When I first started working in the field of social work, I, like everyone in the field, was confronted with the truth about many things communities prefer to keep silent about and ignore. To give you a bit of background, I have been working in several Canadian and Jordanian NGOs helping refugees and highly vulnerable women and children to claim their rights and access to needed services. During this time, I have identified, assessed and referred cases of war trauma, torture, depression, and gender-based violence. So naturally, given my field of work, I’ve come across a fair share of cases many people would consider to be brutal and gruesome.
Early on in my volunteering days, I came across a case of rape, divorce, and early marriage that cannot be forgotten or ignored. Mariam (not her real name) had been repeatedly raped by her father and was quickly married off at the age of sixteen. Soon after, her husband discovered she was not a virgin and divorced her due to the mentality that a woman who is raped or “sexually experienced” is “used goods”. She was then forced to marry again and this time to a man who drank excessively and beat her. So as a consequence, her rape will follow her for the rest of her life.
Flashback to another case I came across was Rawan (not her real name) who had been beaten badly by her husband after one week of marriage. In her community, it is believed that if a man beats his wife, she will learn to obey him forever. She was eighteen and had been terrified and regretful after reporting her husband. When he went to jail, she went back to live with her family and was immediately beaten for daring to claim her rights and securing her safety.
Hearing these cases may come as a shock to you, but the unfortunate truth is, these cases have happened, are still happening, and there is a reason why you don’t hear much about them. Violence in our community is a sensitive discussion and the way that this discussion is shaped is lot more political than it seems.
Violence against Muslim women is a very popular topic in Western media. We all tune in to our TV shows to see passive, abused, victimized Muslim women being forced to cover, being stoned to death, being killed in the name of honour…and overall, just being oppressed by Muslim men. Very often these stories are very inaccurate, very dehumanizing, and very misrepresented.
And we all know what happens next. These issues are then discussed by a Western audience, and Muslim communities are left cringing and anticipating the racist backlash it will bring. Typically, we respond in defence and we each individually become public relation campaigners to try to repair our community’s damaged image. So as a result, our discussions about community issues are always molded to be in defensive response to an external attack.
Unfortunately, so much of this is like a battle on two fronts; fighting racism and Islamophobia on one hand, and fighting denied sexism in our communities on the other hand.
But why is that? Why is the discussion surrounding violence against Muslim women not happening internally among Muslims, as much as it is happening externally among Western audiences? Moreover, why is it that when our issues are shed light upon, they are done so by outsiders to shed a negative light on Islam and the Middle East? Why is it that we resist and fear tackling these issues, while our women suffer in silence?
Perhaps helpful to know, we are not the only community that feels this way. Kimberle Crenshaw is a black feminist scholar who observes that the representations of black violence are written in a way that portrays the African-American community as pathologically violent. So as a consequence, domestic violence becomes politicized and those trying to defend their community will deny and conceal the experiences of minority women in a misguided attempt to prevent racial stereotyping.
These depictions by Western media are politically charged, and as Laila Abu-Loghoud argues, serve to further Western political and military interests. In “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Abu-Loghoud argues that such a question is being asked because it authorizes what she calls a “moral crusade”. By depicting Muslim women as victims in need of saving, it raises several areas for inquiry – who do they need saving from, and who will save them.
As a consequence, these external factors only make it harder for us as a community to have an honest discussion amongst ourselves about the true state of issues in our community. The dominant society, the West, has the privilege of self-criticism without outside intervention. No outside group will use their failings to demonize them and create destructive policies and devastating wars against them. No foreign race will take it upon themselves to save their women and paint themselves as saviors. No outside institution will establish itself in their country and try to change them and speak for them. Marginalized and stigmatized communities do not have this luxury. Our failings are scrutinized, criticised and weaponized against us in the form of offensive representations, stigmatizing stereotypes, and harmful policies.
We are afraid to admit and acknowledge the real issues that cripple our communities– because we fear that we would be validating stereotypes being used against us.
But having now acknowledged the struggle of confronting this racist bigotry, I want to stress that the struggle of ending sexist violence is just as important, if not, more so. The fact is, Mariam’s life is in hands of an abusive husband because of no fault of her own Rawan was beaten by her family simply for wanting to be safe, and she will continue living her life in fear – and this cannot go on.
It is imperative that we take a hard look at what is actually happening, and have the courage to confront the truth and respond to it justly. Rather than submitting to these external factors, we need to be at the forefront of this work, and we need to serve our community with the aim of being as inclusive and comprehensive as possible.
We need to start by listening to women and letting down our defenses. We need to tackle the stigma of seeking help and we need to increase awareness among our community leaders and decision makers. We need to identify barriers to access and put in place services that will overcome these challenges. We need to create and strengthen the support systems needed for women to access protection and legal services. Most importantly, we need to confront the harmful and sexist cultural traditions and religious misinterpretations in our community, and we must to explore how masculinity is perceived and understood by Muslim men.
The road ahead of us is a difficult. Nevertheless, we must keep going. We must speak for ourselves and we must represent ourselves. Only we can understand ourselves best. Only we can understand the root causes of our issues, and find suitable solutions for them. Thus, the changes to our community must come from within our community. It only makes sense that we step up, and work to own and assert ourselves in the discussion surrounding violence against Muslim women – and the time to do that is now.
I would like to thank Deya’eddin Bazadough for his input and revision for this article.
Abu-Loghoud “Do Muslim Women Need Saving”
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”
Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul “Religion, Culture and the Politicization of Honour-Related Violence: A Critical Analysis of Media and Policy Debates in Western Europe and North America”
Photo credits: UN Women Jordan/Christopher Herwig – Artwork activities in the UN Women Oasis in the Za’atari refugee camp