Abused in Silence: Child Sexual Abuse in Muslim Communities08 Dec 2021
Last week, I attended a conference discussing Child Sexual Abuse in Muslim communities, organised by a number of Muslim organisations (namely, MINAB, Al-Khoei Foundation and Urban Muslimz). Treading on egg shells around the subject of sex is a normal response in our culture, so to me, holding a conversation, let alone a confrence in our local mosque about childhood sexual abuse in the Muslim community and how to tackle it, was daring and astounding. I came to the mosque a little skeptical about how the subject will be handled but also hopeful that there will be real stories and data being addressed. In the past, the only things that I would hear from fellow muslims who wanted to highlight progressive aspects of our religion, was that the Quran prohibited deadly misogynistic practices in Arabia; the practice of burying female babies alive for the crime of having an undesirable gender. However, this conference actively demonstrated religious condemnation of child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, occuring in modern day society; a conversation which I and other members of the audience felt necessary and somewhat overdue.
Cultural norms and honour
Some really interesting insight from the panel of speakers was provided, which raised a possible factor to explain why some predators abuse children, which was the lack of sex education among men in the muslim communitiy. One convicted predator stated that everything he learned about sex was through his friends. To me though, I wonder if attitudes towards women in our religious communities also play a major role in the way that men exploit women, which is how we hold younger girls to a higher moral standard than younger boys through hijab and cautioning them not to tempt men. Perhaps education about consent and personal boundaries would be helpful to explain and reclaim our religious practices. Rather than allowing predators to hijack religious places and abuse religion, we should create more discussion and cultivate an awareness about child abuse, and remove the shame imposed on victims. This reminded me of the last time I talked about this to someone in the community, and their response was to shame and blame the victim for potentially ‘not covering up properly’, or for faking it by not reporting it earlier; which is very manipulative and indicative of another form of abuse, namely, emotional abuse.
I personally felt brave and confident enough to call out honour-based violence which victims are likely to face, because I was surrounded by panel members who were aware of the real life implications of child sexual abuse.
People from child services, the mental health profession, interfaith organisations and the former Chief Crown Prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, attended the conference, which was very assuring, as the subject matter seemed to be in safe-hands. I was tired of people mishandling these sensitive matters by reemphasising the necessities of hijab, gender segregation and the sactity of marriage, because I knew that these factors were not adequate safeguards against child abuse; we needed to acknolwegde and address the victim blaming attitudes we have as a culture (like many cultures) and the way predators operate.
I personally liked the diverse panel members, because it felt like there was a combination of criminal justice, social justice and spiritual justice which provides a holistic confrontation of this sensitive and complex topic, because the impact of child sexual abuse (even all kinds of abuse) is life shattering. It was very interesting to hear from Rabi Natan Levy talk about the efforts of the Jewish community in making synagogues safer places for children and how Jewish parents predator-proof spaces. I found it to be excellent to have posters about sexual abuse around mosques, but I also think that having childline numbers available for children to privately contact or use their websites to make disclosures in confidence when they cannot do so publicly, would be a good addition.
Just to echo Mr Afzal’s words ‘this is an issue very close to my heart’, this should be at the heart of our mission as Muslims, because protecting and defending the most vulnerable members of society definitely is a spiritual obligation. I think that child safety should be at the heart of all of our worship and practice, which is why I chose to attend Al-Khoei mosque, especially since mosques are required to provide safe and open spaces for vulnerability and safety to pray and spiritually heal.
Various matters were raised, including anonymous testimonies of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and data illustrating the likelihood of perpetrators being male than female, although it was speculated that this was due to men traditionally occupying positions of power in religious spheres. However, it is the case that boys can be and have been sexually abused by perpetrators, be it men or women. The toxic expectations on men, requiring them to toughen up and being perceived as naturally libidinous, can prevent male victims from speaking up and being believed.
Before I attended the conference, I quickly typed on my phone all the possible side-effects and illnesses of all forms of abuse in childhood, especially child sexual abuse, and I felt overwhelmed by the amount of things to write, as the implications of such abuse, especially when it is topped by religious-based abuse and victim blaming culture, is manifold. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex-Post Traumatic Disorder are two disorders that came to mind when I was at the conference and listening to other people ask questions about ‘what to do’ about this societal poison called sexual abuse of children, and I thought about a book called ‘The Body Keeps a Score’ by Bessel Van Der Kolk, which explains and exemplifies how trauma stores and lodges in our bodies, causing us to feel the emotional scars and pain as a very physical experience. Thus, it makes me wonder how a religious community which values obligatory ablution, prayer and supplication which are very spiritual and physical practices that activate the body and soul, does not focus on this issue as much, even though yet sexual abuse can scar and damage our spirit and body. This is also why I felt like having that conference at a mosque, where you could feel the presence of an omnipresent God and whispers of worship, to be so crucial and appropriate. It is further crucial, that places of worship and religious schools provide safe spaces for people and especially children, as it is a moral duty and particularly since spiritual healing could facilitate the recovery process for sexual abuse survivors.
Another product of abuse is that it breaks bonds between people in the community, as men become viewed with suspicion and may overly police themselves in innocent situations, and young girls and women lose their ability to trust. This was also a point raised by one of the audience members, who expressed caution while interacting with children, for fear of being unjustly accused.
We want mosques and Madrasas to be a place of prayer, not for preying. In the words of one of the panel members, you can be religiously conservative and still talk about sex, as this will preserve the sacred nature of our institutions by preventing the abuse of sexual wellbeing. Ensuring that consent is well taught and respected and that victims are believed, rather than blamed, and that public authorities are trusted to help deliver justice is important.