This Thursday, pro Lecture-hopper Elizabeth Self attended “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Violence in Islam,” and brought back some valuable information to share.
This was really heavy subject matter, and when I arrived Thursday to a room full of round tables, I felt the gravity of the situation pretty harshly. Sure, I was interested in the issue, and wanted to get involved, but a discussion? What did I even have to discuss? In my head I imagined that everyone around me had some amazing story of survival or rescue or single-handedly creating a trans-continental trafficking haven. What did I even have to share? I wasn’t even Muslim or Asian. Fortunately, there was chocolate at the refreshments table, so I tried to settle myself down and pretend to be a reporter by furiously taking fake notes.
The event began more or less as I suspected it would, with a few stories of sexual assault, including some absolutely slamming spoken word. After that, however, I met surprise after surprise.
Next, Francesca Tarant, head of the New York office of an anti-trafficking organization called Apne Aap, took the stage. She, of course, had a few stories to tell, too, but she also shared some rather insightful facts. The average age for women who enter trafficking is much lower than I had anticipated, and often they’re set to legitimate jobs that their parents have no clue are just covers for prostitution. Fortunately, organizations like hers are working on several fronts to end this problem, by offering resources for women coming out of these situations and lobbying for changes in legislation that punish pimps and open doors for victims.
Then we heard from Maryum Khwaja (who also stood in for Bushra Husain of Sanctuary for Families, who could not be present), a social worker and cofounder of Nasiha Counseling. She spoke about how the image of the family and cultural respect for elders often silences reports of abuse in the Muslim world. One point of hers that really stuck out to me was that often we lack the vocabulary to describe the sorts of injuries that occur in acts of sexual violence, or we hesitate to use them; this is especially true in languages spoken in South Asia.
The most memorable speaker of the night to me was Imam Khalid Latif, the University Chaplain for N.Y.U. He brought up the role of men in the cycle of silent abuse, both the aggressors and the often-ignored victims. My favorite part of his speech, though, was when he told stories from the Qur’an about sex and the treatment of women. Apparently Muhammad would not approve of his followers arranging marriages against women’s wills or of men using them exclusively for their own pleasure. (And if your attempts to sound cool at that fabled cocktail party based on your extensive knowledge of dead, white, male literature aren’t doing it for you, that tidbit right there just might.)
The last speaker was Priya Chandra, who works as a rape crisis and domestic violence counselor. Her story was intriguing because it began not in a tragedy of her own or in her career, but instead through volunteer work that she picked up. “Every stereotype about rape was broken,” she said, and counted off all sorts of things she’d learned as a volunteer. She also made what I thought was one of the most important points of the whole evening, though; everyone can do something to help, even if it’s only learn how to listen. (That’s why I would encourage everyone to go to events like these: you never know when someone in your life will need this kind of help.)
To sum it all up, we had to talk with the groups at our table, which was a little awkward for me, since everyone else at my table knew each other. Luckily, there was a list of suggested discussion questions, which of course makes everything sooo much easier. Our table was visited by Maryum Khwaja, too, who had a much more fiery personality than I had previously imagined. All of the speakers then got onstage together for a Q&A, which led into a discussion about our cultural institutions and how both state and Muslim agencies should better prepare themselves to handle these sexual violence cases and help eliminate the behaviors that allow it to go on unpunished.
In short, I am really glad that I did go, even though I’m neither Asian, nor Muslim, nor a survivor. I learned some really interesting things and both sad and uplifting stories, and I even got a really cool pin from Columbia health. For more information about these issues, you can visit health.columbia.edu/nomore or http://nomoresexualassault.