interviewer | hana qwfan
Sexual violence has been an issue that is rarely ever addressed within our Muslim communities. Often times, when it is addressed, it is often misunderstood and mistreated. It has become a stigma in many localities, and because of the taboo surrounding it, it often hurts our victims instead of providing them with support. I had the amazing opportunity to interview the wonderful Mahreen Alam, a representative of HEART (Health Education, Advocacy, Research and Training) Women and Girls, back in November of 2017. HEART is an organization that aims to bring aid and support to victims of sexual violence within our Muslim community. Along with these objectives, the organization also aims to promote sexual health through education, research, and training. They perform a fantastic job of breaking the stigma, validating our victims, and bringing overall awareness to the issues that Muslim communities are too afraid to discuss. The nonprofit organization of female empowerment is based in Chicago, but you will find many resources across the US and Canada. I myself have learned so much from this organization, and I’m confident that you all can learn something too.
A special thank you to Mahreen, who I first briefly met at MSA West’s Servant Leader Summit this past August when she delivered a presentation on HEART organization. She has been incredibly kind and captivating during this exchange. Without further ado, here is the interview:
Q: What would be the most important things to do when a loved one approaches you about their sexual harassment/abuse experience for the first time?
Believe them when they come forward.
It takes an incredible amount of courage for a victim to report sexual violence. A majority of sexual assaults, approximately 68%, are never reported to law enforcement. Research suggests that this number is even higher in communities of color - anywhere from 85%-90% of survivors do not disclose. We need to support survivors, and make them feel safe to seek resources, as this is crucial for their healing and gives others the strength and hope to come forward in the future.
What you say to a survivor can have a profound effect on a their ability to heal. Validating a survivor’s experience and feelings by telling them things like “I’m sorry this happened,” “it’s ok to feel angry,” and “you’re safe here” may seem insignificant, but can have a tremendous impact on a survivor.
Empower your loved one.
Sexual assault and other sexual violence crimes take away the individual’s power. Encourage your loved one to trust his/her instincts, but do not pressure him/her to do anything he/she is not yet ready to. do. It may take time for survivors to seek help, as they feel as though they have lost control over their life. Meet them where they are [already] rather than tell them what they need to be doing. Giving them back that control is crucial so encourage them to make decisions that help them move forward.
Understand barriers to disclosing. Survivors find it difficult to disclose. They may feel guilt or shame, or fear their perpetrator. They may be worried they won’t be believed, or that they’ll be blamed for the abuse. Understanding barriers to disclosure can help make you a better supporter. Upon disclosing, often victims face many barriers including media scrutiny, retaliation against themselves and their families, and re-traumatization.
Create a safe space.
One of the first aspects of a survivor’s life to be compromised after the occurrence of sexual violence is his/her emotional and physical safety. Talk to your loved one about what makes him/her feel safe in their surroundings, interactions, and relationships, and then work together to create that space of refuge in your home. Make sure you enlist a team of trusted individuals who can commit to spending some time with them.
Be mindful of the unique challenges that Muslims face.
Because of Islam’s emphasis on modesty, privacy, and purity, many Muslim survivors may feel an unusual amount of shame, guilt, and self-blame. They may also be preoccupied with anxieties regarding the future, such as their ability to get married and live normal lives. The community may also engage in certain forms of victim-blaming using the above as motivations. Try your best to minimize these emotions and explain to your loved one that there are a number of strong Islamic principles that are supportive of survivors, and that emphasis on purity and privacy never supersedes the safety of another individual.
Ensure that both you and the individual you are supporting have a plan for self-care. When an individual is dealing with a crisis as emotionally draining as sexual assault, it is easy to forget or neglect one’s own self-care. Emotional self-care is also crucial and can mean different things for different people, such as seeing a licensed counselor, journaling, or partaking in meditation or other relaxation exercises. Ensure that your loved one is engaging in emotional self-care on a consistent basis.
Engage in your own self-care. Supporting a loved one through this process involves vicarious trauma. It is easy to get wrapped up in supporting your loved one. It is crucial to make time for yourself as well. If you do not take care of yourself, you will be unable to sustain taking care of others.
Q: What are some things that we can do in order to clear misconceptions about sexual harassment within the Muslim community (especially since it's considered taboo)?
The Muslim community is not immune to the struggles that any other community faces. There is a serious lack of access to culturally-sensitive information and resources, and additional apprehension of seeking out those tools due to the shame associated with discussing sex and sexual violence. That is the basis of why HEART Women & Girls was founded - in order to break this silence. HEART seeks to provide a safe space to come together—both virtually and physically—to learn about our bodies, exchange health information, and become resources of health information for each other and our communities.
Education is key; for far too long there has been a lack of culturally-sensitive and accurate sexual health education. Make a commitment today to educating yourself and your families on sexual violence. HEART provides in-person sexual health workshops at your local mosque, college Muslim Student Association (MSA), or even community center, as well as an online virtual resource center catered to all ages from adolescents to adults. This is a great way to provide culturally-sensitive sexual health information and even open up individuals to resources they didn’t even know that had access to!
Change in our families and our homes will come as soon as we begin to have open conversations about abuse and sex, and as soon as we empower our children to protect themselves and speak up if they are victimized. Have safe, open conversations about sexual violence in your homes, mosques, and communities at large, including reaching out to social workers, law enforcement authorities, media, and public institutions as necessary.
Commit to bringing resources and tools to build and empower your community. Typically the leadership and staff at faith institutions are often the first responders to incidents of sexual violence. Hence, it is absolutely crucial for them to have the know-how on the policies, procedures, tools and expertise to be able to respond to survivors and allegations in a victim-centric manner that is free from stigma. There are many organizations who provide these trainings such as HEART and Peaceful Families Project. Change at the community level can only happen with an attitude and commitment to challenge stigmas and behaviors that enable violence and do not hold perpetrators accountable. As a collective community, we must replace blame, shame and stigma with openness, support and healing.
Work to create empowered, inclusive, and safe spaces. Build the kind of space in your community in which individuals will know that their privacy will be honored and survivors feel supported, empowered, and safe. Understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and the challenges they face in such circumstance are very complex. It’s important to have built pillars of support and safety so that survivors are able to care of themselves and their families well before the professional, legal and social services enter the equation.
Do not silence survivors. Validate and affirm, do not question the validity of their story. Don’t dismiss their feelings. Give them permission to feel the emotions they are feeling – whether it’s anger, sadness, frustration.
Q: Can you give me any resources that I can provide in the article in case someone is experiencing this? Such as contact information to the organization, office locations, etc. ?
Yes! There is a wealth of information that is accessible online the HEART virtual resource center at heartwomenandgirls.org. First of all, you should know and utilize the resources in your community. There are a number of resources in the community that are extremely useful as you help support your loved one, such as:
Rape crisis centers
Local and national hotline
Sexual assault therapists & counselors on campus.
UC Berkeley CARE Advocates’ Office: can be reached at the Main Office: (510) 642-1988 and the 24/7 Care Line: (510) 643-2005
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to inform us about in regards to HEART?
The opportunity to be involved with an organization that sticks so strongly to its values and works so strictly for the community has been one of the most growing and impactful experiences for me. Especially now, it has become apparent that we as individuals need to be more committed as ever to being agents of change within our communities.
HEART is looking for college interns! If you are interested, be sure to contact either me at email@example.com or Sahar Pirzada firstname.lastname@example.org. HEART also offers other ways to get involved! If you feel as though you would like to work as a trainer and give in person workshops, work in research or advocacy, email Sahar Pirzada at email@example.com. Be sure to subscribe to their newsletter to keep up to speed with this inspiring team of determined women.
This interview was written as a companion to the writer’s print article, “Sexual Harassment and the Muslim Community,” published in the Fall 2017 Print Issue of Threads Magazine, available here. Flip to Page 28 to read her intriguing piece.
headshot courtesy | mahreen alam