Trigger warning: This piece may include sensitive information about sexual assault that may be triggering to survivors.
It took me time to write this.
In front of me there was an elderly woman crouched over. Her back contorted into the letter “c”. I could tell she was tired by the way her feet dragged behind her and, as her black dress was gliding on the ivory floor, a young man slowly walked beside her. The physical aspects of umrah were not easy for the elderly or disabled. His olive complexion shined against the stark white piece of fabric he wore. His heavy black hair ruffled in the wind as he moved. Each of his calculated steps were matched with the woman. I assumed perhaps it was his mother or grandmother. His arm was gently intertwined into hers. He held it like she was fragile, prone to breaking. People rushed ahead of them but my eyes were solely focused on them. I had witnessed so many acts of kindness during my first trip to Mecca.
In the spur of the moment my mother and I bought last minute tickets to perform umrah. My mother had performed hajj two years prior and thought this was a great opportunity for me to go alongside with her. From Mali to Bangladesh we had traveled side by side. In our own right, we are mother daughter travel connoisseurs. I anxiously waited for my visa and passport and once it came in the mail, the excitement of it all began to set it. The significance of this trip required serious mental and spiritual preparation. I needed this and I had to get the most out of it.
I remember the first time meeting him. Something did not feel quite right. It was hard for me to put my finger on it. Thinking back it was perhaps my intuition or my body making note of something my mind had yet to register. We have a funny way of talking ourselves out of our gut feelings. He was part of our umrah group and either the age of my father or several years older. Several times I caught him staring at me from a distance and it made me my stomach feel uneasy. Usually I would turn my back to him or position my body where I didn’t have to directly face him. I wrote my feelings off not wanting to make a big deal out of something that may be nothing.
In a nutshell, I am a young and single Black Muslim woman. I’ve attended university, lived on my own and have virtually lived an independent life since adulthood. I am not inexperienced when it comes to men and their intentions but even with all of this the situation still left me uneasy and questioning my initial judgement. I have always known that no one is immune to predators. In my community, my humanity as a woman has always been upheld. Needless to say, I was raised with the idea that I deserved respect regardless of the presence of a man.
The incident happened when we were getting ready to leave Mecca. People were lugging their suitcases behind them. Umrah was over and it was time to go home. I was filled with sadness but relief at the same time. Mecca had been hectic with a huge influx of people that year due to the holidays. I realized that if I had to choose I definitely preferred Medina. My mother and I stood in line waiting to get our boarding passes. I could see that he was making his way over and once he approached he stood in line behind us. My mother turned to me and said she was going to the restroom. This was when he turned to me and said, “Would you be offended if I asked you something?” He said this slowly all the while looking me in the eyes. Before I could respond he continued. “You know I’ve noticed that single sisters feed their emotions with food.” A miswak was hanging out of his mouth as he smirked at me. “It’s hard to be by yourself and all alone. You have all these feelings building up inside of you and there are no suitable brothers to marry. You need to release. I can tell you’re one of those sisters.” I looked at him with confusion. I wasn’t sure what he meant and the conversation seemed odd. Then he asked, “Am I right? You like to eat, don’t you?” He began chewing on his miswak a little harder as he waited for my response. This was when I realized we were not talking about food in the slightest. He was playing with words and making a crude analogy. He took advantage of an opportunity when I was alone. I made sure to let him know I knew what he was talking about and to stay away from me the remainder of the trip.
Thinking back, I can recall many instances where men have encroached—– my personal space either verbally or physically. Once man kissed me in public by grabbing my head and placing his lips on mine. I could not push him off and I adamantly asked him to stop. He did not listen and I didn’t want to cause a scene. In a different scenario, another man made sure to inform me that he was well endowed even though we weren’t discussing anything remotely related to his genitals. Thinking back, it infuriates me and I wish I had handled the situations differently, but I remind myself it wasn’t my fault. I am not responsible for their actions.
Both of these men were Muslim.
To most, both of these men would have been considered practicing Muslims.
There are many predators in our Muslim communities hiding behind religious guises. Any well travelled woman knows that some of the worst sexual harassment happens in several so called Muslim countries where misogyny and sexism run rampant. Are we perpetuating this blatant disrespect of women by enforcing ideas that we always need to have a man with us to avoid predators?
Until we honestly and candidly discuss the lack of safe spaces for women, including Muslim women, we will forever be in this revolving door of victim blaming all the while giving abusers the freedom to continue their acts. If women are not safe performing sacred rituals then where are we truly safe? This incident left me with that lingering thought.
It is also time to admit that hijab does not protect you from serial predators. My experience is one of many where fully clothed women have been sexually harassed. I could not have had more clothes on, but even if I didn’t, would that still have warranted his behavior?
Any personal assault should hit a person hard but this time it affected me deeply because my guards were totally down. I was in a spiritual state and comfortable. Afterwards it angered me because I realized that if I wasn’t safe from predators in Mecca than I surely wasn’t safe anywhere else.
My #metoo moment happened during umrah.