On April 6th, 2019 Nusrat Jahan Rafi was set on fire by her fellow classmates at her madrassa in Bangladesh, after she refused to stay silent when she was sexually assaulted by the headmaster. Although Nusrat’s death made headlines worldwide, how many sexual assaults against Muslim women do we not hear about? In 2018, the #MosqueMeToo movement gained momentum under the umbrella of #MeToo. This began as Sabica Khan wrote about her sexual assault while in the holy site of Mecca, the response from other Muslim women around the world revealed that she was not alone in her experience.
Despite the solidarity of these Muslim sisters in sharing their experiences of sexual assault in holy sites or places of worships, Nusrat still became a victim of this taboo subject. Why is that Muslim women cannot speak out about sexual assault or harassment without facing backlash and further risks? Firstly, it is completely unthinkable that in such holy sites, where the Muslim community is at its strongest, that Muslim women could be violated in such a way. Secondly, the expectations of Muslim women to remain pure and untainted by the touch of a man until after marriage also deters victims of sexual assault from coming forward. Simply put, women are ashamed that they let such a vile act happen to themselves.
My own experiences of sexual assault can testify to this feeling. I was once groped at a protest for Palestine against the violence committed by the Israeli state in Gaza and the West Bank. In that crowd full of people, who there for the same cause that I was, this was the last thing I thought would happen. I didn’t speak up about what happened, it was only when another man called out my harasser that I ‘confronted’ it. Even then, I just wanted to disappear into another part of the crowd as the two men began to argue between themselves. I locked that memory up and did not think about it until I read a thread on Twitter about a Muslim man who used social media to prey on my Muslim sisters. So many of these girls did not speak up because they were ashamed. I realised that there was a huge silence about the sexual assault of women in Muslim communities around the world. I grew up in an area where sexual grooming gangs were in operation, many of these gangs were made up of men from Pakistani-Muslim backgrounds, who preyed on girls from similar backgrounds. This was such a taboo subject that we never discussed this in my family home. If I could not discuss the assault of other girls with my parents, then there is no space for me to discuss my own harassment. I cannot fully comprehend why I chose to keep this from my family, but I told myself that it wasn’t a major issue, and if I believed this, then I would not have to be ashamed that it happened.
In some cases, Muslim women who are victims of sexual assault believe that there is no one to blame but themselves. I can only imagine the strength it took for Nusrat to defy the stigmas of her religious community and step forward about her assault. Especially, considering the prestige that a male headmaster of madrassa has, which meant that her allegation was not just against him, but the very virtue and credibility of the institution. Nusrat was made into an enemy of her own religion. The fact is that sexual harassment will not discriminate, it can manifest in every religion, culture, and community. I think it needs to be stressed that Muslim women speaking out about sexual harassment and assault is not a critique of Islam or portraying it negatively, but rather it is drawing attention to the issues with the wrongful appropriation of Islam to subjugate Muslim women. Like my Muslim sisters I am proud of my religion, but do not mistake our silence as a complicit agreement with the illusion that sexual harassment does not exist in our faith community.