Like many Muslim American families, Zahra, 23, never had the sex talk with her parents. Sex was something she said didn’t exist in her family. So when Zahra took a family trip to a Middle Eastern Muslim country when she was in high school, she left with a secret that she couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents for over five years.
One day during the trip, Zahra bid her family goodbye as she walked to the nearby fruit stand. She had been to that fruit stand numerous times throughout the trip and had noticed that the owner’s son always looked at her. But she never thought anything of it. After all, she was only 15. On that particular day, though, only the owner’s son was working at the stand. As Zahra walked away, the owner’s son chased her down with three of his friends. They sexually assaulted her. When Zahra returned to her parents, her clothes were dirty, but she pretended that she had just fallen down while walking.
“I felt like I was the only one I could put blame on because I couldn’t blame people I didn’t know,” Zahra said. “It was my fault I was there at the wrong time. I messed up and I wasn’t clean anymore.”
Zahra did not want to identify her last name for privacy reasons and asked not to specify the country she was abused in as to not perpetuate stereotypes.
Sex is a taboo subject in many Muslim American families and many victims of sexual abuse, like Zahra, don’t feel comfortable coming forward. Of course, this isn’t exclusively a Muslim problem, as Shamsi Ali, the imam at the Jamaica Muslim Center, points out. He doesn’t think the lack of conversation around sex is a Muslim issue exclusively. Instead, he thinks the taboo surrounding sex is cultural.
“Sex is considered human nature,” Imam Ali said. “Sex is not considered dirty or against Islam, but it’s about how to organize that need.”
However, South Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims might be more hesitant to report their abuse because they are afraid of being shamed by their culture, added Imam Ali, who offers marriage counseling and discussion groups for women at the Muslim center he leads. Sexual abuse has not come up in his marriage counseling, he says, or in the discussion groups that he’s held at the center.
Zahra, a graduate of Columbia University, said she never anticipated telling her parents what happened to her. For the few years that followed the incident, she unleashed a lot of anger and frustration onto her family. “I stopped smiling for awhile,” she said. And her parents didn’t understand why.
When she finally told her parents what had happened during their family vacation, she said her mother cried for hours and it was the first time she said she saw her father cry. After telling her parents, Zahra started feeling more comfortable to share her story with others. She learned that she wasn’t alone in her experience and came across friends at Columbia University who were sexually abused.
“They had gone through experiences in a worse way where they had gone through sexual abuse by family members, which is a completely different problem,” said Zahra. “You can’t say anything because your parents might not believe you. It’s a family thing.”
Navila Rashid, 26, a social worker and therapist for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, said she has also experienced sexual assault throughout her childhood by a family friend and a third cousin. Rashid thinks that not talking about sex in the Muslim community perpetuates the problem.
“Men want to have a sense of power and the best way to have power is to suppress sexuality,” Rashid said. “Don’t talk about sex because apparently talking a lot about it is going to encourage people to have more sex and sex is forbidden before marriage.”
But Rashid thinks that by not talking about sex, it normalizes abuse and in turn, allows for the people who commit these crimes to continue unquestioned. Through her work as a therapist, Rashid has noticed that every client who is a victim of sexual abuse thinks that what happened is their fault. The first step is making sure that victims realize it’s not their fault, Rashid said.
Both Rashid and Zahra are coming forward with their experiences in a public way. They are sharing their experiences on camera as part of a documentary entitled, Breaking Silence, that documents the stories of Muslim American women who have been assaulted sexually. Nadya Ali, a New York City filmmaker and director of the documentary, first decided to pursue this topic when she learned that a close family friend was sexually abused as a child. When interviewing Rashid, Zahra and the other women in her documentary, Ali found that shame was a common theme.
“It might be a heightened shame to come out about it to your family,” Ali said. “For us, your parents or your own family are the last people you want to tell. You don’t want them to look at you differently or treat you differently.”
The documentary is set to debut in summer 2016. And Zahra and Rashid both participated in this documentary in hopes of creating a dialogue around sexual abuse in the Muslim American community and that by sharing their story, they would reach others who have similar experiences.
“We have to understand collectively as a community that these things happen and it’s not okay,” Zahra said. “The struggle and silence is so much harder when you don’t have people talk to.”