Why Many Muslim Women Feel They Can’t Say #MeToo

Sexual harassment, assault, rape, and even divorce are hush-hush topics in Muslim cultures.

It’s not because Muslim women don’t get harassed, abused, and even raped. They do. And it’s a big problem. But many Muslim women don’t feel like they can speak about sexual abuse out of fear of being judged and labeled “impure.”

That’s what happened to me. I wanted to use the hashtag MeToo. I wanted everyone to know that as a Muslim Arab-American woman, I too have been harassed. So I opened my Twitter account and composed a tweet. Then I deleted it. I did that three more times before I realized I wasn’t going to tweet anything—I felt scared and vulnerable.

The room was spinning with all the thoughts going through my head. All I wanted to do was tweet my voice, my experience, my frustrations. But I couldn’t. Instead, I started to reach out to other Muslim women in my social circles and found that most of them shared similar fears and concerns. In conservative communities, if a female’s reputation is scarred, then she will be looked down upon for the rest of her life.

I asked nearly a dozen female friends whom I know to have suffered from sexual abuse if they would be willing to share their #MeToo experiences with me in confidence. Initially, they all agreed. Some of them shared stories that are bone-chilling, while others burst into tears and ultimately weren’t able to tell their stories even in private.

All my Muslim friends were afraid of being labeled “bad women in society”—a label used for divorcees, rape survivors, and prostitutes. All those women are lumped together as non-virgins. That might sound ridiculous to some in 2017, but categorizing women is one of the easiest things in our cultures.

Here’s a rundown of reasons why a Muslim woman can’t easily join #MeToo:

  • She would face backlash from her family, relatives, and local community.
  • She would be blamed for causing a man to rape, harass, assault her.
  • She would be the center of gossip, harassment, and stigma in her community.
  • She would be labeled “not pure” and therefore not worthy of marriage.

And if a man were to propose to a woman who has “lost her purity,” he too would be looked down upon.

I spoke to several Muslim men and asked if they would consider marrying a woman who admitted to being a survivor of sexual harassment, assault, or rape. Most answered diplomatically. “I would marry her if I loved her without a doubt, but my family will have a problem with that,” one told me with an uncomfortable smile.

In the West, there is a common misconception that blames Islam for oppressing women. But the real issue is cultural, and not one originating from religious doctrine. Muslim women cannot speak out due to the misogynistic traditions that have been around for thousands of years—and there is absolutely no basis for that in the Qur’an.

Breaking our silence is a must, but without the right tools, #MeToo is counterintuitive for Muslim women. Family awareness, sexual education, and breaking the silence are needed to fix these deep cultural problems in my community.

Tune in to The Feed Tuesday night for our special coverage of #MeToo.