The Hole Story: Sexual Abuse in a “Strict Muslim” Household

The Hole Story: Sexual Abuse in a “Strict Muslim” Household April 2, 2009

Sexual Abuse in Islamic Society” is the title of a recently published BBC article.* Right away, I knew it wasn’t going to be a good story (and by “good”, I mean objective, balanced, etc.). “Islamic society,” says the title, not an Islamic society, whatever that is. There is so much wrong with this BBC story and it’s upsetting on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start.

Here’s the story: Fatima, who is 26, was raised in a “strict Islamic family” in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. Her stepfather allegedly raped her continuously from the ages of 15-19. She was allegedly advised by Pearl, an online American chat buddy, to tell someone. She told her aunt, who allegedly took her to a lawyer, who allegedly told her that “under Shar’iah law” she would be subject to lashes for committing “adultery.” She told her mother, who allegedly confronted the stepfather, who said he did it “to make Fatima feel better and that it was all out of love.” Her mother thought about divorcing him, but changed her mind, choosing to stay with him. Fatima then left her family for America, land of the brave, where she was granted asylum:

Fatima says she realised that what mattered most, in the eyes of society, was family honour and what other people would think of them […] Fatima says that she thought that her Muslim country would protect her as a woman, but that in the end, they protected her rapist.

To begin with, did you realize how many times I used the word “allegedly?” This story is one of the worst researched stories I have ever had the bad luck to come across. There are no quotes from Fatima’s lawyer, her family, Abu Dhabi police, and no hint that any of them were even approached for interviews. But since it’s a Muslim woman outing her “Muslim oppressors,” I guess we don’t need any further information.

Domestic abuse is a terrible reality that can happen anywhere and any time, no matter what religion, nationality or ethnicity you are. It is present in every community. The criminal is the person who committed the crime–in this case, her stepfather. These criminals bend social and religious values to normalize their crime; society and tradition can then help to conceal the crime. That means we have some serious house-cleaning to do, and that domestic abuse laws in some predominately Muslim countries need to be reformed, but it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with Islam.

And, as we have said over and over again until we are blue in the face, this does not mean the actions are condoned by or the fault the criminal’s religion, which almost never figures in the story unless the faith is Islam. This is the story of a rapist.  But unfortunately, it turns into an attack—seemingly by Fatima—on a Muslim country and Muslim society and Muslim ideas.

The 10-minute audio file embedded in the story begins by letting us know that the first child abuse conference has taken place in Saudi Arabia. It quotes a recent study which found that in 12 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, more than 40% of boys and 60% of girls between the ages of 13 and 15 had been psychologically or sexually abused, which is a sobering fact if true.

To highlight the issue, Fatima then talks us through her story, which, by the way,  takes place in Abu Dhabi, not Saudi Arabia. Dr. Fadheela Al Mahroos, President of the Bahrain-based International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Arab Professional Network, talks about child marriages in Yemen. But you know, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen, they’re all the same thing in the eyes of the BBC.  Along with the audio interview, we also get a fascinating, must-see three minute audio slideshow of Fatima’s art.

Fatima’s story is perfectly fits into the narrative that media constructs around Muslim women. We only ever seem to hear stories in non-Arab media about Muslim women when the women were abused/sold/forced into marriage, etc., or have rejected their faith and made it their life’s mission to talk about why it oppresses women.

The BBC’s story about Fatima is a classic example of both kinds of stories. Fatima’s story has been edited, possibly to fit the image the BBC wanted to portray. Let us count the ways:

She begins by telling us that she grew up in:

A conservative local Islamic family where girls are taught early on to fear God and family and more importantly to preserve family honor.

Honor, she says, is more important that anything else. Then we are treated to a description of her stepfather, one even Hollywood has to applaud:

He had three wives and 21 children. He was a violent man, a heavy drinker, a controlling narcissist. He blamed his sexual addiction on Satan, or the shaitan, saying both of us were guilty and had to stay silent, all while he played the role of good Muslim.

The saddest part of this story is that Fatima herself equates what happened to her with Islam, recounting her life in a “strict Muslim family,” and not in a dysfunctional family with a sex offender.

Fatima mentions in her slideshow that she was trapped in her house, without going into explanations why, letting listeners assume that her “Muslim family” was to blame. One of her photographs, titled Window in my Room, consists of black silhouette straining against a shut window.

And though Fatima’s aunt convinced her to tell her mother, the aunt dies of cancer. Three months after Fatima told her mother, she says that, “fearing for my life” she ran away to America. Again, there is no explanation provided of why she feared for her life. In her audio slide show, she says:

In my Muslim family, I was limited in what I could and could not do. It took me more than five years of begging and pleading with my family before they got me a camera.

We’re never told why her family wouldn’t allow her to have a camera; this example is only given to prove how constrictive her family life was.

The story provides more predictable narratives around American involvement and Arab culture. Her American friend was the one who helped her confront her stepfather (America to the rescue, haven for all!), while her society (or, actually, some shady lawyer, if that) told her she would be sentenced for adultery if she made a fuss.

Commentators across the internet differ in their outlooks towards Fatima’s story. Some applaud her bravery for speaking out, while others point out the somewhat contradictory aspects of her story. If she was trapped at home, they ask, how did she learn to speak such perfect English? If she couldn’t even leave the house to buy herself a camera, how could she travel to America? Others point out that she blames her society for not protecting her though she didn’t even attempt to contact her authorities. Others are more disturbed by how her story feeds into common misconceptions about Muslims. One commentator notes:

[Her stepfather] blamed his sexual addiction on the so called “Satan”?? Puleez could there be a more cliched answer?? Everything she said is a cliche and confirms the common intentional misconception about Muslims and Arabs, from blaming “sins” on Satan to the alleged imprisonment and “entrapment” of women inside the house […] And then she declares that she became a free woman only upon entering America.

Another adds:

She may be very sour about what happened to her and how her family didn’t reach out to her, but blaming them because they are Muslim is a cheap trick. […] Fatima should only blame her twisted family […] if Fatima felt caged it was not because she lived in a Muslim household but because she lived in an evil household. […]

Overall, I think she is hungry for attention and for complete integration in her newly found “free” society. It is easier to integrate when you can convince yourself that you miss “nothing from your society” and when you can convince others that your old society is evil, corrupt and sexist. Sadly, Fatima is equating freedom with abandonment of Islam, but frankly we have all seen that happen before.

Others feel that Fatima has come to assume Islam contributed to her suffering since her knowledge of it had been skewed by her stepfather’s actions. Understandably, they say, the fact that she has come to dislike Islam and her culture is a valid response. One commentator says:

Our experiences reflect our outlook, perspective and behaviour – her experiences were horrific and as a result her iman [faith] may have been affected – who are we to judge her? We know that iman can increase and decrease – may Allah heal her heart and soul and fill her heart with the light of iman – ameen

Now that she is ‘free,’ Fatima ends her story with this:

Now I can honestly say with complete confidence that I miss nothing from my past life. I always thought that my Muslim family and my Muslim country would protect me as a woman. I was wrong. Instead they chose to protect my rapist in the name of family honor.

Fatima's piece, "Telling My Mother." Image via the BBC.

The story is accompanied by a three-minute audio slideshow of Fatima’s photography. She explains the pieces, which she says served as a catharsis for the psychological problems she encountered from her abuse. Many of the images deal with women and veils. Two of the photos are of women in hijab covering their faces with their hands, out of shame. The one pictured left is titled, “Telling my Mother,” of which she says:

Shows the amount of shame and fear I felt when I first came out and told her about the sexual abuse.

About the photo, “Escape from my Home,” she says:

The birdcage […] is a reflection of my own state of mind and how I felt in my family and the feeling of entrapment. And the girl holding the traditional veil represents me and the freedom I felt after coming out and talking about the abuse and how I was able to see past my society and traditional family structure.

She explains her photo titled, Hanging my Old Islamic Clothes for Good”:

The clothes on the line actually represent the traditional abaya and sheila local females in the UAE are required to wear. And I’ve hung them on the line under the sun to dry in order for me to start a new life as a free woman.

The trapped Muslim woman in a cage flees her country, family, and faith, and is now free. The symbol of freedom? Removing her veil. Fatima believes that by removing the shackles of the veil, she has been freed. Never mind that Abu Dhabi has no enforceable dress code, which Fatima says local women are “required” to abide by. I have been there at least half a dozen times, and have met many local women, very few who actually cover completely.

As one commentator put it:

The part that made me the most angry was when she showed the pictures of her hanging her abaya and supposedly “freeing herself” from her shackles or whatever it was that she said! The abaya and any Islamic clothing was the source of your abuse?! Even if you had worn shorts and a tank top if you live with a sick human who will abuse you what you wear doesn’t make a difference! Nor would it have made you braver in standing up to him if the society’s way of thinking was the source of the problem! In fact if he had any regard for ANY religion (or even some morals or mental stability) he would not do such a thing. Islam has nothing to with it.

Unfortunately, the issue is deeper than this commentator makes it out to be. It has become a dominant media narrative that de-hijabizing illustrates liberation of Muslim women, whereas veiling in any form represents oppression. Fatima’s statements show that she believes this narrative, where the abaya has become a symbol for the horrible things in her old life.

In the slide show, we are also treated to several random shots of mosques, assumingly to solidify the link between Islam and her abuse. We have no way of knowing if she chose the photos of the mosque or simply provided the BBC with her portfolio and they chose the images.

Fatima's piece "Escape from my home".

Fatima’s story, as told to us by the BBC has logical holes in it, it hasn’t been verified, and falls into all the traps I would expect from someone who has never even been to an “Islamic” society. But since it’s an edited version of Fatima’s story, we have no way of knowing if the holes were explained by Fatima. The story, whether true or not, has been co-opted to reinforce the narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman and the evil Muslim man and horrible Muslim society. It also seems to have been amplified to gain asylum and media attention, since the poor-Muslim-woman-breaks-free is a tried and tested formula for doing so.

Stories like this happen. Women and children are abused, and we need to make sure this stops, because it is out duty as Muslims and human beings to protest against what is clearly wrong.

But once she equated the horrible things she went through with Islam, and not a hypocritical man, her narrative lost Muslim sympathy because it echoed Islamphobic narratives blaming Islam for all the evils that people do. The word “Muslim” is stressed so much it’s not even remotely subtle (the emphasis on the word Muslim is Fatima’s, not mine).

And if her story is true, then it illustrates an even worse malady in the “Muslim” consciousness: we have begun to internalize the negative, Orientalist, imperialist messages that we see and hear. Perhaps Fatima has come to believe in the Western idea that the veil in some way represents her oppressions and believes that her religion and abuse are intertwined, assuming that only after she shuns her Islamic beliefs, symbolized by her veil, could she be truly happy and free. If her story is true, then I doubt the mental and emotional trauma she suffers from will be as easy to get rid of as her veil.

*Editor’s note: The BBC has since changed the title to “Sexual Abuse in Abu Dhabi.”

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