Recently, instances of violence, sexual, emotional and financial abuse on the part of well-known male figures in the Muslim community towards women have been coming to light more and more frequently. Victims who were brave enough to come forward resulted in evidence being meticulously compiled by a third-party professional advocacy organisation to publicise and report the abuse.
The damage to the lives of the victims is immeasurable and multitudes of women came forward on social media to voice their disbelief and disgust towards the perpetrators and pledge their support for the women who were brave enough to come forward.
On the other hand, the response from Muslim men in the community was disappointing to say the least. Whilst some came forward in support of the women, the overall silence from male Imams, scholars, students of knowledge and community leaders was and still is deafening. One case of a Mufti actually laughing at the description of the sexual abuse a Muslim woman faced was particularly sickening.
I am writing this article to bring home the point that the Muslim community is facing a crippling crisis of character. The tyranny that has collectively been allowed to occur on the part of male misogynists and those women that have internalised misogyny has gone on for far too long.
And the tyranny is not confined to these public cases alone, but this tyranny is also present behind the scenes in the spaces that we frequent and that are meant to be a source of peace. From the treatment of women in Muslim spaces, our exclusion from places of worship, the patronisation we face, the belittling, the policing, the disrespect, to the dehumanisation, the hypocrisy, the hyper sexualisation, the bullying…the list goes on.
The Spiritual Dynamic
If you are a woman who has faced misogynistic abuse or a man who has abused in even a minor way, it is important that you understand the spiritual dynamic at play when tyranny occurs in the community.
Sheikh Moutassem Al Hameedy speaks about dhikr as a spiritual interaction with the unseen world. He describes remembrance of God and acts of worship as a journey from observable phenomena to a world where invisible actions of the heart take form and become tangible. This then is true for diametrically opposed acts of worship. For those that worship the ego, for those that worship the patchwork of this world masquerading as treasure, there is similarly an interaction with the unseen -except its nature is not divine or beautiful but rather reprehensible, base and evil- the ugly whispers of that ugly being.
When a man, or a woman who has internalised misogyny is under the yoke of projection, physically, financially and sexually hurting women, spreading rumours about innocent or even guilty women, stalking women, trying to intimidate women, seeking to embarrass and debase women, revelling in manufacturing hate against women simply on account of the fact that they are born, by omnipotent decree, a woman, they have whether they realise it or not traversed beyond this tangible world and opened a dialogue with the unseen.
The Satans amongst mankind do not present as horned red beings with fire in their eyes brandishing a three spiked fork and a coiling pointed tail. The philosophy of deception dictates that in reality, this being appears as someone who is pleasing to most and who harms in a way that can easily relinquish him of responsibility.
For the Muslim woman, misogynistic harm in a less publicised case can often come in the form of the men who bully and abuse to harm, intimidate and debase a woman only to the extent that they are absolved of responsibility, or more cunningly as an expression of their superior moral capacity and devout concern for the woman in question’s spiritual welfare. What I mean by this is that Shaytan knows what he is doing when he whispers to abusers to abuse. He whispers to them to allow the praise of the community to get to their head and heart, to the extent that they feel quite literally beyond reproach – almost Godlike and at liberty to act as they please.
This issue is particularly pertinent to me as I have been a first-hand witness to the abuse faced by Muslim women. Brave women who have come forward have also inspired me to come forward as well as encourage other women to do the same.
I began practicing Islam a few weeks before I started my undergraduate degree in 2014 after years of atheism as a teenager and despite being born into Islam. I was a non-hijabi, lived a lifestyle averse to what the Qur’an teaches but had found a new sense of peace in observing salah. I actually fully came to Islam on campus. A friend showed me the prayer room in freshers week and from that time onwards I would use it whenever I would remember to pray, first a few times a month then as the months of first year went by- weekly, then daily. I wouldn’t really talk about my religion to anyone and would just quietly make an excuse and slip away to the prayer room. Prayer for me back then felt like flying. I felt such an intense calm, peace and connection and it was quite literally my favourite thing to do.
At the end of my first year, I was praying five times a day, I genuinely didn’t see it coming and hadn’t had any intention to become religious so was surprised when I noticed that I had become regular in salah. I decided the summer after first year to change the condition of my heart and my lifestyle, to research the religion and follow and submit to the path of Islam completely as for the first time in my life I had begun to develop a love and an also increasing fear of Allah. I also began to love Him because of everything He had given me including the mercy of prayer.
That summer during Ramadan, I didn’t have the spiritual strength to begin wearing hijab but I began to cover my body and adopt more modest dress. I also chose to spend less time around groups and friends from school, college and university who were engaged in backbiting, petty arguments, disrespect and bullying. As my Islamic education had lasted around 3 months when I was a child, I began working my way through a reading list I had been given in first year on the basics of Islamic history and Islamic Studies and also began to read widely on areas of the faith I was interested in.
By December of my second year I had complete yaqeen in Allah and the message of Islam and began covering my hair. Despite this personal, private and positive change, in my second year I became increasingly aware of something I had brushed aside in first year: Muslim men relentlessly following me around campus and seeking to harm me through rumour mongering. By the time I had donned the hijab in my second year there was at the worst instance around thirty Muslim men on campus who had my lecture timetable and who would hang around outside my lectures and tutorials laughing at me and my attempts to develop a link with God, who would mock and harass me on the way to and from the prayer room and who would follow me non-stop on campus.
I have never felt such a profound sense of confusion. I had never really been a part of the Muslim community and the friends I’d grown up with were either non-practicing, atheist or Christian so this was my first introduction to the community and I couldn’t understand why they were behaving that way. I wanted to join the ISoc as I needed help with my religion but was shocked by how many ISoc members were treating me on campus so chose to give them all a wide berth.
This abusive behaviour continued into the second year of my degree. It confounded me that something as positive as me changing my life for the better became so negative and I had multiple destructive rumours spread about me by the men stalking me, simply trying to humiliate me and undermine the spiritual progress that I had made. The situation became so severe that I had to report those involved to ISoc, the school, a mental health service and the National Stalking Helpline.
I had never spoken to and did not know a single one of these men. They did not know me either and had never spoken to me yet felt the intrinsic entitlement and unbridled arrogance to follow and harass me without cause. What left me reeling was that if a ‘religious’ sister from the ISoc was present all these men would ignore me, behave and act as though they had never abused or even seen me. Eventually, after two years of an unrelenting character assassination, rumours that I was a whore and faking my religion, non-stop daily stalking and relentless verbal/emotional bullying on campus I broke down and was hospitalised from exhaustion and severe anxiety.
I spent the summer before final year rebuilding my mind and returned to my third year on campus that September after being discharged from an early intervention mental health service. I thought the worst was behind me but the abuse continued into my third year, and I had to take a leave of absence from my studies. I was hospitalised for five weeks from a suicide attempt and spent those five weeks under suicide watch.
I cannot begin to describe the terror of being sectioned, the severity of the deterioration of my mind and the heartbreak, anguish and distress both my parents went through trying to stop me from killing myself each time I would attempt. I cannot begin to describe what it was like seeing my mother and father breakdown in uncontrollable tears and willing me to get better, every day that I was in hospital or the stress my father went through having to take time off work to be with me in hospital when my family was already facing financial hardship. I was diagnosed with a severe and irreversible mental health condition and was unable to complete basic tasks or even look after myself. After being released from being sectioned, I spent the next two years receiving section one aftercare and trying to rebuild my mind and life back together.
Several years later, I continue to struggle with chronic insomnia and increasingly with suicidal ideation. I struggle at times to get up in the morning and find the will to live. On three occasions since my ordeal at SOAS, I questioned my faith and began to look to Eastern religions because of the trauma of what I had gone through which I fight not to associate with Islam and Muslims in general. Most recently I began looking into Unitarian Christianity and fight on a daily basis to keep Iman in my heart, maintain my five daily prayers and continue wearing the hijab.
I struggle with profound confusion at what I went through and what Muslim women go through. I struggle to comprehend how this type of abuse has become not only normalised but expected.
What keeps me resistant to despair is my job. I am an Islamic Studies teacher and do everything in my power to inculcate the traits of mutual love, respect, understanding and humanity in the young children I teach which so completely enamoured me when I began practicing Islam all those years ago.
I mention this to you not to weigh you down with an upsetting story or bash Muslim men but to highlight that this is a common occurrence in the community and as so often occurs, some of these men were in positions of power – one of them was even on a committee for a mental health society. I also want to highlight the impact that this kind of abuse is having on Muslim women’s spirituality and connection with the faith. I wonder how many people realise the number of women driven away from the faith because of such actions by men and those who enable them? We speak of a crisis of faith and rarely criticise the misogyny that leads many women to abandon theirs – is our faith and spiritual wellbeing worthless?
Many people could see I was being harassed and yet no one did anything because once again I was told, “boys will be boys”. The prolonged situation I faced is minor compared to what other women have come forward with, but there is a common thread: When the community allows some lesser forms of tyranny this becomes the breeding ground for major forms that abusers feel just as entitled to get away with.
What We Can Learn
“Your Lord has not taken leave of you, [O Muhammad], nor has He detested [you].” (Qur’an 93:3)
The abuse towards myself and other women occurred because others turned a blind eye and became enablers. Also, because the perpetrators were in positions of power and myself and others feared firstly not being believed and secondly being ganged up upon by all the perpetrator’s friends and supporters.
If you are a Muslim man reading this take this as a sign to call out your friends, your family and acquaintances who believe it’s ok to manipulate religion to disrespect, belittle, abuse and patronise women. There is a reason that the Prophet ﷺ mentioned the fair treatment of women in his last sermon.
If you are a Muslim woman I pray you feel empowered to seek justice in abusive situations you may find yourself in. Also that you don’t let a difficult situation cause you to despair in the mercy of your Lord.
I believe the situation will change when the hearts of Muslim men transform enough to see the crisis of misogyny as urgent, damaging to the ummah and the message of Allah, and worthy of addressing. The silence on the part of male leaders is suggestive of the reality that they don’t. Until then, courageous women will single handedly continue to fight for our rights, the rights Allah has given as and for the rights of our Muslims sisters around us.
This piece was written by a member of the Amaliah community. If you would like to contribute anonymously, drop us an email us on firstname.lastname@example.org