• Tasneem Chopra. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
Sexual misconduct allegations involving prominent Muslim leaders have highlighted the need for urgent action on #metoo in religious communities.
Tasneem Chopra

26 Feb 2018 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2018 - 9:40 AM

Revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault have rocked the entertainment, corporate and political sectors. The Muslim community has not been immune to this phenomenon, with some prominent male leaders and scholars around the world, being accused of and admitting to such misconduct.

In the process, Muslim discourse here has largely mirrored that of broader, Western society, in creating a binary: condemnation of the abusive behaviour as well as a well-established narrative of victim blaming and shaming.

The emotional, psychological, even physical toll to women is immeasurable, in part because of the silence and stigma that accompanies such traumas. 

Social media outlets have been ablaze with  debates surrounding two prominent Muslim scholars regarding allegations of sexual impropriety.

The noted French academic Tariq Ramadan has been accused of the serious charge of rape by more than one woman.

Ramadan, an internationally renowned intellectual focusing on Western Muslim communities, is a popular draw card for major Muslim conferences across North America, Europe and to some extent, Australia.

In light of both the shock surrounding the news of the allegations, many Muslims have looked to the various organisations that routinely invite Ramadan as a speaker to their events as to whether they will continue to do so, although that issue is a moot point now as he is held in remand awaiting trial. 

Still, at a minimum, people are waiting to see if any official statement from these community organisations will be made as to whether Ramadan will remain a welcome participant, or whether they will issue a declarative statement on the allegations. 

The vast majority of Muslim organisations have remained silent.  

Blanket scorn for the accusers and investigation process only affirms the hyper masculinity still operating in certain contemporary  Muslim western circles.

It is worth noting, as these allegations await a court hearing, many women who have used this time online to share experiences of similar abuse and express solidarity for the struggle of the female victims, who have found themselves subject to vilification and shaming. 

Ironically, supporters of the accused maintain the charges are a witch hunt.

Blanket scorn for the accusers and investigation process only affirms the hyper masculinity still operating in certain contemporary  Muslim western circles.

Indeed, women often bear the burden of guilt until innocence is proven, even as alleged victims of impropriety.

Then there is the case of Nouman Ali Khan, a prominent North American speaker and Quran instructor, who confessed of inappropriate interactions with various women last year, violating agreed upon bounds of Islamic law.

Despite admissions of guilt, many of his supporters have not only maintained their allegiance to Khan, they have simultaneously impugned the reputation of his victims.

They took to the sacred texts selectively to invoke Islamic principles against besmirching the reputation of their hero, while depriving the aggrieved and affected women of a similar benefit of the doubt.

This stigmatisation of those even purportedly vindicated for being truthful has a chilling effect on any woman who seeks to come forward.

Equally noxious, however, is silence by organisations, tantamount to tacit endorsement and acceptance of the perpetrator’s narrative.

In Khan’s case,  there were several interventions by prominent Muslim leaders and organisations. The allegations levied against him were taken seriously, and efforts were made to maintain the delicate balance of affording Khan the presumption of innocence, while avoiding the often paralytic demand upon the accusers of further trauma.

After Khan reneged on mutually accepted conditions, national Muslim leaders came forth with powerful statements refuting the revisionist narrative Khan attempted to assert to rehabilitate his now shattered credibility.

Greater and equitable representation by women on governing boards is crucial, but requires greater commitment than tokenistic appointments.

The leaders’ declaration carried considerable weight among a sizable portion of the North American Muslim community.

And yet, as early as last week there have been invitations to Khan, issued by European Muslim organisations who are now the focus of women’s advocacy measures in the United States, calling out the problematic nature of such support and urging these organisations to reconsider such an invitation.

The Nouman Ali Khan episode brings into specific relief the importance of how Muslim organisations manage allegations of sexual misconduct in ways that are constructive to the community, and most importantly, maintain the dignity of the affected victims within Islamic constructs of dispute resolution.

It further affirms the fact that Muslim organisations operate in many ways as a governing structure for the community, providing numerous functions.

In Western countries, these Muslim organisations serve important roles for the so-called Muslim diaspora populations. 

They furnish a critical function of representing the community, providing programming, as well as the edification of Muslim identity in both challenging times and in periods of relative normalcy.

As a result of logistical necessity, legal and administrative realities and the pervading corporate culture of society, these organisations are established as de facto governing bodies that resemble corporations and, unsurprisingly, can reflect similar patriarchal dominance in composition.

It is therefore critical for these organisations, as they are and will be increasingly called upon to address and rectify matters of sexual harassment and assault within the Muslim community, to first re-evaluate their underlying culture of gender relations and inequality within these organisations.

Beyond the sensationalist headlines and obsessive internet discourse about the sexual misconduct allegations involving Khan and Ramadan, these episodes allow the opportunity to interrogate the crisis management mechanisms of Muslim organisations.

The starting point for any such assessment process is to examine the underlying culture for each organisation; this includes a survey of whether its structural modalities militate against gender sensitivity.

Greater and equitable representation by women on governing boards is crucial, but requires greater commitment than tokenistic appointments.

There needs to be a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse.

In addition, Muslim organisational resources must be allocated to the mechanisms that respond to sexual abuse trauma incidents, including the provision of safe spaces.

Lastly, there needs to be a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse.

This requires our women to not only be given voice but space to come forth and have their traumas heard and accepted.

Prominent US activist and lawyer Rabia Chaudry, who has represented sexual assault survivors summarises the point, ‘We know women who have never been able to be public about their experiences and who will go to the grave with their secrets.  And because we know, we believe them. Don’t let anyone shame you for believing them. Believing them gives other survivors courage and it validates our collective, historic experience as women who know what it is like to be victimised first by an assaulter, then by those who don’t believe survivors”.

The recent spate of sexual abuse and sexual impropriety incidents have affirmed that the Muslim community and some of its most visible and prominent figures are far from immune to this affliction.

It is the community that must police itself and take any and all measures to prevent further damage to its women.

Grassroots movements are helpful, but Muslim organisations must recalibrate existing mechanisms to optimise their own role if they are to maintain their leadership and authority. They can do this by being gender representative, and pro-active for change. Silence or inaction is complicity.

Tasneem Chopra is chairperson for the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights. 

This is an edited extract of a speech made at Sydney University Law School’s Muslim Women and Agency in the Australian context symposium, held on the 21 and 22 of February.

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