These last couple of weeks have been difficult for me as a Muslim woman who – in my own small way- advocates for the rights of women.
As an American woman, I watched the numerous Hollywood women come out and speak up against, Harvey Weinstein, who abused his power to sexually assault countless women. The abuse was only made worse because so many knew about the incidents and covered them up. I joined in the #metoo hashtag on Social Media and talked personally to friends who had gone through sexual harassment and/or abuse.
Earlier this month, a well-known Muslim (male) leader was also accused of abusing his position of power. The details of the incident haven’t been released so I cannot go into them fairly but what disappointed me was how so many within the Muslim communities responded to the accusations.
As the allegations surfaced, what was apparent was that women/survivors were being overlooked and ignored. The whole focus of this “scandal” was on the accused. People scrambled, figuring out ways to clear him of the claims made against him- making excuses for him. The survivors were forgotten. They were even cursed for creating divisiveness within the communities. The response to the women and those who dared to probe was vitriolic. Women who stood up to those silencing the survivors and focusing on the accused were treated the worst. And this treatment came from both men and women (yay internalized misogyny). It was fast becoming exhausting…the constant asking for the humanity of women.
There were those in the Muslim community, who protected the accused, and dismissed the vulnerable and rightfully indignant by using phrases like “forgive the offender”, “stop spreading gossip”, “don’t create fitnah“*, and “focus on individual spirituality.”
Some of the arguments made were that Social Media should not have been used as a platform to call out injustices, and that its anonymous nature made it unfit to deal with heavy accusation. One can argue that Social Media is the very platform that has given voice to the marginalized/survivors, bypassing mainstream media which has long protected the powerful.
Once there was a little bird that lived during the times of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). When Ibrahim was thrown into a fire by the tyrant, King Nimrod, the bird was horrified. She spread her wings and soared to a nearby river, where she scooped and filled her beak with water. The bird carried these small drops to the fire, trying to extinguish it before going back for more. However, the water she fetched was not enough to subdue the raging flames.
A larger bird laughed at the bird and asked: “Where are you carrying the water?”
The little bird said, “To put out the fire around Prophet Ibrahim.”
The larger bird laughed louder.
“You are so small and can only carry a few drops of water at a time, do you realize that it is hopeless?”
The little bird, calm, replied, “When I meet with God, God will not ask me whether I managed to put out the fire or not. But God will ask what I have done to stop the fire.”
Another tactic used to dismiss the accusations was to imply that conversations coming out of the allegations were anti-spiritual. There were calls to the broader Muslim community to stop discussing toxic leadership and the abuse of power and, instead, to focus on our own individual spirituality. They believe that calling out injustices and working on social justice issues is wasteful and takes away from “real worship.” But I believe that one cannot simply ignore a blatant injustice and focus only on personal spirituality or spiritual growth when the injustice directly affects them, someone they love, or the marginalized in the community. We do not live in a vacuum; our spirituality is connected to well-being of others. To me, individual spirituality (and even worship) is the practice of developing beliefs around the meaning of life and our connection with others.
They also claimed that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) would not have publicly called out the accused individuals, which is false; the Prophet (PBUH) would have dealt with a situation like this in a public sphere, especially when it came to encroaching on the rights of others. He would have called on all parties and listened to everyone involved, to ensure that justice was served.
“O ye who believes, be the supporters of justice and testify to what you may have witnessed, for the sake of God, even against yourselves, parents, and relatives; whether it be against the rich or the poor. God must be given preference over them. Let not your desires cause you to commit injustice. If you deviate from the truth in your testimony, or decline to give your testimony at all, know that God is Well Aware of what you do.” (Quran 4:135)
An additional way to dismiss the women/accusers was to say that there were bigger problems- starvation, war, and natural disasters- out there than to worry about these “distractions.” But this is so anti-human, how can we judge what oppression is worse and which oppression is worth listening to? There are many worse things that happen to people all over the world, yes, but this is no reason to ignore and dismiss the voice of those who ask for justice. Not to mention, I can’t imagine telling survivors that their suffering was not important enough to address.
When all else failed, there were individuals that verbally abused the survivors and those who stood with them. Many of those who abused the survivors and accusers are devout followers of the infamous Muslim leader. These individuals are unable to admit that their hero worship is possibly misplaced and that this is the main reason that they are unwilling and unable to listen objectively to the other side.
Progress is being made. This incident has led to the support of many women-led organizations that address spiritual abuse and other abuses of power. There are also calls for more women leadership within the Muslim communities.
I hope the future holds open dialogue, honesty and justice for all individuals, not just the privileged. And I pray that on the Day of Judgment, I will be able to tell God that I did the best I could.
Sabina Khan-Ibarra is a writer and Muslim Feminist (she is still working on a definition of Feminist that fits her ideology) who advocates and demands equal rights and space for women in all scopes. She is a writer and editor with work published on BlogHer, Huffington Post, and other outlets. She is currently a MFA candidate for non-fiction creative writing at SFSU.