Honour. That, unfortunately, is what it all comes down to. Rape culture perpetuates the idea that whatever a woman has done to her, is her fault and it is shameful. Harmful societal constructs encourage the thinking that a woman, if harassed, 1) brought it on herself, 2) should have done something to prevent her assault/abuse 3) she should protect her and her family’s reputation by keeping the crime a secret. When a woman is sexually abused by someone she knows (which unfortunately happens all too often), she is told to protect the abuser (an uncle, a cousin, a family friend, a role model or community leader) by not reporting what happened. The concept of honor at best is a social disease, and worst, an extension of the patriarchy working its hardest. Alone, the frame in which we discuss sexual harassment and abuse can be counterproductive. Pair that with the self-serving righteous tone of many religious members of Islam, we reach a point where Muslim women in the era of the #MeToo movement find themselves having to choose between their “honor” and their safety- something our deen (religion) would never prescribe. Muslim women are now coming forward with their #MeToo stories, painting horrifying pictures of sexual harassment taking place at the holiest site for Muslims- Hajj. Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory for all Muslims who are financially capable and healthy enough to attend. In many parts of Hajj, men and women are separated, however, during tawaf (praying while making seven circles around the Kaaba, in the middle of the Great Mosque) the crowds get huge. Men and women perform their religious practices, and the masses make it unfortunately easy for women to be harassed, groped and inappropriately touched. Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy helped to spark a conversation online after addressing her own experience at the age of 15 while attending Hajj. Her sharing of her story was met with widespread support from women of all backgrounds and had empowered Muslim women from all over the world to share their own harrowing experiences while attempting to bask in the glory of the Great Mosque. Stories about being groped, pinched, and prodded by male attendees were met with respect and understanding from Twiter. However, it is not surprising that this revolution is taking place online. The internet provides a sense of anonymity, protecting them from harsh backlash- something that Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to. Many online hurled insults at the women coming forward and others were quick to call Eltahawy and women like her a “tool of the West.” and indecent for supposedly throwing their Muslim brothers under the bus.
#MosqueMeToo presents an enigma for Muslim women, requiring its subconversation, birthing the era of #MosqueMeToo. Muslim women are put in a position where due to the taboo surrounding reporting sexual assault convenes with the want to keep Muslim men safe from the demon that is Islamaphobia. Muslim women feel that they, because of their culture, are not able to report harassment, and on top of that, must defend their religion from Islamaphobes who would love nothing more than to attach their anti-Muslim Male narrative to the stories of Muslim women who survived sexual assault at the hands of their counterparts. How do we come to terms with a specific demographic of women forced to be between a rock and a religious place? We start by challenging the root of a prevalent rape trope- what a woman wears.
How a Muslim woman dresses, of course, cannot be represented by a small pool of people, however, we do know that most do choose to observe the hijab. Women should be able to decide how they dress, and many exercise that right. Hijab or bikini, burqa or shorts, women are entitled to be the enforcers of their dress code. Rape culture perpetuates the idea that if and when a woman is sexually attacked, she must have brought it on by her choice of clothing. For example, wearing a dress that is shorter or revealing, she “asked for it” and made herself “tempting” to the abuser. We know this to be not true, as there have been man circumstances in which women who wore “modest” (the term here being objective) clothing also be victims of assault. Muslim women, covered head to toe in loose clothing, have been the victims of sexual assault at a holy place, heavily contradicting the “slutty clothing” rape trope. The unfortunate logic given by many defenders of abusers is that a degree of clothing controls a woman’s chances of being raped. By that logic, does that not mean that most Muslim women cannot be violated? Pushing this reasoning becomes of Muslim women not reporting sexual assault or harassment, in fear of not being believed.
Being a Muslim woman comes with an unfortunate layer of hardship in the face of sexual assault. The backlash facing victims of sexual harassment comes in many forms, but nothing quite stings like when the league of religious men who claim that a woman is “valuable” undermine the experiences of survivors. Even as a Muslim woman writing this, I struggle to write in a way that does not encourage right wingers waiting for a chance to vilify Muslim men in the name of #MosqueMeToo. Muslim women, (much like the women of other colored peoples) have been at the forefront of defending Muslim men from media and political campaigns dedicated to making them the face or terrorism barbaric behavior. Women in Islam have been the “humanizers” of Muslim men. Continually backing them, so to many, reporting sexual assault perpetrated by Muslim men seems like a sort of betrayal, making accusations against men who already get a bad rap- another extension of the patriarchy: making men the real victims of sexual assault.
There will be many in the Muslim community who will attempt to shove this trend of Muslim women finding their voice in a uniquely female experience. Pushing either or both branches- shaming women through the “honor’ complex, insisting that the assault was in some way her fault, or deny survivors a voice to protect abusive men. Through the #MeToo lense, we must remind ourselves that regardless of a woman’s dress, her class, race or religion, her pain is valid. However, within this lense, there must be close attention paid to subgroups of women who face more external barriers than most do. It can seem incredibly daunting to take to task countries like Saudi Arabia on punishing assaults and enforcing women’s rights to safety, however, the change can and must start with Muslim communities as individual bodies. Conversations surrounding appropriate behavior must take place. Breaking down the stigma surrounding sexual assault and victim blaming must occur. Religious leaders need to put their faith where their mouth is and call out evil instead of shielding it from consequences. Men wholly must be part of the conversation, and I implore all Muslim men to police their predatory behavior the way they police turban wearing Muslim women on social media. Muslim women have always been the protectors of our men, this time the favor must be returned. Not for the sake of “our daughters, our sisters, our wives,” but for our Ummah as a whole. Women are the backbone of Islam, and we’ll be damned if we let our spines shrink in the name of keeping evil comfortable.
Image by Wasima Farah