Growing up, this saying was embedded within us: “Mullahs are to be held with the highest regard as which you hold your own parents at.” The meaning behind it is quite apparent, treat a mullah (a religious male teacher) as you would your parent.  As an adult, the illusions that have been fed over the years, that we were in safe hands with these mullahs, within religious spaces, and who oversaw the passing down of Islamic knowledge, has been broken.

Mullahs are highly religious people who have mastered the art of memorizing the Quran, the hadiths and Islamic law. They often teach in madrasas (Islamic school) and have private tutoring sessions wherein parents hire them to personally come to the house and teach the child/children. Growing up, Muslim households, especially those who are not Arab speakers, hired Mullahs that would come to their house to teach the children the basics of the Arabic language, in order to be able to read and practice the Quran as well as to perform the daily prayers. Excelling in Islamic teaching and its knowledge is always crucial to Muslim parents.

Growing up in a neighborhood with an important Muslim population, Muslim kids would either be heading to the mosque or have private tutors come to their houses over the weekend. Many of us had the same mullah who would teach us in rotation, as in one mullah would be hired by many of the family from within the community, and he would reserve a one-hour block for each house. We all started at a young age, and during those times we witnessed many different behaviours from these mullahs. Emphasis on young, we were ignorant toward how some of the observed behaviours were harmful, especially towards girls.

Many of us have come to realize that some of these behaviours exhibited by mullahs can be translated as sexual assault, molestation, and coercion. In a recent conversation with my female cousins and female friends from the community, we have all come to grasp that the mirage of mullahs being pious due to the religious title they hold over themselves and the sense of being secure in their hands was never a reality.

Rather, we have all faced unusual and uncomfortable situations which we have now come to comprehend and understand the damage that it has done to us. Asking out of line questions which have no relation to the matters at hand and asking us to not tell our parents about it.  Making conversations and coating it with a transparent layer of sexual innuendo while we innocently went along with it due to our lack of differentiating between right and wrong.

Coercing with words and affection while touching and looking inappropriately which now translates to molestation and sexual harassment. And after many years, our doubts about these mullahs, have been right all along.

One of the known mullahs got caught by the parents for inappropriately touching their innocent young child. Some parents have also caught the mullahs in the act and made sure they faced the consequence for their actions

Personally speaking, my parents hired a mullah that they had the utmost respect for and trusted him because they saw him as an elderly as highly esteemed as their parents. My parents told me to address him as grandpa, which I innocently did. My parents trusted him enough to allow him to oversee me. They gullibly let him have a bedroom for himself for that one hour block every weekend, away from any sort of distraction or noise which allowed him and I to focus.

What happened behind closed doors were never known to my parents. When you address someone as “grandpa,” you would think that they would have the common decency to fulfil the nature of this relationship. That wasn’t the case.  I had been sexually abused by him for the better of a year. As innocent as it sounded at that time when he’d ask me “come sit on grandpa’s lap” while I recited the readings along with him, it sounds more like a kick to the stomach right now when I think about it.

An 11-year-old who had no grasp of right or wrong, or who couldn’t distinguish between the good and bad in physical contact, he sure did take a piece of cake when it came to taking advantage. Feeling up my chest area, specifically rubbing around my hips and thighs and in general touching my body in the name of innocent affections.

In the name of teaching prayer positions, he would place his hand in places that were unnecessary. Clueless as I was, he allowed himself to follow through with this act in the name of religion, while I unquestionably let it happen.

Following that, with age, experience and the vast amount of education and information,  in my 20’s, I have finally come to conclude that 11-year-old me was coerced and sexually groomed by a man who used religion as a tool to fulfil his pleasure and conceal his sleazy deeds. Sadly, there are surely other girls out there who unknowingly faced the same abuse. And that can be blamed on the lack of knowledge, or specifically lack of sex education.

It should be mandatory that every child is given lessons on sexuality and abuse prevention; get them to be aware and teach them the signs of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Create a safe and supportive environment for children which allows them to understand and question, but importantly a relationship in which they ensure that they can always come to a trustworthy adult if they experience any sort of abuse. Children are prone to be dependant on adults and therefore they are more vulnerable and looked upon as helpless by those who prey on them.

Girls and women have always been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of religious institutions who have exploited the innocence in the name of religion and God. Many of the victims are brave enough to come forward with their stories, while others are shunned due to it being too taboo and the belief that it stains the religion. The problem lies in the utter belief that religion is higher than anything else, which allows the mullahs to get a free pass on their wrongdoings while the victims are to live with the traumatic experience throughout their whole lives since these mullahs have never been held accountable for their actions.

The way our communities are always endorsing the safeguarding and protection of girls and women, our parents should keep the same energy when it comes to entrusting our responsibility to a religious being. At the end of the day, when we strip him of his title and responsibility, he but another stranger, and to entrust your daughter in the hands of an unknown man is a form of endangerment.

We are engrained with this notion from our parents that we must hold a pious person in with the same regards we hold them at; with utmost respect and perseverance. Our parents hold the belief that a pious person only has a pious character and intention, and therefore, with that view and trust, they leave us in the “safety” of the mullah. Unfortunately, such thinking has often led to the opposite, as many of the mullahs have taken advantage of our parents’ trust and have misused it against them and especially us, the students. It is necessary to hold religious figures accountable for their misuse of power.

Parents must realize that their children are not safe in any stranger’s hand, no matter the title that person holds. To have such blind faith because a person has devoted his life to religion is misleading. It is necessary to bring about change in the religious sphere, where they acknowledge that people in charge of religious education can be predators, and they should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. It should be clear that religion does not automatically translate to everything good. In this case, being deeply devoted to religion does not constitute one being virtuous.

In other words, communities need to create a safe space for girls and women where they are comfortable to speak out in the face of such situations in order to avoid them from becoming another case of such as my innocent 11-year-old self.