In the wake of Weinsteingate, #MeToo has taken a life of its own with what looks like nearly every single woman on social media using the hashtag to voice that she has been a victim of some sort of unwanted sexual advance ranging from a lewd comment or leer to being raped. The most shocking aspect in all of this is the age at which the sexual harassment has begun with many women speaking of having undergone child sexual abuse or child rape from as young as 3, or perhaps even younger yet only beginning to understand its ramifications now. For many women, these experiences have had a huge impact on their mental and emotional health leading to a poorer quality of life than they might have had otherwise.
Scores of Muslim women have also come out on social media, myself included, to talk about unwanted attention from men many of whom tell such harrowing accounts that would make my seemingly mild ones pale in comparison and are too shocking to speak about in further detail. But #metoo doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already. The sad reality is that sexual harassment has become an inherent part of our daily lives yet the denial and sanctimony that exists within the Muslim community pushes a reprehensible narrative of victim-blaming where it’s always the woman’s fault. This comes with statements like “it must have been something she wore” or “she probably said something to invite attention”, and the even more ridiculous “women are fitnah” or “they need Islam and Islam’s rules around gender interactions” which are being bandied about by some Muslims in denial. Sexual harassment doesn’t suddenly redefine itself if it’s happening within a different cultural or religious context.
The sanctimony emitting from the Muslim community on this topic is astounding and is indicative of how much there is a lack of understanding in how boys and men are raised in not an Islamic manner, but in a regressive, culturally inspired way that teaches them to frequently give into their animalistic desires and view women only as breasts and vaginas. This sentiment exists not only within the Muslim community, but on a global level and transcends cultural and religious boundaries. The hypocrisy here, however, is that certain groups within the Muslim community are spouting on and on about how ‘Western, liberal sexual values’ have led to Weinsteingate, but refuse to admit the horrifying misogyny that is running rife and being covered up by so-called religious authorities as well as members of the community. Moreover, the stigma attached to women speaking about sexual harassment and rape ends up silencing them and prevents them from reporting their ordeals. You only have to look at the reactions from wider society to the actresses who have spoken out about Harvey Weinstein and how they are being called ‘sluts’ or that they were probably ‘prostituting’ themselves to him anyway. Even Mayim Bialik’s article on Weinsteingate implies victim-blaming. Yet the question that arises is the following – given that many women experience sexual assault from childhood, how provocative can a 9 year old be when she’s molested? Moreover, those that speak of liberal, sexual values and feminism having made it possible for unwanted attention to become rife and that it’s only a Western phenomenon happening to ‘immodestly dressed’ women, how then is it possible for a woman to be seductive in full Islamic covering within the sanctuary of the Holy Mosque to make a man feel you up? The latter example debunks the theory that the sole purpose of hijab is to protect women from being molested by men – the way the discussion around Muslim female modesty has been framed is as if wearing hijab (or jilbab or niqab) acts as a magic pill to keep the male anatomy flaccid and saves women from being assaulted, yet it is quite evident that it takes two to tango and men must exercise control over themselves first and foremost instead of thinking that every woman is fair game, with or without hijab. It is not hijab that will prevent sexual assault, but the assaulter himself. But to get the naysayers to admit this is to get them to give in to the notion that male privilege and male culpability exists.
Muslim women experience sexual harassment in the same way other women do, but the consequences of speaking out limit them from getting the justice they deserve. Moreover the lack of any empathy from men for their sisters in faith, let alone women in general, who live with the trauma of their encounter is beyond disgraceful. In response to the #metoo campaign, certain Muslim speakers and personalities felt it prudent to rile up their fans by erroneously conflating the campaign with feminism and sexual harassment towards men, as if women speaking out about their experiences are culpable for them in the first place. This coming from those who claim that Islam is the way for preventing such attacks is an insult to that very declaration as it goes against the prophetic example; many hadith show that the Prophet (pbuh) never turned away women who held any complaints, nor did he gaslight or victim-blame them. In fact, he offered them legitimate solutions and for those who are of any religious authority stigmatising and silencing women need to refer to the context behind Surah al-Mujaadilah, where the Prophet went as far as to receive revelation to answer a woman’s complaint. God responded instead of reprimanding her, yet the so-called Muslim authorities that claim to follow Him and profess to know their scriptural texts essentially follow their own cultural misogyny by advising women to stay patient, continue covering and shut themselves out of men’s sight. Is it then of any wonder that liberal, feminist values have become a source of inspiration for Muslim women? As one of my good friends wisely said “Islam gives women their rights, Muslims don’t.”
It is this very lack of empathy and refusal to obtain justice for victims that leads Muslim women towards depression and other mental health issues, and possibly even prevents them from forming a strong connection to their Creator – if they cannot seek support and justice from the community that claims to protect women and give them their rights while claiming to follow Allah’s Commands, it makes it that much easier to create a distance from Him if they feel that His followers are unjust. Yet the Qur’an speaks the opposite to what we practice as a community.
With all this in mind, it’s safe to say that sexual harassment affects Muslim women quite deeply and when compounded with the denial and gaslighting that occurs from many Muslim males, it’s of no surprise that they are triply impacted – their body via the assault, their mind by the gaslighting from society, and their soul through the lack of religious support against their perpetrator. The lack of emphasis on the collective responsibility that men hold towards women as human beings to be respected is abysmal, in spite of the fact that the Qur’an states that Allah “created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women.” [4:1] Although we shouldn’t need to religiously justify this, it acts as proof that the overall treatment of Muslim women, and women across the world, needs to change – that we are more than just sexual objects, that we have every right to complain, speak out about our experiences and seek justice for them. Just in the same way a man would.