Was it abuse?

Just having returned from an intense karate class, Rania* reflected on her anger, and how tired she felt upon the release of her anger. “I just hate him,” she thought. “I really just hate him.” She sighed, and her gaze fell upon on the mug he gave her that she had used daily for more than a decade. “But part of me loves him too. Is that wrong?” Rania was 13 when it began. He was her 36-year-old-married-with-children uncle. The relationship began slowly, with just a few inappropriate comments here and there.

Then, it was a hug. Later, it became a more lingering hug, in a more private space. Before Rania knew it, she was in what could only be described as a romantic relationship with her uncle. Once she relocated and removed herself from the relationship, Rania had time to reflect on the 11-year emotionally intense and physically intimate relationship. “Was it abuse? Am I responsible because I let it happen?”

This two-part article will discuss the Rania’s struggle and will explore just how common similar situations are in the Muslim community. The unfortunate reality is that Rania’s struggle is not uncommon, nor is it properly addressed in the Muslim community. Moreover, young women, who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated on what constitutes as a healthy relationship, remain ill equipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, seven percent of girls in grades 5-8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9-12 report having been sexually abused. This number does not include the many more who do not report their abuse, or who are unable to determine that they are, in fact, being abused. More than 90 percent of victims know their attacker, with family members constituting approximately one-third of all attackers. Victims are more likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as compared with those who have not been abused. Among the most chilling of statistics is that abuse victims are thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, and four times more like to contemplate suicide. As much as we may like to think that our religious or cultural values render us immune to these numbers, the Muslim community in the United States is not invulnerable to these issues. They simply have not been exposed as often as they need to be.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rania, who refers to herself as Neighborhood Muslimah. She contacted me a few months ago, having come across HEART Women and Girls’ website, and wanting to raise awareness for her blog, which chronicles her musings on her experience with sexual abuse. Just a few minutes into reading her blog entries will take the reader into a relationship fraught with subtle coercion and sexual manipulation. Rania’s reflections are the first step to raising awareness about the importance of honest, candid dialogue coupled with sexual health education as a means to empower women and girls to identify when they are being abused, and how to respond.

As I spoke with Rania, she recalled how she was very young when the relationship with her uncle first became questionable. He was her maternal aunt’s husband, and both families were close. Rania’s parents would often allow her to spend her summer holidays in his home with his family. As their relationship progressed, she became dependent upon the attention and praise he lavished on her. They would engage in long conversations about history, politics and culture, and all the while Rania’s uncle would praise her for her maturity and insight. “He allowed me to feel stronger than him, and elevated me in my own eyes,” she explained. “He made me feel that I was special and superior compared to everyone else. He would talk to me as if I was his wife, and would tell me how I was so strong and pious; I would be a leader for all Muslim women.”

Rania learned the tricks of maintaining a secret relationship as many teenagers do. She lied excessively about where she was going, snuck out of the house, and even invited her uncle to her parents’ home when they were out of town. While they never engaged in intercourse, their relationship consisted of extremely intense and physically intimate moments. Guilt and confusion would overwhelm Rania, but if she questioned her uncle about how God would judge this relationship, he would quickly assuage, at least for the time being, her doubts. He would assure her that if God saw them as sinners, He would have exposed them, but instead they were able to continue the clandestine relationship. Never once though did the thought cross Rania’s mind that her uncle was taking advantage of the situation and abusing his niece.

Rania proudly told her friends about her “boyfriend.” They all had someone special they bragged about, so she felt obligated to do the same, changing his name and his age, even pulling out a picture of another younger boy so that he became real to both her and her friends. “I had convinced myself I was in love with him,” she explained. “Once in sex education class, the teacher asked if the victim of an abusive relationship can feel pleasure. When the class unanimously said no, I was convinced I wasn’t in an abusive relationship because I liked being in his company, even if I was uncomfortable with being physically intimate. He didn’t beat me. Instead, he praised me and showered me with gifts. How is that abuse?” she had reasoned.

For her entire adolescence, Rania lived a dual life, even creating a nickname for her uncle so that the duality of her uncle’s role – that of her doting uncle publically, but of her significant other privately– would not be as glaringly obvious to her. Guilt, sadness, and supplication became her companions, as she didn’t believe she could confide in anyone. “I couldn’t turn to family because we were all so close,” she explained. “And I couldn’t turn to the community, because not only was I in this inappropriate relationship, but I was a respected member of Muslim youth in my city, always asked to give speeches and serve as a role model for other kids. People thought I was an angel. How could I tell them that their angel was actually a devil in disguise?”

As Rania related her story, I couldn’t help but think of all the various factors that allowed this situation to persist, and what we could have done as a community to prevent it. Was this in fact a case of abuse, despite Rania’s continuous consent?

* Names have been changed
Nadiah is co-founder and director of programs for the HEART Women & Girls Project. She recently earned her Masters in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. in the past she has been a consultant for the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working on a variety of different projects focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, American Indian/Alaska Native Health, and improving the health of Chicago. Prior to her work at the OWH, she worked on a research project focusing on improving the pregnancy outcomes of low-income Chicago women. She earned her bachelor degree in Public Policy Studies from University of Chicago and lives in Chicago with her two children and husband.

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