NEW YORK – On average, there are over 300k victims (age 12+) of sexual violence in the United States. It is estimated that there is a victim of some form of sexual violence every 98 seconds.
Like the rest of the country, American Muslim communities must grapple with sexual violence, advocate raising awareness, and encourage more extensive communal education.
Lack of knowledge presents a major obstacle in stemming sexual violence in Muslim communities. Many people do not fully understand what it is and often simplify it to incidents of strangers using force.
HEART Women and Girls’ director of sexuality education and training, Sameera Qureshi explained to AboutIslam that sexual violence is more complex.
Qureshi expounded that there are layers of sexual violence, which includes sexual abuse (victims under 18), sexual harassment (unwanted sexual attention) and sexual assault.
“Sexual assault encompasses crossing boundaries in multiple ways. It is non-consensual sexual penetration with a body part or item,” Qureshi told AboutIslam.
“Sexual assault and/or violence is any type of sexual activity committed on a victim without their explicit consent,” advocate Aishah Gulam told AboutIslam.
“We must also bear in mind that statutory rape, a form of sexual assault, may have the ‘consent’ of the victim but the victim is not at an age to understand the repercussions of sexual activity.”
Another commonly-held misconception is that sex desire is the primary catalyst for sexual violence.
“It is about violence. Plain and simple,” Gulam told About Islam. “Sexual violence is about exhibiting power on an individual and the manifestation of this is through sex without the consent of the victim.”
“Whether abuse, harassment, or assault, sexual violence is about control and power of one individual over another,” said Qureshi.
There is also the widely-held misunderstanding that sexual violence always entails physical battery of the victim. “While some forms of sexual violence are indeed physically and emotionally vicious, a lot of times, there are no physical scars. If you look at child sexual abuse, it is very unlikely that there are physical scars.”
Gulam pointed out there is often some level of familiarity between victims and perpetrators.
“There is a very common misconception that sexual assault happens on the street and by a stranger. Predators often lurk in places they know they can be trusted. In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice, “85-90% of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone they know. This figure is not too far from the general public,” she said.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 7/10 rapes are committed by someone that the victim knows.
Sexual and Domestic Violence
Sexual violence by an intimate partner is more frequently perpetrated than by acquaintances and strangers and is often part of a cycle of abuse.
“An abusive partner will not only commit physical, mental and emotional abuse but may also use sexual abuse as a means to control their victim,” Gulam told AboutIslam.
“If [someone has] an abusive partner, forcing sex without consent is another means to be violent toward them.”
In many Muslim communities, wives are denied sexual autonomy, and there is a dominant misbelief that a husband can force his wife into sexual intercourse. Consequently, victims of this form of abuse encounter increased disregard when they seek help.
“Unfortunately, in the Muslim community, the sexual and intimate rights of a wife on her husband are seldom spoken about,” Gulam told AboutIslam.
“Due to the lack of awareness of a woman’s sexual and intimate rights, the concept of sexual abuse by a husband to a wife is generally not accepted.”
Co-founder and executive director of HEART Women and Girls, Nadiah Mohajir, outlined how the idea that a wife has no carnal self-determination is not in accordance with Islamic teachings.
“In Islam, both spouses are granted rights and responsibilities. One of those rights is the right to sexual intercourse (for both spouses). Often, this is misinterpreted to mean that the man has unlimited sexual access to his wife, and that consent isn’t needed,” she told AboutIslam.
“Islam highly values the institution of marriage, encourages both spouses to act with kindness, love, and mercy with each other, and consent to sexual activity is very much a part of the equation. So, while the rights to intimacy and sex exist, there is no implication whatsoever that the spouse may seek this right violently or forcefully.”
“We need to educate our men more about how marriage is not synonymous with slavery,” said Gulam. “You cannot force a woman to have sex with you because she is labeled your wife.”
Healing from sexual violence is a long process that requires support.
“Within the Muslim community, it is extremely important to have women and men come together to support survivors mentally and spiritually,” explained Gulam.
“To do this, we must start engaging in dialogue about sexual assault and abuse not just at large, but in our communities.”
Qureshi described to AboutIslam some steps that a person may take if a victim opens up to them about the abuse.
“Hear the victim/survivor out; listen to their story, and hold space for them at the moment. Tell them ‘I believe you. I am here for you, and I will do what I can to support you.’ The number one thing that survivors need to hear is ‘I believe you.’ One of the greatest barriers to supporting survivors is when they are not believed,” she said.
“Do not disclose what they’ve told you to someone else without their explicit consent. Offer resources and information. You are not a counselor; you are not a therapist; you are not going to save them. You can reach out to professionals that can help the victim.”
Mohajir suggested a list of resources for survivors.
“There are many places survivors can go. HEART is a national nonprofit that promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities through health education, advocacy, research, and training,” she told AboutIslam.
“We offer educational workshops and survivor advocacy and connect survivors to whatever resources they need to seek healing and justice.”
KARAMAH is a Muslim women-led national organization that provides training and technical assistance on domestic violence and sexual assault in the Muslim American community.They also provide limited legal services and referrals.
There are many organizations local to each community, such as Arab American Family Services in Illinois. There are national organizations such as YWCA (which have local chapters in every city), National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and RAINN.
There is also a 24-hour sexual assault hotline, which is 1-800-656- HOPE (4673). Finally, every university has numerous resources for students on campus who need help for situations that may have occurred while they were on campus.