Towards Liberatory Muslim Communities

At the Cathartist we are interested in how socio-religious norms play into how different faith communities react to sexual violence and abuse, and how they work to prevent it. Here is a very candid and insightful piece that details the writer's personal experience in her own Muslim community.

See the original post here:  Towards Liberatory Muslim Communities


Content note: abuse, sexual violence, child abuse, sexual assault

Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” (i change it to make it all gender neutral in my head)

The air went out of me when I read this article in the New York Times (a publication I generally don’t particularly care for, as an aside). No Religious Exemption When It Comes to Abuse. I actually truly appreciate that no mention of Islam was made because I can’t remember the last time I saw a quality, nuanced, non-Orientalist discussion of abuse in Muslim religious communities in a publication like the NYT.

But y’all Muslims need to understand that this critique applies to you. And while I’m the first one to call out Orientalist shit (and I know y’all may disagree with me, and that’s cool, but that’s what I think of Mona Eltahawy’s ridiculously framed Why Do They Hate Us– even the damn headline is hipster orientalist. what’s that, you ask? my on-the-spot made up corollary to hipster racism*, wherein Eltahawy appropriated orientalist post 9-11 discourse concerning the borg-like masses of angry Muslims and used it to prop up orientalist/imperialist feminism. this aside is too long now. i have ADHD. bear with me.). Anyways, while I’m the first one to call out Orientalist crap about Muslims, I do not subscribe by any means to the women-are-treated-awesome-in-Islam-didn’t-you-know-Islam-was-the-first-religion-to-give-women-equal-rights crowd. Know why? Because the people I know who think that are the people I know who ignored abuses or victim blamed those in their community.

This stuff’s always personal, but this especially so. I have two defining “incidents” that I label sexual assault. The first happened in a mosque when I was 10. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about some of my experiences before this.

The following experience is not particularly uncommon, but it should be. For some reason, this particular “incident” has been etched in my mind for years. I still remember that I was wearing shalwar kameez and a cotton dupatta. I remember my emotions. I remember my thoughts at the time.

Here’s what went down. Sometimes the “older” kids at the mosque would look after the younger ones; making sure they didn’t stray too close to the ditches on the property or otherwise injure themselves. Some of my friends were leaving briefly and asked me to take on that job until they came back. I didn’t really mind it, I had a kind of protective stance towards some of the younger kids, especially one boy, Yusuf** who was often bullied by the others (for the usual cruel reasons — thick glasses, not super verbally adept, very attached to his mother and any other mother-like figure). But this day I teased a teenage boy, Hakim**, who had been hanging out with my friends and told him I would leave him “in charge” of looking after the younger kids and go off and play by myself. I started to leave the stairwell, and he said “no you’re not,” and grabbed me.

I struggled to get free, thinking Hakim was just “playing” around. Then his hand went under my kameez/shirt. That’s when I realized it was a very, very bad thing he was so much stronger than me. There were two little boys in the stairwell with us, Yusuf and Amir**, witnessing the whole exchange. When I realized he wasn’t going to let me go, I asked Amir to go get my mother to help me. Since he couldn’t recognize her on sight, I told him to get his mother. I remember how sweet he was — fairly socially adept and pretty compassionate for his age (only a few years younger than me, really). He ran to get his mother.

The teenage boy continued to grope me, clearly reveling in his power over me. It wasn’t as traumatizing as my later experiences would be, for some reason, but my person had definitely been violated — whether you call that sexual assault or not, I hadn’t asked for it, I was a good little Muslim girl whose only mistake had been to tease an older Muslim boy. The stairwell, usually pretty active with the comings-and-goings of Muslim kids wanting to play outside, was empty other than Hakim, Yusuf, and me. Yusuf was visibly freaking out that his protector against bullies was being physically dominated and in distress and that he couldn’t do anything about it but tell him to let me go.

The boy who had run to get his mother burst back into the stairwell, almost in tears. He told me that everyone was praying and his mother wouldn’t break her prayer to listen to him and he couldn’t get anyone else to come.

Eventually, the boy let me go on his own accord. His amusement was over, I suppose. I can’t remember if someone else came in or if he got bored, or was afraid of discovery. I just know it ended. I mentioned the incident to another older kid, the son of prominent members of the Muslim community and he flat out said he didn’t believe me. That boy is all grown up now, and is now a prominent member of the mainstream Muslim community. I have seen him vociferously defend a religious leader involved in a sex scandal, openly defending him and discrediting another woman/girl accuser whose case went public.

From the NYT: “Paul Karsten, a board member of the Rinzai-ji Zen Center, said the intense relationship between Zen teacher and student can be trouble…Mr. Karsten acknowledged complaints against Mr. Sasaki — largely on the Internet, some anonymous — that the teacher went beyond what most reputable teachers would consider appropriate. But Mr. Karsten seemed torn between valuing extremely close teacher-student relationships and acknowledging the dangers.”People see there has been something going on with students that on the one hand has been remarkable, and on the other hand has been inappropriate in teacher-student practice,” Mr. Karsten said. “And consensual, or nonconsensual?”

For some reason those two younger boys, Yusuf and Amir, are my main focus when I remember this incident. I wonder if they remember it. I wonder what lessons they were taught about the power and gender relations. I wonder if it frightened them as much as it seemed to — they seemed more frightened than I was at the time. I wonder if they learned that adults wouldn’t listen to them. To be fair, there’s a whole lot of “you must never ever break your prayer or it’s disrespectful to God” stuff going around, but this happened in a context when children really aren’t listened to all that much. And he told his mother after prayer what happened, and she never spoke to me, my mother, or took any other noticeable action.

This post by s.e. smith hit home for me (and can I add, when trying to google for this post, any combination of searching for “children aren’t listened to”, or “people do not listen to children”, or “adults do not listen to children” gave me results about how children don’t listen to adults?):

The sentiment ‘better seen than heard’ reflects a larger social attitude of the value of children’s voices, namely that they have none. Children should remain silent, and they are ‘good’ when they’re quiet, but ‘bad’ when they are not, because they are disturbing the adults and causing trouble. This attitude runs through the way people interact with children on every level, and yet, they seem surprised when it turns out that children have been struggling with serious medical problems, or they’ve been assaulted or abused…

Children talk, but no one listens. They say things, but no one pays attention to them. They provide ample warning, but no one heeds it. And they learn from a very early age to stay quiet, to remain silent about the things happening to them, to muscle through pain, to say nothing about abuse or sexual assault, to pretend that everything is fine. Because so many of the adults around them have reinforced the fact that they will be punished for talking, despite what adults may say about being caring and the importance of confiding ‘in a trusted person.’

You could blame my child self for not going to my parents at this point and pointing out the teenage aggressor. If blaming a child younger than 10 for not speaking up loud enough is what you want to take away from this post, however, I suggest you stop reading here. I was taught not to be too loud, that certain comments were inappropriate in public. I was too young to be discerning about what was acceptable to say and I was shy by nature, so in the presence of aunties and uncles I was silent. I was also given instruction on how to successfully pull off the “sideways hug” with male relatives and avoid a “front hug.”

Beyond this sphere, I had a constant chip on my shoulder because of incidents like this and a general hostile atmosphere. I was a pretty devout kid so I spent more time around the mosque than most, so that became my proving ground. I haven’t played sports in years but my younger self decided I would play american football with those boys, be smarter than the boys, etc. At the first hint of something sexist (like quoting the Quraanic Yusuf Ali translation about men being stronger than women and therefore superior, the infamous 4:34 ayah– so seriously people, if you think kids don’t know about “adult” discussions of whether that verse means you’re allowed to beat your wife, you better think again), I used to throw a cup of water at the offending boy. It didn’t much help for catharsis.

In that same building (it was a mosque/school) I was taught, in this very peculiar way, that Islam gives “equal rights” to men and women even though men and women are biologically/temperamentally different (ha!). The practical message was of course very different (seriously, look how young we were when we learned about 4:34? do you think all ayat are given the same treatment?). And of course, there was absolutely no discussion beyond a gender binary, no discussion of cis, trans, genderqueer (or hijras, even, for a more desi-specific context), no discussion of sexuality beyond the heteronormative. Just your basic heteropatriarchal religious upbringing that managed the cognitive dissonance of saying Muslim women were blessed with equal rights unlike those Christian or Jewish or Hindu women and yet taught their boys they had rights over their women.

I’m not going to go off on an orientalist bender and say men in Muslim religious communities or Muslim majority countries are the uniquely sexist Borg, but look, there ARE specific ways that patriarchy, that heteropatriarchy plays out in different communities and cultural contexts.

From the NYT article: “But the truth is, there are not two kinds of religions — the enlightened and the medieval. Every religion has evildoers stalking its corridors. They just survive, and thrive, with different strategies.”

I can’t speak for all the various nuances of every single Muslim community ever, but I know that in the communities I have been in, one of the major manifestations of heteropatriarchy was gender segregation (which I believe to exist on a spectrum of misogyny, with intimate partner violence and other violence on the extreme end). This isn’t going to win me any points with many Muslims, but this particular facet has always seemed to me to be enormously unhealthy and one of the common threads in different communities. Really, this needs its own post (and I’ve been heavily influenced here by Fatima Mernissi and Assia Djebar, though not in a directly applicable way) to really do it justice. In the strictly gender segregated spaces I’ve been in, the mere visibility of cis women (not to mention anyone who is NOT cis and hetero) is met with community disapproval, sexual harassment (this is everywhere, yes, but it IS more intense in certain contexts), and death.

Let me give you an example. I took an enormously interesting college course about the historical construction of sexualities. It’s where I learned about the medical history of the vibrator, the relatively new nature of sexual identities (weirdly, I don’t remember reading Foucault, maybe they thought it would be too heavy), all the Ann Fausto-Sterling stuff about eggs being nurturing, etc etc (the hypersexualization of women of color was a thing I was already pretty familiar with). One day, in a discussion of how sexuality was constructed in a 200-year-old rape case, the discussion got WAY off track. White boys used the case to ask “well, why was she out at 2 am?” I was horrified and shocked into silence. Another person, presumably a survivor, got up and tearfully said “I can’t believe that TWO HUNDRED YEARS later, we are still assassinating this woman’s character. Some of us here have had these experiences, and I cannot believe we are really having this discussion.” And walked out. I wish I had too. The professor apologized for letting the conversation getting out of hand, promptly controlled the rest of the discussion, and I saw him talking to the student who walked out after class.

I left the class, feeling raw and triggered. I walked around campus and saw some of my friends huddled together, mostly Muslim women. I tried to tell them what happened in the class, and sought comfort. One of my friends, a lovely, traditional woman, said “Well, I do think in cases of sexual assault it is also partly the woman’s fault.” The justification, presumably, that she allowed herself to be in the situation in the first place. Because a good Muslim girl stays strictly gender segregated. I was floored.

Many non-activisty mainstream Muslim folks that I’ve known in the U.S. really don’t get how this takes the burden off of cis men not to suck. I once had a super awkward and creepy discussion with a Muslim college boy about how it was really hard for him to “lower his gaze” during the summer, and asked to change seats with me so he wouldn’t be facing a woman in shorts and a tank top. After morning prayers I was praying zikr (remembrance of God) with two boys, and neither of them had memorized Ayat-ul-Kursi which wasn’t written down on the sheets we had because it was assumed the reader would have memorized it. I offered to say it so we could proceed. Afterwards, I was told I shouldn’t have done that, because Muslim women should not make their voices “soft” in front of men (after a beat where I tried to understand what the hell he meant by that, it got REALLY awkward once I realized that he meant “seductive”) because of a passage about the Prophet’s wives in the Quraan (33:22, and by the way I think that particular interpretation of this verse is crap).

Here are people who are actually saying a Muslim woman’s VOICE is a problem (and using Wahhabi/Salafi dogma to do it), because it may tempt  [hetero, cis, because is there any other kind? ugh] men. We’re not even talking on the level of Muslim women shouldn’t be visible in public, shouldn’t mingle with men on their own, we’re saying THEY CAN’T EVEN PRAY IN FRONT OF THEM. That they are NOT ALLOWED TO EVEN RECITE HOLY WORDS in the presence of men. So what does that mean of any other speech? Muslim women, then, are not to be seen OR heard.

This is not an extreme view in the communities I’ve been in, communities infected by Saudi Wahhabism, where music is haraam, women reciting Quran in front of men is haraam, oh and God forbid women lead prayer or be in front of men when they prayer lest the men be distracted by lust and every damn thing is bid’a.


And yet so it goes.

NYT article: Then there is the fear of bringing shame on the community, particularly prevalent in minority groups. “When I started in 1982,” said Phil Jacobs, the editor of Washington Jewish Week, “there was an 11th commandment — ‘Thou shalt not air thy dirty laundry.’ ” He learned that commandment in Baltimore, writing about the high percentage of Jews in a treatment program for compulsive gambling. “When I started calling people, they said, ‘You’re not going to put this in the paper, are you?’ So I found out Jews didn’t get AIDS, didn’t get divorced, didn’t abuse their wives or children.”
That fear of embarrassment may be why Dr. Lamm — who is still at Yeshiva and declined to be interviewed — stayed quiet about the abusive rabbis at Yeshiva. Perhaps he loathed what they had done, and wept for their victims. But, he also may have thought that people shouldn’t hear bad things about Jews. People shouldn’t know, in other words, that Jews are just like everyone else.
That is everyone else, not just religious people. The Satmar Hasidim may have wanted to protect a beloved member, the Modern Orthodox administrators probably worried about their community’s reputation — and the Penn State loyalists enabled Jerry Sandusky. Somehow, the victims never seem as important as the rabbi, the Zen master, the coach. In the words of a once-revered rabbi, Norman Lamm, may as well let the perpetrators “go quietly.”

One of the reasons gender segregation is connected to this violence and abuse is because when I was assaulted when I was 10, I was CONVINCED I had done wrong. Many survivors, children or adults, feel this sentiment. It was all the more compounded by these scripts that I grew up with, wherein women are to blame for male desires and male violence when they step out of line. I shouldn’t have been playing by myself. I shouldn’t have done this or that. Was it because my shalwar kameez and dupatta were orange? Should I have worn a more subdued color? (I did, after that. I did the baggy grey/black clothes, and did — still do– the food addiction/ food as comfort thing for years, trying to be as invisible as possible.) Was it a test? To see how I would react appropriately? Was it my fault because I didn’t realize what was happening at first and I should have? I cried on the way home from the mosque that day. I was so ashamed and traumatized I disassociated for a year, “acted out” in angry outbursts afterwards, and couldn’t reclaim my faith until college. And here is the thing that happens so often — when an assault or an abuse occurs in a community, it is so often the survivor that is pushed out of the community (and often is too traumatized by the community’s failure to protect them that they have trouble joining a new community, because what if that new community does the same damn thing?), while the aggressor either stays in the community or finds another one in which to prey on future victims.

There was a horrific case of intimate partner violence that ended in murder in one of the communities I was in. Muslim women, one of whom supported me wonderfully after she found out about one of my assaults, trotted out the line about how Muslim women are equal. I get it. I know we’re under attack. I know imperial feminism has been used to justify colonialism and imperial war. But on some level I feel such rage at those things — the segregation means that women are sexualized immediately, that men are not expected to “restrain” themselves, that women who step out of line are assaultable/rapeable, that only two cis genders are acceptable, that only heterosexuality is acceptable or you’ll be disowned/shunned and beaten up/murdered… and then we say Muslim women are equal in our communities, and that intimate partner violence has absolutely nothing to do with socialization and broader society and communities? No. Violence, misogyny, transmisogyny, transphobia, heterosexism– these are not unique to Muslims. But we do it AS WELL. And they play out in culturally specific contexts (again, these are NOT THE SAME culturally specific contexts because Muslims are not the Borg, but gender segregation is a thing that is in a lot of Muslim communities that I’ve been in, that’s why I’m talking about it). Which means we need to take a good hard look at our communities in a way that goes further than “Islam gave women rights 1400 years ago” and the Prophet didn’t say it was cool to be queer or trans* and ridiculous interpretations that equate rape with consensual sex acts in the story of Lut (see Scott Kugle).

We Muslims have failed ourselves. Every action we have taken to marginalize the voices of children, every action we have taken to keep women*** in line, every act of violence and social shunning against trans*/genderqueer/hijra/gender-binary-nonconforming people, every moment we taught cis men to traumatize their humanity by learning they have more power than others and should use that power to control, we have failed ourselves.

Here’s where the “help your brother” hadith at the top comes into play. We need to stand with oppressed people, and not enable the oppressors. Truly standing for justice means that we must help the oppressors and our communities BY PREVENTING OPPRESSORS FROM OPPRESSING OTHERS.

Little light, a seminarian, wrote this beautiful post a few years ago about how our communities and our society have absolutely failed trans* folks, which feeds into the horrific levels of violence against trans* people and the horrific levels of trans* suicides, and it has stuck with me ever since. Because my Muslim communities have ABSOLUTELY failed trans* people. This strict gender segregation, this strict upholding of gender binaries and heteronormativity, is violently imposed upon trans* people.

We need to do better. This is not the Islam I practice. These are not the Muslim communities I want. These are not the Muslim communities I want any other child to be raised in.

In the words of little light, regarding being a religious person and using religious language:

Many others of you, like me, have been hurt by the religions or religious people you have interacted with or grown up in. I do not practice the faith I was raised in. Where I grew up, I was often harmed by people of faith who used faith as a justification. Religion has been used as a powerful weapon against us, whether or not we have religious beliefs of our own.

My suggestion is, if the church or temple or masjid or congregation you grew up with hurt you, devalued you, denigrated you–that community failed you, plain and simple. If the similar communities around you harmed you when you didn’t even belong to them, they failed you and so did the people who should have helped protect you. In pointing out this failure, I hope to suggest that we can demand they be held to a higher standard.

Many of us are not religious. For you all, I beg your patience and indulgence, and I warn you that you may prefer other writer’s work, and that is okay. Many of us are, and grapple with it. Many of us belong to traditions that have treated us with less than the respect that we deserve, and have told us we are the problem. I am sick of it and want it to stop, and I don’t think, in those cases, legal or logical or academic arguments will be enough. I think we have to grab onto the territory of morals and values and hold it. I think we have to fight on that battlefield if we want to win, rather than ceding all of that memetic ground to people who hurt us. Many of us who are people of faith are denigrated in faith communities for being trans and denigrated in trans communities for holding to faith, and end up feeling homeless. We’re told that we’re not allowed to use big Gothic-arched words like “holy.” I think that’s a fundamental devaluing of our personhood. We don’t *have* to use language like I used above, but I want us to feel we have the *option.*

I hope that is okay with everyone. I don’t expect everyone to agree. I have always been a religious writer, in my way, though I believe in emphasizing orthopraxy–how we ought to behave–over orthodoxy–how we ought to believe. I don’t know what’s in anyone’s secret heart. I can’t prove anything. But I know how we act. I know how we treat ourselves and each other. And those things, I have a lot of opinions on. For me, those issues of conduct are spiritual. I know they aren’t for everyone, but I have to tell what is to me the truth.

When I say “welcome to church,” it isn’t meant to be comforting to everyone. It may also mean, “welcome back to the fight,” or “welcome to that hard, scary place that let you down really bad and needs to be changed.”


Hayya ’3lal-falah.

*Hipster racism, I should note, is a term that people of color bloggers coined, notably Racialicious folks — though it’s hard to say 100% for sure whether Racialicious folks were the absolute first people to use the term back in the day, it was a term Racialicious popularized and most definitely a term that people of color bloggers have been using for years — i.e. it was NOT coined by white lady bloggers on mainstream *F*eminist websites in the past year or so.

**Names have been changed.

***Unless I specify otherwise, when I say “women”, I mean cis and trans women.

Post-post-post-post asterik (?): It wasn’t an accident that I added an asterik after trans*, that’s done a lot lately on the internets to use a shortened version of many, many, different gender identities that are in some ways related to trans, and, from what I’ve been able to glean, originated in computer geekery (when you add an asterik to a search term, it searches for that term plus any characters afterwards.This seems like a decent summary. (I haven’t read anything else on that website, so no clue if I’m totally down with it, just fyi.) ALSO. I should eventually put this in FAQ somewhere (NO ONE IS THE BORG) but trans*/genderqueer/gender-bindary-non-conforming folks are not the Borg either, just like Muslims! Meaning not everyone agrees with this terminology, but rather than say nothing at all, I try the best I can to figure out the discussion and make some kind of decision on what to do with it (because otherwise I’d just be effectively erasing anyone who isn’t cis). This is always the problem with terms like these (which is for another post), because it’d be waaayyy better to call someone Puerto Rican or Dominican or Salvadoran than latin@, or Pakistani or Vietnamese than Asian as a DESCRIPTIVE term (as well as two-spirited, hijra, genderqueer, boi, stud, etc if that’s the specific identity of the person), but terms like “people of color” are political identities of solidarity plus we got the U.S. govt and the structures of white supremacy being all, y’all are brown you’re all the same. So we have this tension of terms imposed upon us (Hispanic, Latin@, Asian), but we also have reclaimed a lot of those terms (the ones before and I’ll add queer to the list), so it’s this whole big complicated interesting thing that I’ll stop talking about now because this should be a different post.

Addendum to quadruple post asterik: It also was not an accident to write *F*eminist with a capital F. That’s a whole big long discussion, but basically there are some major major problems in mainstream *F*eminist websites, organizations, communities etc (ableism, heterosexism, transmisogyny, white supremacy, appropriation of the words of marginalized folks for profit and credit — which is linked to those first four things–and the list goes on) and some people whose worldview and politics and organizing stand in contrast to that mainstream shit choose to use the term feminist and redefine/shape what it means (often, though not always, with a politically and socially specific modifier like “Black feminism” — or “Crunk” as in the “Crunk Feminist Collective”, for some better known folks) and some folks do not want to reclaim it and do not call themselves a “Feminist.” As far as I can tell, IPP over on tumblr is the one who coined the term, to distinguish between what she called little f feminism(s) and *F*eminist as in the establishment of professional writers/ bloggers/ organizations that usually follow a narrow view of gender justice and often are not super self-reflective (and are often white, cis, and able-bodied, though not always). This language was born of issues that have a long history so not sure if that’s a great concise, clear, summary, but it’s the best I could do right now.