By Lauren Sonnenberg, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Nadiah Mohajir didn’t pay much attention during her sex education classes when she was young. She grew up in a Muslim home in Orland Park, a middle class suburb southwest of Chicago, where she was told to not engage in sexual activity until she was married. When she was younger, she said, she had to decide which message to listen to—what she learned at home or what she learned at school in sex ed. With kids, she said, “one of the messages is discarded.”
Now, as a mother of two in Chicago, Mohajir is the executive director for HEART Women and Girls, a nonprofit she co-founded that is committed to promoting sexual health, with a particular focus on Muslim communities.
Mohajir looks back on her experiences learning about sex as a reflection of a reason Muslim women are confused about sexual mores. This makes them more vulnerable to domestic violence than other women, she believes.
Some of female underreporting of crimes comes also, she says, from a lack of understanding of sexual safety.
In a community that values modesty and privacy regarding sex, Mohajir works to distinguish those values from the shame and silence associated with engaging in conversations about sex and sexual violence.
“Anecdotally in our organization experience in the last six years, if you count the number of assault stories we’ve documented and the number of assault stories that have actually been reported, the underreporting numbers are as high as 85 to 90 percent,” she says.
Community members and experts are trying to address the many contributing factors that are at play.
Some suggest underreporting is due to hierarchical marital relationships or barriers to seeking help outside the community.
Similar to other immigrant communities, Muslim Americans are confronting issues of assimilation into American culture, particularly relating to interactions with police, Arab American journalist Ray Hanania says.
Religious modesty complicates Muslim American trends of domestic violence reporting.
With all the contributing causes, solutions are hard to come by.
Religious teachings can be used to counter religious distortions
Some groups are using religious teachings to shift and reframe cultural norms and to teach healthy family dynamics from within religious perspectives.
Both Mohajir and Salma Abugideiri, a consultant and trainer for the Peaceful Family Projects (PFP) through United Muslim Relief based in Virginia, use religious teachings to discourage violence and encourage what they consider the correct interpretation of the Qur’an.
Mohajir put together a document a few months ago, compiling myths about sexual assault in the Muslim community.
The document uses religious teachings to debunk the myths. One myth is that the Qur’an professes that “it is immodest to talk openly about sex and sexual abuse.” Yet, the document points out that “the Prophet Muhammed encouraged everyone to ask questions and take care of their bodies… The need to uphold privacy and modesty should not be at the expense of one’s personal safety.”
Mohajir notes that a recent controversy in Pakistan is an example of things getting taken out of context. Headlines from all over the world shrieked that the head of a Pakistani Islamic council proposed to allow husbands to “lightly beat” their wives, in response to the liberalization of laws in Pakistan. The liberalized law enacted in March provided in one province some basic protections for women, such as allowing a woman to call a domestic violence abuse hotline after a violent encounter with her husband. The Council of Islamic Ideology wanted to weigh in on the issue before the law expanded beyond the initial province it affected.
Like Mohajir, Abugideiri argues that this Qur’anic verse has been distorted: “I would ask them, so what did the prophet do? Do we have any record of him hitting a woman or child or anybody besides when he might be defending himself on the battlefield?” she asked. “No we don’t have anything. And what did the prophet do to people who beat their wives? He said that was bad and discouraged a woman from marrying a bad man.”
“People will often use religious teachings to justify violence, but what they’re saying isn’t grounded in a particular teaching,” she says.
Other immigrant communities underreport domestic violence too, but Muslim Americans are different
While a reticence to report crimes exists for many immigrant communities, Muslim Americans may have more reason to underreport due to negative stereotypes. “Muslim Americans often do not report crimes because they do not want to be identified as different,” according to Hanania.
Mohajir and Abugideiri echo Hanania’s opinion. Abugideiri says that “people feel like American society views Muslims very negatively and views them as violent people and they don’t want to add more fuel to that.”
It is typical for immigrants to extend historic distrust of government and the police to their American experience, says Rick Oltman, immigration activist and author of “The Underreporting of Crime is Epidemic.” Many immigrants coming to America face issues of assimilation, language barriers and culture shock. They often carry to America a distrust of police that comes from experiences in their home countries, leading to complex relationships with American police and the underreporting of crime, Oltman says.
Oltman also cites the lack of a personal relationship with police as a barrier to reporting crimes. But sometimes it is as simple as language barriers.
When Abugideiri started working with Arabs and Muslims in a multicultural agency at the beginning of her career, most of her clients were not English speaking, so they could not navigate the system on their own.
“If they do not speak English or don’t speak it well, they can’t do anything,” Oltman says.
Coupled with language barriers and a lack of access to an organization of support, like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), to facilitate legal action, Arab and Muslim immigrants are less likely to report other types of crimes, Hanania says.
Privacy plays a role in underreporting
In the Muslim community, women feel pressure not to report crime because they may feel reporting goes against preserving their family, Abugideiri says.
“There are fears encouraged by the broader community, which is that it’s shameful to report things that are in your home. There are fears a woman would be shamed, judged,” she says.
Muslim immigrants bring family relationships and traditions with them to the United States. There often is “the belief that every member is responsible for the behavior of other members, [which] often leads mothers to forget their own needs and desires and instead consider the family’s well-being, reputation and honor,” says Muhammed Haj-Yhaj, a Palestinian researcher on violence against women and wife abuse in Arab communities.
Though some families may talk openly about sex and sexuality, the religious undercurrent is hard to shake.
“Even if in your family there might not be shame in talking to your father about your period. That’s still not something you can talk about in a mosque setting,” Mohajir says. “The general community sense is that we don’t welcome it in public discourse.”
If sex is taboo in public discourse, so too is discussing sexual violence or assault.
“It is not okay, but women are not going to stand up and complain about domestic violence. I would bet a large percentage in the Arab and Muslim community are abused women at different levels who do not complain about it,” Hanania says.
Mohajir is trying to encourage safe and educated sexual encounters, arguing that an open discussion of sex and sexual violence would improve sexual health. When women stay silent, they can also feel guilt and shame, she says.
“Yes we have this cultural and religious identity and that is great and can be empowering, but let’s give you the tools to be safe,” she says. “We want you to feel empowered by whatever sexual health decision you’re making.”
Using religious teachings to educate about sexual safety can be helpful. Some Islamic lessons that encourage forgiveness need to be clarified as not also forgiving crimes.
“We are taught that we should cover the flaws of our fellow believers,” Abugideiri says.
Indeed, Mohajir pointed to a similar idea within Muslim communities, saying “there’s a tradition in Islam that if a friend among you makes a mistake, give them 70 excuses and encourage forgiveness.”
Where Mohajir’s teaching comes in is in separating the idea of forgiveness in Islam from keeping sexual violence private.
“Sexual violence is a crime, not a mistake. Let’s be correct here,” she says.
She pointed to the lack of public displays of affection in Muslim communities to explain why women may feel the need to keep sexual violence secret.
“In the process of trying to promote these concepts of modesty and privacy, they’ve conflated that with shame,” she says.
Through the work of women like Mohajir and Abugideira, there are voices in the community speaking out in favor of greater openness to discuss sex and to use Islamic teachings to draw a distinction between the modesty encouraged by the Qur’an and the crimes prohibited by society.