Sexual abuse and Islam
By Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS
Islamabad: Human rights activists, NGOs, politicians, and clerics alike have sought to draw attention to the sexual abuse of children and women in Pakistan. Yet statistics indicate that this kind of abuse is on the increase and that most of it is still going unreported. Moreover, there is not yet sufficient legislation addressing such offenses. At present there is no more important issue facing Pakistan and the Muslim world, and if human rights are to be protected for the millions living there, this problem needs to be addressed.
Growing up in Pakistan, one becomes increasingly numb to the many hardships faced by its population on a regular basis. But I recently came across some Western authors who suggested that Muslims sexually abuse their own children, wives, daughters, cousins, and so forth on a regular basis. As a Muslim, I could easily take offence at such statements. After all, I could cite numerous sexually exploitative situations in the West that involve sexual abuse and incest.
The reason I do not take offence, though, is that if I take a close look at our society, I can find only a few cases of sexual abuse and rape in which the victim was provided with therapy, the culprit was prosecuted, and the law enforced. In most cases, I can only see the victim’s parents or loved ones being tortured by the victim’s suffering and the whole matter being under rug swept. What I do see in the West is that if a victim of sexual abuse and a perpetrator are identified, the repercussions are harsh. This stark contrast explains why I don’t feel offended by comments which depict all Muslims as sexual predators.
I can honestly say that sexual abuse is actively hidden in Pakistani society, and in Muslim society generally. I also know that a large percentage of the people I have grown up with have experienced some form of it. Hiding a crime that happens in our homes every day in Muslim society in order to “save face” is just as bad as committing the heinous act itself. It is a well known fact that victims of sexual abuse may take decades to heal psychologically; to force a victim to suppress the damage done to her psyche is, therefore, to participate in abuse and to intensify the victim’s pain.
I can say with a high degree of certainty that not all Muslim men rape their daughters, sisters, or mothers. Yet by giving in to societal pressures which do not allow fathers and brothers to openly hold perpetrators of abuse responsible, they contribute to the mental torture of the victim. The pathetic state of Pakistani law concerning rape and sexual molestation makes things even worse. Consider the notorious case of Zainab, a blind woman who was sentenced to death by stoning during Zia-ul-haq’s regime for committing adultery because she was unable to identify her rapists. When it comes to such cases, Pakistani laws are themselves absuve. But those of us who would like to see the laws changed refuse to raise a national outcry, for we fear the wrath of the religious masses.
To hesitate to seek justice because one is concerned for one’s safety is not conducive to a society’s ability to protect its victims. Many a Muslim cleric proclaims that the complete implementation of sharia law in Pakistan will rid the country of these crimes. Yet a recent study by the Initiator Human Development Foundation in Karachi found that 21 percent of students at madrassas (Islamic religious schools) have been sexually abused by their teachers, that 52 percent have been sexually harassed, that 28 percent have complained of unpleasant touching, and that 20 percent have complained of forced sex.
In my research on the topic I spoke to Ayesha, a woman in her 30s who comes from a well educated and prosperous family. She said, “I don’t like praying. When I was very young the maulvi [Islamic teacher] who came to our house to teach us used to molest me while I was praying – after telling me that I wasn’t allowed to let anything distract me while I pray.” Obviously, the entire act of prayer has been tainted for this woman.
Another woman, Amna (22), said, “One of the most amazing experiences for me was gazing at the Kabba for the first time when I went to Saudi Arabia as a teenager on Umrah [pilgrimage] with my family. That entire experience was put in the background, though, by the fact that when I went out with my family to the shops, covered from head to toe in abbayah, I was groped and molested. You come back feeling like an animal.”
I could cite countless similar incidents experienced by members of my own circle of friends. The consistent theme in all their stories is that the harassment and abuse was concealed. Whether the act is committed by a cousin, uncle, house servant, or stranger, the victim is likely to be subjected to further abuse and emotional torment if she opens her mouth about it.
In Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s tribal areas the disgusting practice of bacchabazee is an accepted form of entertainment. Wealthy tribal heads and businessmen buy the services of fair-skinned boys as young as 10 years old. Dressed up as girls, they dance with bells on their feet and are raped on a regular basis. According to clinical psychologist Kamran Ahmad, this is widespread:
“There is a lot of repression of sexuality, so what happens is that it shows up in unhealthy forms. You rarely find healthy expressions of sexuality in everyday life, so sexual abuse becomes very common.”
Islamic culture, coupled with the corrupted ancient culture of these regions, does not allow for the open and natural mingling of men and women at young ages or even after marriage. For example, it is a common occurrence in Pakistan for many married couples to be sexually active only to produce children. Many doctors come across married women who exhibit the symptoms of diseases linked to a celibate lifestyle.
I once asked a female Islamic scholar what the Islamic stance is on sex. She proceeded to tell me that true Muslim sex should occur only between marital couples under the following circumstances: “In the dark, without removing the woman’s shirt and only lowering the lower garments to the knees.”
When I speak to fellow Muslims about these problems, many don’t even identify them as distinctively Muslim. They view them, rather, as having arisen because of a failure to implement shariah law, as a product of the liberal western media, and so on. Not many Muslims are willing and able to recognize that these problems are the result of repression and of perverse interpretations of “correct Islamic sexual behaviour”.
I asked the above-mentioned female scholar if she thought that Islam repressed sexuality. She said no, because “In the afterlife, men specifically are promised a harem of 72 virgins for themselves. And a Muslim man is allowed to ask his wife to bed anytime he wants, even during prayer.” The ubiquity of such views on the part of Muslims, regardless of which variety of Islam they subscribe to, makes it impossible to deny the misogynism intrinsic in Islam as it is popularly preached.
Sexual repression leads to unhealthy expressions of sexuality amongst men and women. Furthermore, the common practice in the Muslim world of telling the victims of sexual abuse to “forget about it” might well explain why many people in the West describe Muslims as inherently abusive in their relationships. It is time for us Muslims to take a long hard look at ourselves and to change the core values that place “submission” and “honour” above all other virtues.