You might not know this but April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and we kicked-off the month by hosting an unconference on #MeToo and Muslim Women.
In April 2018, we sponsored the fantastic Still I Rise event, #MeToo & Muslim Women: Silence No More, which involved creative workshops that looked at the issue holistically. One year on from that, we wanted to explore how #MeToo had impacted Muslim women in Western contexts, learn from each other’s knowledge and lived experiences, assess how far there is to go and how we can best effect change.
We were joined by Naila Darr, Amina Hatia and Sobia Razzaq, three brilliant women from Still I Rise - a grassroots women’s group that provides sisterhood and solidarity for Muslim women. We were also joined by Saba Fatima, a fantastic scholar looking at the specific issue of the intersection of #MeToo and Muslim women in Western contexts.
The conversations were very personal, deep and complex and there were lots of learnings that came from it.
1. Lack of space
We know from social media and the people who registered for the event that there are lots of people interested in the topic but they wanted to watch from afar, for very valid reasons. Sexual abuse is a topic that is still so hidden and very much taboo in all communities, including Muslim communities. Muslim women face misogyny from everywhere, but in a time of increasing Islamophobia, many Muslim women are hesitant to speak out publicly because they carry the extra burden of feeling like they are contributing to the demonisation of their own communities. There is a lack of spaces for Muslim women to be able to discuss these issues in an open, honest, safe and supported way. Still I Rise is one of the few places that does this brilliantly.
2. Where are all the men?
All the people who registered and attended were women. But for systematic change to occur, for there to be a cultural shift, we need much greater involvement from men. How do we engage more men in these discussions?
3. Hijab snatching = sexual assault?
Saba is trying to find support for the idea of hijab-snatching as a form of sexual assault, as the aim is to humiliate women by unclothing them. This humiliation is a key factor in other cases of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. However, there was some discomfort about putting this hate crime in the same category as violent rape. Hijab is often seen as a symbol of Muslim identity and the crime is often committed because Islamophobes hate Islam and Muslims. Nevertheless, as hijab-snatching is a gendered crime that is inextricably linked with Muslim women, there was general consensus that it can be viewed as a form of sexual harassment, in a similar way to bra snapping.
4. Why hijab?
Naturally the conversations around hijab-snatching turned into conversations around the hijab itself. The hijab means different things to different people - some women wear it to obey a religious commandment, for some it is a fashion statement, for others it is a feminist rejection of the male gaze. However for a growing number of women, it is often seen as a political declaration of their identity, and there was a complex discussion around how political identity is often a shortcut for disillusionment. With the increased number of Muslim women who cover their hair, comes the entrenching of the view that Muslim women who do not cover their hair are not practicing, or are secular. This is a self-perpetuating cycle where Muslim women feel a certain pressure to cover their hair, regardless of their beliefs on it being a religious requirement or not, simply to have their faith taken seriously by others.
5. What will my family think?
Speaking of others, many Muslim communities come from cultures that place an integral focus on family and on community - this can be both rich and fulfilling as well as testing and burdensome. These intense familial relations make people fear that speaking up about abuse by a family member may break the family apart. The Quranic verse 17:23 is wrongly used to silence victims. As Saba said, the family and community is seen as the “sacred cow” - rather than being concerned about what God will say, many cultures are structured to be concerned about what communities will say. Respectability politics makes people censure and police their own communities.
This silence is pervasive in many ways, and can also be seen in some Muslims’ fervour for gender segregation and concern to protect children from exposure to education on sexual health, sexual abuse or sexuality. However, this Victorian concern is completely antithetical to Islamic theology which can be quite explicit around sexual law.
We further discussed how this hypocrisy pushes people away from faith. Many Muslims engaged in a massive othering process of the culprits in the Rochdale street grooming case, however were very protective and defensive of other people accused of abuse whom they considered religious leaders (e.g. Tariq Ramadan and Nouman Ali Khan).
8. Our faith leaders need to be led
This led to exploring how British Muslim faith leaders are expected to be all things to all people - prayer leaders, religious scholars, community leaders, interfaith partners, activists, counsellors, carers and nurturers. Unfortunately, many of them - including those that are more progressive - do not have the required skills and training to be able to fulfil all of these roles. A majority of British Muslim faith leaders still expect instances of abuse to be dealt with quietly, and expect victims to forgive perpetrators rather than have them face justice via the criminal system.
9. A female touch
There is another dynamic to this and that is the underrepresentation and undervaluation of female scholars. All the women agreed that due to lived experiences, other women found it easier to understand the horrors of sexual abuse in a way that felt more instinctive than men. We desperately need more female scholars because they can bring a depth and understanding to the conversation that is currently lacking in a male-dominated arena. New Horizons feels passionately about championing female scholarship and the keynotes at our flagship event, the British Islam Conference, have always been led by pioneering female scholars in the field of religious study.
10. The system will break you
Despite all the obstacles of speaking out against abusers, even if a victim finds the courage to seek justice through the system, it can be a heartbreaking and soul-crushing process with multiple flaws. Those who have been through it said, “The system will break you” and they would not recommend it for people who were not mentally and emotionally strong enough to be able to face the numerous tactics put in place to deter justice - from people within criminal justice institutions advising leniency for perpetrators, and even threatening victims that they may have to testify in court despite already giving video evidence. British Muslim communities do generally have less trust in the state but in this case it is very much validated. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been tasked with bringing to light these failings. Whilst the final report is still in progress, an interim report has been published with Parliamentary recommendations, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be put into practice.
11. Share, share and share again
This finally brought us full circle to our beginning - the need for Muslim women to have spaces to be able to share their stories of abuse without then being labelled and permanently defined as “victims”. There is a plethora of stories in the media spotlight, often of women who were left broken and let down by their faith and their communities, but as one participant said, “That’s not my story, faith has helped me, sustained me, supported me.” How do we share stories of women reconciling with the awful tragedies of sexual abuse, and not just surviving but healing, rising, and growing because of their faith and communities like Still I Rise? May you find your tribe and, as Maya Angelou says:
“Tell the truth, first to yourself, and then to the children”.
Saba Fatima is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has published on issues of social and political significance to Muslims in the West in Social Theory and Practice, Hypatia, Social Philosophy Today, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs and Journal of Islamic Philosophy. Her research interests include non-ideal theory; social and political within prescriptive Islam; Muslim issues within a framework of feminist & race theory, and more recently, medical ethics.
Still I Rise is a grassroots women’s group that provides sisterhood and solidarity for Muslim women. Some of the things they’ve covered so far have been family relationships, marriage, divorce, reconciliation, sexual abuse, and toxic relationships but the discussions are based upon who joins and what comes up. They ask that the stories are left with the person sharing, but the lessons learnt can be taken away and shared, if it helps.