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Not enough can be said about sexual relationships that start in a coercive silence; the damage can be indefinite and lifelong.
Shreerekha, In the Wake of His Damage.
My past few Ramadan seasons have been complex ones. And this year, despite my efforts to have a time of reflection and renewal, as I believe Ramadan should be, I encounter myself surrounded by indescribable disgust.
For months now, my social media, the news I consume and the shows I watch, have been impregnated with the stories of abuse of women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks. These stories are being broadly discussed in a time when, for whatever reason, #MeToo has reached historical heights, despite centuries of on-the-ground work by racialized women and the hashtag being created by a Black woman. The stories resulting from the movement range from and to anything imaginable, and while at the beginning it was permeated with the voices of white women, #MeToo has served as a platform for some racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks, to explore their experiences at the intersections of sexual violence, misogyny, patriarchy and white supremacy.
The morning I opened my Facebook page to hundreds and hundreds of Facebook contacts exclaiming #MeToo, a part of my soul died a little. It was a sudden reminder that I do not know a single racialized woman, queer, non-binary or trans-person, who has not been assaulted, violated, harassed or abused by a cis-man in some way, shape or form. In its most extreme forms, many of the racialized women, queer, non-binary or trans-folks I love, particularly those living at the intersections of Indigeneity and Blackness, have seen their friends, family members and loved ones die or go missing due to the misogynistic, patriarchal and white supremacist violence that goes widely unaddressed on Turtle Island, and beyond. #MosqueMeToo followed, a few days later, denouncing the experiences of sexual harassment Muslim women regularly encounter in, usually considered to be, “sacred spaces.” And this hashtag further crossed paths with stories of prominent Muslim men involved in abuse of power, including Nouman Ali Khan and Tariq Ramadan.
Thinking of what it takes for racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks to publicly acknowledge their daily experiences of violence further reminded me that many of us are taught not only to keep quiet, but to normalize the ways in which violence creeps into our lives from very young ages. Thus, making it more and more difficult over the years, to know what violence looks like.
In my case, I was about 7 or 8 the first time a grown man called me sexy. I was about 11 when, during a school trip, a stranger slapped by bum and drove away while I was lining up to get on the bus. I was 12 the first time my Math teacher asked me to sit on his desk for him to “admire me.” I was 13 the first time a group of men harassed me in the streets because of the size of my breasts, something I continue to experience. By 25, I had been stalked and harassed by a convicted rapist, who also happens to be a prominent Indigenous social justice activist. And the list goes on…
I never really told anyone. What was there to say? The societies where I have lived always implied that if I ignored the men who “bothered me,” they would stop. It was, and continues to be, my responsibility to keep harassment at bay. Over the years, these experiences of harassment have been deemed “isolated” events; however, when sexual harassment and gendered violence are normalized in broader society, we are more likely to accept violent behaviours and toxic masculinity in our intimate relationships.
I have spent most of my adult years as a Muslim, and some of those years in relationships with cisgender and heterosexual Muslim men. I must admit that at the beginning, for young-me, some elements of Muslim patriarchies were not so unfamiliar coming from a Latinx background. So, at the age of 18, I found myself in a relationship that, even though is dear to my heart for a number of reasons, led to many toxic and violent situations. Now, I know this was part of a larger pattern.
My partner of eight years was someone who felt entitled to controlling what I wore, how I wore it and when I wore it. He further enforced strict gender segregation and used my conversion to Islam to justify it. Over the years, we reached the point where I could not go anywhere unless I could assure him I was with women only, in places “proper” for Muslim women, and I could provide photographic evidence of every outing. At its peak, one of my neighbours called the police on us because, in a jealous attack, my partner would not stop yelling, swearing and throwing things at me.
I did not get out. Allah, the Universe and Mother Earth, did it for me. My partner died unexpectedly in a car accident in Saudi Arabia.
I never told anyone about the dynamics my partner and I had, or the violence I had encountered in my first long-term relationship. In fact, I went out of my way for people not to find out. Why? First, I was very ashamed (I still am). I felt I had “allowed” this to happen. I was also very self-conscious when navigating mainstream feminist circles because their narrative suggested that “real feminists” do not have any tolerance for men’s abuse. Moreover, I did not want my family to know. I was afraid they would be disappointed, and I was scared that some people would blame it on him being Muslim or on me converting to Islam. So, I hid it.
I did not even admit it out loud until many years later, while sitting with my best friend in our favourite breakfast restaurant. When I finally poured my heart out to her, her response to me was… “Me too.” To me that sole moment was a realization of how widespread gendered violence is among racialized women queer, non-binary and trans-folks’ personal relationships. More importantly, it really hit me how mainstream feminist spaces have marginalized racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks who experience abuse. This includes questioning, how we can possibly call ourselves ‘feminists,’ or wanting to save us from Brown and Black cis-men in our communities, while protecting some other men and erasing the fact that white men are one of the main sources of colonial, gendered, military, emotional, and sexual violence for the rest of us.
After that confessional session my best friend and I shared, many others followed. Some of the stories shared came from women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks involved with high profile cis-men in social justice circles, working in anti-racism, disability rights, anti-Islamophobia advocacy, Indigenous resurgence movements, etc. Many of these cis-men continue to be protected by both racialized cis-men and white people, including white women. Often times we are told, it is “for the greater good.” We then tend to find ourselves in settings working or interacting with known abusers, as if our safety did not matter, and at the expense of those who are survivors.
And despite these realizations, certain patterns repeated. I got into a relationship with another cis-het Muslim man. This time around, I told myself that since we had met through “progressive” Muslim circles, and he came “recommended” by feminist Muslim women and queer folks, who knew him as a “nice guy,” that things would be better. The man in question further presented himself as a feminist and queer ally, concerned with Muslim ethics. Over the years, this has given him access to the spaces of racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks.
When we met, I was in a point of discovery and of reconciliation between my Third-Worldness and my Indigenous, Latinx and Muslim identities. Something he found appealing, but never quite knew how to handle. I also remained an “outsider” to him and his community. Mainstream non-Black Muslim communities are intrinsically hierarchical along the axes of coloniality, Westernization and whiteness, which often makes them anti-Black and anti-Indigenous. Being Indigenous, Latinx and a convert to Islam, I am usually deemed undeserving of accountability from Brown Muslim men. If you are an outsider to their context there is a sense that they are entitled to you, but they do not owe you anything. This mimics colonial violence towards Indigenous and Third World women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks.
He was also a first generation child, which meant that his struggle to feel “Canadian,” to be represented in broader political and social contexts, and to reconcile his parents’ “Third World culture” with his “Canadianness,” constantly triggered resistance on my end. I have a complex relationship with the colonial notion of “citizenship.” I also come from a community deeply affected by Canada’s contemporary colonial outlook. Canada is a vehicle of Indigenous oppression not only domestically but abroad. The country exports one of the deadliest resource extraction machineries, along with extensive religious missionary efforts currently threatening Indigenous communities.
And yet, there I was, with a Hispanic accent and no attachment to Canadian identity, as a dooming reminder that the very thing he aspired to, was the same thing I would always fight.
Long story short, our relationship was a short-lived roller coaster full of rage, manipulation, neglect and self-depreciation, where childhood trauma and mental health were often given as the reason for toxic behaviours. Half the time, his deeds made me feel like I was simultaneously too much to handle and not quite enough to fit the bill.
I spent over a year wondering what the hell was going on in the relationship and trying to convince myself that a lot of the situations that hurt me, were “normal.” When things finally fell apart, I received nothing more than an email thanking me for my “contributions” to his life. Ironically, my presence in his life is nowhere to be found. Even when we were a couple for almost two years, there is no indication anywhere that we were ever together. I was not part of his own “community” and, therefore, was never afforded any kind of public recognition or accountability. However, he kept coming back for more⸺ more emotional, financial and intellectual labour. And despite the cringing gut feeling, I entertained the encounters, hoping one day I would be acknowledged in a story that was never quite mine.
A few months after the break up he apologized for how he had “made me feel.” Yet, he never took accountability for the ways in which he continued to perpetuate toxic masculinity and violence across different relationships with racialized women. He has also never stopped expecting racialized women, primarily Muslim women, to continuously provide free emotional and intellectual labour.
When I re-read some of our exchanges, I cannot help but think about how Junot Díaz, a prominent Afro-Latinx writer, narrated his own story of abuse while justifying that in order to heal, he had to use the emotional, intellectual and financial labour of Black and Brown women. These women, in a way, became collateral damage. Díaz, was recently accused of sexual violence, something that resonates with how I spent my last few months learning and hearing from women previously involved with my ex who have shared stories of harassment, stalking, manipulation, neglect and violence, all rationalized through his own experiences with trauma. Until this day, he keeps in touch with some of the Muslim women he abused in the past. While we were together he would casually say things like, “I had a ‘complicated’ relationship with x, y and z” – never quite humanizing these women in his narrative.
In the bigger scheme of things, I know that one of the reasons why I am so invisible in his narrative is because as an Indigenous and Latinx convert, I am someone who can be easily edited out from a Brown Muslim man’s story. No one is ever going to hold him accountable for the damage done. And no one, other than the women affected, will expect him to do better.
While it will take me many years to fully digest the anger that comes with being on the other end of toxic masculinity and never being considered accountability-worthy, the reality is that the conditions that allow for cis-men to use racialized women as healing-hubs are set right from the beginning when as communities, we fail to teach cis-men the principles of “do no harm.”
Further, these men are seldom held accountable for exhibiting violent behaviours against women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks. In fact, societies at large, talk about violence primarily as the behaviours that kill (some) women. Hence, someone deemed “worthy” has to die, for it to be called “violence.” This blurs the lines of safety and love for racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks. Some cis-men do not know that they are being violent in some situations, others do not care enough. And as long as this is the case, our relationships with cis-men will be inherently extractive and violent in unacknowledged ways.
So, I constantly wonder, when will violence and toxic masculinity creep into my bedroom next? Is it my sole purpose in life to keep misogyny and patriarchy at bay? When will it become cis-men’s job to account for their behaviours? When will harming racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks become unacceptable to mainstream society?
This is not a matter of demonizing and cancelling all cis-men versus finding empathy and recognizing that neither healing nor relationships are perfect. But when trauma is given as an “excuse” for harm, we neglect to acknowledge that racialized women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks are seldom awarded the benefit of healing from their own trauma. Instead, they are usually re-traumatized and marginalized in their interactions with cis-men and institutions like the settler state.
For me this is important in the context of Ramadan because narratives of “sacrifice” become the main theme of the season. From mainstream Muslim heteronormative perspectives, during Ramadan Muslim women are expected to procure more emotional and physical labour in order to accommodate toxic Muslim masculinity, for the sake of Allah. Narratives of “sacrifice” also often require the normalization of violent behaviours and the erasure of any other genders.
But the violence itself, the expectations built for women within Muslim ritual and community activities, and the erasure of queer, non-binary and trans-folks in Muslim narratives, will not change as long as cis-Muslim men do not find the political will to address patriarchies, misogyny and toxic masculinity.
So, really, from my perspective, it is not about us as racialized Muslim women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks continuing to come up with solutions. It is also not about us enduring being sacrificial lambs in the narratives of Brown cis-Muslim men. Instead, I am posing the question to cis-Muslim men out there: How are you going to address rampant violence, misogyny and toxic masculinity? What spaces are you going to create to heal trauma in ways that do not jeopardize women, queer, non-binary and trans-folks’ safety and that do not rely on their unpaid emotional and intellectual labour? And, ultimately, how are you going to hold each other accountable for the harms you bring on to others?
*Special thanks to writer @cocoazafreen and MMW’s @SobiaAF for their advise, edits and overall support in writing this piece.