There is no doubt that Rape Culture is installed within religions and Islam is not an exception. Lately, “honorable Islamic scholar,” Nouman Ali Khan (NAK) was exposed as sexual predator, causing a battle in social media. NAK is only one more in the list of sexual offenders operating in religious spaces, on many occasions with the support of opinions leaders, or the silence and blind eye of the community of believers.
During my months in Cape Town, as you know, I engaged in critical education in Gender and Islam through workshops with Muslim women from the Cape Flats, where the rigid dynamics of researcher-object of study, gave way to an equal interaction of “people talking.” A recurrent theme, as I said in a previous article, was sexual violence and the discursive tenets that facilitate it.
In the light of the controversy aforementioned, I want to share excerpts that I recorded during our sessions of the sincere statements of Muslim women between 25 and 60 years old from different suburbs of Cape Town on Rape Culture and religion as they live it.
“They say that if I refuse to have sex with my husband, I’m cursed by the angels until dawn. But sometimes I do not want to. I’m tired or I just prefer another form of intimacy, like cuddling. I don’t get why for Muslim women, being sexually subservient to a man has to do with being a good believer.”
“Why am I the one locked up in a perimeter marked with a red ribbon at the mosque? It’s a huge hypocrisy. Outside they flirt and chase women; once inside they demand that you be held in the corner of the prayer hall like an infected animal.”
“Every time he wants sex, he asks me to make him a ‘service.’ I am his wife and he talks to me like a prostitute. A few weeks after our wedding, things changed in bed. He skips foreplay and everything, just wants to come, wash and go. He doesn’t even look at my face during sex. If I complain, he says his mother was the perfect Muslim woman, always in silence and obedient to his dad. I feel trashed by my own husband.”
“I am tired of being told that my presence in the mosque distracts men from their religious duties, that I prevent them from being good men. If they want to be pious, then stop trying to guess my body shape under the abaya!”
“People put religion above our dignity as women. They prefer throwing everything under the carpet and the neighbors will continue seeing them as good Muslims.”
“How are you going to accuse someone? You will have the whole community on your back! The woman who talks about the violence she suffers, is treated as a nuisance, period.”
“My niece was raped by her father between the ages of 6 and 14. My sister asked him to leave, only that, no one denounced him. I was too young to do anything. The Sheikh told my sister that according to Islam, her duty as a Muslim was to cover her husband’s faults. Then she said nothing. Recently, the man asked her to live together again. In the mosque they told her that she should receive her husband back, because Allah had forgiven him and he was her husband. She accepted him back.”
“You’re the one to blame. You are a failure if you are raped or sexually abused. There’s something wrong with you or your faith. This is the worst part for me; you’re the victim. What happens to you, it’s your responsibility and maybe it happened because you need a test like this to strength your faith.”
“I now know that your husband can rape you. This is something I experienced in my marriage. Maybe one of my pregnancies was the result of forced sex. I saw it as normal — sometimes this happens, men are complicated — that kind of stuff.”
“I was molested by my cousin. When I told my mother, she said that must be a secret for my own sake and it was time for me to start wearing the hiyab.”
Which Culture is Yours?
If you think my intention in writing this post was to upsetting, you would be right. If you’re a Muslim that genuinely believes that Islam contains an ethic of social justice, then you should be outraged to know what some of our sisters experience. Now, ask yourself: What’s your culture? One that believes and supports victims or one that plays the bystander and excused sexual predators?
This question is not an obvious one. Muslims often react myopically to these cases. Many resort to what I would call the Lazy Brain’s Emergency Kit: “Not all Muslims,” “Women exaggerate,” “Zionist conspiracy,” “Feminist plot,” “They aren’t Muslims,” or “Islam honors women….”
Sexual violence occurring within Islam is a continuum in the ways it preys on feminine bodies that is sustained by religious narratives and social practices whose prevalence legitimizes Rape Culture and evidences the lack of courage in a community to approach the problem with the necessary honesty and determination.
“Islam honors women” must be turned into actions — strategies of prevention for sexual violence and a stronger position against Rape Culture, and the promotion of an ethic of consent aligned with Islamic teachings based in truth, equality, respect for human dignity and social justice.
The only cause for sexual violence is someone who DECIDES to perpetrate it. Religion should not be used to justify it or manipulated to hide or excuse the felons who commit such acts. Fame, intelligence, public reputation, academic degrees, charisma, the personal or cultural fondness we have for them cannot be equated with or used to replace morals and ethics. It is not enough to repeat wearily that Islam doesn’t endorse sexual violence. As long there are sexual predators among us, as long as we refuse to take action, we will be an active part of the problem.
Note: I decided not to reveal the names of the women whose testimonies are quoted here because I am aware that speaking up and revealing your identity is a privilege they are not yet entitled to because of their community’s attitudes towards sexual violence.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is Muslim who is an international journalist and writer, community educator and awarded women’s rights activist. Independent scholar and lecturer in Religion, Gender and Politics.