By Darakshan Raja
The past three days, I have seen my Facebook feed flooded with commentary on the video Somewhere in America. This video prompted a deep analysis from all sides of the aisle on the semantics, content, and the portrayal of the hijab. I have to admit, I am impressed by the level of engagement this video brought. However, what I haven’t seen is that same level of community interest in other issues that also impact Muslim women. While it’s good to have healthy conversations about the hijab and modesty-issues that are important to many-can we also start addressing other key issues that impact American Muslim women. For me, I found it ironic that as organizations, communities, and states organize around the world to commemorate the 16 days to end gender-based violence, we focused on addressing a 2 minute video with fashionable hijabis. As some were critiquing the video, other Muslim women around the world held a meeting to call on their heads of states to address religion and gender-based violence. At the same time, a young Muslim woman by the name of Malala Yousafzai helped become the catalyst for the passage of key international language at the UN that will for the first time ask states to address the protection of female human rights defenders-many who come from Muslim majority countries. So many inspirational changes on the international level that impact the lives of billions of individuals-spearheaded by Muslim women-and I barely heard someone even mention these. Therefore, hopefully some day we can give as much attention to other important areas that deserve community attention. I have listed some below.One such issue is gender-based violence. The images in this post include 4 major cases that have taken place within the past few years that have paved the road to shattering the denial that gender-based violence doesn’t exist in the American Muslim community. The names of these women are Noor Almaleki, Jessica Mokdad, Aasiya Zubair, and Nazish Noorani. The common thread among all 4 women is they were murdered after they disclosed their abuse to someone, and were in the process of leaving their abusive situations. Noor was killed by her father after he ran over her with a SUV. After interviewing the detective that investigated her case, he reported it was the local community and the family that misled detectives about where to start. During the trial, the local community deterred individuals from testifying about the extent of how abusive Noor’s father was. Mokdad was gunned down after she disclosed to her mother that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather. The stepfather tried to explain that he killed her because she was becoming too Westernized. A common excuse among abusers-use religion or culture to justify murder and abuse. Zubair was beheaded by her husband for leaving an abusive marriage. This case has been the only one to date to get a national community response. Perhaps, one reason is when a business executive is beheaded for leaving her abusive husband, it completely breaks the stereotype that it’s poor and underclass Muslim women who face abuse. On the contrary the murder of a highly educated women who was known to elite and privileged individuals proved that even belonging to a higher income strata isn’t a guarantee against the occurrence of abuse. Norani’s case is the quintessential example of the abuser that exploits post 9/11 discrimination and Islamophobia by presenting the murder of his wife as a hate crime to mislead investigators.
These are just some of the cases. We know there are others. When it comes to experiencing abuse, we know it’s a much more common experience for our community. While we don’t have much data, a PFP/Project Sakinah study did find 1 in 2 American Muslims reported experiencing abuse in their lifetime (http://www.projectsakinah.org/Resources-Tools/Research/2011-Survey/Survey-Results). This means at the baseline the problem is there. Yet, the stigma, shame, community retaliation, and victim-blaming are so pervasive that many individuals will rarely come forward out of the fear that they will be told they deserved it. Now couple that with a community that only has 71 organizations-not all of them direct services providers-that specialize in working with the Muslim community (http://www.apiidv.org/files/Muslim-ServiceProgramsDirectory-3.2011.pdf). Many of these organizations aren’t funded, are poorly staffed, and overworked. As the number of reported cases increase, will the brilliant minds of our community address funding shortages, build programming in our institutions, support the ways in which women are finding ways to address such issues, and in the next 50 years aim to build at least 10 more sustainable and comprehensive models of providing social services. While at it can we also cover some of the other forms of systemic and structural violence that are part of Muslim women’s experiences? We know that in a country with the most diverse set of Muslim women, we cannot continue to only examine oppression though someone’s Islamic identity. Race, gender, culture, tradition, class, immigration, sexuality, education, ethnicity, and so many more factors play into the types of barriers and challenges Muslim women navigate. We know there are so many other factors.
Finally if none of this matters and we would rather continue to analyze a video, then we need to have an honest assessment, as critical as the one that was inspired by the video of ourselves and our priorities. Whether we want to admit or not, somewhere in America, a Muslim girl recently committed suicide after being raped. Somewhere in America, a Muslim woman is sitting incarcerated in an immigration detention facility because she called 911 after she was beat by her husband. Somewhere in America, a Muslim mother just lost her job and is facing eviction as she raises her children by herself. Somewhere in America, a Muslim woman is waiting on hearing the next court date, the next time she can visit her child in prison, or find out how to raise the money to afford the fees for a lawyer. All this while, somewhere in America, there is someone consistently telling a Muslim woman that her hijab, imaan, and modesty isn’t right.