Dear Absolutely Everyone in the Muslim Community:
What does it take for our scholars, thought leaders, and community shepherds to understand that gender-based violence is a form of institutionalized oppression – one that belongs on the list of every Imam’s duas at the end of every communal prayer?
How long does it take to get an institutional response to “jokes” made by a public scholar that perpetuate rape culture? Does the adab (Islamic etiquette) of not humiliating one man in a position of authority who has publicly made oppressive, mean-spirited statements supersede the infliction of debilitating psychological triggers and post traumatic stress (PTSD) on countless others? Does tiptoeing around an individual teacher and the institutions that he is affiliated with rise above the psychological health and safety of our communities and those who follow his guidance as his students?
And, what does it take to stop silencing women and men who take on the necessary burden of broadening the scope of our communal priorities?
Unfortunately, the most recent incident of a public scholar making jokes about gender based violence as an attack on International Women’s Day (the Abu Eesa incident) and the aftermath of responses and non-responses has demonstrated that a lot of work is yet to be done in order for our communities to prioritize the everyday oppression of gender-based violence and rape culture. Since this is a teachable moment, let’s get some statistics out of the way. Do not skip over this section. If we were ready to skip over the numbers, this letter would not be necessary today.
Gender-based violence affects people of all cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. A survey of 801 American Muslims found that 31% reported experiencing abuse within an intimate partner relationship and 53% reported experiencing some form of domestic violence during their lifetime. (Peaceful Families & Project Sakinah 2011 DV Survey)
Ready for some more? Every 2 minutes another American is sexually assaulted. Over 400,000 women are sexual assaulted each year in the UK. Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.*
Here is some information on PTSD that you should probably know too. The terminology of ‘triggers’ is based on research and studies on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behaviors and situations (including jokes about violence against women) can ‘trigger’ flashbacks to traumatic events, and other unwanted symptoms like panic attacks and the compulsion to self-harm. Research has demonstrated that these triggers can lead to people becoming incredibly socially isolated, as they attempt to protect themselves from distressing situations, experiences and behaviors. It can also lead to the voices of survivors being silenced, as taking part in discussions can be too distressing. So a single “joke” or off-color comment, can devastate a survivor or co-survivor’s ability to get through the day, to focus on their studies, to excel at work, to be engaged parents, to fulfill their roles in society. Trigger effects are not due to being overly sensitive and they are not the result of people being weak. Just like soldiers of war, survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence can suffer long-term neurological impacts after traumatic incidents. So in the least, joking about oppression of any sort is and should be intolerable in any professional or personal capacity.
I would be happy to continue this teachable moment, but I’ll leave some of the fun for another day.
Now that we are all on the same page about why this is no laughing matter or the case of a bunch of overly liberal people being overly sensitive, why does this happen? What in our broader culture allows men in positions of leadership to get away with this behavior? What in our institutional structures makes our leaders prioritize institutional branding and the adab of dealing with a public individual over oppressive humor that inflicts real harm upon our own people?
I’m happy to stand corrected, but my two cents are that so much of our institutional culture caters to giving men in positions of power what they want. At times, this is prioritized even higher than the prophetic goal of pursuing individual and societal excellence as a means of worship.
“He was just joking. He makes other off-color jokes too. He’s normally not like that. They are just feminists. These are just words.” These were all reactions seen and heard in the aftermath of the Abu Eesa incident. Pretty quickly, one can see how the insidiousness nature of a base level tolerance gives permission to move to the next level of societal harm, one in which a woman’s worth is consistently diminished and utterly ignored. In other words, what we see here is a cultural spectrum of actions in which a fun-times-let’s-keep-it-real-for-the-young-people scholar can spew misogynist feces at thousands of followers on one end and we have the deafening apologetic silence of many of our religious and community leaders on the other end. What worries me the most is the latter end. It is the silence of our scholars and institutional leaders that implicitly encourages this entire spectrum of sickening actions to thrive and never die off.
Chicken or the egg, either way you slice it, this is cultural sickness.
So while I don’t have enough space or energy at the moment to fully discuss how to address this cultural malaise, I can begin to address what I think are a few key points. I hope that the conversations that have been started by so many others continue to build on this very initial list of how to move forward.
1. Community accountability and institutional responses not only matter – they are necessary.
Community accountability has the potential to create real change. Stop using silencing words to mute critics of those who deserve admonishment. The responsibility to stand up for a community-wide harm far supersedes the public admonishment of one who made public actions. Scholars: there is an urgency to speak up and stand up. As you continue to shepherd our flocks, note that the moment is today, not tomorrow. Students and community members: demand that those that we look up to and those that we turn to for guidance educate themselves on this subject that silently impacts so many in our communities. Demand that our leaders stop being silent. As a reminder, at least 1 in 4 women that you come across today are survivors of sexual violence.
It would be unwise of me to speak about community accountability without at least flagging a few guiding principles (note, this isn’t an exhaustive list) to keep in mind while doing this important work:
• Women’s voices and experiences must be central to this work and to informing this work.
• The issue of race and intersectionality matters both as co-forms of oppression and due to the fact that marginalized peoples are disproportionately affected by gender based violence.
2. Stop joking about oppression against women.
Making “jokes” about rape and gendered violence is a choice. Civily admonishing someone about a terrible choice made in public is not bad adab. What is bad adab is making space for the sensitivity of the one who makes rape jokes somehow equally sacred alongside women’s actual humanity and physical sanctity.
3. Stop attacking those who are brave enough to speak up about this disgusting behavior.
So while we’re at it, I have more experience with complex institutional strategy and organizational responses, than you have being a woman. So stop silencing me and stop silencing my esteemed sisters, who have every right to share their perspective and expect an appropriate institutional and community-based response.
A general rule of thumb my parents taught me: if you throw vomit and feces at people, expect to receive a response. When people, particularly women, speak up in civil formats (i.e., articles, blogs, social media campaigns), they’re met with dismissal, condescension, and the sometimes implicit/sometimes explicit, message that these women are entering territory that they should keep out of. “You, evil, maniacal feminists, you’re starting an east/west fight.” “You silly bloggers, you don’t even realize the mess you’re making!” “You-Trix-are-for-kids-ladies, why are you ruining the brand of the XYZ Institute?!”. All that to say, women, you are not welcome here. That’s messed up and ridiculous. I’m not a scholar of Islam by any means, but even I know that’s not prophetic in nature and it is not the example of some of the most important women in Islamic history.
4. More on community accountability: support grassroots campaigns that are working towards change.
Historically speaking and currently, our broader American community has been able to effectively use grassroots social justice campaigns to make change. From the participation of Muslims in America’s civil rights struggles to more recent efforts to combat institutionalized Islamophobia, I can think of numerous instances where boycotts, social media campaigns, and other forms of grassroots actions have impacted change on a number of fronts. Similarly, we need to be willing to support more of the same strategic actions as a means to address rape culture and gender based violence.
With all due respect, I for one, can not and will not participate in supporting an institution, other scholars, or conferences that continue to affiliate themselves with an individual who has relentlessly caused trauma and pain. Putting pressure on our own institutions and community leadership is a mechanism to shake up our communal priorities and we should not be afraid to use it.
So, my people, what does it take to shame our community into action? What keeps me hopeful is the knowledge that there are a lot of wise people out there who will keep at the struggle to address this complicated question. What I also know is, as my dear scholar sister, Yasmin Mogahed, once eloquently pointed out in a webinar on domestic violence, “Sabr (patience) is not suffering in silence.”
* See more at rainn.org
Samar Kaukab Ahmad is the Director of Research Strategy and Operations at the University of Chicago (Arete, Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories). She is also a board member at Heart Women and Girls and the former Executive Director of Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.