Was it abuse? (Part II)

Sexual abuse remains a shameful, cloaked reality affecting many young girls and boys in the Muslim community, and no matter our uneasiness with the subject, and as indicated in Part 1 of this series, anecdotal evidence suggests that Rania’s story of her eleven-year long relationship with her maternal uncle is more common than we think.

In my conversation with Rania, she explained that at the age of 24 she decided to end the relationship that had been an everyday part of her adolescence. While traveling with her friend, Lubna, Rania described the kind, adoring man she had felt compelled to leave behind because their families would not approve of the relationship. Rania had believed that distance would help clear her mind and ease her into life without her uncle, but in the first few months the separation only exacerbated her confusion. She missed him terribly, and finally gave in to her loneliness, reconnecting with her uncle through phone and email.

Months later, after ending their relationship once and for all, Rania met Lubna again, who asked about her significant other. This time, Lubna heard a much different story. Rania’s tone and words were laced with acrimony, prompting Lubna to ask what had brought about the change of heart. Rania explained that the distance apart allowed her the time and space to reflect on the past decade. She began to recall experiences she had long buried, similar to selective amnesia. “I even forgot that he was my uncle,” she said. She continues to explain this further in her blog post about coping strategies – she describes the love and affection she developed for him over the years as a coping mechanism- “It’s what we do when we see no way out…when we have lost all hope.”

Rania felt she could not go anywhere for help. A simple literature and Internet search confirms that there are no culturally appropriate resources for young Muslim women who are survivors of sexual abuse. The community has not created any safe spaces for these women – the masajid, Islamic schools, and community centers do not have professionals and leaders equipped to address and counsel survivors. Moreover, the cultural barriers that exist to addressing these issues for Muslims prevent Muslim survivors from pursuing or trusting the secular resources and professionals that do exist. The instances in which she thought her family suspected that there was something peculiar about her relationship with her uncle did not evolve into honest dialogue, but instead remained uncomfortable silences. Rania did not trust that her family or community would help her untangle herself from the relationship; she felt certain that if she did come forward, she would be the one to shoulder all the blame for the relationship. “If I felt I could have told a member of my family that I am in this relationship, and they would not reprimand me for it (maybe you shouldn’t have been so friendly, maybe you should wear hijab), perhaps I would have said something. But my fear was if I opened my mouth, I would be the aggressor, the cause of fitna.”

Rania didn’t have open discourse with her mother about the challenges of being an adolescent– feeling attracted to boys or finding a balance between her Muslim values of modesty and the Western culture in which she was being asked to practice them. Rather, Rania opened up to her uncle, who she thought listened to her with compassion and gave importance to her concerns and her point of view as though she was his peer.

Once the relationship graduated from a friendship to a romance, Rania didn’t have the self-confidence to trust her instinct that something was wrong. Rania’s uncle had likely spotted this insecurity in his niece from the beginning, and began to manipulate her vulnerability in order to persuade her to fulfill his inappropriate desires. “Even though he was always in the driver’s seat in the relationship, he made me feel like the driver,” she recalled.

Our community has a responsibility to our young girls. We have a responsibility to trust our daughters enough not to point the finger at them, even if they come to us with a nightmare of a situation. We must find the context and reasoning behind why these frightening situations happen, and reign in our reflexive desire to immediately judge and assign blame. As Rania told me, “The worst thing is to feel that you won’t be accepted if you speak up.”

We have a responsibility to protect our girls from men like Rania’s uncle, who saw an opportunity and chose to abuse it. Open and honest dialogue about sexual health and sexuality, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable these conversations may be, is key. There is no doubt that the Muslim community needs to develop a culturally-sensitive approach to sexual health education, because if women remain uninformed about their bodies, they are unequipped to identify an abusive relationship or know where to turn for help. Moreover, we have an obligation to hold the men in our community accountable for their actions, regardless of their position in society, and without compromising the survivors’ future and reputation and allowing them to become collateral damage in the process.

So, he never hit her. In fact, he treated her like a princess and elevated her in the eyes of everyone, including herself. But she was 13 and he was 36 when their relationship first began. I ask you the same question Rania repeatedly asks herself in her blog: Was this abuse? If so, did we do enough to protect Rania, and all the girls who have the same story?
Nadiah Mohajir 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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