Sexual Violence in the Muslim Community – Creating Safe, Resourceful Communities

sexual-assault_thumb[1]By Nadiah Mohajir

#Act4Survivors

The recent news of sexual violence in the Muslim community has sparked much conversation around sexual violence, and what we as a community can do to address it and effectively support our survivors. Allegations against an Islamic school teacher in Florida and a substitute teacher in New Jersey along with emerging allegations coming forward against an internationally prominent Imam in the Chicago area has created the urgency to raise awareness about this neglected topic.

As such, this guest post by Rabia Chaudry explores the challenges many survivors face when dealing with intimate partner violence and why many cannot find a way out. She challenges us to start thinking about how we as a community can begin supporting our sisters through this. Yes, we have numerous legal and social services available to us in this country, but that is just one piece of the puzzle and often sought out much later in the situation. This piece is a follow-up to Rabia’s post about what we can do to start creating safer communities – communities in which our women are not blamed, communities in which they feel safe and supported and most importantly, empowered not just to help themselves, but to be a resource for each other.

Sexual violence is a reality in all our communities and is not limited to only one racial, ethnic, religious or socioeconomic community. 1 in 6 women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and more than 73 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone they know. Despite these large numbers, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with more than 60 percent of sexual violence cases remaining unreported. The reasons that survivors do not leave abusive situations or do not seek legal or social services are many and quite complex. In addition to barriers such as financial dependency, shame and isolation, many have pointed out the numerous cultural barriers, including but not limited to:

  • Simultaneous love and fear for their abuser
  • religious and cultural pressures to “cover one’s sins”
  • shame and embarrassment of being sexually abused
  • strong desire to uphold family honor
  • no support from family and friends

That being said, it is likely that there are survivors in our immediate social circles and families. Often, we may even notice something is not right but look the other way in order to honor the other person’s privacy. Many times, we hesitate to get involved or ask questions on matters that have traditionally been viewed as taboo. Other times, someone may reach out to us, but simply handing them a business card for a therapist or the hotline for sexual violence services isn’t enough. We must do more to empower our sisters and other loved ones, as many don’t seek professional services until they find themselves very deep in a bad situation.

Rather, we should be doing our part as community members to support these survivors and create spaces for them where they feel safe and empowered to do what they need to take care of themselves and their families well before the professional, legal and social services enter the equation. Our role in the community is to offer support and resources, not to offer advice or issue fatwas (legal rulings). Everyone’s situation is very different, and the challenges they face in such circumstances are very complex. It is essential for our community members, religious leaders and others to be equipped to deal with this situation with delicacy, sensitivity, and expertise.

Below, I have included some steps we can all start to take to create these environments and safe spaces that welcome those in need to reach out to us. The underlying attribute as we practice the tips below should be that of mercy and kindness.

Practice reflective listening. This is a very important skill and first step to building healthier communities and relationships. Reflective listening involves being present when the other person is talking to you, not interrupting them and then repeating what they said to you, just so they know you heard and understood them. It also helps you clarify from them what they are looking to get from you – whether it’s just a listening ear or whether they need you to do something specific. Validate and affirm what they are feeling. Simple statements such as “it is normal and not surprising you feel scared,” or “you’re doing the responsible thing by speaking with someone, and know you are not alone” can seem like insignificant gestures on your part, but are incredibly important for a survivor to hear and internalize as she works through her situation.

Affirm and validate. If someone reaches out to you about an abusive situation, the worst thing you can do is not believe them. As mentioned earlier, there are so many barriers a survivor faces when seeking help – stigma and shame, re-traumatization, risking family relationships and many more – that doubting their story dismisses the bravery and courage and fear they must be feeling as they reach out to you. While often times society has responded to abuse situations as “alleged” and “innocent until proven guilty” and accused the survivor of embellishing or fabricating the story, this is typically not the case. Research shows that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are far and few between – only about 2-8 percent of cases are due to false allegations.

Free yourself of blaming and shaming the survivor. Often, people are quick to pass judgment on a woman who hasn’t left an abusive situation or taken some time to seek help. This results in further increasing the unnecessary guilt the survivor may be feeling and does not empathize with the numerous possible reasons she is uncomfortable reaching out to another for help. While there are numerous reasons women may not seek help, one of them may be because they are in a premarital relationship and fear they will further compromise their own reputation in a community that does not approve of premarital relationships. Remain objective and remove your personal judgment. Remember, everyone has a unique story. You may not agree with the path they may have taken, but nonetheless, they took it and you can only encourage them to make informed decisions and feel supported.

Maintain their privacy (and your own!). This goes without saying, but often time people are hesitant to reach out to others because they don’t trust that their privacy will be maintained. Unfortunately, when situations such as sexual violence incidents do get exposed, there are many who discuss the situation and make numerous assumptions that are likely untrue or embellished and more importantly, don’t respect that maintaining privacy is crucial in in this situation to avoid shaming, blaming or re-traumatizing the survivor.

Be resourceful. Familiarize yourself and your family with the legal and social services in your community, should you need to direct someone to them.  Have conversations with the members of your family on what they can do should they have someone reach out to them on a certain issue. Teach your children to be resourceful for their peers. Of course, one person can not be all-knowing of everything that is out there, so acknowledge your limitations but be willing to help them find the resources and information they are looking for using your contacts in the community and the wealth of information on the internet.

Assess your privilege.  Often times we are surprised when someone reaches out to us for help. Numerous assumptions may cross our minds, including a disbelief and judgment about why this person hasn’t removed themselves from the situation. This is where it is important to check your own privilege. It is important to remember that there are plenty of factors and experiences in an individuals’ life that can impact their ability to access information and resources in safe and empowered way, and that you may have certain privileges that may facilitate you to operate in a different way in that circumstance.

Don’t ask why she didn’t do more. Ask why he’s being abusive. How we respond to situations of sexual violence has a significant impact on the environment we are creating and whether survivors feel safe and empowered to seek help. We are also setting an example for the people around us, especially for young boys, on how to hold the perpetrator, who is often male, accountable. Whether we hear of a sexual abuse situation through the media or whether it is something closer to home — a situation of a friend or family member — it is crucial to continuously hold the perpetrator accountable and ask why they are being abusive, and not focus on the survivor’s response (or lack of response). By asking the right questions, we not only hold the perpetrators responsible, but we also free the survivor of guilt and blame, which may be exactly what they need to feel empowered and validated to seek help.

Honor cultural and religious context. There are numerous cultural and religious experiences that often contribute to a survivor’s ability or inability to leave an abusive situation. The reason that a survivor may be reaching out to you is because they might feel as if you understand their cultural and religious context yet can relate to their experiences, even if they operate differently from you. There are also numerous cultural myths and misinformation that are rampant in the faith-based communities that not only perpetuate uninformed communities, but may also contribute to violence, misogyny and patriarchy. While it is important to address these myths and misinformation and offer accurate information, the manner with which you do it is key.

Addressing these issues with great understanding, mercy and empathy is essential. Remember, as much as you may dislike a cultural value or attitude, it may be something the individual holds on to and deeply respects. Whenever you are addressing a question that an individual has asked, always ask yourself the following questions: What is your role in this process? Is it ethical for you to challenge and question their cultural understanding? What would be the impact of you doing so? Raise awareness about the issue and correct misinformation but without making the individual feel judged or stupid for holding such a value or belief.

If you see something, say something. Too many times, we may know something about a perpetrator’s past but won’t say anything to anyone as they embark on a new marriage or relationship, perhaps out of fear of getting involved in a private matter, or perhaps out of respect for the Islamic tradition that encourages Muslims to cover their own sins as well as others. While it is true that we must protect our fellow community members and not expose their sins, it is important to note that this does not need to be honored if someone else may be harmed by this information.

In other words, if you know that a member in your community has a history of being the perpetrator of abuse in past marriages or relationships, then do not keep this information to yourself, especially if you are consulted about this person’s character. There have been a number of sexual violence incidents that could have been prevented had the community members not stayed silent about the perpetrators. Of course, speaking up against something like this requires much courage and can also be dangerous, so involve the right people if you need to, such as an imam or another community leader. There are a growing number of institutions that are committed to conducting background checks on all their staff and faculty.

Creating safe communities and supporting survivors is not easy and can be incredibly intense work. In working actively to create these communities and take care of others, it is crucial to remember to practice self-care. Do what you need to take care of yourself as you take on the important task of supporting others, and remember that this is a collective effort and should never fall on the shoulders of any one person.

Nadiah Mohajir is the co-founder and director for HEART Women & Girls, a young nonprofit organization committed to building self-esteem and leadership through health and wellness programming for faith based communities. A version of this article was originally published on www.heartwomenandgirls.org.

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