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“Jane Doe” was only 13 when her concerned mother sought counselling within the Muslim community of Irving, Tex. For years, the girl developed a relationship of trust with the imam, Zia ul-Haque Sheikh, at the Islamic Center of Irving (ICI). So much so that she began to call him “baba” – an endearing term for “father.”

When she turned 18, she asked the imam advice on marriage; she wanted to move on to the next phase of life: settling down and having a family. The imam offered himself as a marriage prospect – even though he already had two wives. Although confused, she believes she had been groomed, step by step, to trust the imam. In a lawsuit filed last July, Jane Doe alleged that the imam’s interactions became more sexualized once she turned 18 – including lurid texts, phone calls and video exchanges, culminating into an alleged coerced sexual encounter, after which he cut off contact with her.

This August, Mr. Sheikh was ordered by a Texas judge to pay US$2.55-million to Jane Doe – a landmark judgment against a Muslim cleric in the United States. The judgment covers legal fees, punitive damages and mental anguish.

More importantly, it is a victory for the nascent Muslim #MeToo movement, and speaks to the incredible courage of Jane Doe for breaking so many taboos. She refused to be shamed from speaking about sensitive, private matters; she refused to bow before the hierarchy of the mosque leadership; and she refused to give in to the whisper campaigns against her.

Her journey also marked the founding of Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE), a non-profit organization created in 2017 by Muslim lawyers and activists to hold community leaders accountable for physical, spiritual, sexual and financial abuse.

FACE conducted an in-depth investigation into the 22-year employment history of Mr. Sheikh, and found that he had been fired from two other mosques for inappropriate behaviour toward female congregants whom he had counselled. At one mosque, he engaged in a “secret” second marriage. In both cases, details of his firing were never made public, leaving him free to seek employment elsewhere. His new employers never checked with previous employers about the reasons for his departure.

According to the report by FACE, Jane Doe had brought forth her concerns to the ICI board chair, Nouman Ali Khan, who advised her to get mental-health counselling. Jane Doe said Mr. Khan discouraged her from speaking about the allegations since it would harm the imam’s reputation. Jane Doe told FACE that she was made to feel “like I was the one hurting people, rather than the person needing help.” But she did not give up. Other board members, once informed, immediately launched an investigation. While Mr. Sheikh denied the allegations, he eventually resigned from the mosque. As he began to seek employment elsewhere, the mosque took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to 2,000 mosques across the United States, detailing the circumstances of his resignation.

Shortly after the letter’s release, Jane Doe reported the imam’s actions to the Grand Prairie Police Department; the city declined to investigate. In July, 2018, Jane Doe filed the lawsuit against Mr. Sheikh.

Mr. Sheikh was hired last August by the Grand Prairie mosque, shortly after leaving ICI just 15 kilometres away. According to its attorney, the mosque ran a thorough background check and was unaware of any misconduct allegations at the time of hiring – even though ICI had issued its public letter eight months before. The mosque board had also learned of Jane Doe’s allegations in her lawsuit – yet decided on keeping Mr. Sheikh. While the mosque has severed ties with Mr. Sheikh since the judgment was issued, its muted response over the course of one year reflects a culture of silence that is all too prevalent in many Muslim institutions.

This judgment is a watershed moment for Muslims in North America. For too many years, there has been scant accountability of leadership. Serious allegations, if addressed, are hushed so that the reputation of the offenders, the institution and the community are not harmed. There is very little recourse for victims. But times are changing. FACE, which investigates abuse allegations in the United States and Canada, reports an almost threefold increase in reported incidents in 2019 over the same period in 2018.

Jane Doe has stopped one imam from exploiting women. She has broken new ground for others to come forward and seek justice. And for that, we owe her a debt of gratitude.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name and location of the Islamic Center of Irving. This version has been corrected.

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