Trigger Warning: This article is of a sensitive nature and mentions sexual assault, rape and violence. If you need help or access to services, please see here: Muslim Mental Health: The Services and Organisations You Can Contact
Sexual assault is a heinous crime that should never be tolerated. As Jessica Smythe, MSc Investigative Forensic Psychology, states in STARS: The only factor which should be used to identify rape, in line with the legal definition, is consent. However, in reality after #MeToo it has become evidently clear how many rape myths – prejudicial, stereotyped, and inaccurate beliefs about sexual assaults, rapists, and rape victims – keep sexual violence and rape culture in stand. Rape myths provide a false sense of security, which in turn supports the lack of ability to comprehend rape or to acknowledge it when it does happen. Rape myths bring about shame, no reporting, and victim-blaming. It can happen to anyone in every circumstance.
Both in and out of the Muslim community, there is still the stigma placed upon women who have become victims of rape. With sexuality and honour is almost always mentioned in one sentence when talking about Muslim women, contributing to the fact that violence and assault is often ignored for what it is – a traumatic crime for the victim. To offer perspective, Amaliah has gathered three stories of Muslim victims. The stories have been written down anonymously for privacy reasons.
“The mess in my life started when my parents passed away. I went to live in the UK with my aunt and uncle. For a better future. That went well for a long time. Until I was sexually abused by my uncle when I was nine,” Salima shares. “One day, I tried talking to my aunt for help and she slapped me across the face. That night she came to my room and asked her to show me exactly what my uncle did to me. She started touching me, mimicking the actions. I was terrified.” Soon after, the young girl was referred to social services for being ‘uncontrollable.’
At the group home she was put in by the government, she tried talking about it. “Our group leader just listened, nodded, and that was it. At some point, an older woman came to talk to me about it who seemed irritated when I told her the part about my aunt. She told me to be strong and focus on my life. Better to never talk about it again. I will never forget.”
Rape Myth: Women don’t commit sexual offences.
Fact: Most rapes and sexual assaults are committed by men against women and children. However, women do carry out sexual violence – against other women, as well as men and children.
Salima hardened and joys in life became something from the past. After leaving the group home, she built a new life and eventually got married. Having a husband who is supportive and loving, healed the loneliness. “I could finally let my mask go.” “But with dropping the mask, the nightmares came in. Everything suddenly came back very hard, and I decided to tell my husband the pain I had kept inside for so long. I omitted the part of my aunt.”
“Immediately after I talked about my abuse, the complaints became worse. Restlessness, fatigue, nightmares, and heavy sweating. I wondered if these were complaints from the abuse as a child. Because I had been so strong all this time? Soon I came across a support website for survivors of sexual violence. It was this phrase that caught my attention: 100% of the blame for rape, sexual abuse and all other forms of sexual violence lies with the people who carry it out – never the people it happens to. I immediately clicked on it.”
Crisis England & Wales is a charity working to end sexual violence and abuse, providing specialist information and support to all those affected by rape, child sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and all other forms of sexual violence in England and Wales.
“To my surprise, my husband was very supportive. With his help, I received counselling through Crisis England & Wales who helped me further to find all the support I needed. They were very proactive and organised. Eventually, I could also share the whole story with him.”
“Then things turned difficult. I wanted to confront my aunt about what had happened under her roof. She started screaming and crying. I was a bad child who just wanted to break up the family because I was jealous for not having parents. I will spare you the details of all the drama that unfolded. Neighbours came who heard the screaming and it spread in the community. People started to look at me angrily, blaming me for disturbing their peace, I had been too good to be true. One person even said that I had seduced my uncle and my aunt was just angry about that. I was 9 years old.”
In the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 children have been sexually abused.
“I went through hell. I lost my faith in Allah (SWT) for a while, thinking he did this to me. People from the community said I was a bad Muslim woman who was seducing men from a young age, forgetting family values and so on. However, there was a local Imam who came amidst all the turmoil to my house and prayed with me, for my pain, for Allah (SWT) to give me strength, and very clearly stated how criminal this was. I remember clearly, he held my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “This is not your fault, this is your family’s fault, and they will be judged by Allah (SWT) for this.”
“Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or disclose it, Allah knows it. Allah knows what is in the heavens and in the earth and He has power over everything.” (Surah Ali’ Imran 3:29).
“Slowly, I started feeling better, and in the meantime, more people showed their support. It helped that some of them were Muslims too and used the Quran to support me. It gave me strength.”
In most European countries and the US, there is a fund available to support victims of sexual assault. Victim help services can support you to file an application to the Compensation Fund for Violent Crimes Right.
Salima: “I am doing much better now. With the compensation I received from the victim help fund, I was able to pay a nice psychologist. I never expected to find the right help. A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined finding the right help. Soon, I hope to put the past behind me.”
“My rape was not in some dark alley after a night of drinking like most people like to believe. It makes it easier to portray rape as something you can prevent if you are not stupid or bad. It happened to me when I went for a job interview.”
“After it happened, I talked to my friend about it. I slowly saw the doubt in her eyes forming. ‘What you consider rape, he probably called sex. Why were you having sex during a job interview? No one gets assaulted during an interview,’ she said. It made me uncomfortable, and I started to try and stop my words from coming out as a waterfall. I ended up twisting it in some weird format I didn’t recognise myself. After she left, I threw up several times until I passed out on the bathroom floor.”
26.59% of women in Austria (between 18 and 74 years) who are employed or have been employed before have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace (2021 survey ‘gender-based Violence Against Women and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence’ commissioned by Eurostat and the Austrian Federal Chancellery.
“I never talked about it again. I slowly started changing. I changed my hairstyle several times, my clothes, and started taking shower after shower, which made my skin just look worse and sloppy. I plastered a smile on my face for the outside world and continued with my life.”
“It got worse and worse, until I even toyed with the idea of taking my own life. A new friend noticed and said something which saved my life: ‘I am not able to emotionally support you through this, but I care about you. Here is the number of the Frauennotruf (Women’s Hotline) and they will help you in every way they can. They will know what to do.’ I guess she had already realised this was about sexual assault as the line I found out later was specifically dedicated to these kinds of crimes.”
24-Stunden Frauennotruf: 01 71 71 9 is the Austrian Women’s Support Hotline supported by the government, which is available around the clock for first responders help, psychological support, accompanying to courts, helping to file for victim support funds, and so on.
“Two days later, someone from the office met with me. Finally, there was someone who listened to my story. No judgement, no disbelief, just listened and felt sympathy. She gave me some time to think if I still wanted to press charges, which we eventually did. Thinking back now, I am grateful that she guided me every step of the way. She was there too at the police interview.”
In 2021, the 24-hour women’s emergency hotline of the City of Vienna provided 13,160 counselling sessions for women who had experienced violence, their relatives, and those seeking advice. 63% of the consultations were carried out by telephone. Email consultations accounted for 33% of all consultations, up from 2020 (24% email consultations). Personal advice and escorts to the police, court, or hospital accounted for 4%. The pandemic impacted the numbers. (Annual statistics 2021, 24-hour women’s emergency hotline of the City of Vienna)
“The police interview was tough. At first, my religion came up and the line of questioning changed but with the help from the officer of Frauennotruf, the police stayed on course. I am still angry when I think about it: ‘Are you allowed to have a boyfriend?’ ‘Would your family kill you if you had a sexual relationship outside of marriage?’ I was raped. That had nothing to do with sexual relationships or my own honour. I did not choose this.”
“I thought I had gone through the hard part but then it began: So many questions and details were asked, down to the specific details of where hands were placed, for how long, how certain acts were performed, and so on. I felt unprepared but pushed through. Later they said I was not acting like a typical victim. I didn’t cry enough.”
Rape Myth: Victims and survivors should act a certain way after being raped.
Fact: Everyone responds differently to sexual violence, and there’s no right or wrong way to be or to feel afterward. It’s common for people to feel numb after a traumatic event like rape or sexual assault. And some people don’t feel the effects of trauma until a long time after a traumatic event has happened. (Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre)
“My parents found it difficult when I told them I was going through the case. My mother was more concerned about my marriage prospects and my honour. It took a lot of talking and painful moments until she admitted she couldn’t accept I was raped because she felt a failure as a mother, not because she believed I had lost my honour.”
“The entire police investigation took almost a year. After my statement, they went to look for evidence supporting my story. But that was not it. I had to also go to the hospital again for possible DNA evidence as the correct procedure wasn’t followed earlier on, I had to get a psychological statement to prove I didn’t make it up, and I had to sort through all the emails and anything else I could find to help with the case. It took another 6 months of administration for the court to plan a court date. They were overwhelmed with cases they said. The pandemic had increased sexual assault numbers and campaigns had helped more women to come forward and press charges.”
In Austria, every fifth woman (20% of women) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. 15% of women have experienced stalking since the age of 15. Every third woman (exactly 35%) has experienced some form of sexual harassment since the age of 15. 38% of women have experienced psychological violence from their (ex) partner since the age of 15. (FRA study. Violence against women. An EU -wide survey. 2014)
“Throughout all of this, my deen was my strength. I met this girl when I broke down crying at a Starbucks in the city centre in between one of the many appointments I had to go to for this case. Some ‘friends’ had just disinvited me for a religious gathering and told me to my face how sorry they felt for me but did not want to make ‘others’ uncomfortable. I assumed she meant the other guests. I will never forget that.”
“And if they incline to peace, then you should incline to it; and put your trust in God; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.” (Surah Al-Anfal 8:61)
“When my day in court came, I was about to flee. I didn’t want to stand there and retell everything again. This time, the perpetrator would be there too. In the end, it made me feel stronger to be able to know I could stand up against him. I feel I can finally breathe again and get on with my life. If he was not convicted, I’m not sure if I would have felt the same.”
“For over 12 years I kept to myself the fact that as a youngster I was repeatedly abused by an Imam. I thought I had dismissed it. That it didn’t bother me. After I had my first child, the hidden trauma that the abuse had caused me surfaced soon after. I finally broke the silence.”
“It went well for years until my own daughter turned four. She looked so much like me at that age. Everything suddenly came back very hard. I started having nightmares. I woke up crying and sweating. I just sat at home on the couch, had no social contact whatsoever. Looking back, I still feel a bit guilty about how I neglected my family during that time. I am working on it.”
“Through a colleague at work, I got in touch with a support group. It was through the church. At the time, I was anti-religion but was afraid to go through an official institution or anything related to Islam. So, I ended up going through the church meetings for survivors of sexual violence.”
Besides the church, the Netherlands has a very active victim support organisation, Slachtofferhulp, available in several languages.
“The first few meetings I felt uncomfortable still, but I knew I had to do this. The recognition and the shared feelings were a liberating experience for me. They saw the abused teenager and I could finally love and heal that little girl inside me.”
“Then the anger came. The anger to Allah (SWT), to my parents, to my family and friends. Nobody had helped me at the time. When I asked for help at home, my father and mother treated me like they were ashamed of me. They even called the Imam to apologise. I never understood why. My father said it was because in Islam you must ask for forgiveness from the sinners. Now I know this is not true. At the time, it broke my heart and my entire belief system. I was so confused. At some point, my mom finally denied the Imam access to our house. He had still been coming to our house for dinner, even though less often than before. Shortly after that, the entire Moroccan community talked about what had happened.”
In migrant families in the Netherlands, studies show that sexual abuse of youngsters happen just as much as among Dutch youngsters who have several generations living in the country. Due to heavier taboos in the first group, statistics are not entirely clear. Pharos created a tool kit on how to deal with sexual abuse as a family, specifically created for migrant families.
“After a more confrontational day at the supermarket where I was told I was bringing shame to the family and the community, and to Allah (SWT) himself. It was after all an Imam who had to suffer. I must be a liar even though coming forward was causing me more harm than anything good. My parents gave me an ultimatum: either sit at home and marry a cousin from Tangier or leave the house. I decided to leave.”
Rape Myth: Women lie about being raped for attention or regret having sex.
Fact: False allegations of rape are extremely rare. In fact, most people who are raped or experience another form of sexual violence never tell the police. Research show, less than 5% of police reports have been false. Furthermore, only a small proportion of rape victims report it at all, and 80% of that small proportion are dismissed in the Netherlands due to prejudice, lack of legal evidence, time constraint, and so on.
“I was 18 and had no idea where I was going to go. I started crying and hyperventilating the moment I was on the bus. My aunt kept calling me, telling me I had to listen to my parents. They supposedly had all the rights to treat me the way they did because they were my parents. She didn’t even consider it wrong to treat me as a second-class citizen. My friends from college saved me. Through connections, I ended up staying at my teacher’s house. I never told her why I was on the street. She was American. Her faith in me and the home she provided for me was my saving. “A child will not heed the orders of a parent who is hostile to his life, wealth, and honour. Rather, he will avoid them and stand against their hostility as much as possible.” (Islamic Jurisprudence)
“Thinking back, I realise how incredibly lucky I have been. I worked through my anger and pain. Now I am convinced it was Allah (SWT) who brought her on my path and made her help me. I am grateful for being able to be a good mom for my daughter again and my husband who stuck with me through this all. I am blessed with a beautiful family. My own family.”
Many Muslim women who call for justice when experiencing sexual abuse by (non) Muslim men are faced with denial, victim-blaming or advised to remain silent and be patient. ‘Keep it a secret,’ is often said to voices raised. Some organisations contribute part of the silencing of victims to the community’s concern of furthering Islamophobia if the perpetrators are Muslim, too, which is another burden put on the already burdened to carry. This does nothing to protect members of the Ummah from being sexually assaulted – it only enables the cycle of abuse and protects abusers.
“Believers! Be upright bearers of witness for Allah, and do not let the enmity of any people move you to deviate from justice. Act justly, that is nearer to God-fearing. And fear Allah.” (Surah Ma’idah 5:80).
It is the responsibility of the Ummah to led themselves lead by justice and Allah (SWT) rather than social, economical, and political reasons in order to support survivors of sexual violence in adequate ways. To contribute to this support, SoundVision provides a simple 10-step prevention of sexual violence guide to create a healthier community. Quite simply, don’t be an enabler.
See, hear, believe, and stand up for victimised women by sexual violence. Keep their trust and be an ally.
Fausia S. Abdul lives in Vienna, AT, as a writer, consultant, and PhD researcher holding several academic degrees. She has worked for international organizations such as Fairfood International, United Nations, and the Egyptian Tourism Authority. Fausia speaks and writes in six different languages and is publishing this year her book on Caribbean food cultural heritage.