As the #MeToo movement ricochets through many parts of the world, it has yet to achieve high visibility in Muslim cultures.
Nonetheless, there have been a few laudable efforts to bring sexual abuse to the forefront.
Recently, Mona Eltahawy lent her influential voice to the disturbing occurrence of sexual harassment at the Kaaba, (in Mecca), Islam’s holiest site, through the hashtag #MosqueMeToo. One of the rituals of pilgrimage (both the hajj and umrah) requires circling the Kaaba seven times, while in solemn remembrance of God. At times, it can get very crowded. Many women have experienced humiliation by men who use the situation to grope, poke and fondle. Ms. Eltahawy shared her awful experience, when at the age of 15, a guard at the Kaaba grabbed her breast. She wrote in support of Sabica Khan, who disclosed her recent humiliation at the Kaaba — and endured backlash on social media. Since then, many women have shared their own harrowing encounters – forcing the issue out into the open.
In Pakistan, following the gruesome rape and murder of 7-year-old Zainab Ansari, many women came forward to tell of their own stories of sexual abuse as children. 73-year-old fashion designer Maheen Khan – a Pakistani icon – tweeted about sexual impropriety by her Koran teacher her when she was six. A nascent #MeToo movement is beginning to make inroads in conservative Pakistan, as courageous women break the chains of shame and silence.
There are a number of challenges facing Muslim women who seek to speak out. These include cultural and institutional barriers (within communities), and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Culturally, public discussion of sex is taboo. Yet this is at odds with scriptural foundations of the faith. For example, the Prophet Mohammed emphasized the right of women to experience sexual pleasure. In these sources, one finds discussion about wet dreams, climax and forbiddance of intercourse during menstruation and anal sex (at all times). The discourse is not salacious, but instead provides guidance to the faithful. It also builds a framework in which sexual relations are seen as natural and a means to cultivate mercy, love and tranquility between spouses.
Family and clergy are two powerful institutions that silence women. Rather than putting shame and responsibility on sexual abusers, the onus is placed on the victims to keep quiet, so that the family’s honour remains intact. In communities in which interaction between genders is primarily within extended families, there are ample opportunities for abuse by male relatives. When I used to give lectures about “women in Islam,” it was depressingly common to have a young woman approach me afterward to confide her painful abuse by a cousin or an uncle during childhood. I stopped giving these lectures after one young woman broke down about her own father’s incestuous behaviour.
Muslim clergy, scholars and Koran teachers garner reverence for their commitment to the faith. Therefore, impugning sexual impropriety against this group is met with stiff resistance, denial and backlash. Yet, without meaningful accountability, abuse does happen. Now, women are speaking out. In 2016, a prominent Chicago-based scholar, Mohammed Saleem, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a former student and an employee at the school he founded. More civil suits are pending. Last year, renowned Koranic scholar Nouman Ali Khan was found to have committed spiritual abuse and unethical behaviour toward a number of young women. Last month, Oxford University Professor Tariq Ramadan was placed under arrest in France, and is awaiting trial against rape charges by two women. He denies any wrongdoing.
In addition to facing community backlash for speaking out, Muslim women must also contend with haters who use their pain to malign an entire community.
These hurdles are not insurmountable. The time has come to address sexual impropriety head-on.
In Canada, second “secret” marriages are occurring, in which a man takes on a second wife, often unbeknownst to either wife. This is nothing but sanitization of an extramarital affair. It is a sham, and needs to be called out by the Canadian Council of Imams.
Last fall, the group Facing Abuse in Community Environments was launched to hold accountable imams, scholars and leaders for unethical and/or criminal behaviour. A number of investigations are under way, with serious cases referred to law enforcement for prosecution.
In the end, we need to empower women to come forth without shame, and put the spotlight on men to take responsibility for their behaviour.