When Sameera Qureshi was eight, she was sexually abused by a distant relative, another Muslim. She didn't fully understand that she'd been assaulted until she became a sexual health educator and began noticing triggers while working with abused children.
“I was 30 years old when I realised I am a survivor, 22 years after I was abused,” Qureshi said. “I can reflect back and now all the traumatic memories start to make sense. My body...has kept the score till this day as I continue to unravel and work through the trauma that my body has held for that many years.”
My body...has kept the score till this day as I continue to unravel and work through the trauma that my body has held for that many years
- Sameera Qureshi, sexual health educator
Qureshi joined Heart Women & Girls, a national organisation that works on sex education in the Muslim community. With groups like Heart, whose sex educators are all Muslim, organisers are raising awareness about sexual health and sexual violence within the community.
“For the past eight years I've been driven spirituality, mentally and physically to do sexual health education by prevention within my communities,” said Qureshi, director of sexuality education and training at Heart.
“While I do not speak for all Muslim survivors, I do see my experience as guiding my work till this day and I hold on to a verse of the Quran in which one simple sentence is repeated twice within six verses of one chapter: Verily with hardship comes ease.”
The organisation was co-founded by Nadiah Mohajir in 2009 after identifying a need in faith-based communities for sex education, as traditional programmes failed to meet their demands and religious programmes were almost non-existent or focused on topics like hygiene.
“Mainstream programmes alone were missing the mark because they weren't really giving students the space to think about how their religious and cultural worldview could fit into some of the topics they're talking about,” Mohajir said.
“So we founded it to merge what was happening in the mainstream world with public health education and put a cultural lens on it.”
The group provides a forum for Muslims to talk about issues that can often be taboo, working with mosques, campus chaplains and community centres as well as other organisations like Planned Parenthood and rape crisis centres to raise awareness among non-Muslims about the merits of culturally sensitive sex education.
Many of Heart's sessions open with passages from the Quran and Sunna that make references to sex, as a way to bust myths that perpetuate cultural sexism. Qureshi explained that Islam has a rich history of female scholarship that has been erased by male voices.
“Faith is not the problem,” she said. “It's the misinterpretation and misuse of religion. Female leaders are re-teaching a lot of men about justice, equality and equity of women's rights within Islam to bring forth that narrative.”
Faith is not the problem. It's the misinterpretation and misuse of religion
- Sameera Qureshi, HEART director of sexuality education and training
That has been heightened since the #MeToo hashtag flared, leading to more awareness about the sexual violence and abuse perpetrated against women.
But Qureshi says Muslims have a unique experience in the #MeToo era: They are “hyper-visible” in society, attacked by politicians and often targeted after attacks, and yet their unique experiences are rarely addressed.
“'Don’t report. I’ll be tried as a terrorist,'” Qureshi has often heard other women say, highlighting the complications of #MeToo for Muslim women.
“There's a great distrust of authority, of police. For people to come forward and use law enforcement it's much more challenging ... often not an option and sometimes that's used by perpetrators to silence victims. It's such a complex narrative for Muslim women within the #MeToo movement.”
Heart recognises that survivors of sexual abuse in religious communities, including Islam, face a different set of challenges, including issues with reporting the crimes.
“The fear of coming forward and shame that people experience, the denial... trauma... a lot of that is very similar across the board and not really specific to any one cultural or religious background,” Mohajir said.
“[But] in Muslim communities, victim blaming may take a religious shaming kind of framework where people falsely correlate certain religious traditions around modesty or gender segregation and use that to justify why the abuse occurred.”
Often times, religious tradition is exploited and misused to scare women into silence or submission. That includes justifying marital rape by referring to men's sexual rights as spouses or pointing to the tradition in Islam that says: "Give your brother 70 excuses when he makes a mistake."
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.