Find us on Facebook
The past couple of months have felt like a dam has broken as more and more women (and men) come forward to disclose their experiences with sexual harassment and/or assault and to name their abusers. I still am not sure what it is about this moment that has made people listen to the survivors, because survivors have been putting their safety and security on the line for ages now without anyone truly listening. Nonetheless, there appears to be a shift, and I try to be cautiously optimistic that it’s not simply a ‘fad’ or ‘trend’ that passes; that indeed we are seeing the beginning of a cultural shift in which survivors are believed and predators are held accountable.
Within our own Muslim community women have been coming forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of Islamic scholars. Recently, Tariq Ramadan, a well known Islamic scholar at Oxford University has been accused of rape by two Muslim women, including Henda Ayari, a French activist and author. Due to his platform and fame this has made news in mainstream Western media as well as among the international Muslim community.
Muslim reactions to the accusations have been mixed, as it always is in any community. Sexual violence within our communities is an issue we have not been very good at dealing with. However, we do have wonderful organizations within our communities that are working hard to address this issue, and something tells me they will be extra busy in the next little while. Nonetheless, it is clear that more needs to be done. However, this ‘more that needs to be done’ needs to be done by us, and within our communities, and without the Islamophobia that informs so much of what non-Muslims think, read, and write about us. And this is where things get messy.
Islamophobia and colonial attitudes make addressing serious issues like sexual violence within our communities much more tricky and difficult. There’s a scene in Ocean’s Twelve in which the character François Toulour, a jewel thief, must dodge a field of moving lasers to get to the jewel he is trying to steal. He does an elegant but complex and difficult capoeira-based dance around the moving lasers, avoiding each one, to get to his destination and take the jewels. He could have just run across the room, set off the alarms by making contact with all the laser beams, grabbed his jewels and ran off, but that would have brought him a great deal of the wrong kind of attention and he most likely would not have been able to get very far.
Muslims trying to deal with issues such as sexual violence within our own communities feels very similar to doing that very difficult capoeira around laser beams that could bring us the wrong kind of attention. Those laser beams being the watchful eyes and ears of non-Muslims just waiting for any chance to demonstrate their superiority over us. It is no surprise, then, that so many Muslims either refuse to, or are extremely hesitant to, even acknowledge the presence of sexual predators amongst us. We know the horrible things they say about The Prophet (pbuh), we know the disgusting, sexuality-based, racial slurs they use against us, we know how the European colonizers and American imperialists demonized Muslim men as predators and objectified Muslim women to excuse their own violent colonial and imperial agendas of subjugation, oppression, and exploitation. And these Islamophobic and colonial attitudes continue to this day.
The New York Times recently published a piece on the accusations against Tariq Ramadan and it was full of the elements that make the work of those of us who are trying to address sexual violence within our communities difficult. Written by Sylvie Kaufmann, it appears to be her attempt to “help” Muslim women by once again demonizing Muslim societies, Muslim men, and Islam itself. It is filled with the type of colonial thinking that continues to view Muslim women as poor and helpless in need of a white, Western saviour and Muslim men as sexually primitive and barbaric.
Of the women who have accused Ramadan, Kaufmann writes:
“What makes his accusers particularly brave is that they, like him, are practicing Muslims. By the very fact of having spent time alone with him, they have, in the eyes of rigorist teachings of Islam, violated the rules of modesty that women are required to follow.”
American society, from which Kaufmann writes and within which predators like Weinstein, Ratner, Trump, Louis C.K., etc. are being exposed, also has very strict rules about modesty and is, as we speak, judging the women who are sharing their experiences as having invited the harassment and abuse. “Rigorist” teachings of Western societies hold women to extremely unfair and misogynistic standards of behaviour such that to this day women are still being blamed for their own assaults. So yes, the women who have shared what Ramadan did to them are brave for doing so, but not because they are Muslims. Rather, they are brave because they live in a patriarchal and misogynistic world, which continues to hold a double standard for the sexual behaviours of men and women and which continues to excuse the predatory actions of cishet men.
(Side note: I’m not even going to get into what she’s trying to say with “rigorist teachings of Islam”)
Kaufmann then writes:
“The sexual revolution that liberated Western women in the 20th century has yet to occur in most of the Muslim world. But we may be seeing a beginning, six years after the crushed hopes of the Arab revolutions. In North Africa, at least, and in the Arabic communities within France, the seeds of women’s rebellion are bearing fruit slowly. Tunisia, the one Arab country that did not turn its back on the Arab Spring, is breaking barriers.”
Considering some women in the West are just now, in the 21st century, able to just barely openly talk about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault does not indicate much liberation. If true liberation was present in the West women would not be inundated with rape threats any time they opened their mouths in the media; women would not continue to be blamed for their own assaults; and the United States would not have elected a known sexual predator as their president.
Kaufmann then writes:
“Ms. Ben Hania, 40, is one of several Arab women now raising their voices in North Africa and in France.”
This will come as a surprise, I’m sure, to the thousands of Arab women who have been raising their voices over the years, including those Arab and Muslim women in France who have been raising their voices against the racial oppression of Arabs and Muslims in France, which is not only Islamophobic but also extremely misogynistic and perverted.
In her article Kaufmann continues to make the argument that Muslim women who accuse powerful Muslim men of assault are not supported because of “a world of hypocrisy, where appearance and reality clash constantly, where sex is a source of shame but on everybody’s mind…” A society in which “consumption of pornography on the internet adds to teenagers’ confused view of sexuality.” A “schizophrenic society, torn between submission and transgression..” Yet, this sexually deprived and depraved Muslim world she describes could easily be her own American one.
We Muslims know we have societal problems, like all societies do. We know we have sexual predators amongst us and we know abuses are rampant, like in any other society. But we also have many amongst us those who are working very hard to address these issues and to truly help survivors as well as prevent abuse. We don’t need Islamophobic and colonial commentary from non-Muslims to distract from our work.
At the end of her article Kaufmann writes:
“Women are on the front line of this indispensable revolution, because they are the first victims of Islamic obscurantists”
We are also the first victims of Islamophobes and colonialist thinkers, but we continue to work for the health and healing of our communities. It would be really nice if we could just walk to our destination of healing rather than having to do the difficult dance of constantly dodging those Islamophobic and colonial lasers to get there.