Our mosques are all too often run and controlled by men, leaving women with little to no say in the daily operations and decision-making processes of their religious communities. The mosque I call home has no women on their Board of Directors. Our Shura, a group of elected officials appointed to oversee committees, is roughly 80% male. Although progress has been made in women obtaining leadership positions within our mosques, their voices are all too often shut out, or diminished from deeply-embedded cultural “boys clubs” that maintain a woman’s place is in the home, and that her nature is demure and acquiescent.
In February 2018, Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy propelled the #MosqueMeToo movement into the spotlight following an anonymous Pakistani woman’s Facebook post of enduring sexual harassment during hajj. When Eltahawy shared her experience of abuse at hajj, Muslim women from all over the world joined in to reclaim their sacred spaces (whether it’s Al-Haram or their local mosques) and to insist that enough is enough. Our fear of negative press, which feeds the Islamophobes, and misogynistic misinterpretations of our faith cannot silence us. Women and men are valued as equals in the sight of Allah.
Sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation of men and women cannot, and should not, be tolerated in our most sacred spaces. Our houses of worship, where we come in brotherhood and sisterhood to worship and reflect upon the beauty of our Lord, cannot house and protect individuals engaging in behaviors which so blatantly disregard and disrespect what these spaces stand for.
One of the biggest mosques in Texas, the Islamic Center of Irving, has come under scrutiny twice in one year for two separate allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation; one by a former Imam and the other by a community member, visiting from overseas, against two underage children.
The most recent incident led to a poignant khutbah by Imam Nick Pelletier condemning the mosque’s board for not notifying authorities in a more timely manner. Imam Pelletier subsequently went on administrative leave and his khutbah was removed from the mosque’s website. A statement was released by the Shura Council addressing the khutbah and the incident, which all are free to draw their own conclusions from.
Last summer, a lawsuit was filed against a former imam at the Center alleging sexual exploitation of a female community member. In September 2010, she began receiving counseling from the former imam. She was 13. Over the years, their conversations gradually progressed to a more sexual nature. Reportedly, he kept pressuring her to sext, to send pictures of herself in lingerie, and touch herself via video chat. The relationship ended after the victim was pressured to have sex with the former imam at a nearby Motel 6. Once the Islamic Center of Irving was notified of the sexual exploitation, he was removed, and a letter was circulated to other mosques detailing his behavior and advising other Islamic institutions not to hire him.
Although the Center took swift action against their former imam, the board failed to respond with the same haste to another allegation of misconduct involving underage children. Also, it took the female community member nearly six years to come forward with sexual exploitation allegations against the former imam for fear of how she may be maligned and harassed.
As an ummah, what are we doing to counter this culture of silence? What responsibilities do our local mosque leadership have to combat this mindset, and how, as individuals, can we effect positive change in our communities? #MosqueMeToo is not another hashtag activist fad. It’s a wakeup call to all of us that these evils live in our community too, and we should not shy away from addressing them.
Increasing women in leadership positions within the local mosques can slowly strip away misogynistic attitudes that silence community members on many of these issues. This is not to say that men do not care about sexual abuse and exploitation, but that including diverse voices in your leadership creates a more open and inclusive environment which creates a safer, more comfortable space for engaging in difficult conversations and tackling tough issues.