Teen Skepchick Interviews: Sadiqah, Part 2
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.
This is part 2 of my interview with Sadiqah, a formerly devout Muslim woman who began questioning Islam while living in a Muslim country and, after several years, left the country and her religious beliefs behind, returning to the western U.S. with her children.
In part 1 of this interview (here), she described her personal journey from religious woman to apostate. Today, Sadiqah discusses Amina, the Moroccan girl who killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist, and what we can do (and just as important, not do) to help abused Muslim women and girls. Then she broadens her scope to talk about the lives of Muslim women and girls in general.
In part 3, here, Sadiqah talks about sexual identity in Muslim culture, discusses the fine line we walk in the name of religious tolerance, and dispels common myths and stereotypes about Muslims, particularly women.
We’ve been talking about the horrific situation in Morocco with Amina, the young girl who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist. Is this kind of forced marriage common?
I have no idea if this is common or not. How would anyone know? Rape is such a shame and so taboo that a rape victim who wants to stay alive often doesn’t report it—even to her own mother. It is very common to hear stories of women or girls who are raped by neighbors or family members and then killed to “purify” the family (overseas, not in the U.S.). Sometimes, women and girls will kill themselves rather than live with the shame of being raped or the fear of being found out.
Even though Islamic law considers rape a crime punishable by death, in reality, a woman who is raped is thought of as having “asked for it” or as having consented and claiming rape later to assuage her own guilt. At the same time, even when a family harms a girl or woman who was raped, it is not uncommon for men who sexually brutalize women to be beaten or harmed by her male relatives. It happens. People do hate rapists, at least in theory, just like they do anywhere else. And many people do cherish and love their female relatives, just like they do anywhere else.
Sometimes it isn’t the father, mother, and brother who are a threat to the woman or girl but an off-kilter cousin or uncle who decides she needs to die. It could be that Amina’s family thought they were saving her reputation and their own from extended family members by having her marry him. It could be that they thought they would prevent a blood feud between two families. Or it could be that they hated her for being raped and figured she really wanted it or that she was guilty of not fighting back, and they were now punishing her by making her marry him.
I want to add that this sort of thinking is not limited to rural or uneducated families. I have seen this threat to women and girls in modern, urban, educated, relatively nonreligious families like my own (who do not even acknowledge my existence anymore because of my apostasy). I have a dear cousin who to this day has hidden a horrific sexual assault or rape (she could never bring herself to say what exactly happened) that she suffered at the hands of another cousin because we know that her parents and brothers would see her dead.
Blaming girls and women for being raped or assaulted is as common in Muslim cultures as it is anywhere else, only perhaps a little more extreme. Instead of “What were you doing outside alone, at night?” they might say, “Why were you even talking to your uncle/cousin/the storekeeper?” or “This is what happens when women go out without a man around.”
Forced marriages are common, period. Forced marriage to a rapist, I don’t know, because rape is so underreported and taboo. Arranged marriages are the norm.
What can we do to help girls and women who are disempowered and abused in Muslim communities?
Listen to the voices of Muslim women—and formerly Muslim women. There are many “ex-Muslim” women of different nationalities, levels of education, ages, origins, and experiences who, in the past 5 years, took to blogging to tell their stories. Over the years, most of them have been silenced. Many blogs that contained crucial information about real women’s experiences in the Muslim community and their intellectual and spiritual struggles are gone forever now.
One reason is threats and intimidation from the Muslim community but another is the lack of support from the atheist and skeptic communities, particularly atheist and skeptical women. I think networking between formerly Muslim women and other atheist women could be improved.
I believe Blag Hag’s list of atheist women bloggers had several formerly Muslim women on it, and all of those blogs have now gone totally silent. Even worse, because of the threats, many of these women completely delete their blogs so that women in similar situations can’t even read the archives for those “A-ha!” moments.
Many “Muslims” in America don’t pray, don’t believe in the tenets of the religion, and want nothing to do with it but keep the label to appease their families. A great many Muslims have also openly apostatized in the past few years, particularly converts (one study, conducted by a Muslim sociologist, found a 75% apostasy rate among converts). So I think that giving these voices a space is important at this particular moment.
Do not discount a woman’s voice because of her racial, ethnic, or national origins, or privilege someone born into a Muslim family over someone who converted, or someone of non-Western origin over a Westerner (and vice versa). The stories and experiences of Western Muslim women may not be as “extreme” as those of women in Afghanistan, but the experiences of individuals or groups should be looked at in the context in which they occur.
Telling Muslim women from the West who have experienced abusive relationships, forced marriages, and other things that their situation isn’t as bad as women in Afghanistan because of x, y, z is erasing those women and their experiences in the societies and contexts in which we live.
I also want to suggest that readers get involved in making sure that local abuse hotlines and domestic violence shelters have made efforts to reach out to the Muslim community and make the presence of their services known. To my knowledge, the rate of domestic violence among Muslims in the US is about the same as it is in the general population. However, a handful of Muslim women who have tried to open shelters in the US have not only faced severe financial difficulties, they’ve also faced harassment, slander, and death threats as well as indifference from the Muslim community itself (and this has been reported on in the media).
Workers should become familiar with the religious and cultural practices and ideas of the Muslims who live in their area. Some towns might have a large population of Iranian Shia Muslims, and so their religious ideas and cultural practices are going to be different than in cities with a large African American Sunni population.
Domestic violence in the North American Muslim community is one of the many things that is erased from the agenda with “but there is so much suffering in Palestine and war in Iraq, we can’t focus on special interests now. Women’s rights will come when truly Islamic governments are established.” Meanwhile, many imams (religious leaders of a masjid, or mosque), preach that women should stay home and work it out.
In Islam it is a big sin to talk about “the secrets of your husband,” and so it is hard for women to ask for help or even tell a friend what’s going on at home. Imams will get up in the minbar (pulpit) and say that shelters are there to rip apart Muslim families or to encourage women to “tell their secrets.” They scare women by saying that the shelters want to secularize them or that they will be forced to go to church if they try to get help at a shelter.
So if there is a Muslim shelter in your city, and there are only about three or four that I know of in the U.S., give them money and volunteer. People who volunteer at shelters and for abuse hotlines (including child abuse and sexual abuse hotlines) need to become aware of Muslim taboos and basic practices, and they need to make sure that Muslims know that they are there to help them, not to take their religion away from them.
How are women treated in Muslim communities in general? Does this differ a lot depending on sect, country, or other factors?
Sect, country, cultural background, rural/urban, class, and education level all play a part. The way women are treated in Pakistan is very different from how they are treated in Malaysia. The treatment of Muslim women in North American communities differs from place to place. I would say, however, that some generalities apply to the treatment of Muslim women the world over.
Women are considered second class, despite passionate protests to the contrary. The truth is borne out by a reading of the Quran, Sunnah, and Islamic legal rulings that influence how a masjid is run and how a family and community organizes itself. Many of the “rights” given to women and girls are qualified by other passages or by later rulings.
And people can say all they want that they no longer adhere to traditional rulings or that the scholars were wrong or whatever it is they say now. The reality is that when it comes to women and girls, suddenly we all follow the tradition or we “can’t fight it” or “there are more important things that Muslims have to challenge and women can come later.”
Or, most commonly, that we have to accept that the restrictions placed on women and girls by the Islamic sources are the only true way, the only acceptable way, and that we, as people existing in modern society, have become so deviant that we can’t recognize how far from God’s intentions we’ve gotten by fighting for equality.
In what specific ways are women treated as second class?
The Quran places women’s testimony in court as worth half that of men. A woman or girl inherits, at most, half of what a male inherits. Women’s menstruation and postnatal bleeding is termed a disease and pollution, and women are unable to participate in some essential religious practices during this time.
Women do not have the same rights to end a marriage that men do. A man can end a marriage for any reason or no reason at all. He can end a 20-year marriage by uttering a formula that takes less than 30 seconds to complete. A woman has to apply for an end of the marriage to an Islamic judge, has to have “a good reason,” and often has to pay her husband to “release her,” and the judge may still decline to grant the divorce, even in cases of abuse.
Although we do not have Islamic courts here, religious people are still going to appeal to their religious leaders to act in their stead on this matter, and it is very common for an imam to tell the woman to just “try harder” and to be “more patient” with the husband, even in terrible situations.
Women do not have the same rights to custody that a man has, not in theory and certainly not in practice (under Islamic courts). Women do not have the spiritual authority that is granted to men, and women are expected to bear the burden of men’s sexuality and of the honor of the Muslim community in general.
In some masjids, women aren’t permitted to speak. In most of them, women must pray in basements, balconies, side rooms, or other areas that aren’t lit, are smelly, are small, don’t have heat or a/c, etc. Some masjids do not permit women to enter at all.
And none of this is changing? Not even in “modern” or more secular communities?
Muslims, including young Muslim men who are quite at home at their secular universities, make constant excuses for this, such as “We can’t expect immigrants/older people to know better.” Islam is a “complementarian” religion, meaning that it justifies the mistreatment of women and girls by saying that God created men and women differently and for different purposes, and that it’s okay to discourage girls from education or women from working because they were meant to marry and have children.
If women can’t enter the mosque to pray and be part of their community, the excuse is that they aren’t required to pray in the mosque and that they should thank Allah he was so kind to them for this. In this worldview, it is up to men to protect and honor women and girls and protect their rights. If a man abuses his privilege, women are expected to suffer and “offer it up” and look forward to being rewarded in the afterlife, rather than fighting for their rights in the here and now.
All of this doesn’t mean that Muslim women aren’t allowed to vote, or go to university, or work, because Muslim women all over the world do these things. It just means that by and large, Muslims happily hold on to a patriarchal view of the world that dismisses “equality” as a modern, secular innovation that is ungodly—even when they live in or are from places like the United States.
Photographs by New Media Norma Rae, McKay Savage, Steve Evans, Meena Kadri, James Gordon, Daniel Zanini H., Danumurthi Mahendra, and DXfoto.com.