“For many Muslim women, cultural pressures mean it’s difficult to speak out about sexual abuse, but inspired by big names such as Salma Hayek, they are finding ways to have their own#MeToo moment.
While some people have criticised the way the movement has focused on celebrities, it should be applauded for creating a support community for women for whom it’s harder to raise a voice, and encouraging women who would have otherwise suffered in silence to speak out.
Behind every hashtag or article by a big name star, a thousand stories that would have remained unsaid are being told. Whether it’s a newspaper article, or whisper from behind a veil, these voices are finally getting heard.
Ironically, many Muslim women were inspired to speak out after a controversial opinion piece written by Big Bang Theory actress Mayim Bialik, which suggested dressing modestly and ‘not being pretty’ protected you from unwanted attention. The idea that there is a direct correlation between how you are dressed and how muchharassment you face is a guilt trip most Muslim women live with every day.
As someone who has faced more harassment as a nerdy teenager with braces and salwar kameez than I ever have in my Karen Millen biker and skinny jeans, the idea that modest dress acts like some kind of a pervert repellent is another example of misplaced victim blaming that women, not just of Muslim backgrounds face.
Hafsa Quraishi, a 20-year-old student from Tampa, spoke out to challenge the misconception that women who dress modestly are somehow immune from harassment. She said the #MeToo hashtagalso helped her to come to terms with her experience of being assaulted in a crowded market at the age of 12, while on holiday in Pakistan.
“Like many women, I’ve had multiple experiences with sexual harassment. I don’t think many women knew the range of what counts as sexual harassment before #MeToo. The one I was referring to in my tweet was the only one I’ve always acknowledged as being sexual harassment: my chest was groped in a market when I was 12.
“#MeToo made me think about it and for the past few months I’ve been constantly telling myself that it happened and that it’s okay to say that. I guess I always felt really embarrassed that it happened to me, especially at 12… I just felt that it was my fault to an extent.”
However, many women have found safe spaces to take the first tentative steps towards opening up about their own stories behind the #MeToo hashtag in private, culturally-specific Facebook groups.
Ayesha* said: “I was sexually abused by my Uncle and it’s always been my family’s dirty secret, but the burden of slience has always been on me. My mum was scared of my dad’s reaction because it was her brother, but also scared of the backlash from the community. There was family pressure to hide it otherwise the girls in our family would be tainted and our virginity would have a question mark over it.
“When I saw the #MeToo hashtag, I felt envious and admiration for the women brave enough to speak out. I was too scared to write something on Twitter, but still wanted my opportunity to say #MeToo. It wasn’t so much to be acknowledged by others, but to own my experience of abuse.”
Zamiha Desai, Founder of RecommendAsian, a closed group for Asian women which has more than 53,000 members, said: “Closed groups are a safe place to speak. It’s important that these kinds of environments exist. Talking more openly will dispel taboos slowly but surely.”
Lawyer Abda Khan works with victims of sexual abuse and honour based violence, and said the fear of being ostracised or even punished was a silencer for Muslim women.
“The main hurdle Muslim women face is that they will bring dishonour to their families if they disclose abuse. Every woman I have personally come across whose been raped or sexually assaulted has never gone to the police because of family honour. Often they don’t tell anyone and when they do, they’re blamed or even punished so the abuse is kept secret.”
Now Muslim women are hoping the #MeToo effect will be the start of building towards changing attitudes towards sexual abuse, but acknowledge that there is a long way to go. Nabila Fowles-Gutierrez, whose work as a midwife means she is often working with the aftermath of abuse, said it was essential for the community to build on the momentum created by the #MeToo movement.
“#MeToo has enabled women to speak out and has the capacity to inspire change. However, change itself is very complex.,” she says. “The #MeToo movement alone will not be able to change things. In the Muslim community, there’s such a shroud of secrecy regarding sexual violence, that people are shocked that it’s so widespread.”
For now at least, Fowles-Gutierrez hopes that “a light on the ugly issues facing women” will finally be shone.”