On Rape/Sexual Assault Tropes in Muslim Communities – An Islamic Response (Part II)

On Rape/Sexual Assault Tropes in Muslim Communities – An Islamic Response (Part II) October 24, 2018
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Editorial Note: TRIGGER WARNING – This article contains explicit stories of sexual assault and trauma. This is part two of a two-part series on rape culture and sexual abuse within Muslim communities and will focus on other arguments used to blame victims as well as examining these arguments from the Islamic standpoint. Part one debunks common false statements often given to excuse or ignore sexual abuse and trauma. Also, the terms “victim” and “survivor” are both used in this piece at the discretion of the person who was relating their story of sexual trauma.

Rape culture isn’t limited to a Muslims nor does it manifest in the same ways in Muslim (or religions) and non-Muslim communities. Each culture and society has certain factors unique to them that contribute to an overall toxic and dangerous environment when it comes to sexual violence. Some attitudes, however are common across communities. The end result, is a deeply painful one: A society in which sexual violence continues to take place, often without consequences, due to the stigma and taboo surrounding the matter as well as its normalization.

In Muslim communities there are certain tropes that are perpetuated by many to excuse (or even justify) sexual violence — some in the guise of religiosity and some as solely cultural. We will continue to examine these tropes, read more stories from victims and consider an Islamic response to these beliefs.

“A woman’s honor lies in her virginity.”

No individual’s “honor” or value as a person or as a Muslim lies in their virginity. While chastity is a value that is deeply important in Islam, it applies to men and women. The Quran speaks highly of believers who maintain their chastity, both within and outside of marriage.

The concept of virginity, however, as held by many people, is not one which has an Islamic basis. The physical state of virginity (i.e. of a person who has not had any sexual interactions before) is praiseworthy for both the Muslim man and women, who have withheld from sexual relationships before marriage. However, virginity can also cease to exist due to factors outside of a person’s control, such as rape. Thus, there is no Islamic evidence to state that any individual’s honor is dependent upon their virginity, or that they lose that honor upon ceasing to be virgins.

Rather, the honor of any individual, man or woman lies in their mere existence as human beings, and in particular, as believers. A woman’s ‘izzah is not stripped away simply because someone violated the sanctity of her body; nor does any boy or man who has been raped or sexually attacked lose their honor.

Verily the most honourable of you in the sight of Allah is (the one who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Quran 49:13)

Thus, it is very clearly established that honor lies solely in one’s connection to Allah and not upon unjust standards created by human beings.

“Men and boys can’t be raped.”

This myth is a crippling one, yet is incredibly pervasive amongst both non-Muslims as well as Muslims. The truth is that boys and men are also victims of sexual violence; statistics show that males experience rates of sexual violence roughly equal to women.

Men and boys are just as vulnerable to predators. While currently available records show that at least one in sixteen men and boys have been the victims of sexual assault or rape, the sad truth is that male victims often face even greater stigma than female victims do and thus under-report significantly.

The Muslim community is not immune to this; Muslim boys and men are also victims of sexual assault and violence.

It was my first job at the masjid. My responsibility was to teach the kids after school on secular subjects regarding math and reading. The community I’m from is filled with old men with an urge to assualt and sexually molest little kids.

From the time I was in Sunday school learning Quran I have witnessed teachers sexually touch girls while teaching them how to pray, groping their behind while trying to make their back straight going into ruku and even “accidently falling on them.” These type of people are very common in our community, and when community leaders do this it is very disturbing. Leaders who lead prayer and give khutbah are the rapists who got away with their evil acts. A few years ago a man was caught in the basement of our neighborhood trying to rape a little girl. He is now in prison. The evidence was recorded. If it wasn’t, I’m pretty sure he would have gotten away and still continue his rampage destroying the minds of young boys and girls.

Consider this story:

I was 14 when I got my first job at the masjid. The mu’azin, who was a perverted old man, came to me regarding help on his citizenship test. As a employee of the masjid, I felt as if it was my job to help others who are also part of the masjid. So, after teaching the kids with their homework, I would go to his office to help him with his work. The problem with rapists is that they like to use every chance to get to know you and lure you in to their actions.

Every day when I went, I would notice that he would look at me a certain way and have little focus on what I would say. He would stare at me with his eyes lit up with a perverted smile. I didn’t take this seriously, as I was 14 and well capable of defending myself. The night that threw me off was the day I cut off any relation with this man. He asked me to grab the Quran from his bed, but I refused as I was not comfortable going into his bed. As I was trying to leave, he tried to jump on me. Disgusted, I threw him off me and left. Any other move, he would have been knocked out cold with a broken nose. Since it was the masjid, I tried to keep it cool. He then called me and was trying to offer payment. The payment was not in money but a BANANA.

I let go of his actions, thinking that he would change. I was wrong of that . He later got fired for getting caught sexually molesting a child.

If I had spoken up earlier to any member of the committee, that could have been avoided. That other child could have been saved from the trauma of sexual abuse.

What I have learned through my experience is that staying silent because of fear will only create more trouble for the future. Allowing men to get away with these types of actions makes room for more assaults in the future.” (male victim)

“Only men sexually assault women.”

Another misconception is that only men commit violations of a sexual nature, and too often the focus on preventing sexual crimes tends to hone in on on women wearing hijab and avoiding non-Mahram men.

However, women, too, are capable of such vile actions towards male and female victims.Thirty-five percent of male victims of rape or sexual assault reported female perpetrators; many women also experienced sexual violence at the hands of other women.

It was the summer of 2004. I had just finished up my first year of middle school and was looking forward to the seventh grade. During vacation, my mother, sister and I took a trip to Pakistan. I was 12 years old.

Prior to visiting my family overseas, we would all keep in touch via phone calls. I had a set of cousins who I would routinely talk to. The last time we met was in 2000, so I was looking forward to seeing them all again. I was particularly looking forward to seeing my cousin Alia again. I didn’t have an older sister and she was the next best thing.

Alia changed. She was always tense and very policing. The things that we enjoyed were all of a sudden bad or wrong in her eyes. Every other word that came out of her mouth was a criticism of how I carried myself. I laughed too loudly, I didn’t sit properly, my hair was always down and uncovered, my clothes fit too tight. She mocked me because I had not finished the Quran yet and would constantly ask, “Are you even a Muslim?” or “Do you even believe in Allah?”

One day while I was talking to her brother Daniyal, she barked at me to come in the kitchen. She yelled at me before for talking to him, so I was expecting another scolding. She told me that she wanted to be my friend again and was only harsh because I was a growing girl in need of discipline. She said that I needed to be worthy enough to become her friend again.

One night, as we were all getting ready for bed (I shared a room with my sister and mom during our stay), Alia entered and asked my mom if her and I can have a slumber party. I was never allowed to go to slumber parties back home so I got very excited when my mom said yes.

After entering Alia’s room, I rolled my sleeping bag out on the floor next to hers and we started talking about school. I remember telling her how much I missed her and wanted to have fun with her again

“I always enjoyed having slumber parties with my other cousins but they are too young to understand what we as women know. I am noticing that you are becoming a woman and there are things that you need to know now,” Alia told me.

She attempted to give me “the talk.” I was already aware of the basic mechanics of sex thanks to school, which is why I found her rendition rather comical. Everything she said was wrong, and to this day, I don’t know if she was serious or just making stuff up on purpose. She was 21-years-old, after all. Although I was weirded out by her, I didn’t find her actions threatening. During the day, she would continue to bark at me over everything I did.

The conversations that we had at night would always end up with her talking about sex. When she noticed me getting uncomfortable, she would get angry for not taking her lessons seriously and that I would make a terrible wife. I recall her telling me how I always need to wear sexy underwear, use tongue when I kiss, and regularly shave my body hair.

A few days passed, and [one morning] I woke up as her body was pressed up against me. She was spooning me from behind, and her hands were pressing my chest. I heard her moans in my ear. When I swatted her hand away, she got angry at me and claimed that I hated her. I ended up apologizing and let her sleep the way she wanted to. She insisted that I stroke her breasts, and I complied. This is the farthest it ever went.

The only people who know about these incidents are my close friends. I haven’t told anyone in my family as she is regarded as a respectable, religious woman (still unmarried). I can safely assume that her word will be trusted over mine. Occasionally, whenever I interact with her via Skype, she always tries to give me advice on religion and manners. I don’t take any of it seriously. (female victim)

“This is why women are supposed to stay indoors.”

Women are allowed to leave their homes. We are not obligated to remain indoors at all times, contrary to those who use the Prophetic statement that “women’s homes are better for them” as a way of keeping women controlled and restricted.

The Mothers of the Believers — the wives of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and his female Companions — all lived their lives normally. They were not confined to their homes nor were they were not commanded to cloister themselves. As long as they observed hijab correctly, they not only left their homes but were actively engaged in the public sphere. Many female Companions ran their own businesses, were farmers, sold their wares in the marketplace, attended the masjid regularly and even joined the Messenger of Allah in jihad. He never prohibited the believing women of his time from leaving their homes, and, indeed, he warned others against forbidding women from attending the masjid.

When it comes to sexual assault, location is irrelevant. It can take place at home or in the street; in a masjid or a park; in a school or at a hospital. A victim should never be blamed for the crime committed against them.

I was 17-years-old, and it was my first umrah trip with my family. It was our first day in Madinah, and we had just come back from Dhuhr salah at the Haram. I was standing in the lobby of our hotel waiting for the lift. My mother and grandparents were with me, as well as some other people I didn’t know who were also waiting for the lift. I was laughing and chatting to my family, when suddenly I felt a hand gripping my buttocks, pinching and rubbing. It took about ten seconds for my brain to register what was happening and then to react, I was in such shock. As I turned around, the man was walking away and out of the hotel.

It happened so quickly that my family didn’t even see it. I started crying immediately.

A number of things that stand out to me about this event:

1) There were people standing around me who surely must have seen it, but didn’t say anything, didn’t try to stop the perpetrator or apprehend him.

2) This happened in this holy city of Madinah. The incident took my self confidence and my sense of security for the rest of the trip. It completely tainted my Umrah experience and led to many months of denial, anger and frustration regarding the toxic culture which plagues the Nabi (s.a.w)’s precious city.

3) when I told some people about this event, they simply said that this is Allah’s will, and He is simply testing my Eemaan. I found this deeply hurtful; it implies that Allah intended for me to go through this trauma. This contradicts my view of a loving, kind and merciful creator. What’s more is that statements like that strip the perpetrators of any responsibility or accountability, as it implies that they are not men with superiority complexes and deeply ingrained toxic masculinity that comes as a result of a patriarchal society, but rather pawns in Allah’s plan of trials and testing for the lives of innocent victims. (female victim)

“There’s no such thing as marital rape.”

The term “marital rape” is a heavily contested one, with many people claiming that there is no such thing in Islam. Regardless of what you want to call it, the mere act of physically forcing an unwilling individual, even if they are your spouse, into an unwanted sexual encounter — such that you are causing them physical, emotional and psychological harm — is completely wrong and sinful.

The hadith of “angels cursing” a wife who rejects her husband’s advances does not justify a man forcing himself upon his wife. Rather, it reinforces that fact that even in a circumstance where a woman refuses to engage in intimacy with her husband, without reason (illness, distress and numerous other factors are all considered to be legitimate reason), he cannot use force against her. Instead, he must console himself with the knowledge of the spiritual consequences for her decision. (It must also be noted that a husband who withholds intimacy from his wife, without legitimate reason, is also considered to be blameworthy.)

Scholars have noted that should a wife continue to withhold from intimacy, the recourse for the husband is to go to the appropriate Islamic legal authority and to seek a means of resolving the matter through them.

For more information regarding the Islamic understanding of marital rape, see here. At the end of the day, regardless of whether you are married to an individual or not, it is not permissible to force anyone into a sexual interaction.

“Someone who was raped is the same as someone who committed zina.”

There is a huge difference between someone who engaged in consensual, impermissible sexual intercourse with another willing party (called zina) and someone who was violated against their will.

The Hadd punishment for rape does not apply to the victim; the only person to be punished is the rapist. In some circumstances, such as if the rapist uses a weapon in any capacity, they may also be considered to fall under the crime of “terrorist,” a crime that incurs a far more severe Hadd punishment than merely lashing or stoning. Nor is a victim of rape obliged to produce four witnesses.

The belief that a victim of rape is equivalent to someone who engaged in zina is one borne of sheer ignorance and has devastating consequences for the innocent women and men who have been victimized. As it is, the psychological repercussions of rape are life-changing; to be accused of being complicit and even blameworthy for the violation is torturous. No one should ever accuse a victim of sexual violence of being responsible for what happened to them.

“These things didn’t happen at the time of the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and his Companions. These things don’t happen to pious people.”

This is an example of religious naivete. Even in the time of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), people were people. While there was incredible goodness amongst the earliest Muslims, there were also people who did commit sins. This included everything from alcoholism to theft to zina to, yes, rape.

Narrated Wa’il ibn Hujr:

When a woman went out in the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) for prayer, a man attacked her and overpowered (raped) her.

She shouted and he went off, and when a man came by, she said: “That (man) did such and such to me.” And when a company of the Emigrants came by, she said: “That man did such and such to me.”

They went and seized the man whom they thought had had intercourse with her and brought him to her.

She said: “Yes, this is he.” Then they brought him to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).

When he (the Prophet) was about to pass sentence, the man who (actually) had assaulted her stood up and said: “Messenger of Allah, I am the man who did it to her.”

He (the Prophet) said to her: “Leave, for Allah has forgiven you.” But he told the man some good words (Abu Dawud said: meaning the man who was seized), and of the man who had had intercourse with her, he said: “Stone him to death.”

This hadith alone is proof enough that even in the most sacred of cities, at the time of the Messenger of Allah himself, rape and sexual assault were crimes that existed. The difference, of course, is that RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not hesitate to deal with the matter immediately and appropriately.

Why Does This Happen? What Can We Do?

Sexual crimes are committed because — to put it very simplistically — the criminal has no fear of Allah. They also have no sense of conscience towards the person whom they have reduced to an object. They may have a sense of power over the victim, whether physical or social. Other factors, such as poverty, lack of education, the increasing prevalence of violent pornography, the normalization of hypersexualization and more also contribute to the sense of emboldenment and entitlement that abusers have.

There is, unfortunately, a great deal of ignorance and even wilful denial over the reality of rape and sexual assault — how it is perceived within the Shar’iah, how common it is in our communities, and how we should deal with it. Our role, as individuals and as a community, is to educate ourselves and our families and work to ensure that we neither perpetrate such crimes nor enable others in doing so.

As Muslims, we must be concerned with justice. We must be dedicated to upholding the rights of the vulnerable, eradicating these types of crimes and dealing with the perpetrators severely. We cannot afford to enable or protect these criminals — our Aakhirah is at stake. We must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations and discussions and even to engage in painful confrontations. Sadly, there are far too many abusers among lay people and those in positions of leadership in our communities. Far too many people would prefer to turn a blind eye to the existence of sexual assault and abuse.

Allah has commanded us to enjoin the good and forbid the evil; we are an Ummah sent to uphold His laws, to hold transgressors accountable, and to fight against oppression wherever it may be – whether it is political or social, from outside of our community or from within it.

Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining the good and forbidding evil. And it is they who are the successful. (Quran 3:104)

You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah. (Quran 3:110)

About Zainab bint Younus
Zainab bint Younus (aka The Salafi Feminist) is a Canadian Muslim woman who has been writing about Islam, Muslim women, and social issues in the Muslim community for over 10 years. She often focuses on taboo issues related to misogyny, patriarchy, Muslim sex ed and female scholarship. You can read more about the author here.
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