Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Since its inception in 1966, the BC Muslim Association, which calls itself “the largest Muslim organization in the province representing Sunni Muslims,” has never had a woman on its executive council. The women are relegated to a “Women’s Council,” which is subordinate to the executive. The original BCMA constitution explicitly banned women from serving on the executive council. While that wording has since been removed, in practise little has changed, and female voices haven’t been given a chance to shape the governance and future of the organization.
There is no theological basis for this arrangement at the organization, which was founded by immigrants from South Asia and Fiji and holds $41-million in assets. Apparently, the (male) powers-that-be see no contradiction with this discriminatory practice and the BCMA’s stated aim of “building a healthy congregation.”
Unhappiness with this approach came to a head last summer, when the BCMA excluded women from all prayer spaces throughout the province, as it partly reopened mosques in the wake of COVID-19. Priority had been given to men.
And then came the bombshell in December, when the CBC broke the story of BCMA imam Abdur Rehman Khan, who was convicted for a 2016 sexual assault against a woman he knew through his role in the community. He was sentenced to three years in prison and placed on the registered sex offender list for 20 years. The imam was released on bail after being charged in 2017. He was later convicted at trial in January, 2020, released pending sentencing, and imprisoned in August, 2020. During this four-year period, he continued to serve as an imam of the BCMA’s Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque in Surrey – leading prayers, working with youth, engaging interfaith communities and officiating marriages. Last August, he resigned for “personal matters” – he was going to prison – which the BCMA said it accepted, without any inquiry or follow-up.
The BCMA says Mr. Khan passed a police background check when hired, and that the organization had not been made aware of the allegations and conviction, although some community members say they knew of the situation. If you look at BCMA’s online platforms, you would never know that one of its imams had been imprisoned for sexual assault just a few months ago. No statement whatsoever – no pledge to do better, no commitment to protect female congregants, no calls for other victims to come forward. It’s as if the crime never happened.
Congregants, on the other hand, were furious, demanding answers that never came. Activist and student Sumaiya Tufail organized a community drive-by protest in solidarity with the survivor, demanding transparency from the BCMA, protection of vulnerable congregants and an end to the all-male executive council. A special vote held in February to do away with the archaic setup that keeps the women’s role subordinate to the men’s failed by a substantial margin. The BCMA says that the current executive board anticipates that with increased awareness and engagement, the motion will pass successfully in the near future.
There should be consequences for keeping such draconian policies in place. Sunni Muslims in B.C. should make it clear that the BCMA does not represent them. Congregants should cease donating to the BCMA and instead support institutions that are more inclusive of women and more transparent. In 2019, the BCMA received $3.6-million in donations, accounting for almost half its revenue. Taking a cue from Lieutenant-Colonel Eleanor Taylor, who quit the Canadian Armed Forces in disgust after reports of alleged sexual misconduct, the BCMA’s Women’s Council should resign en masse in protest.
Schools, community associations, NGOs and interfaith groups can engage with Muslim organizations other than the BCMA. Pose tough questions – it’s not Islamophobic to ask why a Canadian Muslim charity doesn’t have any women serving on its executive council. While it may be common elsewhere, this should have no place in Canada.
Roughly 66 per cent of all Muslim charitable organizations registered with Canada Revenue Agency have an all-male board, with Quebec as the worst at 82 per cent. The BCMA, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, Masjid al-Hidayah (Port Coquitlam) and Baitul Mukarram Islamic Society (Toronto) have each had an employee charged or convicted of sexual assault; all have been governed exclusively by men between 2014 and 2018.
All of these incidents would remain hidden if it were not for courageous survivors, who not only endure the trauma of the original abuse, but face shame, blame and accusations of “making the community look bad.” They need compassion and our full support to heal. For too long, the reputation of abusive “leaders” has trumped justice for victims, leaving a trail of human wreckage. Activists working with survivors are all too aware of the tragic outcomes of Muslims abused by imams, preachers and teachers over recent decades. With their pain never addressed, many have struggled with mental-health issues, addictions, dysfunction in relationships and in some cases have even committed suicide.
This has to stop. We need real leaders – both women and men – who will address this serious issue head-on. Leaders who will make paramount the welfare of the vulnerable; who will educate communities about the trauma induced by abuse; and collaborate with agencies to help survivors with sensitivity and due care. Leaders who will hold abusers to account and live by the Islamic principle of standing up for justice – no matter who the perpetrator.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.