Commentary
By Roqayah Chamseddine 10-12-2018

The urgency of this #MeToo moment, especially its potential disruption of normative social behavior toward women, has led to the challenging of inter-communal attitudes including those expressed by religious institutions. Congregants from diverse establishments of faith, including Christians and Jews, have come out in opposition of not only the repression of sexual abuse victims but against clerical power structures. Muslim women, who are often spoke of rather than to, are also using this moment to advocate on behalf of themselves and each other.

The recent campaign against the election of Brett Kavanaugh for Anthony Kennedy's seat on the Supreme Court, driven in part by an allegation of abuse by Dr. Christine Ford, reached a fever pitch before the confirmation hearing. After Kavanaugh had received a majority vote for his confirmation in the Senate, Imam Zaid Shakir weighed in on Ford's accusation.

Shakir, co-founder of the Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., authored a lengthy Facebook post — which has since been deleted — where he argued Dr. Ford must bring forth corroborative witnesses in order for her testimony be given the weight of authenticity. He wrote :

Were she to do so we would say she has a legitimate claim which we could support and rally behind,” he wrote. “Since she has not we silently avoid voicing any opinion on the issue and if we do speak we do so with a skeptical voice. Other than that we can pray for her and urge her to be patient.

The religious framing offered by Shakir relies on a verse from the Qur’an that speaks to adultery — an allegation that requires the proffering of four witnesses — and is inapplicable in this context. The backlash that followed, led by other Muslims, was swift and unyielding, causing Shakir to publish a conciliatory admission of error.

Majida, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy concerns, describes an overwhelming fear of being isolated from her community if she were to reveal her rape. She is distressed over the likelihood that her allegation will be weaponized by opportunists in an effort to malign all Muslims.

“It's like I'm fighting two battles: to be believed and supported by my own community, and against people who want to use my pain as a justification for their Islamophobia,” Majida told me. “I don't see how I can heal.”

After seeing a prominent Muslim American cleric attempt to discredit Dr. Christine Ford, Majida emphasized how such language is used to further alienate victims and cast aspersions upon their character. “Religious leaders in our communities who plant the seeds of doubt when it comes to these types of allegations are what keep people like me from coming forward,” she explained.

I asked Majida how this kind of rhetoric has impacted her spirituality, and specifically her bond with local congregants. She described it as a feeling of loss: “It's seriously like having a scarlet letter drawn on you by your family.”

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, author of Letters from Diaspora: Stories of War and its Aftermath, argues that Muslim leaders like Imam Shakir have so far missed a pivotal opportunity with the #MeToo movement “and have chosen to either stay silent or cower behind their interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence."

Buljusmic-Kustura, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, has spent six years working as an advocate and volunteering as a counselor in domestic violence shelters and women's advocacy groups. She was furious with Shakir’s statement:

The Imams and scholars of our community are revered and followed. They have a voice, and at a time they could be using their platforms to educate about consent, to educate about rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and all the various right's women are entitled to in the Qur’an, they chose to either stay quiet or continue being part of the patriarchal paradigm and push those same, outdated, narratives that contribute to rape culture and the mass violence women have faced and continue to face at the hands of men … It takes more than saying ‘Islam gave women rights.’ Show me how. Show me how you respect the women in your communities.

To say that Muslims, by and large, champion women's rights is inconsequential when these rights do not materialize in communities where the sheer aesthetic of piety is as good as currency. The mild-mannered and sporadic address on women delivered from behind a lectern, with nary a mention of sexual violence and the ways in which abuse manifests, typifies the ornamental response of our religious institutions — and it is insufficient. The issue of gendered violence is a towering concern, one that should compel our houses of worship towards action.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on issues related to class/poverty, housing rights, healthcare, and organizing. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications including ELLE Magazine, Verso, SPIN Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, Overland Magazine, Polygon, and PASTE Magazine. 

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