger than him, and elevated me in my own eyes,” she explained. “He made me feel that I was special and superior compared to everyone else. He would talk to me as if I was his wife, and would tell me how I was so strong and pious; I would be a leader for all Muslim women.”

Rania learned the tricks of maintaining a secret relationship as many teenagers do. She lied excessively about where she was going, snuck out of the house, and even invited her uncle to her parents’ home when they were out of town. While they never engaged in intercourse, their relationship consisted of extremely intense and physically intimate moments. Guilt and confusion would overwhelm Rania, but if she questioned her uncle about how God would judge this relationship, he would quickly assuage, at least for the time being, her doubts. He would assure her that if God saw them as sinners, He would have exposed them, but instead they were able to continue the clandestine relationship. Never once though did the thought cross Rania’s mind that her uncle was taking advantage of the situation and abusing his niece.

Rania proudly told her friends about her “boyfriend.” They all had someone special they bragged about, so she felt obligated to do the same, changing his name and his age, even pulling out a picture of another younger boy so that he became real to both her and her friends. “I had convinced myself I was in love with him,” she explained. “Once in sex education class, the teacher asked if the victim of an abusive relationship can feel pleasure. When the class unanimously said no, I was convinced I wasn’t in an abusive relationship because I liked being in his company, even if I was uncomfortable with being physically intimate. He didn’t beat me. Instead, he praised me and showered me with gifts. How is that abuse?” she had reasoned.

For her entire adolescence, Rania lived a dual life, even creating a nickname for her uncle so that the duality of her uncle’s role – that of her doting uncle publicly, but of her significant other privately– would not be as glaringly obvious to her. Guilt, sadness, and supplication became her companions, as she didn’t believe she could confide in anyone. “I couldn’t turn to family because we were all so close,” she explained. “And I couldn’t turn to the community, because not only was I in this inappropriate relationship, but I was a respected member of Muslim youth in my city, always asked to give speeches and serve as a role model for other kids. People thought I was an angel. How could I tell them that their angel was actually a devil in disguise?”

As Rania related her story, I couldn’t help but think of all the various factors that allowed this situation to persist, and what we could have done as a community to prevent it. Was this in fact a case of abuse, despite Rania’s continuous consent?

Sexual abuse remains a shameful, cloaked reality affecting many young girls and boys in the Muslim community, and no matter our uneasiness with the subject, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Rania’s story of her eleven-year long relationship with her maternal uncle is more common than we think. In my conversation with Rania, she explained that at the age of 24 she decided to end the relationship that had been an everyday part of her adolescence.While traveling with her friend, Lubna, Rania described the kind, adoring man she had felt compelled to leave behind because their families would not approve of the relationship. Rania had believed that distance would help clear her mind and ease her into life without her uncle, but in the first few months the separation only exacerbated her confusion. She missed him terribly, and finally gave in to her loneliness, reconnecting with her uncle through phone and email.

Months later, after ending their relationship once and for all, Rania met Lubna again, who asked about her significant other. This time, Lubna heard a much different story. Rania’s tone and words were laced with acrimony, prompting Lubna to ask what had brought about the change of heart. Rania explained that the distance apart allowed her the time and space to reflect on the past decade. She began to recall experiences she had long buried, similar to selective amnesia. “I even forgot that he was my uncle,” she said. She continues to explain this further in her blog post about coping strategies – she describes the love and affection she developed for him over the years as a coping mechanism- “It’s what we do when we see no way out…when we have lost all hope.”

Rania felt she could not go anywhere for help. A simple literature and Internet search confirms that there are no culturally appropriate resources for young Muslim women who are survivors of sexual abuse. The community has not created any safe spaces for these women – the mosques, Islamic schools, and community centers do not have professionals and leaders equipped to address and counsel survivors. Moreover, the cultural barriers that exist to addressing these issues for Muslims prevent Muslim survivors from pursuing or trusting the secular resources and professionals that do exist. The instances in which she thought her family suspected that there was something peculiar about her relationship with her uncle did not evolve into honest dialogue, but instead remained uncomfortable silences.


Rania did not trust that her family or community would help her untangle herself from the relationship; she felt certain that if she did come forward, she would be the one to shoulder all the blame for the relationship. “If I felt I could have told a member of my family that I am in this relationship, and they would not reprimand me for it (maybe you shouldn’t have been so friendly, maybe you should wear hijab), perhaps I would have said something. But my fear was if I opened my mouth, I would be the aggressor, the cause of fitna.”

Rania didn’t have open discourse with her mother about the challenges of being an adolescent— feeling attracted to boys or finding a balance between her Muslim values of modesty and the Western culture in which she was being asked to practice them. Rather, Rania opened up to her uncle, who she thought listened to her with compassion and gave importance to her concerns and her point of view as though she was his peer.  Once the relationship graduated from a friendship to a romance, Rania didn’t have the self-confidence to trust her instinct that something was wrong. Rania’s uncle had likely spotted this insecurity in his niece from the beginning, and began to manipulate her vulnerability in order to persuade her to fulfill his inappropriate desires. “Even though he was always in the driver’s seat in the relationship, he made me feel like the driver,” she recalled.



Our community has a responsibility to our young women. We have a responsibility to trust our daughters enough not to point the finger at them, even if they come to us with a nightmare of a situation. We must find the context and reasoning behind why these frightening situations happen, and reign in our reflexive desire to immediately judge and assign blame. As Rania told me, “The worst thing is to feel that you won’t be accepted if you speak up.” We have a responsibility to protect our girls from men like Rania’s uncle, who saw an opportunity and chose to abuse it. Open and honest dialogue about sexual health and sexuality, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable these conversations may be, is key. There is no doubt that the Muslim community needs to develop a culturally-sensitive approach to sexual health education, because if women remain uninformed about their bodies, they are unequipped to identify an abusive relationship or know where to turn for help. Moreover, we have an obligation to hold the aggressors in our community accountable for their actions, regardless of their position in society, and without compromising the survivors’ future and reputation and allowing them to become collateral damage in the process.So, he never hit her. In fact, he treated her like a princess and elevated her in the eyes of everyone, including herself. But she was 13 and he was 36 when their relationship first began. I ask you the same question Rania repeatedly asks herself in her blog: Was this abuse? If so, did we do enough to protect Rania, and all the girls who have the same story?* Names have been changed

 

Apr 102014
 

By Sameera Qureshi

originally published on muslimsistah-sq.blogspot.ca

I woke up suddenly at 6:00am from a bad dream, wondering how men could do this, trying to understand the twisted psychology behind their behaviour. No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t come up with an answer. After an hour and a half of tossing and turning, I finally woke up and came back to my reality…a safe and sound home with a loving husband. But unfortunately, there are many girls and women here and abroad who aren’t blessed with the same fortune as I am.

About a month ago, I came across a 126-page document titled Unheard Voices: The Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women. It was published by the Muslim Women’s Network UK, and details approximately 30 cases of sexual abuse and violence against Asian girls and young women. How such innocent females were sucked into a ring of drugs and alcohol, gang rape, and prostitution. I read the majority of the document and it’s been on my mind since then. I think this morning, it was on my mind more than before.

I really don’t want to recount some of the stories I read in this document, partly because they are already re-playing through my mind and also because I want readers of this blog to read the document themselves.

All I can think is that such practices are not solely limited to the UK…They are just as often happening in North America and absolutely overseas as well.

I want to do something about this, but I don’t know what.

While there are agencies in the UK working to educate young girls, and the police force are criminalizing such acts, the thoughts justifying these acts (i.e. misogynistic thoughts, etc) are perhaps deeply seeded within the South Asian community. The majority of the victims in the case studies described are South Asian, coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Over 95% of the victims in this study were Muslim. The perpetrators are teenage boys and adult men, often recruiting their family members to pay them before violating these girls over and over again, while she’s unconscious in someone’s house. The following paragraph demonstrates this (graphic content and trigger warning):

“My mate called me and said ‘Bro I have a surprise for you, come over to this house.’ When I got there 15 of them were sitting in the living room. My mate told me to go upstairs for my surprise. When I went into the bedroom, another friend was doing this girl (she was a 20 years old of Pakistani background). The lads went up one by one and took turns and while they were waiting they were calling their mates, cousins and uncles to come over and join in and showing off. Others turned up too including two older men who were taxi drivers, who went straight upstairs. One older man said I am going to call my son over so he can practice on her and later his 15-year-old son arrived in his uniform. Everyone took turns and it took 6 hours. I did get concerned and said, ‘the girl is going to get broke, who will marry her?’ The girl is not paid but she gets looked after, she is given food and the boys make sure she gets home safely if it gets late. There are set days Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but some of my friends don’t like doing stuff like that on a Friday because it is Juma (holy day) and they go mosque.”

I can’t get this scene out of my head, and it’s to THIS dream I woke up this morning. I felt as I was there, floating around as an invisible witness, trying to figure out who could do this and how many men could let this happen to a girl. Tears well up in my eyes every time I think of this happening…it’s violent and repulsive…how can they do this?

How many of us know this happening within communities around the world? Did you know that in India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes? In the US, an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes. The statistic from India is alarming especially since only 10% of rapes get reported while in the States it’s just above 25%. Most sadly, it’s brutal gang rape more often than not, in ways that are unimaginable. How can we not pray for these women? How can we not pray that we find a way to STOP these men from committing such crimes?

It’s not just Muslims who are involved in rape and child sexual exploitation. It’s happening all over the world. Millions of boys and girls each year are sold into child prostitution, yet it doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves.

I’m starting to think of ways I can contribute to this cause. Building awareness is one step, but it’s not enough. Most people will read this blog post, feel sad that this happening, and move on with their lives. I don’t think I can do that. I think there’s a reason I am this impacted by what’s happening…I think it’s a sign and perhaps the direction I am supposed to go towards. I am not sure, but it’s something I am going to look into.

And perhaps for us folk in Canada, we can work to educate young men and women here as a means to prevent this sort of violence from ever happening among our youth. We need to teach young men how to respect young women, the importance of consent, and how saying nothing is NOT consent for sexual activity. We need to teach young women about the power and control wheel and how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships, and we need to teach families how to protect their children from such abuse. It’s not an easy task and there’s no easy prevention curriculum…but we need to start somewhere.

And for those of you who are reading this, please take the time to read or even skim the document I mentioned above. It’s not an easy read but the first step to raising awareness is to understand yourself what’s going on.

May Allah guide us all and protect us all from any form of exploitation or violence.

Sameera Qureshi, MScOT (c) is an Occupational Therapist and currently manages a mental health promotion project that is school and community based, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Her work over the past six years has been primarily with Muslim populated schools and their families. Since 2011, Sameera has been working to implement Islam-oriented sexual health education programs both within these schools and the greater Muslim community. Her work includes developing the curriculum for both genders and teaching the curriculum to girls in grades 5-9, running parent sessions, collaborating with multiple Calgary agencies around sexual health, and making her work available to interested community member and professionals. She also maintains a blog called Muslim Sistah and can be found on Twitter @muslimsistah 

Apr 032014
 

by Sarah Hasan

The other day I was looking up local Sexual Assault Awareness Month events and thinking about ways to get people from our (‘our’ in this case = Muslim) communities to come out and participate. I started to imagine people who came to my mind first and their responses if I were to make a suggestion, instigate involvement. The aunties and/or their daughters and the looks I projected on their faces in my mind were discouraging images.

As I continued to indulge my faulty expectations regarding an imagined conversation with community members, a parallel (and far more positive) train of thought began to brew: I wondered how we could spread awareness in our communities that were specifically tailored to Muslims? Surely we could at least hold an event such as handing out ribbons, spark dialogue. What could we come up with on our own? I mean, in the (hopefully not so distant) future I would think it would be cool to have one of these tailored towards our own community, but there is a long way to go before that comes into fruition. I was curious to see what kind of resources were easily/google accessible to me now- as a Muslim woman, if I were searching for help, answers, counseling, anything.

While I found some interesting links, some directing me to neat organizations such as a Directory of Programs serving Muslims, I also inevitably encountered a lot of misinformation. What piqued my interest was a campaign run by Canadian Muslims called Muslims for White Ribbon. This was a neat although short campaign that ran this past winter; their motto: “Never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls”. It made me really happy to see this initiative pop up in my google search even though this was specifically about women and girls, and it is important to keep in mind that when we talk about Sexual Assault Awareness we shouldn’t just refer to assault against women; 1 in 33 American men have experienced rape or attempted rape – that’s 3% of the men in this country that have been able to report it. I wonder then if there are similar initiatives American Muslims have taken or are working on. And if we haven’t yet started, when do we plan on getting something together? Would this be a difficult initiative to take? What are your thoughts?

Sarah Hasan is HEART’s Program facilitator and is passionate about helping to raise awareness about neglected issues in the Muslim community.