16 Jun Ep. 7: Nadiah Mohajir, Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Assault
Nadiah Mohajir, MPH, is a public health professional, co-founder, and Executive Director of HEART ( Sex education and advocacy for Muslims | HEART To Grow), a sexual health and sexual violence prevention organization for Muslims. Since 2009 HEART has been supporting survivors of sexual assault and educating the Muslim community about research-based solutions to prevention and risk-reduction. In this conversation Nadiah describes the barriers victims face to disclosing abuse and how friends, family, and others can provide helpful support to those who do share their painful experiences of sexual violation.
Readings and resources mentioned in this episode:
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (click here to view book)
HEART Resource Library (Click here to access)
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
Ep. 7 Nadiah Mohajir, Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Assault
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Hello. Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Hurma Project Podcast, a show where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. I am Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Hurma Project, which I direct with my friend and partner Mihad Fahmy, a human rights lawyer and workplace investigator, and a lecturer at Huron University College, where I am also Chair of Islamic studies.
Hurma is an Islamic legal term signifying the divinely granted inviolability of the human person from abuse, assault and exploitation. In this podcast, we speak with experts from a variety of fields about how to prevent and respond to violations against all those who are present in Muslim spaces.
More information about us can be found on the Hurma Project website, Hurmaproject.com, where you may also leave us feedback through the contact form. Transcriptions of the podcast are also provided on the website. In this episode of the Hurma project podcast, we speak with sister Nadiah Mohajir a public health professional and co-founder and executive director of HEART whose mission is to ensure that all Muslims have the resources, language, and choice to nurture sexual health and to confront sexual violence. Nadiah has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois in Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree in public policy studies from the University of Chicago. HEART was founded in 2009 by sister Nadiah and other Muslim women who were hearing from their community that the sexual health information they were getting from mainstream sources did not always meet their religious and cultural needs. The information available in the Muslim community, on the other hand, was often laden with misinformation and used fear and shame-based approaches, which they saw as blocking access to accurate information that could support good health and good relationships, as well as impeding the prevention of sexual violence.
I asked sister Nadiah, why fear and shame create such barriers. Before we get in the conversation, I would like to let you know that we will be speaking about sexual violence in general terms and also, we will refer to a specific case of sexual violence by a religious leader.
[SHOW MELODY FADES OUT]
Nadiah Mohajir: I think shame and fear are not helpful in preventing sexual violence, first and foremost, because if you look at clinical studies on any number of issues that are considered public health, [such as] fear-based sex education models, you will see that research actually shows that they are not as effective as the models that come in and provide the information in a nonjudgmental and more comprehensive way. And instilling fear in people really just backfires in a lot of ways. It creates a sort of silence and stigma around the topic itself. So if we have created such fear around sexual violence, then people feel hesitant to actually step forward and actually talk about it in a way that’s open. They don’t feel like they can do it without being accused or without being asked “Oh, did this happen to you?” and things like that. And so it puts people in a very uncomfortable and vulnerable space. And when you use shame, I think it also instills even further silence, especially for the victims that may be involved who haven’t done anything wrong. But because of the way the communities around them have been talking about, or not talking about, rather, sexual violence and using sort of shame-based approaches in language and messaging around sexual violence, it makes people very on-guard to actually share that that may have been an experience that they had to suffer through. For the people who are living on the margins, it’s exceptionally hard for them because they already do not have community, right? They already have been experiencing a lot of judgment, a lot of shame, a lot of perhaps ostracization from the community and isolation from the community. And so for them to come forward and say, “This happened to me on a date,” or “This happened to me during my premarital relationship,” they will further be experiencing that blame and isolation and almost like a, “you deserved it” kind of rhetoric that they will experience from the community. The folks that perhaps are not considered on the margins and they’re in there in the community, I think for them, it’s different. I think for them, the feelings of shame are because of the way that we talk about folks on the margins and because of the way that we blame the folks on the margins that are coming forward with their violence, I think for them, it’s also hard for them to come forward because it’s like “people are going shame me too, they’re going to find a reason to blame me.” Now, I also want to point out that it doesn’t matter who you are. A lot of the times what Muslim survivors have shared with me is it, it doesn’t matter how practicing they are or not, they were blamed for their assault, right? Like “You weren’t wearing your hijab properly” or maybe you shouldn’t have been out late at night” or even if it was in the most open-and-shut cases [and] all the rules were being followed where I was in the house with only my mihram men and all of that, I think even in that moment, a lot of survivors have shared with me that, even in that moment they were blamed.
Mihad Fahmy: So Nadiah picking up on this idea of the “perfect victim,” I think one thing that we’ve all come across is questioning why that victim did not come forward earlier, right? So in this kind of perfect profile that many people expect when they hear a story or a narrative come out is that the victim came forward almost immediately after the instance of abuse, and we all know that that’s often not the case. And so questions arise about why she took so long to come forward, whether it be months or years or whatever the case may be. So I’m wondering if you can walk us through some of the barriers to disclosure. I know there’s a very helpful video on the HEART website from the 2017 sexual assault awareness month that talks about these themes. So I’m wondering if you can walk us through some of those barriers.
Nadiah Mohajir: So there are actually a lot of barriers that victims experienced when having to disclose. So there’s another resource on our website that is a handout that actually kind of depicts visually the barriers that a victim faces at — again, looking at every level of society, right?— so at the individual level, the family level, the community level, [and] the institutional level. And I think what’s powerful about that document is when you turn it over and you see what examples of those barriers are at every level, you’ll see the first bullet on every level is not being believed. So the point of that is to demonstrate that even if you overcome the individual barriers or the personal barriers that you may be experiencing as a victim to come forward, you are now going to face barriers in your family. Once you overcome those, you are going to face barriers in your community. Once you overcome those, you’re going to face barriers at your institution, if this happened at an institution, and so on and so forth. And the fact that not being believed is that every single step of the process is something that I like to really uplift and demonstrate as one of the biggest barriers that survivors are facing and why it is so exhausting to be in the process of coming forward, because you are always met with disbelief where people are questioning, “are you sure that’s really what happened?”,“I don’t believe that because you’re the person that you’re accusing is so good, so famous, so rich, so powerful, so respectful, so religious,” right? And so that in and of itself not being believed every time you come forward is something that is a very big barrier for folks to constantly be in practice of.
A few other personal barriers include, for example, being afraid of the person who’s harmed you. So this may be somebody who’s threatened you and is saying, “if you tell someone I will fire you from your job. I will stop supporting your family financially and what not,” right? So they fear the person who’s harmed them. They also may love the person who’s harmed them. The person who’s harmed them may be somebody who is a relative, who is a partner, who is a beloved supporter of the family. so there may be feelings of love, which can cause confusion of like, why would somebody who loves me do this to me?. And then of course, there are feelings of self-blame. So, what did I do that caused this? And maybe I deserve these feelings of self-worth, especially if the grooming process entailed both building trust and like praising them, but also manipulating them emotionally and reminding them that you’re nothing without me. “Nobody else would love you, like I do” things like that. So there are feelings of self-worth that are involved.
Moving to the different levels then: the family, the community, the legal barriers—all of that sort of exacerbates because now once you’ve overcome your own feelings of fear or love or self-blame or whatever, and now you’re telling your family, now your family may have their own concerns. They may not believe you. They may shame you. They may blame you. They may ask you to be silent because the person that’s harmed you as somebody who’s really important in the family, or they may ask you to remain silent because you’re not married and they want you to get married and they’re fearing that you know your marriage prospects might be sort of compromised and so on and so forth.
So moving forward with the community, if you want to come forward to your community, then you’re afraid that you might be socially isolated from the community and gossip will happen. And all of these additional sort — “are you breaking up the community?” especially if it’s a tight knit community.
Legal barriers: now we know that if survivors do go to the police, that is also opening a whole different can of worms because the investigation itself can be months, if not years long. And once lawyers are involved, it can also be very retraumatizing, especially if the defense lawyers are trying to pick apart, your credibility as a witness or your credibility as a victim.
Mihad Fahmy: Right. Thank you so much for that. I’m just wondering if you could distill that for us a little bit further. So recognizing that sexual violence can be one form of spiritual abuse, would you say that there are any barriers, perhaps ones that you’ve already discussed or, or others that we haven’t touched upon that are unique to victims of spiritual abuse?
Nadiah Mohajir: Yes, absolutely. I think, you know, I think especially in Muslim communities, spiritual abuse and sexual violence can sort of intersect and do intersect a lot. I think one of the biggest barriers to victims of sexual violence in Muslim communities is a spiritual shaming or a misuse of religious tradition to sort of silence victims or protect perpetrators. So one of the ways the most common ways I’ve seen is when somebody who comes forward and says, “this happened to me and such and such Imam or such and such religious leader has done this to me.” Oftentimes they are accused of first and foremost, of causing fitna in the community, then they are accused of not giving 70 excuses. So for example, if there is a situation where somebody comes forward and they say, this happened to me and this Muslim person did this to me. And then now you’re a third-party in the community or it happened at the mosque, and so folks are talking about it. One of the biggest ways that people shy away from these conversations is “let’s not accuse anyone right now. You’re not giving him 70 excuses and we don’t know what really happened,” right? So it’s really kind of misusing some spiritual traditions to say “we can’t accuse anyone and therefore we’re just not going to talk about it.”
Mihad Fahmy: Right.
Nadiah Mohajir: So that’s one way. Another way that we’ve seen an intersect is from positions of power. So really thinking about the Imam or other like scholar or somebody with some sort of powerful position in the community using that to sort of gain the trust of their students or their congregants and then engaging in, for example, secret marriages and other ways of…especially if you look at the patterns of that, a lot of times the folks that they may sort of build those relationship with are women who are already isolated from the community, are women who may not have other family, are women who may be previously divorced, or maybe converts who don’t know—who are just learning about the faith. And that is really sort of a common way that Imams and other folks of religious authority have misused their position to participate and engage in this kind of behavior.
Mihad Fahmy: Right. So we are going to get to a discussion about a specific case of spiritual abuse, but for now, I just want to take you back to the video that I referred to, the 2017 video on your website. Because I thought it was really interesting at the end of going through the barriers to disclosure, the narrator says, in terms of “what can you do?” right? So many people get very overwhelmed when they hear all of these barriers to disclosure and they think, well, what can I do as an ally, as a supporter so that the narrator says “you don’t have to be a police officer, social worker, or activist to take a stand against sexual violence. Here are five things you can do today. And one of them is talk to your kids. Have an honest conversation about healthy relationships, consent and boundaries.” So Nadiah, can you talk to us about why this piece around sexual education for our children and our youth is so important?
Nadiah Mohajir: Thank you. Yeah. Sex education for our youth both about what is a healthy relationship as well as what is not and what is not a healthy relationship and what is consent and what is not consent is very, very important. And one of the things that I like to talk about is that it’s not a one-time conversation. It’s something that parents should be doing throughout the childhood throughout adolescence, from even as early as age three. And I know that really scares the parents and makes them really uncomfortable. And well, how am I going to talk to my three-year-old about, about all of these big, heavy topics? There are so many resources out there for parents, including on our own website about how to do this in a way that is developmentally appropriate and how to teach consent even early on to children of age three, age five, without actually even making it sexual. So for example, you’re at a play date and there’s two children playing just teaching children to respect each other’s boundaries and asking each other to use a toy before just snatching it from their hands, or asking, “can I hug you? Can I give you a high five?” That is a very age appropriate way to teach younger children, how, what consent looks and feels like without making it all sexual. And that’s really important also because it teaches them first and foremost, what it means to ask permission, but also what it means to receive a no, right? And, and how to respond if the person you’ve asked, can I give you your high five actually says, “no, I don’t want to do that right now.” That’s really an important conversation to have throughout. And of course, as the child gets older, the examples can become more nuanced, can become more detailed, can become more serious in their nature of how you want to talk about consent.
Another reason that it’s really important is because if you don’t talk to your children about their bodies, about sex, about consent, and about what’s healthy and what’s not healthy, they won’t have the tools or the language to identify when something is wrong with their bodies, or worse, when they’re being abused. And especially younger children who have never been talked to before and now they have, you know, an older cousin or an older relative, or a teacher that is sort of testing boundaries and sort of like crossing boundaries. They won’t have the tools to sort of identify that what happened to them in the classroom was not okay. Another reason is also because, especially for children, the way that adults who harm children work is through a grooming process where it doesn’t go from zero to 60 overnight. It actually is a very gradual sort of crossing of boundaries. And so it’s even more confusing for the child to identify that something that happened was not right.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Nadiah, it’s interesting you talk about the need to educate children, to have them be able to know for example, the names of their body parts, so that if there’s something wrong with them, I mean from certainly from a health perspective, and then also from the perspective of abuse prevention, they need to be able to speak about what has happened or what is happening to them. It’s interesting because I think some of the confusion in the Muslim community may come from the Islamic concept of haya’, because on the one hand we do want to teach haya’ in the sense of modesty; we should have a certain zone of privacy in our lives that we do not talk about or display our sexuality in a public way. At the same time, the prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said
لا حياء في الدين
“there’s no shame in religion.” So a kind of confusion or conflation of these two ideas of modesty and shame. So can you unpack this concept a little bit and how perhaps people in the Muslim community can understand what is healthy and protective haya’, and what is… when do certain understandings of haya’ become barriers to abuse-prevention?
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. I mean, I think you named it right there, right Dr. Mattson? That oftentimes in our desire to protect privacy and modesty, it becomes conflated with notions of shame. And I think, again, because of those notions of shame, those conversations never happen. But thinking about like, for example, naming body parts, talking with children like, “these are the accurate names for your body parts” and then also having a conversation around in our family or in our culture or in our faith, [that] we don’t talk about our body parts at the dinner table, right? We only talk about them with the doctor. We only talk about them in the bathroom with our mom, right? And really creating expectations around when it’s okay to talk about those openly and saying like, when we do talk about our body parts to our mom or to our doctors, we don’t have to feel ashamed about them because it’s natural and you know, all of that. And the reason that we don’t talk about it at the dinner table is because it’s not in our family tradition or we want to protect privacy and we don’t just talk about it with everyone. So really naming who are the trustworthy people in their family and in their world, right? Whether it’s a trusted adult, like a doctor or whether it’s like a parent and naming when it’s okay, you know, for the most part, to talk about it and when it may not be.
Now, I want to also recognize that that also can create shame in some ways, because if it is a family member that is sort of perpetuating the harm, then it may become confusing of when it’s okay to talk and when it’s not, right? So I think just having those constant conversations and modeling that I think is first and foremost, a way to show children that it’s a natural part of life and it’s a normal part of life and modeling that by open conversation, but still also communicating expectations around what it means to be private, what it means to be modest, right? And also recognizing that even modesty has its own complexities—the modesty conversation has a lot of complexities as well.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Yeah, because on the one hand modesty is a good thing, but it could—I mean, any value, any good thing, any value taken to an extreme or taken out of context, or not balanced with other values we have, for example, preventing harm, can become a kind of extremism where we elevate this one value over all of these other things that we also believe in. So yes, modesty. Violence-prevention is also important.
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, with the modesty I think it’s also interesting, that’s another way it shows up in Muslim communities is this sort of modesty policing that happens around…not even in violent situations—but even just in regular situations, particularly how gendered it becomes of community engaging in a policing of how women are dressed or how women interact with others and things like that. It’s, A) it’s gendered and really focused on women and not men, right? We don’t really have a conversation on what does it mean to be a modest man? And secondly, it’s really important to note that is a lot of what we refer to as like cultural aspects of some of the root causes of some violence, right? So if we continuously engage in policing of particularly how women are dressed, then how are we surprised when an assault happens and that conversation comes up again right? Of like, “well if only she was wearing her hijab correctly” or whatever, and when we know that there’s no direct correlation to begin with. Women are dressed in all sorts of ways when they get assaulted, right? We know this because also it happens in Muslim countries where women are in full niqabs and they still experience sexual violence. And so it’s really important to separate the notions of modesty from prevention because they’re not related.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: And then the another gendered aspect of this, it seems to me is that very often the way we talk about preventing sexual violence and assault in some way makes it even harder for boys or males to come forward if they’ve been assaulted, because we don’t really have an excuse or an explanation why it might have happened. And we consider women to be in need of protection, but males are the protectors. So in a way, it kind of, there’s kind of no place in this worldview for a male to be assaulted by another male or even by a female saying a female teacher of a male student.
Nadiah Mohajir: Mhm, yeah, I think that’s definitely rooted in a lot of gender stereotypes and ideas around toxic masculinity, right? Like what makes a man or a boy a man or a boy. And especially if a boy or a man has been harmed by somebody of the same sex, it immediately becomes a conversation that is laden with homophobia and conflated with homophobia actually, or conflated with homosexuality, rather. And so that’s one reason that men and boys fear coming forward is because they might be dealing with facing homophobia in the community. Another reason that they don’t fear coming forward is also because of the sort of gender stereotypes on men and boys, right? Men and boys are supposed to be strong. They’re supposed to be aggressive. They’re not generally people who should get abused or assaulted, especially if the person who’s harmed them is a woman, right? Then it becomes like, well, how did that even happen? And, and again, there’s no conversation around power structures. When absolutely, I mean, we hear often, like the example that you just shared about a teacher harming a male student or a lady boss harming a male employee. I mean there is power differentials in, in those relationships that are 100% at play in those experiences of abuse.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: So Nadiah, I know that you mentioned that in the beginning, you established HEART as an organization to support women and girls and since that time you’ve expanded to be an organization about sexual health and sexual violence prevention for everyone in the Muslim community. Has your experience hearing from Muslim men who have experienced sexual violence—was that part of the reason why you opened up? I know that part of it is also men as, as perpetrators of violence, but what have you heard from Muslim men about their experiences of being abused by others?
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. I mean, yeah, we’ve heard so many stories. I mean, definitely that there is almost always a power differential. A lot of times these men are abused as boys by their Qur’an teachers or their male relatives and are basically told that they won’t be believed because they won’t be believed. So there’s fears of that. There’s also, again, going back to gender stereotypes around what a man or a boy should be, there’s a lot of self-doubt that men and boys experience wanting to come forward about their experiences because they feel like their masculinity will be sort of scrutinized and I wasn’t strong enough to prevent this, things like that. And so there’s that piece. And then as I mentioned that the sexuality piece is huge, is if I come forward, will people say I’m gay?
Mihad Fahmy: So Nadiah, we’ve been talking a lot about stereotypes, assumptions, fears, when it comes to the topic of sexual violence. And HEART’s been doing so much, so much incredible work around public education. Now there aren’t very many organizations like HEART localized in our various local communities, right? Well, our communities are far and wide, they are different sizes and so on and have different needs and resources. What would you say communities can do? I mean, we can talk about what they need to do, but what, what are some actual things that a local community can do to start opening up conversations about spiritual abuse from your perspective as a public health educator? What, what can we do?
Nadiah Mohajir: I think the first and foremost is to look within. So I think a lot of times communities they hear about this and they get activated and it’s like, well, what can I do? I want to change. I want to change my masjid I want to change my mosque. I want all these policies in place. I want the board and staff to be trained. And I think first and foremost, it’s really important to actually go internal and start actually working on yourself. And what I mean by that is first and foremost, reading about deepening your own understanding of like what spiritual abuse is, what sexual violence is, but then more importantly, digging deeper and seeing how a lot of these things that we’ve already talked about like toxic masculinity and ideas of like gender roles and implicit bias and how we’ve been socialized can actually contribute to perpetuating in this kind of violence. And I’m saying that because it’s important to note that this kind of violence does not happen in a vacuum. It’s not about one bad apple or one bad guy, right? It’s almost always about a culture that has enabled this abuse to sort of ripen and like sort of come to life. And a lot of that has to do with the attitudes and messaging that we’re immersed and socialized with as children. And as we get older about how we think about men, how we think about women, how we think about women’s bodies, right? The objectification of women. And so really working on understanding and deepening your understanding of how those attitudes and messaging have influenced us and informed our attitudes and understanding of the issue. I think that is so important for folks to start doing.
Also reading. When I say reading, I also mean like reading survivor testimonies, right? So one of my favorite ones that I just finished recently is called “Know My Name” and it’s by Chanel Miller, and she just recently revealed that she was Emily Doe in the Brock Turner case. And it is the most stunning sort of memoir that she has written about her entire process from right before the assault to the time of the assault, to all through the court case and her post-recovery.
And I think that really deepening understanding of like what courage it takes for a victim to come forward, I think is, is really important for folks to become familiar with, so that they are able to believe victims when they first come forward and not—there’s a statistic out there that a child will come forward seven times to seven different people before they’re actually believed. And I think that that is a fundamental problem in our society of our unwillingness to believe victims when they come forward the first time.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Can I just ask something here about being believed, because you’ve mentioned this before, that that one of the key barriers or main barriers to those who have experienced sexual violence is that when they disclose, they’re met with disbelief. And I think here there is a real misunderstanding, because many people will say, “well, people are innocent until they’re proven guilty,” or they say “well, it’s up to the accuser in Islamic legal terms, it’s up to the accuser to prove their assertion and no person is considered guilty until the evidence has been brought forward.” But it seems to me that what’s happening is that many people in the community are taking a legalistic perspective as if they’re a judge to whom a case has been brought to adjudicate rather than a friend, a relative, an administrator or a board member of a mosque whose obligation is not to, and who does not have the responsibility or the authority or the right to, sit in the position of being a judge. But their relationship with the person who’s disclosing that is something completely different. Can you talk about what it means to believe someone?
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. I think that’s a really important question because a lot of times our communities really are conflicted about believing someone because they think that it’s an “either-or,” right? If I believe this victim, then I’m accusing this person, right? And then I have to, you know, take sides. And what’s really interesting is when somebody comes forward to you with a disclosure, whether you’re like an individual community member or whether you are a person of authority, they’re coming to you in a moment of crisis, right? How you respond to them in that moment of crisis is actually independent of the accountability process, right? And so, in that moment of crisis, they’re coming to you. They’re saying this happened to me.
First and first and foremost, they just want to be heard, right? They just want you to listen to their story. And secondly what I say by believing them, it means that, you honor their privacy. So it’s not something that you share with like 15 other people. And then more importantly, you say, “how can I help?” So, you know, they come to you and they say, this happened to me and you your response to them is “I hear you. It sounds like what you experienced was scary. You are not alone. I know that there are many other folks out there who have experienced this and there are many other trained people who can help. So how can I help now?” Of course, if it’s a child there’s a whole different process, right? Like there’s mandated reporting. You have to call the authorities. It’s not really in your hands. But if we’re talking about an adult, there’s a number of options. Sometimes they don’t want any help. Sometimes they literally just wanted the person to be able to receive that and be able to unload their story onto someone else, right? So if that is what happens, it’s a gift that you’ve been given. A survivor’s telling you their truth. It’s a gift because they very clearly trust you, and they very clearly want to share this very vulnerable piece of their life with you. And it should be seen as that; it should be seen as, as a gift. Now-
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: And a trust, a true amana, a true trust.
Nadiah Mohajir: A true trust. And now, after that, it’s like, “well, how can I help, right?” I can help you find a therapist. I can help you if you need, if it’s a recent assault, maybe we can go to the hospital together to get a rape kit. If they want to file a police report, I can go with you to file a police report, right? Like really identifying how can I be of service for this? It’s totally independent of the accountability process.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: That’s really helpful, Nadiah. Yeah. To distinguish the receiving the account, hearing the disclosure and wanting to be helpful to that person, separating that from the accountability process seems just such a critical step.
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. And I think the accountability process is so interesting because if you think about the accountability process, there are so few people that actually bear the burden of having to make those decisions, right? If there is law enforcement involved, then of course that’s a whole different process and the police and any lawyers and all of that, they have their own systems that they’re going to deal with. If you do happen to be somebody of authority at an institution, that person of authority that may have to now make a decision of like, do I have to fire this person? Do I have to discipline this person? Do I suspend this person? Whatever, but it’s like that one person, right? That one or two people in leadership that are actually bearing the burden of having to sort of worry about accountability in that way. And hopefully, especially if those people don’t have the training, hopefully they don’t feel like they have to do it alone. Hopefully they can partner with trained professionals third party firms or whatever to help them navigate that. So they don’t have to do it alone. But I know that people fear, oh, if I believe this person, I’m all of a sudden becoming judge and jury on this other, on the person who’s done harm, we really need to work on separating the two because it’s not the same at all.
Mihad Fahmy: Right. So now you’ve done a really good job of separating. I think that really that distinction is crisp. And I think it’s really helpful. I think what you’ve also been referring to and correct me if I’m wrong is the framework that HEART developed called responding with rahma, right? So R-A-H-M-A that refers to what our response should look like, or what a helpful response would be when somebody comes forward and shares this very traumatic and private experience with us. So could you—you’ve referred to some of it already, but could you walk us through what the acronym stands for?
Nadiah Mohajir: Yes. Yes, absolutely. So as you know, it, you know, it’s grounded in the Islamic value of rahma and that’s what we wanted to use to sort of say, like, when somebody comes to you in crisis, the response that you give them should be first and foremost, just really grounded in this concept of compassion and mercy for the person that is trusting you with this disclosure.
And so RAHMA means, the “R” is respond by listening. So really making sure that the person understands that you’ve heard them and you’ve listened to them. So if that means that you have to reflect back to them what you heard, you don’t ask them more questions. You just sort of let them tell the story and then you reflect back what you’ve heard.
“A” is, affirm and believe. So it’s just literally validating, “thank you for coming to me with your story. I’ve heard you, you are not alone. It is normal to feel scared” or whatever emotions they’ve shared with you and really affirming their experience, and then telling them that you believe them.
“H” is honor cultural and religious context. So this is both for Muslim professionals and Muslim individuals, as well as non-Muslim individuals. Oftentimes it’s really easy for us to—especially if there’s a tradition that’s being misused. So if somebody comes and says, this happened to me, I don’t want to tell anyone because I’m afraid I’m never going to get married. It’s really easy for us as third-party objective people to dismiss that and say, “oh, that’s just patriarchal. You don’t want to listen to that,” but it’s in that moment, it’s not helpful because that is their worldview. That’s their context. And that’s their biggest fear. They’re worried about perhaps not being married. And so [it means] to validate that and to honor that and say, I understand that your concern is that you may experience social consequences, like never getting married and completely understand why you may be worried about something like that, right? So just really honoring that and not shaming them for having the beliefs that they have.
[“M” is] maintaining their privacy: so this seems very simple, but in tight-knit communities it’s even harder, especially—even if you de-identify all details, it’s very easy for people to connect the dots and figure out who a victim is. So really just making sure that you protect their privacy and not tell anyone, really except law enforcement, if they have to be involved.
The “A” is assist with providing resources. And that’s where the action comes in, right? That’s where the, the R-A-H-M is all about listening and hearing them and validating them. And the A is where the action comes in and really assisting them with where they want to go. Whether that means right now they just want to talk to a counselor or whether that means they want to actually file a police report or go to a hospital and things like that.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Nadiah, I would like to go back and ask you about a situation that HEART was involved in, a very public situation. It taught us a lot about some of the community dynamics and some of the obstacles we face in the work we all are doing, trying to ensure that our community is safe and valued and honored in our Islamic organizations and spaces. So I’m referring to the time in 2015, when the founder and principal of an Islamic boarding school in Illinois was charged with sexually abusing an employee and a student of the school. Could you just briefly walk us through the facts of the case and tell us how you became involved and what you learned from that experience?
Nadiah Mohajir: Absolutely. So the background of the Elgin Case is that in 2014, a brave young woman came forward with allegations of sexual assault against a very well-known, prominent, well-respected elderly Imam in Chicago. And the case was brought to us through some people in the community. And we, as an organization, we’re one of the first Muslim organizations to sort of support her in a public way. And when we did, within 24 to 48 hours, received dozens and dozens of more disclosures via email and phone of similar violence that accused the same Imam. And so, when we began documenting the stories, what we learned were a number of things. The first thing that we learned was that the abuse spanned decades, and it went as far as the 1980s. The second thing that we learned were that many of the victims had been minors at the time. We also learned that many of them had reached out to adults in their lives. So whether it was parents, or teachers, or school administration, and that they had either been not believed, or they had been dismissed and like sort of told to stay silent. And then we also learned that there was more than one person who’s harmed at the school. And that there was a culture there that sort of enabled some of these abuses to continue to occur. So what happened then was that we went into crisis intervention mode, where we first worked with the victims and their families if necessary, to get them the services that they needed. So, you know, some of them actually said, “I don’t want anything. I just want you to know that the original Jane Doe that has come forward, she’s telling the truth because it happened to me.” Some people just literally just wanted to share their story. Others wanted to be connected to counselors, and then others wanted to be connected to lawyers and the police.
And so we worked to make sure all the folks were connected to who they needed to be connected to. Then we began to work to develop messaging. So first we worked on talking points, because, as you can imagine, because of the great respect of this Imam had in the community, it really did cause a big community uproar and everyone wanted information. Everyone—it was like they were entitled to the information, but we just need to know what happened. So one of the other things that we heard a lot was “you shouldn’t be talking about this publicly because this is America and there’s enough Islamophobia. Do we really want to add more to the Islamophobes fire?” right? So we started developing all of these different messaging documents and education documents. And then as the case progressed, there was a criminal investigation as well as a civil lawsuit. And so with this, we were advised to work on a media strategy, because once there is a criminal and civil lawsuit involved, oftentimes the media will get a hold of it. And it was really important for us to be able to control the narrative so that the media would not. And so we were connected with a journalist at the New York times to ultimately break this story when the civil lawsuit was filed, and ultimately, in 2016, the Imam was found guilty of all counts of sexual violence against minors.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: So why did it have to become public in the sense of going to the New York times, some would say, “well, you can deal with it, but why speak to a reporter about it? For example, isn’t that escalating it beyond the community level?” What would you say?
Nadiah Mohajir: So, I mean, I think it depends on a case-by-case basis. For this I think it was very necessary, because the investigation itself had also kind of stalled. The detectives were sort of dragging their feet. And what resulted was that the pressure from the media to—because the media wanted a statement from the detectives actually also kind of motivated them to continue investigating the case and move forward and do right by the victims in the case, and so there was that piece.
There was also the piece around how this, as I mentioned, this abuse span decades, it was going as back to the 80’s. And we had known from the victims that they had actually reached out to a lot of folks in the community for help, and they didn’t get the help that they wanted. And so a lot of it was just also uplifting their narrative beyond the community because the community had already demonstrated that they were shoving this under the rug and not talking about it in a way that needed to be talked about.
The media strategy was also, I want to uplift the fact that it was survivor-led. The survivors wanted to go to the media as well because they want it to be able to tell their story.
Mihad Fahmy: And what about transparency to the Muslim community? So you talked about community members almost feeling entitled to know the details and know the information. And you were thinking about, what the community was entitled to versus what needed to remain private. What did you, what did you learn about that? Like, what would you say in terms of, in a situation like this, what needs to be communicated to the community at large, the Muslim community.
Nadiah Mohajir: Yeah. I think because there was a civil lawsuit and a criminal case, of course confidentiality became even more complicated with all of those pieces. So once the lawyers were involved, we were actually requested by the legal team, not to, not to discuss it at all with anyone. And so there was that piece, right? So once you involve authorities, of course, It’s a whole different can of worms that you have to deal with. Prior to that, what we were thinking about was respecting the confidentiality of the people who were harmed in the sense of first and foremost, of course, the identities of the victims that came forward. And to the extreme point even on my own team, the team of volunteer advocates that I had, each of the advocates had their own set of victims that they were talking to, and they did not share their identities with even the internal team. So there was like layers of confidentiality that was put in place so that the identity would remain with the with the advocate and that’s it. So like, for example, I did not have access to some of the victims that my advocates were working with. I could not call them. I could not contact them. I had to go through the advocate and then the advocate would—especially about the media stuff and all of that—the advocate would communicate all of that. And it was only when the survivor said, okay, I’m okay with meeting Nadiah or knowing Nadiah is when I was able to contact them.
So even that layer of protection was even on my own team, just to make sure that people felt like their identities would not be revealed, because this Imam was so respected, that it was really important to make sure that the victims wouldn’t experience actual backlash from the community, right? And experienced those kinds of things. And so definitely that, but when we say protecting their identities, we also mean sharing identifying details about their stories. If we put any sort of time period on the story, or if we put any sort of detail, like the abuse happened at home, or the abuse happened at school. That could be enough for the community and especially the person who was harmed to identify who we were talking about. So it was really important to also protect the stories in that way.
And then finally, as we know, a phenomenon that happens a lot in our communities, is when something like this happens. Everyone talks about it, right? And so they share, or did you hear that, you know, such and such happened and then this happened and this happened. And so it’s really interesting when that happens, because oftentimes you may actually be repeating the story to the victim themselves, right? And so really thinking about being careful about not retraumatizing by sharing a story that’s so detailed that you may be actually sharing it with someone who actually is either the victim themselves or knows the victim. And so that was something that we had to really figure out, like, what is just enough information for the community to say, okay, something really wrong happened here, and then all the other information, including very intimate details of the story should be protected. So for us, it should be enough for a community to know that sexual harm has been committed. They don’t need to know what kind of sexual harm or how many times it happened, or how—you know what I mean, like or how old the person was and things like that.
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Mihad Fahmy: Our conversation with sister Nadiah Mohajir helped us better understand the many layers involved in addressing the issue of sexual and gender-based violence in Muslim communities. While not all instances of spiritual abuse are sexual in nature, common strands run through all such abuses of power. One such commonality is the long list of barriers that victims face when deciding whether or not to come forward with a disclosure. We’ve touched upon some of these barriers in past episodes of this podcast, but we now know that the persistent one, the one that presents itself at every point in a victim’s experience is the fear, the expectation, and the certainty of not being believed in coming forward to their families, their communities, and their places of worship and learning, victims are consistently met with disbelief. We collectively disbelieve them. We need to ask ourselves, what is the source of this disbelief? Are we in denial that someone whom we respect and revere could abuse the amana that we have entrusted them with? Are we afraid that our communities will not be able to withstand the test of holding our leaders accountable and will lead to divisions and conflict? But perhaps the first question to ask is what does it mean to believe a victim? As sister Nadiah explained, when someone comes forward and discloses abuse, our job is to receive the victim’s truth and provide whatever support she or he requires at that point. It is not our job, it is not our place to make a legal determination, a portion blame, or hold parties accountable. The accountability process will come, but this is very much separate and apart from what our response needs to be when receiving a disclosure.
Male victims of abuse face additional barriers to disclosure, including gendered stereotypes that expect boys and men to be strong, aggressive, and not in need of protection in alignment with her public health approach to sexual violence and health, sister Nadiah also spoke about the need for prevention strategies. One of which is having ongoing age appropriate conversations with our children and youth about their bodies, these healthy relationships and consent. And the other one, which I’ll leave you with, is to start with ourselves, take responsibility for your own understanding of spiritual abuse, gender-based violence and gendered stereotypes, and carve out time to listen to the stories of survivors in their own voices.
Thank you for taking the time to learn along with us. If you would like to help us share this information with a broader audience, there are a few very simple things that you can do. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Leave us a rating or review and tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project Podcast. We’d like to thank our funders Pillars fund and the Waraich Family Foundation for their ongoing support of the work of the Hurma project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton with additional assistance provided by Maram Albakri. We look forward to continuing our conversation with you until then, assalamu alaykum.
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