While I believe that as a teenager I was conscientious, I do not believe I was any more or less aware of the concept of sexual harassment or sexual assault. I just did not think about it at all. That is not to say that I did not hear the nasty comments dropped by my male friends when an attractive woman would walk by. I just did not think much about it.
When I was 18, I was awakened to the fact that for women, this world can be cruel and harsh and judgmental.
A young woman whom I vaguely knew was raped at a party I attended. I did not know this girl, but I had been in classes with her. I knew her to be very funny, outgoing and talkative. And yet the crumpled, disheveled person I found next to her car crying was definitely not the same person.
Sexual assault happens with alarming frequency in almost all societies. Over and over again I have heard men and commentators and even some women state that these women should, “just get over it.” But I have seen rape first-hand and I have seen the way it crushes the soul out of a person, robbing them of the most personal and intimate part of who they are.
That girl whom I helped get home that evening, was never the same person. The girl I knew before in classes was lifeless – as if the teenage boy that raped her had shot her in the head that same night. She became withdrawn and quiet, flinching at the smallest thing. I count myself fortunate that perhaps because of my help, she would sometimes talk to me and I was able to see a glimmer of hope amidst the desolation that was left over from that event.
Sexual assault and harassment is already a taboo subject – or at least an unsavory one – within our Western society. Discussion of the issue in the Muslim community is fairly nonexistent. I once had an Imam tell me that this was because “these things just do not happen” in Islam. The Muslim community, however, is no different from any other community; and thus I know rape happens within it.
It is time for the Muslim American community to admit that sexual assault occurs, that sexual harassment occurs, that pedophilia occurs, and that even sexual bullying occurs. If we really believe in creating a righteous community that enjoins good and forbids evil, then we need to be honest enough as Muslims to see the evil that exists in our midst and boldly speak out against it.
It came as no surprise to me how quiet and smothered over the recent controversy was within the Chicago Muslim community. Many of you may not have even heard about it. A religious leader was discovered to have engaged in sexual abuse both of children and adults (the details are so significantly murky that even I am not sure of the full scope). The man subsequently left the country without being prosecuted. What was most ugly about this horrific incident was that so many within the community closed ranks and stated that either nothing happened, or that the victims were lying, or that the community should not talk about it or draw attention to it.
I often hear fellow Muslims say whenever a part of the Ummah bleeds, the whole body of the Ummah feels the wound. This statement is often introduced in discussions over Palestine or Kashmir or the abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Does such a statement only apply to political abuse perpetrated against Muslims by non-Muslims?
If another Muslim rapes a woman, isn’t part of the Ummah being violated? If men in the community harass a woman, doesn’t her humiliation also humiliate the Ummah?
If sexual predators from within the Muslim community abuse our children, aren’t we ALL prey?
We as Muslims must admit to our own problems before we can correct them. To those that say criticism within the community gives ammunition to our enemies, I say: We have already given them a loaded gun and they have been shooting us with it for decades. Acknowledgement of our deficiencies and self-inflicted wounds will only help those wounds heal, and ultimately, strengthen the community.
That young woman whom I knew in high school? She was never the same, and suffered on in silence for another 2 years. Eventually her sadness consumed her and she ended her life at 20. I will always wish that beyond helping her that night, I could have reached her, that I could have done something to make her life more bearable.
Her story is important and I do not want to tell her story as if she was weak or a victim – rather as a cautionary tale to help others be strong. If we are always comparing the Ummah to a body that is being battered, then the inevitable result of our denying the violence being done to that body from the inside will lead to the premature death of this Ummah too.
We must work to stop these things.
It is especially important that men ally themselves with women and the issues that are important to them to stop abuse, and encourage them with all the rights and freedoms they already should have within Islam and society – and which are routinely denied them due to culture or patriarchy or expediency. It is time for men to be part of the solution, equally, with women.
Editor’s Note: Alan Howard is an operations manager, interfaith activist, and volunteer with the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau in Atlanta, GA. He is raising a teenage son. The views expressed here are his own