A Message to our Community on Gender-Based Violence

tree-200795_1920by Nadiah Mohajir

The recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Nauman Ali Khan (NAK) have caused a social media uproar. We’d like to start out by saying that our hearts and prayers are with the brave women who have come forward and disclosed these interactions to individuals they trust. We hear you, we see you, and we believe you. Moving toward healing and justice will continue to be hard, but know you are not alone, and there are people ready to help, including our team at HEART.

Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that as shocking as this news may have been to our community, this is a lived reality of too many women and girls. Too many. Just this weekend alone, our HEART team supported numerous women who reached out, triggered by the social media outburst, by the stories that were too close to their own, by the rampant victim blaming, and by the constant buzz and speculation of what did or did not happen.

Because details of this particular situation are unfolding each day, at this time we do not encourage speculating what happened out of respect to all involved. While this news is appalling, we urge you to consider centering the voices of the women that have been impacted. Because of the frequency of how often women experience spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of those more powerful than them, we’d like to focus on some common themes and myths that are being perpetuated right now on social media and apply broadly to the continued mistreatment of women and girls.

But it was consensual.

Consent is complicated. Some of the time, consent is clear and obvious. Other times, consent is often compromised by power dynamic, intimidation, manipulation. When one of the individuals involved is a person of authority, power, or leadership, is it possible to truly give consent? In many states, there are laws prohibiting relationships between teacher and student, doctor and patient, or clergy and congregation member. This is meant to acknowledge the reality that unequal power dynamics can in fact compromise one’s ability to give informed consent for sexual activity.

But are they really victims if they entered willingly?

In the same vein, the “victimhood” of those who come forward with allegations is often questioned. It is absolutely possible for someone to enter a situation willingly and later discover that they have been victimized or taken advantage of. In fact, it is the lived reality of women and girls every day.

But, he didn’t even do anything violent!

Many relationships involving sexual coercion are not inherently violent. Often, there are no signs of physical abuse or harm, and the abuser spends a lot of time showering his/her victim with compliments, gifts, and love to build trust and create confusion if they are ever challenged. Moreover, perpetrators spend a lot of time targeting their victims. They study and watch the communities they have access to, and generally look for victims that are vulnerable in some way – the woman struggling with depression, the young boy who just lost a parent, the teenage girl who just left an abusive relationship, the lonely convert with no family or friends.

But where’s the evidence?

Another common theme when communities hear of allegations, particularly when the abuser is prominent, is to ask for evidence. Although we now live in a digital age where many things are documented, for every situation that may have screenshots, photos, emails, clothing with semen, and even multiple survivors, as “documented evidence,” there are dozens of more cases with little to no evidence. There are trained professionals, such as advocates, lawyers, and law enforcement officials that work to conduct formal investigations. The general public does not have a “right” to the evidence, and demanding such is disrespecting the privacy of the survivors involved.

But we need four witnesses to prove that it happened!

Many have incorrectly cited the need for there to be four witnesses during an act of sexual violence. The act of zina, which is the act of engaging in extramarital, consensual sexual intercourse, is what requires four witnesses, and the act of penetration must have been witnessed. The rationale behind this is to make it nearly impossible to prove adultery, practically speaking, because it is unlikely four witnesses would exist. This is also to prevent personal sexual sins from entering the public sphere, unless they are so egregious that at least four people have witnessed it. On the other hand, the same standard does not apply to sexual assault, a crime of physical and psychological violence. In these instances, sex is a weapon, not a mutual act of lust. Just as assault, kidnapping, and other crimes do not require four witnesses, neither does sexual assault. Indeed, such a standard would be absurd and unjust, and those who seek to impose such a standard on victims of sexual assault are being unjust.

But they were married!

In Islam, both spouses are granted rights and responsibilities. One of those rights is the right to sexual intercourse (for both spouses). Often times, this is misinterpreted to mean that the man has unlimited sexual access to his wife, and that consent isn’t really needed. Islam highly values the institution of marriage, encourages both spouses to act with kindness, love, and mercy with
each other, and consent to sexual activity is very much a part of the equation. So while the rights to intimacy and sex exist, there is no implication whatsoever that the spouse may seek this right violently or forcefully.

But she didn’t say anything before!

Disclosing sexual assault is a complicated and personal decision. Often, victims tell and are not believed or are blamed. Other times, they don’t tell because of the numerous emotions they may be feeling. Many times, they do come forward with their stories, but they’re not believed or are blamed for what happened. Other times, they tell and the legal investigation begins, a process so long- sometimes running into four or five years– and exhausting that it further traumatizes the victim. They are forced to re-live their sexual assault and endure the defense trying to malign them and find inconsistencies in their story. Sometimes the prospect of dealing with a draining investigation and trial is enough to silence the victim.

As such, as we reflect on the NAK situation, it is important to acknowledge that this is bigger than just NAK. This is an injustice too many of women and girls in our communities experience, and often are forced to silently endure. While each survivor is a unique individual with a specific story, we can no longer afford to deal with this issue just on an individual basis. We must also begin addressing the gender inequities, violence against women, and systems of oppression in our communities from a systemic level.  As the conversation continues to unfold, we leave you with some guidelines to consider.

  1. Try to keep posts concise and centered on the victims. While it’s human nature to speculate and share up-to-the-date details, this is not always helpful and distracts from who is most impacted. Respect their privacy. Consider the context of your comment and whether it can further traumatize those silently engaged with social media.
  2. Shut-down victim-blaming of any kind, as it removes the focus and blame from the perpetrator. Remember the complexity of being a victim, and of consent. Victim blaming can also trigger or re-traumatize those connected to the situation, or even those watching silently.
  3. Ask the right questions. Don’t focus on the details of what happened. Or why the victim was there in the first place. Rather, ask about what structures and systems are in place that continues to enable these situations from reoccurring. Ask how we, as a community, can dismantle the stigma and shame of being a survivor, so that our survivors can seek help, healing, and justice sooner. Ask what needs to be done in order to eliminate gender and racial inequities in our spaces and flip oppression on its head.
  4. Educate yourself. Understand how perpetrators groom. Understand how premeditated and strategic their process of identifying their victims is. Understand consent, and how it can absolutely be compromised with an unequal power dynamic. Learn your definitions, get familiar with your resources, and understand why victims don’t tell.
  5. Make a commitment to believe survivors. One of the main reasons victims don’t tell is that they fear they won’t be believed. Understand the courage and bravery it takes to come forward, and that very few allegations are actually false. And remember that often times, the answer to why didn’t she say something earlier, is actually that she did. It’s just that she wasn’t heard.

We can no longer afford to remain inactive to the message that women and girls are currently getting: that they are disposable. The health and future of our communities depends on each of us taking a collective responsibility to change that narrative.

 

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