“As a visibly Muslim woman, navigating viral support systems like the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp is frustrating, because as a community, we have not prioritized the safety of Muslim women who have survived abuse and trauma at the hands of both Muslim and non-Muslim men.
There’s a reason Muslim women don’t confide in most feminist spaces. When we talk about the oppression we face, the first response is not to hold the perpetrators accountable; instead, usually it is bashing our Muslim identity and our religion.”
These words are from Toronto-based researcher, writer, and community organizer, Sidrah Ahmad, who is dedicated to ending gendered violence, and creating resources and safer spaces for Muslim women to access support. Her research project on islamophobic violence against Muslim women informed the Rivers of Hope Toolkit, a support for women dealing with islamophobia. [You can watch the full launch ceremony here.]
To get a better sense of her research and activism, we sat down with Sidrah for a one-on-one interview on Islam and intersectional, new-age feminism.
Muslim Girl: Can you define gendered islamophobia?
Sidrah Ahmad: Gendered islamophobia is basically a term used to describe the specific forms of Islamophobic stereotypes and discrimination that Muslim women face. Through gendered islamophobia, Muslim women are portrayed as weak, oppressed, repressed, and as helpless victims.
I’m really interested in raising awareness about how the narratives in gendered islamophobia make Muslim women more vulnerable to gender-based violence. For example, we know that the majority of anti-Muslim hate crimes are directed at Muslim women – this is gendered islamophobia at work. Muslim women are thought to be “easy targets,” and so this heightens the likelihood of violence being perpetrated against them.
MG: What inspired you to create this toolkit?
SA: I decided to research Islamophobic violence against Muslim women for my Master’s research project last year because I knew a lot of Muslim women who had been through islamophobic violence, and I was frustrated by the fact that a lot of our stories were not visible or given a platform to be shared.
I completed 21 interviews with Muslim women survivors of islamophobic violence for the research project, and can honestly say that it changed my life. The stories that were shared, and the strength of the Muslim women in study made me feel even more passionate about this subject.
So once my research project was complete, I didn’t want it to just sit in a written thesis in the University library, gathering dust on a bookshelf. I wanted it to be accessible to the community, and to be useful to survivors. So I decided to create a toolkit. I reached out to an amazing Muslimah graphic designer, Azza Abarro, to help with the Toolkit design. I summarized the key findings of the research project, and collected a list of support resources, and gave this information to Azza. She created beautiful infographics and illustrations out of this information and brought the toolkit to life.
MG: Can you name reasons Muslim women decide not to come forward with their stories of trauma and survival?
SA: I don’t think there are many safe spaces for Muslim women to come forward with all of our complexity, and our full stories about the violence we’ve lived through, and be believed, supported, and heard. In the “outside” world, we face gendered islamophobia. If we talk about violence that happens in our homes in the “outside” world, we are often met with racism and islamophobia, and we are told that our community is barbaric. So this silences us and forces our stories underground.
On the other hand, within our communities, if we talk about the gendered islamophobic violence we face in the “outside” world, sometimes we get blamed instead of supported. For example, if we were harassed by an islamophobe at a social function, we might be asked what we were doing at the social function, or told that we should stay home from now on. It’s like there’s a high cost to speaking up in so many spaces, and that leads a lot of us into silence.
MG: How can the community support Muslim women when they face gendered violence?
SA: First and foremost, we need to stop blaming Muslim women for the gendered violence they face. Period. Blame can take subtle forms. For example, if a Muslim woman is yelled at on the subway late at night on the way home, someone may ask her, “Well, why were you out that late to begin with?” This reaction is wrong. It puts the blame on the Muslim woman, and makes it seem like it’s her fault for being yelled at – it implies that she shouldn’t have been out to begin with, and being out is what “caused” the incident of verbal violence. But controlling and limiting Muslim women’s behaviour is not the solution to gendered violence.
It’s especially important to avoid this kind of blame when it come to sexual violence. If a Muslim woman is sexually assaulted, there needs to be zero blame placed on her. If she was out with a boy, if she was not wearing hijab – NONE of these behaviours means she deserved to be sexually assaulted. Sexual assault is a form of violence, and there is nothing a Muslim woman can do that makes that violence her fault. A good phrase to say to survivors of gendered violence is “It’s not your fault.” They need to hear that.
In addition to not blaming her, we can support survivors by believing them, being there for them as a support system, asking them what they need, and connecting them to resources in the community, such as the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, and other resources that are actually listed in the Toolkit.
MG: Why do you believe the Muslim community has withheld important support systems for victims of abuse whose abusers are holding important positions in the community?
SA: I think as a community we have an issue with “celebrity” that we need to take a long and hard look at. Our community is under attack by islamophobia industries and islamophobic legislation. It’s scary for us. In that environment, we can get stuck in survival mode, and cling to leaders that have “done good for the community” in the past. We can look to them as our saviours.
So if anyone comes forward with allegations of abuse against them, the community chooses the perceived saviour instead of the survivor of abuse. Our duty as Muslims is to protect those who are being oppressed. Muslim women and girls in our community who are suffering violence at the hands of our community leaders are being oppressed, and so we need to make a clear decision to prioritize their needs over our desire to hang on to leaders that we think are giving our community power and security. Power and security come from Allah, and from doing the right thing, not from any human leaders.
MG: Can you tell us the future plans for this toolkit and how those interested in supporting your work can reach you?
SA: From the beginning, alhamdullilah, the journey with the research and the toolkit has been a labour of love that has given me more insight and hope than I could have imagined. That is why it is called Rivers of Hope. I truly believe that as Muslim women, when we deal with these experiences of gendered violence, we don’t have to do it alone. By sharing our stories and resources with each other, we become collectively stronger. And louder. And more fierce. So the next steps for the toolkit, inshallah, is to make a workshop that accompanies the toolkit, so people can download that and use it in their communities. The best way to stay up to date on the project is to ‘like’ the Rivers of Hope Toolkit Facebook Page, and also check out the website, which has a contact form you can fill out in order to email me directly.