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