According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey of 2015, 1 in 5 women are victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. The majority of sexual assault victims choose not to report. While the research on the prevalence of sexual violence and reporting in Muslim communities is limited, studies indicate that the prevalence of sexual violence in Muslim communities is similar, or slightly higher. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the likelihood of choosing not to report sexual violence is significantly higher in communities of faith and color. Given that Muslims are the most diverse religious minority in North America, this presents several challenges and opportunities to effectively serve their needs; the racialization of Muslims - both within Muslim communities and outside of Muslim communities - is at the forefront of these challenges. I hope to explore some of these key issues that Muslims in the US are facing today and to offer some recommendations to service providers as they work to build more inclusive and intersectional programming and services.
As anti-Muslim racism increases, it is extremely important to address how Islamophobia is impacting women, femmes, nonbinary and trans folks. Islamophobia, in and of itself, has created a heightened sense of anxiety for Muslims navigating public and communal spaces. From the New Zealand attacks to the hateful comments and threats spewed at Muslim public figures, the impacts of Islamophobia are felt communally by those who are visibly Muslim, especially headscarf- or hijab-wearing people. Moreover, increased state surveillance of Muslim men has further created barriers to reporting for Muslims who may be experiencing violence; they are fearful of exposing someone who commits sexual and domestic violence to anti-terrorism prosecution or deportation.
Intra-race relations among Muslim communities in the U.S. have historically been tense. Many communities and mosques continue to be informally segregated, further strengthening the tensions between immigrant and Black communities. Immigrant Muslims have internalized habits of dominant culture and white supremacy and are often unaware of the micro- and macro-aggressions that happen among individuals, families, and communities. Black Muslim women are especially impacted and harmed by the deeply embedded patriarchy, misogyny, and anti-Blackness that is pervasive from every direction. These racial tensions have inevitably contributed to racial bias in Muslim communities, adding to the ways in which Black Muslims are racialized, sexualized, objectified, and marginalized. This inevitably impacts the ways they receive support for violence and oppression experienced, and the ways in which they experience healthcare and social services. Due to the harmful relationship between people of color and police, traditional systems of legal assistance may not always be accessible or desirable to survivors seeking healing and justice. Learn more about Black Islam and Black Muslima Thought.
Although Muslims are extremely diverse with respect to religious practice, those who hold positions of religious authority in most Muslim community spaces are usually traditionally-trained cis-hetersexual men. This has resulted in unequal power dynamics and the misappropriation of religious law or tradition to preserve gender inequity. Muslim women who are deemed “palatable” by their own communities (i.e. those who dress and speak in a certain way, and have specific views) are often uplifted and given more opportunities than those who do not meet those expectations, equating the external characteristics of a woman as their qualification to be in that leadership position. This kind of respectability politics can create additional barriers to help-seeking and services, as it reinforces the “perfect survivor” narrative as well as whose story is worth believing and whose is not.
Patriarchy and misogyny in Muslim communities has reinforced gender stereotypes and created “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binaries that have placed an undue burden on Muslim women to carry. These disproportionate expectations on women to uphold honor and chastity have created resistance to open conversations on sex and relationships, and ultimately have essentially deemed the sexual violence stories of Muslims as virtually nonexistent. Moreover, the resistance to these conversations also exists at the macro level: misogynist efforts that actively work to block or dismantle the work of organizations and grassroots efforts fighting to advance gender justice and prevent gender-based violence.
Overall, research in best practices and HEART fieldwork suggests that there are several gaps for Muslim victims of sexual assault at the individual, community, and institutional levels and that has implications for future practice. While this article is not representative of the entire anti-violence or anti-sexual violence field, the following recommendations are important to consider in the larger movement in shaping advocacy, policy, and legal and direct services and interventions in both mainstream and Muslim communities.
Diversify your teams authentically
In both Muslim and mainstream spaces, Muslim women are often tokenized or denied high-profile leadership positions. Mainstream organizations in the field and Muslim institutions must intentionally invest in the leadership of diverse Muslim women, LGBTQ Muslims, and Muslim survivors in order to effectively serve the needs of Muslim survivors. This includes ensuring that they are compensated fairly.
Commit to intersectional approaches and programming
As the needs of survivors become more diverse, it is clear that programming can no longer use a one-size-fits all approach. Tailoring programming and services to a community’s needs is important to consider. Moreover, co-creating services and programming with community members is key to maximizing impact.
Address anti-blackness within and outside of Muslim communities
Anti-racism and anti-oppression work is essential for all organizations or communities when serving survivors. It isn’t just enough to participate in trainings, but rather take a racial, equitable, and liberational approach. This approach interrogates how white supremacy and dominant culture are ingrained in everyday interactions, as well as the surrounding culture, and teaches individuals how to actively disrupt it. Moreover, it is important to explore one’s own internalized racial oppression and how that too shows up in the work and the people we serve.
First, and foremost: Muslims are experiencing sexual violence at similar rates compared to other communities in the United States. Yet, because rates of reporting are so low, and mainstream agencies do not typically track religious affiliation of their clients, Muslim survivors are being rendered invisible. This results in poor, one-size-fits-all services that are not meeting the unique needs of Muslim communities, and ill-informed policies and lack of funding for programs trying to address the needs of Muslim survivors. As such, it is critical to produce more peer-reviewed research that specifically examines the prevalence of sexual violence in Muslim communities and the barriers to reporting.
Explore options for justice and healing beyond law enforcement
As tensions grow between law enforcement and communities of color and undocumented individuals, and as anti-Muslim rhetoric rises, it is important to explore avenues to justice and healing beyond traditional law enforcement. While some survivors may want to seek justice through traditional legal avenues, others may find restorative and transformative justice models more aligned with their needs. In fact, emerging research suggests that these models have a greater impact on both the person who has been harmed as well as the one who committed the harm, and the likelihood of harm being repeated is reduced. As such, alternative options are critical to build healthy, thriving, and safe communities.
This blog post was published in The Resource 2023 online magazine special issue on Racial Equity in the Movement.
About the Author:
Nadiah Mohajir is the Executive Director for HEART Women & Girls. For over a decade, she has led the organization to provide reproductive justice, sexual health education and gender-based violence awareness programming and advocacy to thousands of individuals, organizations, and campuses across the country. Most recently, she co-authored the first edition of The Sex Talk: A Muslim’s Guide to Healthy Sex and Relationships.