30 Mar Episode 5: Salma Abugideiri, Healthy Boundaries, Part Two
A continuation of our conversation with Licensed Professional Therapist Salma Abugideiri. She explains the dynamics of power and vulnerability and the importance of setting healthy boundaries in professional relationships, including between religious teachers, Imams, and counselors.
About Salma Abugideiri
Salma Elkadi Abugideiri is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Virginia, who specializes in couples counseling and the treatment of trauma. She is the primary trainer and founding Board member of Peaceful Families Project, which, for over twenty years, has been conducting research and providing training for Muslim communities on domestic violence. She has widely published in the fields of domestic violence and mental health, including authoring the facilitator guide for the training program, “Garments for One Another: Ending Domestic Violence in Muslim Families.” She is co-author, with Imam Mohamed Magid, of “Before You Tie the Knot,” a book to help Muslim couples prepare for and achieve a successful marriage.
To learn more about Salma Abugideiri and her work:
Related content discussed in this episode:
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
Ep. 5 Salma Abugideiri, Healthy Boundaries, Part Two
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr 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. In the last episode of the Hurma Project Podcast, we spoke with a licensed professional counselor, Salma Abugideiri, and continue that conversation today.
Sister Selma is in private practice in Virginia specializing in couples counseling and the treatment of trauma. She is the primary trainer and founding board member of Peaceful Families, which for over 20 years has been conducting research and providing training for Muslim communities on domestic violence. In our previous conversation, we spoke about how important it is for religious leaders to maintain healthy and professional boundaries and how difficult this can be to achieve for many reasons in our Muslim communities. She also spoke about how important it is in any helping relationship to listen without judgment to those who disclose their experiences of abuse and to those who disclose their personal failings. We do this out of respect for their God-given dignity and to keep the lines of communication open.
Sister Salma has many years of experience counseling, religious leaders who have crossed boundaries, and she knows that while some are predators, many more are fallible human beings who have not been properly trained for their roles, and are confused about how to navigate the complex feelings and expectations that arise in their community relationships. In this episode, we begin by digging deeper into the harm that entails when a religious leader or a teacher enters into a romantic relationship with a student or a member of the congregation.
[SHOW MELODY FADES OUT]
Dr Mattson: Sister Salma you mentioned other professional relationships where there’s a dynamic of power and vulnerability. And where there are guidelines to prevent intimate relationships, for example, or dual relationships between the professional and the person to whom they’re offering advice or support. One of those relationships you mentioned is a teacher and a student, or a professor and a college student. I remember being at university, and when I was an undergraduate, this is many decades ago, more than 30 years ago, I remember there were some professors who had romantic relationships with students. And one of the consequences of that was that, while by all appearances, the relationships seemed to be consensual and mutually beneficial, for the rest of us, for other students, it made us feel very awkward and sometimes even unsafe in that professor’s classroom. You know, sometimes we just had the sense that maybe one of us would be next. Or if he had entered into a romantic relationship with a student previously, maybe he was looking at the other students with a similar eye. So can you tell me, can you talk a little bit about how violating these boundaries – these professional boundaries – not only affects the person who is seeking care – of the vulnerable person – but the rest of the community as well.
Salma: Yeah. I think the impact is particularly devastating when it’s a religious leader who has violated the boundaries and who has stepped out of their role of the religious scholar or religious teacher, because what it does is it makes the community members feel like… not only, not only unsafe, but betrayed. Because that leader did not live up to the ethical standard that they should live up to. In some cases, they’re not living up to the legal standards that they should live up to. And when we put our trust in a religious leader and then they act in a manner that is completely antithetical to how they should be behaving, then it makes people wonder, who can I trust? If I can’t trust the person who is religiously knowledgeable, who is supposed to be pious and who is supposed to have God consciousness and taqwa – if I can’t trust that person, who can I trust? And so it really shakes people at their core. And unfortunately many people associate the leader with the religion itself. And so people will – then some people will – then leave their religion. They will, or their religious practice will be compromised in some way, because they can’t separate the bad behavior or the inappropriate behavior of the religious leader with the religion itself. Because, you know, we look at these religious leaders as modeling for us. And people have internalized the religion and if they mess up like that, then what does that say for me? What does it say for me at all? And then, obviously this religion didn’t help them at all to behave, so what point, what point is there in listening to a religious leader or even staying connected to the religion? So the results can be devastating.
Mihad: I want to go back to what you were saying around relationships being born out of the spiritual counseling relationships and the problematics around that. When you say a spiritual counseling relationships, are we talking about specifically one-on-one kind of counseling when a congregant goes to an Imam for guidance or advice? Or are we talking about relationships with the congregation as a whole? So is it problematic for an Imam to show interest and develop a relationship with somebody who attends the mosque on a regular basis, but perhaps hasn’t gone to him specifically for spiritual advice or guidance? Is she as well considered to be in a spiritual relationship with the Imam such that entering into any kind of relationship with her would be similarly problematic? I guess I’m trying to understand what you mean by spiritual counseling relationship.
Salma: I’m referencing those relationships in which the person has been very vulnerable with the religious leader. Situations where the relationship really is about a person depending on the religious leader’s guidance at a time of vulnerability and crisis. I think that there are situations where, in a congregation, it may be appropriate for a religious leader to marry somebody from that congregation. I wouldn’t say that it’s never acceptable in any circumstance. But I think that it’s really important to evaluate that relationship and to evaluate and assess how does that community member experience the religious leader? Is it with reverence and awe and this person can do no wrong kind of thing? Or is it – it may be that this is a person in the community that certainly has engaged with a religious leader, may have even gotten some religious opinions, but they don’t have that sort of preexisting counseling kind of relationship where the community member was really dependent on the Imam. You could be interested in someone for marriage and get to know them. And the vulnerability comes later in the relationship as opposed to the vulnerability being the beginning of the relationship.
Dr Mattson: Even when we are not in a relationship that has very strong dynamics of power and vulnerability, nevertheless, the Imam of a mosque is the Imam and the community member is a community member. There’s clearly a power dynamic there within the community. And wouldn’t there, even if in some cases it might be appropriate to perhaps inquire about marriage, wouldn’t there be right and wrong ways of doing it? Like I’m thinking, for example, if I were a young woman in a congregation and I’m going to that masjid to seek a place of peace and quiet and prayer, and I have all sorts of things going on in my life, and then one day, and an Imam – the Imam- walks up to me and asked me if I’m interested in getting married, that might spoil that space for me, if I’m not interested in getting married. You know, I might now feel very awkward about ever returning to that place because I’ve had this awkward encounter. I’ve had to say no. I’m thinking about how even our mother Khadija may Allah be pleased with her, she had the role of being the employer of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and when she became interested in marrying him, she didn’t ask him directly, but sent someone who could indirectly inquire if he were interested in marriage, and then really have made that offer in a subtle way, in a way that would be very easy to say ‘no’ to if he wasn’t interested. And he would have been able to . . . it wasn’t a face-to-face encounter. So I’m just thinking about that relationship. And this is kind of where I was going with the professor in the classroom. Even if there isn’t a strong dynamic of power and vulnerability, still a person is going to that space for a specific purpose and is entering into a professional relationship with that person, the professor or the Imam or the teacher. And now if the professional then seeks a different kind of relationship, doesn’t it make it very difficult for that person to continue in that space?
Salma: Well it also is difficult for that person to say, ‘no.’ Right? So how do you say no to the Imam who who’s proposing to you? Right. You know, so just even the difficulty of saying ‘no,’ really highlights the power differential. So ideally the Imam would not seek somebody in his own community. I just didn’t want to suggest that it could never be, never be appropriate. But I think that ideally you don’t seek someone from within your own community, just like a professor should not seek someone from their own student body because it confuses all kinds of things. And even a student may have a very hard time saying, ‘no.’ What, what would it mean to say no to this professor? What implications are there? And that’s the piece of taking advantage? You might genuinely be attracted to somebody in the community, but to put that person in a position of feeling like they might not be able to say ‘no,’ because what are the implications? That in and of itself is taking advantage of your position?
Mihad: And I would think that in that scenario, the Imam continues on in his role, right? Assuming that she is not interested, and then no longer feel safe going to that place of worship, going to that masjid or community center and so may stop doing so. And he continues to… you know, that’s his place of employment. So …
Salma: Actually that’s a real, that is a real phenomenon where many people and particularly women stop going to their masjid. And if that’s the only masjid in town, then they’re not going to any masjid. And they then have been deprived of having a place to worship and a place of worship in which they can feel safe. Yeah, and you’re right, then that leader hasn’t really lost anything.
Mihad: I want to turn to some of the trainings that Peaceful Families has delivered. I know that primarily the trainings have been in regards to domestic violence for the community and for the Imam. So I’m wondering, have you engaged in any training delivered around healthy boundaries for Imams?
Salma: We’ve been including a component on healthy boundaries in our training on domestic violence prevention. So initially in our trainings we didn’t have a separate module on healthy boundaries, but we talked about healthy boundaries in the context of counseling community members who are impacted by domestic violence and the vulnerability that can be taken advantage of, and the kinds of inappropriate, responses that an Imam could have – whether it’s offering to take this person as a second wife, or whether it’s making special allowances for her or even crossing the lines of, you know, physical touch. More recently we’ve added a module on boundaries to more explicitly address the power dynamics and the damage, the harm that can happen when a leader violates those boundaries.
Mihad: Can you talk a little bit about how that training has been received so far? Do you find that it’s, this is really, these are new ideas to the Imams that you’re training or are they intuitive?
Salma: I think the part that is often new is that they may be causing real harm. Most of the Imams that we have worked with, and I would venture to say that most religious leaders, are well-intentioned. Most people are not going into this role with the intention to harm. Some people do, but the majority are not. And so it is often a kind of an experience where the Imams are a little bit shaken when they realized that they may actually have caused harm by crossing some of these boundaries. Even by neglecting their own self-care, they may have caused harm. So that’s the new part. The idea of boundaries isn’t necessarily new. However, there are some confusing pieces in terms of how do you draw a boundary when your community might expect something from you, even if their expectation is unreasonable, unrealistic, or completely inappropriate? Right? Then that’s where the Imams may feel like they don’t have the power. And so, so the new piece for them is also how they can – how they can utilize their role in a way that raises the standard in their community. And where they can take the initiative – and they must take the initiative om establishing boundaries that allow them to take care of themselves so that they can provide for their community in an appropriate and effective and healthy manner.
I was just going to add that for the most part, I think this piece of the training is very well received. It’s sometimes the first time that the Imams have had these… this kind of discussion and conversation. It’s interesting just to observe that, as they discuss these ideas with their peers, they really do get it. They really do get it. They just may not have ever had the opportunity to think about or reflect on these things before, because they didn’t know they were causing harm.
Mihad: Right. Is the self-care piece new as well?
Salma: The self-care piece is certainly something everyone has heard about, you know, if you’re living in United States, you hear about self-care. It’s definitely new for Imams to think that their responsibility of taking care of themselves, if they don’t fulfill that responsibility, that’s another way that they can actually cause harm to others; by not making sure their needs are already fulfilled, that they could be then depending on the community to fill their needs, and then that becomes an inappropriate relationship and unhealthy dynamic. So that piece is new. And of course, you know, the cultural notions – and misunderstandings – is really that if you take care of yourself, you’re being selfish and the Imam is supposed to be altruistic and all giving and never, never need anything for himself. So, you know, confusing some of those cultural ideas with religious teachings and, and then, and then linking the examples of boundaries in the Qur’an and boundaries in the life of the Prophet ﷺ to their role is often new as well.
Dr Mattson: Sister Salma, we’ve spoken about the responsibility that rests with the person who holds power and authority to maintain healthy boundaries. We’ve also heard from Imams that even when they want to maintain these healthy boundaries, they are not supported by their boards in doing so. You know, very often the boards are requiring them to cross these boundaries; the boards are not giving them the support to have time for self-care. Can you tell me – talk a little bit about – the responsibility of the community and in particular, the leaders of the community, in helping to maintain these healthy boundaries? Because very often we hear all of the responsibility being placed upon the imams.
Salma: I think that the community members have a lot of responsibility, but first they have to be educated and understand the importance of boundaries. The board really is a reflection of the community, right? The board is often – it’s always – made up of community members and if they don’t understand why these boundaries are important and how ultimately the lack of boundaries is harmful to the community. So they have to understand this, and so the work that you’re doing with the Hurma Project and the education that’s provided to the community members, which includes those board members, is critical to changing the culture because there are cultural expectations that create resistance to healthy boundaries.
Mostly, I think because people just don’t really understand that boundaries are part of our Islamic tradition, and that our Imams are human beings that need to be taken care of so that they can also fulfill their job in a better way. And that they also, they need to be empowered to do what’s right. What’s right for them. And what’s right for the community. So, you know, the job of an Imam could be in many ways, if we think about it, like any other job. So if I’m working in a toxic work environment and I’m not being treated right, by my managers or supervisors or whatever, it might mean that I need to look for another job. If I’m not able to educate the community or educate the board and get the change that I need to have that it is possible to move. We don’t have to be stuck in toxic work environments. And if the board is not supportive of the Imam and is not giving the Imam any kind of space to advocate for himself, that is a toxic environment. It can be that boards are abusive to their Imams. We just have to be open to recognizing all of these possible scenarios. And in general, nationwide, creating a culture where the community members and the community leaders understand the importance of boundaries for the maslaha – for the benefit – of every single person in that community.
Dr Mattson: It’s interesting, isn’t it? That on the one hand, we, as Muslims are so exquisitely aware of some boundaries; we look at to the design of our mosque and we think about where the men are going to pray, and where the women are going to pray and which door we come in and out of, and on the other hand, we can be completely oblivious about the emotional boundaries, the professional boundaries, so it’s, it’s quite curious.
Salma: I mean, unfortunately in many of the cultures from which Muslims come, these are cultures in which there is not much attention given to emotions or emotional wellbeing. There isn’t a lot of awareness about the importance of emotions. You know, whether it’s a feeling of being uncomfortable, which could alert us to an inappropriate situation; there’s a lot more attention given to roles and status and the way that we’re supposed to act, so that people view us in a certain way, so our reputation and how we’re viewed… there’s a lot more attention given to that.
And I think that many people in our communities just don’t really have much practice thinking about emotions, feeling their emotions, identifying them and using them as information. How we feel can be diagnostic. It can really tell us… it’s just like, if you’re, if you’re using your body temperature to tell you that it’s too hot, you can go and adjust the air conditioning, or you can take off your sweater. And if we think about our emotions in the same way, that, if I’m feeling uncomfortable, that’s telling me something. If I’m feeling anger, that’s telling me something. If I’m feeling relaxed, that tells me something.
And so it’s information. But I feel like, as a therapist working within the Muslim community, that’s an area that really is unfamiliar to many Muslims, unfortunately. And to me it’s very sad because our Islamic tradition actually gives a lot of attention to emotions and the Qur’an attends to emotions a lot. But it’s not something that we’re really, we’re not really encouraged to understand and work with our emotions.
Dr Mattson: So interesting. Sister Salma, we’ve referred a number of times in our conversation to the dynamic that occurs often between a male Imam and female congregant, but boundaries can also be crossed by female religious leaders and teachers with other women, those boundaries can be crossed and violated by male Imams, scholars and others, with the males, and those boundary violations are not always, sexual. In fact, very often they’re emotional. You’ve spoken about the harm that can happen when a person offering care is being judgmental or harsh – abusive in that way. Can you talk a little bit about how very often Muslims think that the solution is simply to keep men and women apart, and then we won’t have any exploitation or abuse? Can you talk about some other scenarios where they’re (the) same gender, you know, the relationship is same gender and there is abuse or exploitation in that relationship as well?
Salma: Yeah. I mean, gender is only relevant because in most cases, the men in our communities have more power than the women in our communities. But you know, when you talk about same gender abuses, the first example that came into my mind is the example of Qabil and Habil – Cain and Abel – two brothers – and clearly an abusive situation that ended up in murder. And we’re all familiar with that story. So there is really nothing that precludes abuse or any kind of oppression from happening within the same gender.
Again, the religious leader has more power, whether that’s more power over female students or more power over male students, there is still more power. And when there’s more power, there can be a misuse and an abuse of power. When the religious leader uses that power to either keep their students or the community members down, like keeping them feeling down and inferior, whether it’s manipulating that power and using their role to get people to do things for them that aren’t really appropriate or within the role. Getting them to do more work than they’re supposed to do. Getting them to … you know, so it could be a male Imam and a male employee, and the Imam using their role as a religious leader to get that person to work through their vacations, after hours, be available 24/7, because they’re using their religious authority. So it certainly can happen that way. And it’s important to, to acknowledge that women leaders who have power because of their religious authority and because of the role that they’re in, can also be abusive to their female students or followers or whatever that context may be. Anyone who has power can abuse it or misuse it and can take advantage of a person who’s looking up to you for your approval, who thinks that your opinion really is, sort of, the absolute verdict on who you are as a person.
So if the female, if the Shaykha, says ‘You’re a good Muslim,’ then, [you feel] ‘Wow, I’ve made it! God’s pleased with me.’ And if that Shaykha says, ‘You’re bad Muslim,’ then [you think] ‘My gosh, I’m doomed and God will never look at me.’ So I mean, it really doesn’t matter – the gender piece only matters when, in a context where men have more power, because they’re men. And that’s in most situations, but it’s not exclusive; women can certainly have that same degree of power with their students or with their followers.
Dr Mattson: You’ve mentioned that we have a right to trust our feelings and we have a right to, if we feel uncomfortable with the situation, extract ourselves from that situation. Can you talk a little bit more about what individuals can do and what our education should provide in terms of letting just ordinary individuals know about their own rights to self-protection?
Salma: So I think that part of our education has to be an awareness that our leaders are human beings and they are fallible. They might make mistakes. So once we recognize that a religious leader could make mistakes, so now, there’s that possibility – then when I feel that’s something is not right about this interaction, or I know with certainty that something is not right about this interaction, I can allow myself to think about that and to explore first with myself, try to get some clarity about what I’m feeling, and then to be able to discuss it with someone else without that someone else saying, ‘How dare you question this leader?’
You know, we as community members, family members, friends should be able to have these conversations so that if I felt like an interaction was not appropriate and I want to come to both of you, or either of you, and say, ‘You know, I was sitting with so-and-so and it just didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t like what happened,’ and then get your feedback. It may be that there was a complete misunderstanding. It might be like a religious – not religious, sorry – but a cultural difference that led me to misunderstand what the person was intending. And so then that can be clarified. It may be that I share that with you, and you say, ‘No, Salma you’re right. That really shouldn’t have happened. That’s not appropriate. Now, let’s think through what we can do about that.’ Is there someplace that I can report it? Is it something I should address with the leader directly? Is it something I should address . . . is this a masjid that has actually has an HR person? Or they have channels that you can file a complaint? Maybe it’s not a masjid where I could do that. Maybe it wouldn’t even be safe to do that depending on what’s happened. So talking about it with others can help us identify what is the best course of action to take.
And that best course of action is going to depend on what was the level of violation, and what are the channels through which we can file a complaint and if it’s an egregious violation, then there may need to be an investigation. If it’s something that can’t be clarified or resolved in a simple way, there may need to be an investigation.
And we do now have some organizations that are doing that kind of work, but we also have to change the culture in our community so that if a person chooses to make a report, or to speak up about a violation, that we support the person who was violated, rather than try to cover up for the person committing the violation – for the religious leader who’s committed a violation.
So that’s going to require a whole culture shift. And part of that is this education that is happening through the Hurma Project. And of course we need to have this education, very systematically, from even teaching our children that if an adult is hurting you or harming you in some way, you should speak up. And who are the people that you can tell? Who are the safe adults that you can tell?
So part of this is really cultivating it from when we have children so that they know that it is not only okay to say when something is happening to you that’s not appropriate or that’s harmful, it’s your responsibility in taking care of yourself as well. We are all responsible for ourselves as adults, and our body is an amana, our self is an amana that we have to take care of ourselves. And so if something is hurting us, we need to do whatever it is that’s appropriate to address that and to fix it.
Dr Mattson: Sister Salma, you mentioned that Peaceful Families Project grew out of work that you had done with Faith Trust Institute (click here to learn more), which is a fantastic organization – has many decades worked on issues of domestic violence and clergy abuse. We all have used many of their resources and I encourage anyone who’s listening to this to look at their materials, to undergo training if they can – ‘Healthy Boundaries 101’ – we all took that together and that was fantastic. We have links to their materials on our website. One of the distinctions that Faith Trust makes when they are talking about boundary violations is between predators and what they call ‘wanderers.’ And you mentioned, Sister Salma, that there are many religious leaders who are not predatory; they’re well-intentioned, but they kind of fall into these boundary violations. Can you talk a little bit more about the distinction that is made between a predatory faith leader and a faith leader who falls into boundary violations?
Salma: A predatory faith leader is a person who goes into the role of being a faith leader, being a religious leader, because it will give that person access. So knowing that people are going to trust you and confide in you and that you will have access to people. And so people who are predatory go into multiple professions, or roles, it could be, you know, like a boy scout leader or a teacher, or even a therapist, or a faith leader – a person who really has a malicious intent. And it is really about having that power, not about serving. It’s about having that power and using that power for his or her own personal gain. And so that’s a predatory type of person.
A ‘wanderer’ is more of a person who really has gone into wanting to be a faith leader or a scholar to serve and to help others and may not have paid enough attention to those boundaries and finds himself or herself in this slippery slope. So it might start very, seemingly innocuously with ‘Because you’re so special and you do so much volunteer work in the congregation, I’m going to meet with you after hours; we’ll meet at 10:00 PM.’ And then the sessions run on for two-three hours. And then you start to disclose. You feel some sort of a connection with this community member and you yourself may be going through a hard time. And so now you’re sharing your own personal problems. Maybe you have marital problems. Maybe you’ve been through the same thing the community member has gone through. And now you’re turning to the community member for help. And so it’s like this gradual slippery slope that can lead to a very, a very bad end of [an unethical] marriage or sexual relationship or anything that’s a clear and egregious violation, but that wasn’t necessarily the intention upfront. It was just a matter of [metaphorically] ‘I didn’t lock my door. I didn’t close my windows.’ I just let everything in and everything out without paying attention to those boundaries.
Because many leaders fall into that category of potential wanders, it’s really important that these leaders have other leaders that they can talk to about their challenging experiences, the dilemmas that they might face, if a community member is asking them for some sort of special favor, or if they’re noticing that they’re feeling a particular way towards a community member. Tt’s really important for them to have trusted colleagues who understand the role – they’re in a similar role as religious leaders, and they can discuss with each other, so they can be a mirror for each other and remind each other. Again, if you have a good intention and you’re really just trying to help, it can be very easy to slide into helping without proper boundaries. And then you end up in a bad place. So if we’re consulting with colleagues, if our faith leaders are in some kind of either consultation group, or they just identify at least one other person that they can run things by, so that their friend, colleague, can help them see their blind spots and help them course-correct before they end up crossing, or violating, a boundary.
Dr Mattson: That’s such great advice.
Mihad: So I just, I had one last question. It’s a follow-up to the issue of community education. And you were talking about how very important it is for us as community members to understand the concepts of healthy boundaries and dual relationships. And certainly it’s something that we’re working towards with the Hurma Project. I’m just wondering if you have any other suggestions for resources that those who may be listening could turn to.
Salma: So one of the books that we had read in our ‘Healthy Boundaries’ class was At Personal Risk. (Click here to learn more about the book) I found that to be very helpful. I think even just generally people, you know, looking up boundaries and what they mean and how they can protect us in all of our relationships, because I think that when we understand it, even in our personal relationships, it helps us understand it in our relationships with professionals and with religious leaders, as soon as we remember that that religious leader is also a person.
Mihad: I did also find that book to be really useful: At Personal Risk and the author there is Marilyn Peterson. It covers a lot of different professional relationships and is really relevant to the conversation we’ve been having.
Dr Mattson: We’ve spoken with you Sister Salma about the importance of maintaining boundaries – maintaining boundaries really in all relationships – but in particular, in professional relationships, and in communities, the obligation of religious leaders to be aware of these boundaries and to maintain them. Some people might say that if we do all of this, we’re going to end up with a community that lacks a kind of – I don’t know – warmth, perhaps? Or maybe they think this is an imposition of a kind of Western cultural concept onto our communities that are used to more free-flowing relationships, let’s say. Where people like to invite religious leaders to their homes for meals and give gifts. So, what’s your opinion on that? Are there any downsides to this? Is this going to change the shape of our community? Or will this overall be a positive development if we become more aware of our boundaries?
Salma: So will it change the shape of our communities? Probably it will. Yes, in a way that is better. The idea of boundaries is not a Western concept at all. Islam is full of boundaries. The Qur’an has so many boundaries that are there to protect us from harm. So whether it’s the boundary of knocking on a door, or you know, not walking into a bedroom at noontime, in the middle of the day when people might be sleeping, or whether it’s the boundaries that Allah (SWT) revealed for the community members and how they should engage with the Prophet ﷺ who felt shy sometimes to tell people that he’s tired or he doesn’t have time, or it’s not the right time. And so, advising the community members – Allah (SWT) directly advising the community members – how they should engage with the Prophet ﷺ means that boundaries is part of our tradition, and every single boundary is there for our own protection, to protect us from sliding into situations that will ultimately cause us harm.
And so in the same way that we lock our doors – is that because we don’t want to have guests? Absolutely not. You know, when you and Mihad want to come visit me, I’m going to unlock my door. I’m going to open it wide and I’m going to want to host you in the best possible manner. And hopefully we’ll have a great time. But if you and Mihad walk in the middle of the night, I might think that you’re breaking in and I might call the police so that wouldn’t really be good. So boundaries are really important. They can help us to have even better relationships. And if I know that my religious leader is practicing and enforcing boundaries, I’m going to feel even safer because I know that whatever I say is going to remain confidential. I know that whatever I say is not going to be manipulated or used against me in some way or another for that person’s personal gain. I know that if I share that I happen to have a ton of money, I’m not going to imagine that this person is going to come and steal from me. So knowing that the boundaries are there makes people feel safer and the warmth – the potential for warmth – is maximized when the religious leaders are taking good care of themselves, when they feel good, when they’ve addressed their own family issues, and their own mental health issues, and their own physical issues – whatever it is they’re dealing with, when they’ve taken care of themselves, their capacity for warmth, their capacity for engagement will actually be maximized.
And so that’s the educational piece. And I suggest people try these things as experiments when they feel really new, or people are afraid that they might have a negative outcome. Try it for a week. Try practicing some healthy boundaries for a week and see how you feel. What do you notice? What difference does it make in your relationships? Do you feel safer if you lock your car door when you park it in the middle of city or do you feel safer when you leave your door unlocked? Just sort of paying attention to those things and then generalizing the boundaries that we find to be really helpful in our personal lives and imagining how that could be helpful in our relationships with our community leaders, with our faith leaders. But yes, it will definitely be different, but different can sometimes be really good.
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Mihad: Creating meaningful and sustainable change in any context requires a culture shift. When it comes to maintaining healthy boundaries within our Muslim communities and spaces, education for community members and leaders is a critical first step towards effecting such change. Part of this education involves understanding that anybody who holds power can misuse it and abuse it. This includes Imams, but it also encompasses male and female religious scholars, as well as board members. Our shift in culture also needs to make room for an understanding of self-care that is not fraught with guilt and feelings of selfishness. Both Muslim leaders and the boards that employ them need to recognize that self – care is intimately connected to community safety.
As Sister Salma explained Imams risk causing harm to others when they don’t fulfill their own needs, and when they hold themselves to an unattainable standard of altruism. Finally, we are seeking to create a culture in which support is offered to the person who speaks up and reports and abuse of power rather than one in which violations are covered up and victims are silenced. Sister Salma reminded us that while all of these changes in our culture may feel uncomfortable at first. The concept of boundaries is in fact part of our own Islamic tradition rather than a Western imposed construct.
We pray that as we increase our sense of safety, our capacity to be vulnerable with one another and enjoy the warmth of healthy community connections will only be enhanced in our next episode of the Hurma Project Podcast. We speak with Imam Abdul-Malik Merchant about the meaning of pastoral care in this dynamic context, transference and countertransference in counseling relationships, and the need for protocols to ensure the safety of those receiving care, as well as those delivering it. In the meantime, we invite you to visit our website Hurmaproject.com to learn more about our work and also to access some of the resources that we’ve mentioned in our conversations.
We would like to thank our funders Pillars Fund and the Waraich Family Foundation for supporting the work of the Hurma Project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton with assistance provided by Maram Albakri. If you found this episode to be beneficial and would like to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few 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 work of the Hurma Project. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you until then, assalamu alaykum.
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