Islam and Honour Abuse

Over the last year, I’m delighted to have made some great strides mental health-wise in continuing to heal from some pretty painful life experiences. I’ve become stronger in my purpose of helping others who might need support in identifying, escaping and recovering from honour abuse, and I’m glad that people finally appear to be paying attention to the issues involved, although there is much work yet to do. There’s little doubt, however, that a great deal of this interest from many quarters stems from the fact that I am quite willing at times to link Islam to my story as a cause or reason for the abuse.

I was interviewed recently by a PhD student in criminal justice from the US, whose research on institutional responses to honour abuse will be used to inform policy there. I definitely do not include this lovely woman as being one of those parties who is only interested in hearing what I have to say for its reinforcement of prejudiced thinking. But she did ask as part of her pre-prepared questions (as it was absolutely right of her to do given the current political climate) if I thought honour abuse had anything to do with religion. It was, of course, a loaded question. I immediately gave my stock answer, which went along the lines of “honour abuse happens in many different communities, regardless of religion.” I cited statistics publicised by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit demonstrating that they had handled cases from 60 countries in 2012 alone, including Ukraine. In this report from Refuge it is made clear that honour abuse takes place in a wide range of communities (I focus on forced marriage here as opposed to other types of honour abuse as the statistics were easier to find and share):

“…research reveals that a wide range of communities outside of the South Asian diaspora experience forced marriage, including: orthodox/fundamental religious communities in the UK; Irish traveller women; Armenian, Turkish and some mainland Chinese communities; Eastern European communities; African communities (such as Eritrean, Sudanese, Sierra Leonean and Mozambiquean); and AfricanCaribbean communities. This is consistent with evidence presented to the Government during a consultation on the criminalisation of forced marriage – A Wrong Not a Right (FCO et al. 2006). Although 65 per cent (n=45) of forced marriage cases were identified by respondents as being from the Indian sub-continent, many other geographical locations were also mentioned once, including: Egypt, Poland, Malaysia, Kenya, Ireland, Nigeria, Jordan, Yemen, South East Asia, Greece, Syria and Africa (FCO, 2006).”

This is all of course true. Despite these facts however, I look back on my own experiences and I know that religion was used as justification for absolute control and horrific abuse. Some awful things were done to me by my family. Despite the huge amount of deeply personal stuff I’ve already shared online, I have not gone near the worst of it, and I’m pretty sure I never will. I share just enough to strike a balance between the need to express myself in order to heal; to raise awareness so that others who may be in the same situation can understand that they are not alone, and most importantly, to give meaning and purpose to pain so intense that it would otherwise kill me if I did not speak out.

But I digress; the point is that I was made to understand the absolute inferiority of my place as a female in my family, and when I was old enough and had learned how to ask questions about this without courting further abuse (because to question the rules of oppression would be to question absolute authority), I was told that this was the way things are in Islam. The head of our family apparently said once that ‘women bring nothing but shame, from the day they are born, until the day they are buried.’ In my personal experience, intense abuse was closely linked with religious rhetoric.

Still it’s difficult to deny that in a post 9/11 age, there is a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry, in the media and on the streets. It has been convenient for me at many stages in my life, right up until recently, to blame all of Islam for my woes. At one point, during a Facebook ‘debate’ with a close family member, I admit I even said this:

“I for one am no longer interested in marketing some kind of mythical, progressive form of Islam by denying the atrocities that are happening everywhere in the Muslim world, and here, because of the rules it imposes on every, single aspect of a woman’s life. I reserve the right to wear what I want, date who I want and sleep with who I want (or not – it’s my choice), because these are the freedoms offered to me as a Scottish citizen. These are freedoms denied to too many women raised in ‘Muslim’ families practicing ‘twisted interpretations’ of the good book. Tell me, where are the good Muslim families that allow their women such freedom? What of the Arab Spring? Forgive me if I’ve become cynical. Yes it happens in other religions, but the followers of other religions have not taken it upon themselves to protect medieval practices to the extent that so many people have died in its name; in other religions, critical thinking and dialogue are valued to a much greater degree than it ever has been in Islam.”

I was very angry when I said it, but even when I look back now, I think the only sentence I would retract would be the one asking where the good Muslim families are. I made a damaging generalisation because of my own experiences and I had become deeply frustrated and disillusioned. I am also not a religious scholar, and I have not carried out a comparative analysis of how many people have died in the name of one religion as compared to another. The phrase ‘Muslim world’ represents no one community definitively.

Other members of my family (who were also not satisfied with answers given to them about a religion that placed a stranglehold on every aspect of their lives) did their own research and found comfort in their discoveries about Islam. They experimented with the hijab and were invigorated by the possibility of living a freer, more progressive life as a Muslim. I was quite shocked the first time I stated what I thought was obvious about my not being a Muslim to a close relative… She asked me, ‘But how does any of that make you a non-Muslim?’ Had she met me?! By that time I was drinking, delighting frequently in not wearing very much (I’m talking faux leather mini-skirts, backless tops, sky high heels – jeez even in the description I delight in it!), smoking, clubbing, having sex… the list goes on. This was only the very start of our many disagreements on this, which sadly ended in our estrangement.

For a short time at the start of my writing career, I did engage in what I believe many people with a Muslim background were and are still doing – marketing this new model of progressive Islam, one practiced by women who revel in their choice to wear or not wear the veil, to love and marry whomever they choose, to follow their own career path and generally celebrate their own autonomy. I genuinely wish them well – it is not an easy task to forge a feminist Muslim identity when you are surrounded by Islamic extremists, or Islamists as they are now known, out-and-out racists, and anti-Muslim bigots. I look at many of the fierce online debates on taken on by people like Raquel Saraswati, Iram Ramzan or Lejla Kuric and am appalled by the abuse they face on a regular basis simply for being women who identify as Muslim and who accept the need to actively campaign for critical reflection of religious practice.

I personally have not chosen that path, because I find my spiritual appetite satisfied completely by the writings of authors like Neale Donald Walsch, Dr Brian Weiss and a host of other self-help gurus. I have said before that ‘religion demands that you wage a war on your own soul and call it a holy battle; a lifelong test of your will to fend off autonomy’. So it’s clear that I am not a Muslim. I do not even call myself an ex-Muslim, because I never practiced by choice. Hell, I faked my period for two years before they actually started just so I could get out of reading namaaz.

But I will say this: I have nothing if not a right to question, criticize and ridicule any type of Islam that seeks to oppress women in the same way I was. I am deeply angered by those who dare to suggest that my story (and others like it) fuels anti-Muslim bigotry and that I too could be deemed an anti-Muslim bigot. There are those who claim to provide a platform and a voice to marginalised individuals in one breath, and then in the next accuse a survivor of the Bosnian anti-Muslim genocide of being ‘Islamophobic’ before blocking her on social media, simply because she very politely questioned an editorial decision to publish a post defending gender segregation in UK universities, written by a spokesperson for an extremist organisation! You couldn’t make this shit up!

I do understand that with my often explicit writing about sex and open support for criticism of many issues to do with Islam, I would not be considered the strongest ally for those who wish to continue countering the racist vitriol out there, especially by those who do identify themselves as Muslim. But that in no way detracts from the fact that there are, like my abusers, many, many people out there carrying out horrific atrocities in the name of Islam, on both a personal and political level. It does not detract from the fact that any conceptualisation of Islam as a benign, inclusive and progressive religion that may have existed (and I scoff at the notion) has been utterly decimated. And it certainly does not bode well for Islam if the only way for those who do wish to counteract anti-Muslim bigotry is to join in denial of abuse in Muslim communities, in the same way as Islamic extremists themselves are doing! And I see this being done in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I look at tweets like the one below and am reminded of accusations towards me that I’m simply being used as a puppet.

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 14.38.42These people can, quite frankly, go fuck themselves for dismissing the possibility that I might, just might, have some agency and a passion for raising awareness! I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly anti-Muslim taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

There has to be a balance and there has to be a sense of reason. Yes there is anti-Muslim bigotry. But there is also a number of deeply worrying issues in the Muslim community that are being ignored and that are, through denial and inaction, adding fuel to the fire. I leave you with one final thought. In the little work I’ve done so far to set up a mental health service for honour abuse victims, I have observed some striking parallels in the issues within Islam that are being sensationalised today, and those within the Catholic community historically. Oppression of women, child abuse, forced marriage – all occur within that narrative too. The same issues can be found in all religions that by definition dictate a code of behaviour that devalues autonomy and judges, often with harsh punishment, those who do not follow the prescribed code. It’s no bad thing that Islam is flavour of the month for rooting all these issues out – it’s time to get them out in the open and fucking deal with it like grown-ups.

12 thoughts on “Islam and Honour Abuse

  1. Hi I think all of you miss understandng Islam .please let me explain some thing really confused Muslims and non Muslim .Islam it’s spread in three(3) categories 1bel

  2. Requiring four male witnesses to obtain a rape conviction sends a subtle but clear message that the law is completely unenforceable. The intent of such a law is clearly not the administration of justice, but rather the decriminalization of rape. With the community providing no effective legal barriers, the standards of behavior will gradually decline.

    Faced with the inconceivable possibility that the moral equilibrium of the entire community has been corrupted, a state of collective denial will take over, allowing the group to rationalize situations that would otherwise be considered completely unjust to an outsider. The effect over time is a gradual and imperceptible desensitization.

  3. Salam.

    I just read the article with you featured in it, in the Telegraph. I am sorry for what you experienced but also I think you are cool…but please report the rapes you said you experienced to the police if you have not done so already; it was not okay that it happened…

    By the way I am a white british convert muslim (female) but I am Quran-only (still read the Bible too) as I have always rejected Hadith as man-made fabrications that distort THE TRUTH. I left christianity because of the Jesus worship and thought islam was different but the sunnah is all about worshipping muhammad it seems and I felt I was back where I started. At first I copied other muslims and I was like a sunni at first, even thought about taking a ‘muslim name’ and all that lol. But not anymore…I don’t wear the hijab anymore, have gone back to drinking alchohol in moderation, I hang out with men if I want to…although of course I still try to live modestly and moderately and I wish to follow the marriage and financial laws of the Quran. I still believe, have always believed in God as the THE ONE and an afterlife for those who uphold this. Some things are still sacred…I don’t believe in sex before marriage and I would like to marry someone who also holds the Quran to be divine…most of us seem to concentrate around freeminds.org if you wish to check in 🙂

    Us ‘Quran-aloners’ seem to avoid sunni muslims like the plague, they consider us muslims as infidels and wish us harm it seems. They are infuriated that we have taken an open-minded interpretation on several verses so that we can see the truth i.e. that the Quran does not specifically forbid alchohol, ordain 5 prayers, forbid muslim women from marrying non-muslims or give men the right to beat their wives etc. I have found such peace from this new way of thinking, mashallah.

    Well this was supposed to only be a short note to say hi, oh well…
    God Bless x

  4. It is really heartening and hopeful to hear voices from within islam. Islam is not only pushing its own people especially women into an abyss it is creating a monster for all. Islam is a closed room with no opening. Either Islam should introspect and change or must be abandoned.

  5. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to read your writing. So cliché but it really is a breath of fresh air. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of my issues regarding Islam, control & disownment, and one of the hardest parts is figuring out how on earth to articulate the experience. I’m very conscious that people might use my story to further an anti muslim agenda and that makes me so uncomfortable. Equally I know some Muslims will take offence to my writing. But more significant than either of those things are the women suffering the kind of manipulation and control that I escaped – they are the reason I’ve started to write. Thank you for your honesty, I loved this x

  6. Shaheen, as you know we feel this article is brilliant. Regarding the Islamic component of abuse, we have to ask, does Islam create the atmospherics and for want of a better word the attitudes for abusive oppression to happen? I think it can be argued that Islam certainly encourages a set of attitudes and sanctions power relations that put in place a structure for abuse to occur when these attitudes and relations are challenged by women. Islam does teach that women are the property of men, that they are subservient to men, that a woman’s value is contained in her ‘modesty’, honour and chastity as defined by men.

    So does Islam reinforce cultural attitudes that are discriminatory and lead to abuse? I think so. Where dissent, individual conscience, the things that are needed to break abuse taboos, are viewed as challenging structures and attitudes that support religion. Where religion and culture become intertwined so closely, it is simply disingenuous to suggest that religion should not be examined for its culpability in the abuse of women.

    • Hi there! Thank you for your important comment, and apologies for the very long reply! You know, this is a question I’ve been wrangling with for a very long time, as I know many others have too. After all, how can you argue that Islam (like other religions) does not devalue women given its seemingly clear view on how they should be treated? Up until recently there would have been no debate on this for me.

      But over the last year I have been getting to know a tiny number of people who are making me open up to a slightly new perspective on things. All of them are women, some of whom I know personally, whereas the others are campaigners, activists or writers. They all caught my attention firstly because they identified as Muslim and they demonstrated real tolerance for differences of opinion or lifestyles.

      For example, I am really interested in shaking things up when it comes to talk about sex. I honestly feel that for some idiots out there the words ‘woman’ and ‘sex’ could be used interchangeably, so much do they objectify and demean women. They are the same people who are so terrified and ashamed of their own sexuality that they refuse to acknowledge it, relinquishing responsibility for their sexual feelings and behaviour to the object of their desires. This attitude promotes rape. I am a rape survivor who has been assaulted several times (yes, on top of everything else!), and I have only recently begun to really reclaim my own sexuality in a healthy way. In the interests of celebrating that and healing from my bad experiences, as well as fighting sexual shame, promoting intimacy and body confidence, and open communication about sex, I often post a lot of sexually explicit stuff online. I also continue to enjoy wearing provocative clothing (although it’s nowhere near as racy as the stuff I used to wear!).

      The Muslim women I met, despite not knowing the reasons why I do all of this, didn’t bat an eyelid. They accepted me exactly the way I was, without judgement or criticism. It was a complete non-issue, as was my alcohol consumption, clubbing, obsession over a man that other Muslim people I’ve known would have frowned upon as inappropriate… the list goes on. One of them even begged me to write a sex manual for Muslim women! Most importantly, they also accepted the urgent *need* for Islam to be roundly criticised and called to account for its crimes against women.

      I’ve come to realise that people do exist (albeit about 4 that I know of!) who are appropriating religion for the purpose I believe that it was intended – to be a guide, not a dictatorship; to give a sense of identity, and inclusion in a wide community. These people are exhausted and they are weary, because they’re facing abuse from all sides in the struggle to re-write the rule book on how Islam “should” be practiced.

      Some will say that I’m naive to think differently about Islam given that my expanding perspective is due to just a handful of people. But I am hopeful that they will grow in number and perhaps begin to change some of those damaging cultural attitudes. Who knows, perhaps in time it might give Islam the revolution it so desperately needs to avoid the collapse of civilisation as we know it. But then again, others may say, ‘it’s too late.’

      • If and when religion can be liberal enough to accommodate difference and dissent there is hope. And that is possible in a scenario where individuals can reconcile their religion with their free conscience.

        But moving away from Islam and speaking of religion more widely, every single advance that women have made in the modern era in terms of liberty, freedom, sexuality, and the escaping of honour-shame codes has been achieved when religion had its power curtailed. On an institutional, structural level, and on an individual grassroots level too. The ability to reject and criticise religion without taboo can be mapped directly onto the advancement of Women’s Rights in a given society.

        Happy New Year by the way, I have a feeling 2014 is going to be awesome for you and I hope it brings more excellence in the form of your writing on these issues! xx

  7. Hi Shaheen

    This has got to be my favourite post of yours so far. Being quite critical of Islam myself, it has worried me that others who shared my views appear only to be interested in propagating hate (which is one of my fundamental criticisms of Islam) which undermines legitimate concerns.

    There is a balance to be struck, but no religion should be above questioning, if its followers are doing horrific things in its name then we have a right to question it. Its often argued that these individuals do not represent Islam and their actions are a result of culture. this may be true to an extent, but you make such a valid point in that these actions are sanctioned by the religion. The idea that women are inferior underpins most Islamic thinking (and other religions too) this manifests itself in different ways across different cultures and communities but in some cases the results are brutal That is why post such as this are so important.

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen this but your post basically articulated my thoughts after reading this:
    http://www.annemariewaters.org/latest-blog/

    Thanks Shaheen!

    Sabbah xxx

    • Sabbah thank you so much for your comment, it’s much appreciated. It’s really true what you say about people arguing that abuse is not part of Islam so it’s therefore not a Muslim issue, but a cultural issue. I’ve had that thrown in my face so many times and it really angers me, because it’s nothing more than a big fat cop-out and a denial of any responsibility! Does this criticism mean I hate the religion, or blame it for all our woes? No! That would do a huge disservice to survivors of honour abuse who were not raised in Muslim households, of whom there are a great many! Anyway I’ll stop ranting again – I’m glad this all came across to you in the post, and thank you for the link, I will definitely have a look 🙂 xx

  8. It’s so uplifting to read such a well balanced, inclusive, and compassionate piece on oppression. One which looks at the issues and doesn’t flinch at where responsibility lies. This is a great contribution to the discourse and one which benefits everyone, Im so glad there are people like you in the world Shaheen. Thank you

    • Thank you Mandy, I appreciate it. I just think that all sides are so fearful of not being heard that they reject anything but full support of their ideologies, which means that deeply problematic issues are swept under the carpet – adding fuel to an already roaring fire! I’m glad that this seems to have come across! X

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