By Hena Zuberi
A touch, a feel, a whisper. It doesn’t take much to make a young girl feel dirty, stripped of her dignity. Walking in the streets of this Muslim country was treacherous. Going to the bazaar was not a fun experience. I remember getting my ears pierced – a memory so horrid. ‘Come behind the counter’, he said, I looked at my aunt, hesitant, he looked decent enough. That little girl in the video from Gawaahi.com could have been me. My aunt thought my tears were from the pain of the ear-piercing gun. My pain was something I did not even understand.
I was 15 – Umrah – and we were in front of the haram, the Kaaba the house of God, during Tawaf- I could not believe it. I asked Allah ‘why? why here Ya Allah’ – My father was right behind me but the lecher had no thoughts of his akhirah.
I was 16 – I had had enough! The yearly trip to Pakistan to celebrate Eid with my grandmother came with a big price – I didn’t want to go out on Chand Raat to get the bangles to match my clothes and kuhsse (embroidered slippers) -I was bigger, stronger and didn’t want to put up with it any longer. It is not a stalker – one person, it could be anyone – the tailor, the shopkeeper, that dude in the torn Levis or that older man with a beard. A crowded alley and someone, something brushed up again me and I turned around and slapped the closest male face I found! I didn’t care if it wasn’t the perpetrator – all the past years’ anger welled up and I yelled. The worst part was the look on other women’s faces, like I had done something wrong, broken some unspoken law – thou shall not speak, thou shall suffer in silence – it is your fault.
I was 25 – Cable channels had just started broadcasting a sanitary pad advertisement for the first time in the country, and one of the models wore a hijab. That summer was the worst summer – everywhere you went you would hear perverted creeps asking you if it was one of those days. ‘Ignore them’, was the word on the street.
I was 32 – I guarded my daughter like a hawk – if Chinese moms are tiger moms, I was a shaheen (falcon). I didn’t want her memories of visiting Pakistan to be filled with guilt, shame. I spoke to her about unwelcome touches, told her to scream out loud so everyone knows. “Don’t touch me!!!” To move away if anyone tries to come near her. At the lace shop, she played with faux crystals and and I stood behind her, staring down any one who dared think of touching my child, your child, everyone’s child. Just because I am on the street does not make it a welcome sign for you to touch, grope, pinch. I have the right to walk down the street safely. My body, my country.
It is imperative to spread awareness and talk about this issue. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment can also include offensive remarks about a person’s sex, staring at length and touching. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman in the U.S. by making offensive comments about women in general in the workplace. If you are a victim of sexual harassment in the US here is a support group.
Stop calling it Eve-teasing: It degrades women further. This name puts the blame on the women and degrades the memory of Hawwa (AS). Call it what it is – sexual harassment. Why are we so afraid/ashamed to use any form of the word sex?
The Effects of Sexual Harassment on the Victim
The effects of sexual harassment vary from person to person, and are contingent on the severity, and duration, of the harassment. However, sexual harassment is a type of sexual assault, and victims of severe or chronic sexual harassment can suffer the same psychological effects as rape victims. Aggravating factors can exist, such as their becoming the target of retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming after their complaining, or filing a formal grievance. Indeed, the treatment of the complainant during an investigation or litigation can be brutal, and add further damage to their life, health, and psyche. Depending on the situation, a sexual harassment victim can experience anything from mild annoyance to extreme psychological damage, while the impact on a victim’s career and life may be minimal, or leave them in ruins.
This is for someone who experiences harassment at work – now imagine a whole country like this, where the minute you walk out of your home you fear that assault.
Most of us have heard the the reports out of Egypt, but this is not just an Egyptian problem. It is experienced in many Muslim countries. Many women in Muslim countries don’t even know that this is a crime.
Lets look at the stats coming from Egypt more closely. In 2008, Abul Komsan, the woman’s rights activist, polled 1,000 women from all parts of the country. What she found shocked her. 98 percent of foreign women polled said they had been sexually harassed. And about eight out of 10 Egyptian-born women said the same thing. She also surveyed Egyptian men, and almost two-thirds of men polled actually admitted that they harassed women. And before the holier than thou start preaching that this only happens when women are uncovered, no it does NOT. One of the most important aspects of this study was that it found that 72.5% of victims surveyed were wearing hijab when they were sexually harassed. It happens to all women, even ones that are in full niqab, under several layers of cloth . This survey may superficially shatter the claim that hijab does protect from molestation. But remember these were just 1000 women in a country of 18 million and the study was taken in an urban city. Anecdotal evidence suggests women may be harassed less depending on where they are, if they cover and as they age. I am not refuting the research but do think more research needs to be done in Egypt and in other Muslim countries, as well. ( I will examine the hijab=protection issue in another post, inshaAllah. Here in the U.S. I have never be sexually harassed after donning my hijab, maybe because the mindset is totally different or maybe the outer garment screams ‘don’t come near me’.)
Before the all is perfect in the West crowd pipes up – this a definitely not a problem exclusive to Muslim countries, either. From Mexico City to Chicago, this is a male problem. According to National Crime Records Bureau, the fastest growing crime in India is violence against women. Walking down the street, taking public transportation or having a career, all put women at risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault, no matter the city, country or continent. Catcalls, fondling, violence and indecent exposure are an everyday occurrence for women in the United States as well. iHollaback.org is a website dedicated to ending street harassment where young women across the nation share their stories and, if they’re quick enough, post photos of their harassers in this safe, online space. Gawaahi.com is the Pakistani distant cousin of Hollaback, where women are speaking about harassment and abuse.
What is definitely worth studying are the responses of the men in the ECWR study.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Egypt’s loss of a moral compass than the responses of some men in the ECWR study. Some said they harassed a woman simply because they were bored. One who abused a woman wearing the niqab said she must be beautiful, or hiding something. As a professor in Cairo, I see these misogynistic sentiments on display all too often. A woman is called a whore in public? She is seen as dressing like one. Groped by a man on the subway? She must’ve allured him beyond his control with aromatic fragrances and entrancing pheromones. An urban ambler exposes himself to a girl on a sidewalk? She was probably staring lustfully at him… a law can help but it needs to be accompanied by an ideological shift. Young Egyptians, both male and female, must be convinced that the burden of blame for sexual harassment doesn’t belong to the hunted. The guilt of sexual abuse, by logical definition, is the predator’s alone. Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo.
All the statements in the quote above are parts of the equation. Some cultures put all the blame on women, other put all the blame on the man. I think both genders need to take responsibility for this disease in society. I do not believe a victim is responsible, but the other women in the society are. Having said that, I do believe women need to use their judgment; just as we would caution children about sexual predators, we should remind ourselves not to be vulnerable and accessible, the two qualities that rapist and harassers look for. Men need to support their daughters, sisters, wives when they complain of harassment instead of forbidding them from going out or blaming them for causing the incident. Men and women both need to raise sons to be men who do not treat women like toys.
I. What can women do?
1. Speak Up: Talk about sexual harassment with your friends, family, colleagues, employees – the more awareness that is spread, the better. Break the silence, upset the status quo – it is your body. HarassMap, a project based in Cairo, plans to give women an outlet to report instances of harassment. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi’s mapping platform, HarassMap aims to be a voice for women.
2. Take self defense classes: Hapkido or street fighting teaches you how to respond to any attack. This form of martial arts works really well for women. For example, if an opponent were to push against a hapkido student’s chest, rather than resist and push back, the hapkido student would avoid a direct confrontation by moving in the same direction as the push and utilizing the opponent’s forward momentum to throw him. Here is more on Egyptian girls taking action. Both my girls take martials arts classes – I thoroughly believe in empowering girls.
3. Avoid walking alone: Team up with other women, co-workers, family members, fellow commuters.
4. Role-Play: Train girls and women to have a range of standard responses to harassers if anyone harasses them.
5. Use your common sense: Avoid areas when the chance of getting harassed is higher. Walk in groups if you can. If the harassment is really wide spread then take community-wide steps.
Why do men sexually harass women?
Rising unemployed, unmarried men, hanging out on the street are touted as characteristics of oppressed societies where the majority identify with the oppressor. If this happens only in repressed countries then why is it happening in our masajid in the US? If the men in Saudi do it because the country has gender segregation, then why does it happen on the tube in London? My initial reaction as a victim of harassment is ‘ If you want to get your thrills, go find a halal venue for it. My sister’s bodies, covered or uncovered, are NOT your playground.” But this is a deeper problem then men just being sick creeps – it is an attitude – one that is taught to men from a young age – differing in different countries. In some countries women are treated just as a sexual toy, just for the pleasure of men, in others they are the man’s honor, and in others harassment is just something to do.
1. Sexual depravity in societies across the world: Easy access to pornography, titillating songs, billboards and videos, acceptance of flirting and other changes in cultural norms, delayed marriages are all contributors to this problem.
2.Women moving in areas previously considered exclusively male. This article about mashers in early 1900s in the U.S. is so insightful. As changing demographics in Muslim countries this century mimic those in the West circa 18th century, ‘as industry supplanted agriculture, more single men were leaving their families for work in the cities. At the same time, more women were entering the public sphere on their own as shoppers, students and wage earners.’
3. It is a power thing: This is evident when we look at the current trends in the West- As women in the workforce rise and get into positions of power, sexual harassment cases by women of men have doubled since the 1990s. Given how accustomed women are to drive-by comments and propositions, it can be thrilling when the tables turn and they’re the ones controlling the dynamic.
4. Adoption of Islam just in rituals: Increasing religiosity in many Muslim countries has not come with stress on Akhlaaq (Islamic manners) combined with lack of adab and knowledge about ways to treat women, about the rights of women lead to this combustible situation. There is so much emphasis on hijab but not haya in both sexes. Picking and choosing of verses in the Quran by sermon-givers and laymen, to dominate and subjugate women so despite the apparent rise in religiosity in Muslim countries, the attitudes toward women haven’t changed but have gotten worse. There is also deep rooted hostility towards women based on misundertsanding of ahadiths, as well as resentment towards women who want to step out of the four corners of their homes.
5. The me, myself and I obsession: We have increasingly become a more selfish world based on instant gratification. Men think, I may or may not get the girl but at least I can get my sexual high of the day by groping her.
6. Changing ideals of manhood- more aggressive males are the heroes and the chivalrous protector image is considered old-fashioned.
7. Men just think its OK: Many books and articles about Gender Psychology have been written about the psychological differences between men and women. What a reasonable man and a reasonable woman perceive to be a hostile environment may be entirely different, according to PsychologyToday. If this is the case then men need to ask themselves these questions:
- Would I mind if someone treated my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter this way?
- Would I mind if this person told my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter what I was saying and doing?
- Would I do this if I was with my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter?
- When a person objects to my behavior do I apologize and stop, or do I get angry instead?
- Is my behavior reciprocated? Are there specific indications of pleasure and not “she didn’t object”?
Another gender studies professor calls it homosociality – the need for men to impress other men. According to Dr. Schywzer, many men who become solitary harassers first learned to harass in groups. Harassment isn’t about sexual attraction to women. It’s not something women invite. And it’s not something usually intended to elicit a positive sexual response from women. It’s about one thing: impressing other men. One of the fascinating things about homosociality is that it doesn’t always require the actual physical presence of other men. When a man has been raised to always be conscious of how he appears to his fellow males, he may end up behaving in stereotypically hyper-masculine ways even when there are no other men around. If this is true, then brothers, you all know men who do this – for Allah’s sake stop them, let them know that you are not impressed. When we see men, Muslim alpha men reaching out saying ‘ hey that’s just not cool’, this behavior will change.
Definitely not all Muslim men are like this – there are many brothers who know, and who will protect you. Strangers who will help you cross a street, guide you when you are looking for a shop. These are the men who I am speaking to – you are our hope, our weapon against this enemy.
II. What can men do to stop sexual harrassment?
- Refuse to join in. Do not make any comments yourself.
- Discourage others from doing so. Tell them the person is not enjoying it or tell them to leave the person alone.
- At a suitable time, raise the issue about public harassment with your friends and explain why it is inappropriate to treat people that way. It is a part of the Mercy of Allah that you deal politely and gently with them. Were you severe, uncivil or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from you: so pass over their faults, and ask for Allah’s Forgiveness for them. (Qur’an, 3:159)
- Teach young men, brothers, sons to respect women from a young age – my husband does not tolerate disrespect from my sons towards me or their sisters. Read them ahadith on honoring women, lowering their gaze, not touching non-mahrams from a young age.
Those of you who don’t stand up and defend a sister, a mother, a daughter, you share the blame. It is easy to shrug it off by saying that this is a part of their culture – it is incumbent upon us as Muslims to uphold a higher standard, nothing about harassment falls within Islamic values. Men are quick to point out daraja over women – a degree over women when it suits them – this is the prime instance to step up to that degree and take responsibility for the women in your society. This is your degree over women – you have an in that we don’t have. You can relate to other men, you can talk to them, stop them, shame them. Allah has made you qawmun alan nisa (caretakers of women).
If you are confronted with a street harassment situation here is what can you say:
- Do not address the man/group harassing the female. Experts say simply offer your presence.
- Don’t be loud and physically confrontational. You can simply distract the harasser by saying “salam” or just stay in open view so it won’t escalate to a rape scenario.
- Distractions and indirect interventions help best. Asking for directions, asking for the time, or other innocuous questions can often be enough of a distraction for a harasser to go away and move on, without causing a big scene or putting anyone in physical danger.
- Where possible, intervene by giving control to the target of the harassment ( “is he bothering you?” or “are you okay?”).
- Just do the right thing. I think there are times when a harasser may be intimidating even to other males, but you have to find the God given himma to stand up for women in these situations. Otherwise, it’s as if we are giving the harassers tacit approval to continue their behavior.
- If a woman in a crowd shouts out about being touched, be vocal of your support, say something like “Whoever did that, it’s not welcome.”
- Be aware of the situation, know what your advantage is, and if confronting a group situation, make sure you are interacting with the leader, contact the police ( in some countries, police do not listen to women but will listen to a man complaining).
- Don’t turn a blind eye, confront them even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not socially acceptable, do it anyways…Remember that many women are not in the situation where they are safe speaking up for themselves. Help even if the woman is antagonistic towards you – we are jaded at times because sometimes the ‘heroes’ turn out to be worse creeps.
III. What can Communities do to stop sexual harassment?
Lobby for sexual harassment laws: My sister told me about a sexual harassment case at work . She works at one of the largest ad agencies in Pakistan. Nothing can be done because there is no precedent. A panel was called and my sister and her colleges are to pass judgment on this man. This is 2011 – Muslim countries import every new fangled ‘Western’ idea while hating on the the West, but sexual harassment laws are too foreign for them. Pakistan has recently passed sexual harassment laws, but getting companies to implement and getting the police to arrest the perpetrators is the next mountain to climb.
- Take the report to local council people who are sensitive to women’s issues and discuss street harassment with them. Propose a law that fines men who verbally harass women in a sexual or sexist manner. Ask them to introduce it and support it.
- Meet with the local police departments about street harassment. If they do not already, ask that police officers receive sensitivity training regarding street harassment. Also, when surveying women about their harassment experiences you can ask them where they are harassed and create a map tracking this data. If there are problem areas, show the data to the police officers and ask them to have officers patrol the area.
- Talk to local businesses that have employees who work outside about the general problem of street harassment. Ask them to be proactive and to publish a phone number on their work vehicles and/or on a sign at a work site that people can call if the employees harass women. Ask them to post signs saying “This is a harassment-free zone.” (Street-level steps courtesy of StopStreetHarrassment.org)
Shaykh Power © – Righteous Leaders, Superheroes, Shallow Celebrities or Hungry Wolves?
“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -Uncle Ben.
Clergy -or shayukh- in Muslim communities hold sacred power in that their positions symbolize a representation of character and religious authority in their community.
The role of a shaykh is complex in that community members can turn to their him for financial advice, marital counseling, matchmaking, conflict resolution, religious classes, youth engagement, and pretty much anything else a community needs. You name it and a shaykh is approached for it. In most communities, the shaykh is a critical component of a healthy community, but in some cases – the great power is used to facilitate great abuse instead.
Understanding Shaykh Power©:
Shaykh Power© doesn’t mean the ability to bless or forgive, it simply means the effect a shaykh can have on the general public for the very reason that he preaches about religion.
People subconsciously associate their spiritual growth with the shaykh, building a bond of love, respect and trust. It’s perfectly natural – someone who has helped you, taught you, or supported you through a difficult time is likely to become dear to you regardless of their position. As a result it’s natural for people to:
- Look up to a shaykh
- Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
- Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
- Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
- Giving him a place of authority in their lives
Again, it is natural for people to attach themselves to a shaykh, and it is completely okay for a shaykh to be respected and trusted to that level. It is a relationship built on faith, in which the shaykh earns trusts by demonstrating trustworthiness, fearing Allah in the relationship with his congregants, and maintaining a consciousness of his actions and consequences with God.
There is no conflict in this trust when viewed alongside human fallibility. No one is sin-free, not even a shaykh. They are humans and humans are weak. A healthy community is not one with a sin-free shaykh. However, the line is between fallibility and abuse is crossed when the shaykh’s sins or inherent weakness start hurting others, and the authority they hold is abused to give into those weaknesses.
What is Abuse of “Shaykh-power©”
The abuse of a shaykh’s power happens if a shaykh uses his position, authority, or religious knowledge to manipulate people into compliance or obedience to his sin.
A very simple example of a shaykh using all three – position, authority, and knowledge – to manipulate someone into compliance came from a woman who covers her face. During a Skype call related to business -and not marriage at all- a well-known shaykh diverted from the agenda to convince her to remove her face-veil as he was a “shaykh” and it was okay for him to see her face. The shaykh tried to establish a religious basis for his exception to the rule and made his female student believe that as a shaykh he had “special privileges”.
There are common patterns of “special privileges” that emerge.
The Secret Marriage
Secret marriages occur where the shaykh uses his authority to wrongly legitimize a marriage without witnesses. Please be aware, there is no marriage valid without 2 witnesses, and in majority of the fiqhs, marriage is not valid without a woman’s wali (representative guardian) present.
While the term “marriage” is used, what happens in secret marriage is not what Islam recognizes as marriage. Rather than entering a serious, long-term commitment in which each party agrees to honor the rights and terms decreed by Allah, a secret marriage is usually the culmination of grooming and manipulation. The victim is led to believe that the shaykh is sincere in his pursuit of their marriage and future together, but cannot go public for whatever reason. He convinces the victim that their secret marriage is valid by manipulating Islamic information is his favor, and the result is that the victim consents to what is an otherwise shady arrangement.
After the “marriage” is consummated, the women are divorced – also in secret and without due Islamic process. They have no legal recourse – since they were not legally married. They don’t even have Islamic recourse since oftentimes there are no witnesses to the secret marriage. Some shayukh misinform the women that they don’t need witnesses because as a person of knowledge, a shaykh is sufficient as a witness to finalize his own marriage contract.
Consider the difference between marriage as a communal celebration, a public declaration, and a legal protection of the rights of both spouses – and compare it to a verbal agreement with one man in a hotel room. Consummation followed by divorce, with no intention to sign a marriage-contract or honor the woman as a wife, is not a valid marriage.
The impermissibility of secret marriages has been discussed in detail here.
Some argue that women who are legally adults and gave their consent to the secret marriage have no claim to victimhood. It is true that secret marriage and serial marriage are not rape, but secret marriage is an abuse of the trust that our community places in a shaykh.
Women are deceived into marrying by means of the shaykh’s authority. The shaykh – a person of religious credibility with community trust – implies that something halal, lasting, and keeping with the Islamic sanctity of the family will happen. What happens instead is a woman falling victim to the shaykh’s pattern of marrying a variety of women to satisfy carnal curiosity, and then divorcing women once the desires are satisfied.
The abuse of women goes beyond just the women- the entire community is deceived when a shaykh abuses their religious credibility. They trust that the man committed to the spiritual betterment of their families will act in keeping with that trust. There is no way to legitimize the secret wooing, secret wedding, and immediate, premeditated divorcing of anyone in the community.
Divorce can happen under completely normal circumstances, just because a man is a shaykh doesn’t mean he has to stay in a bad marriage. However, when a pattern is developed to frequently marry and divorce, sometimes after a week or less, and a shaykh does so knowing that the position and reputation will help him replace the wife soon enough- then this is not what either marriage or divorce is for. This is abuse.
A man on the podium, delivering the Message of God and helping people connect with their Lord holds enormous spiritual power over his community. Unfortunately, some shaykhs can and do use that power to satisfy their desires in religiously inexcusable ways.
Misuse of Polygamy through “Shaykh Power”:
Polygamy itself is not the issue here. Polygamy itself becomes abused when it is used to justify secret marriage and divorce of multiple women, without having any sincere intention or giving any marriage or divorce it’s due Islamic rights or process.
Shayukh who abuse polygamy paint a glamorous picture of polygamy, making it a special mission to “revive the sunnah”, and practicing polygamy almost a measure of a woman’s level of iman.
The delusional idea of becoming more religious under the wings of a shaykh as his wife is also used to entice women seeking closeness to Allah. A more intimate relationship to the shaykh is directly conflated with a more intimate relationship with Allah.
What the shayukh are luring women into is not a revival of polygamous marriage, as much as it is a revival of temporary marriage – without the decency of telling the women up front what they are consenting to. The woman believes she will be the shaykh’s second wife. Instead, she is third, or fourth, or fifth ex-wife.
Do We Have a Solution?
The first step towards resolving an issue is to acknowledge that problem exists. As a community, we have tried to conceal our dirty laundry in the name of gheerah and satr, only to suppress ‘adl instead. As an ummah, we need to address the harmful behavior of shayukh who abuse their our religion and their power to manipulate and use women – leaving them emotionally and spiritually broken in the name of a religion that is mean to protect them.
Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.
Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.
It is women’s religious right to have access to a religious scholarship for knowledge and seeking verdicts, and the mistakes of few cannot outweigh the virtues of many.
1400 years ago, we– Muslim women — were given protection from a society that sold their daughters in exchange of money and loaned out their wives to other men. Our Prophet taught and showed us how to treat women with honor, and he then entrusted the knowledge of Islam to his inheritors– the shayukh.
Consider the gravity of that abuse, when our scholars are trusted to carry forward the Prophet’s legacy, and instead weaponize the Prophet’s words to abuse us instead.
Needless to say, not every shaykh is abusive of his congregants. Alhamdulillah, the abuse is the exception and trust fulfilled is the norm. However, that doesn’t mean that silence should be the norm as well. As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed.
Sexual Abuse: Crime or Sin? | Shaykh Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
Sexual abuse, whether of women, men, or children, cannot be prevented by law. At most, law agencies can punish abuse after the fact when it has already done the terrible, lasting psychological and social damage that it does.
Over the last seventy years, in the Western world any notion of ‘sin’ attached to sexual behaviours traditionally regarded as abhorrent has been dissolved. Steadily, over this period, the notion of ‘sin’ has been replaced by a legal concept, namely the concept of ‘consent’. This fits well with the Western cultural ideal of ‘personal autonomy’, the ideal that anyone should be free to behave as they please so long as their behaviour is not harming any other’s right to the same autonomy. In sexual relations between people, ‘abuse’ is recorded only when any of the partners involved has not freely given consent. For children, of course, the concept of legal minority applies, meaning that a child can never give consent. Otherwise, anything that any consenting adults do is legally ok.
This should mean that sexual abuse, as a legally defined crime, is no more of a problem for society than other crimes such as assault, theft, fraud, murder, and so on.
The problem with this approach is that sexuality (abusive or non-abusive) is not limited to the act of sexual intercourse itself. The relevance of consent to the actual performance of sexual acts is accordingly rather limited. Sexuality is an expression of desire, and (among humans) desire can arise even when there is no external stimulus for it, even when there is no possibility of contact or conversation with any potential sexual partner. Both biologically and religiously, sexuality is understood to be something connected with the appetite and need to reproduce. The need for reproduction is carried among human beings by the engine of desire. This engine can be active, fueled up, and running, in the absence of any object of desire and any conscious will to reproduce. In the present time, human consciousness is overwhelmed by super-intense audio and visual images (especially by highly repetitive multimedia advertising in private and public spaces and on hand-held devices at any time of day or night). As a result, the engine of desire is never allowed to settle into idling mode, never allowed to quieten and slow down.
All religious traditions strive to inhibit and regulate sexual desire by connecting it to the responsibility of parenting, so that sex is associated not only with mating and producing children, but also with nurturing them and making them fully competent social beings. This is a very long process (some twenty years), and requires a huge expenditure of psychological, social, and economic effort. The only context in which this effort can be sustained, especially for the benefit of the children, is marriage and family life. All the moral and religious-legal inhibitions surrounding sexuality are concerned with building a strong, stable bond between sexual desire and responsibility for others.
Modern Western cultural norms, which encourage the indulgence of short-term personal preferences over any long-term goals (personal or social), have combined with advances in the technology of contraception and with the legalisation of abortion, to dissociate sex from reproduction, which necessarily dissociates sex from responsibility to oneself and others.
As I have said, sexual desire is the engine of a fundamental need, the need to reproduce. It is a fierce, powerful energy, cruelly strong in youth and early maturity, but one that persists at some level throughout life. Sexual desire is mixed with other impulses and behaviours that characterise animal behaviour generally, and human behaviour most conspicuously. Notably, the desire to mark out and protect a territory (home) where the children can be raised and the desire to mark out and protect the values (identity, belonging, customs and practices, etc.) that are inculcated in the children and, through them, transmitted through time – all of these desires are mixed up inside the need to reproduce. This mixture also affects sexual behaviours and the norms that grow around them. Rivalry, domination, possessiveness, jealousy, envy – the desire not to possess some object of desire for its own sake but to prevent someone else from possessing that object – negative emotional states like this can intervene in sexual behaviour and make it exploitative and destructive regardless of consent. And how, in any case, does one legally determine consent? Is it really possible to determine when consent was given, and to what precisely, and for how long?
There is no law imaginable, no force of coercion or persuasion, which can control desire itself. Only the one who carries (or is carried by) desire can, from within, control or discipline it for the sake of being responsible and unselfish. This is a matter of interior discipline, not exterior discipline.
The role of religious teaching (and of the various cultural-legal traditions based on religious teaching) is to provide an environment in which self-discipline and self-control are more highly valued than their opposites – self-indulgence and control of others. This environment usually consists of conventions of dress and speech, and special rites (such as weddings) which mark out the boundaries between the persons and occasions where sexual desire is allowed and those where it is not.
It is possible, as with any convention, to appear to follow it, without really following it. In other words conventions, just like laws, can only work to the extent that people believe those conventions to be right and beneficial. People must believe that they are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Equally, they must believe that disregarding the conventions is wrong, a sin, which threatens harm for both individuals and society. In religious perspective, consenting to a wrong does not make it right.
It is not possible, in my opinion, to build within a culture so massively dedicated to self-indulgence, self-serving, and non-stop distraction, any sustained practice of self-discipline and service to others. That requires regular reflection and regular presentation of oneself as answerable to other human beings and to the judgement of God. The habits of self-inspection and self-control are reliably matured and improved through prayer and other religious practices like fasting.
There is no regime of exterior rules and punishments that will serve to deter sexual abuse in a society. If, and only if, such rules and punishments are universally and impartially applied – which is nowhere the case – it may be possible to drive sexual abuse out of sight, so that it is not always in the news. But it will still go on: celebrity actors and actresses may not have to suffer it, but ordinary men, women, and children among the poor and unnoticed of society, and people in places far removed from the countries which control the flow of news, will go on being vulnerable to sexual abuse. There is no legal substitute for an ethical determination to control oneself and to never hurt the person and dignity of another human being. There is no substitute for the concept of sin. Whether it is definable as a crime or not, sexual abuse is a sin.
For Muslims, there is a duty to help one another in steadfastness and righteousness, and not to help one another in selfishness and wrong-doing. This means that we must be ready to condemn, privately and publicly, those who commit sexual abuse. We must be willing to rescue those who are victims of such abuse, and willing to help them recover psychologically, emotionally, and socially. That entails providing from one’s resources (of time and money) to assist those groups (usually women and usually ex-victims) who are active in providing the necessary shelters and comforts to abuse victims. It also entails a vigorous campaign to help our communities admit that abuse goes on, to recognise the sin of it, and to convince them of the effectiveness of prayer and fasting in defeating sinful impulses and behaviours. This is a roundabout way of saying that Muslims must help one another to re-connect sexuality and parenting and the role of good parenting in teaching self-control and the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
10 Tested Ways To Overcome Porn Addiction
By Ahmed J.
A well-meaning religious counselor once advised me to consider getting married in order to overcome my porn addiction. After no luck giving it up, I considered marriage and pursued a courtship – only to realize half way in the process that I was still watching it. If I couldn’t stop while I was in a relationship with a real woman, who’s to say I would stop if we got married? I knew at that point that my behavior wasn’t just a bad habit; it was an addiction that had a life of its own – I was completely powerless over it and I couldn’t stop no matter how bad I tried.
It’s a common misconception that providing a halal avenue to carry out ones’ sexual needs will get rid of one’s desire to watch pornography. I realized that wasn’t the case for me and didn’t’ go through with the marriage. I turned to religion and spirituality for help, sought sacred knowledge and the company of scholars. I even travelled abroad and spent time studying in Africa; I thought if I’d cut myself off from the world and immersed in spirituality, I’d be cured. People started calling me a ‘student of knowledge’ and seeing me as a pious person because I was around old religious men all the time. Little did they know that I was around the scholars because I was in a far greater need of them than anyone else; were it not for their company, I would have gone completely astray.
Unfortunately, none of this directly helped me cure my addiction to pornography. Yes, I gained beneficial knowledge and I believe it was the blessings and prayers of the righteous that eventually put me on the path to recovery. However, my addiction to pornography remained and I continued to indulge in it by night. The feeling of guilt and hypocrisy only grew with time. I almost lost all hope as I had tried everything in my will to cure this problem. And then it hit me, the most obvious thing which I had never bothered trying, and the one thing that has made all the difference: getting help from another person.
The embarrassing nature of this addiction had meant that I never honestly confided in anyone the true nature of my problem. I was relying on myself to give it up, I never turned to another person to ask for help for this specific problem. Wonderous things happen when you swallow your pride and accept your powerlessness.
I am a recovering sex addict, and here are the steps I took to achieve sobriety from pornography, compulsive masturbation and other unwanted sexual behaviors:
1) Get help from other people
This addiction thrives in secrecy and isolation; you must end this secrecy to start the process of recovery. For years I made the mistake we all addicts make: trying to quit it on our own. After realizing I needed help, I started with the obvious things: self-help websites and online programs that cater to Muslims, like Purify Your Gaze. While these helped me get an understanding of my problem and gave me a guide that I could potentially follow to sober up, it ultimately did not work. Why? Because I still had to rely on myself to stay sober and follow through with the regimes they laid out. Online programs give you access to a web forum where you can chat with other addicts, seminars to listen to and the occasional call with a councilor which comes with a hefty price tag. However, at the end of the day, you are still alone and stuck with a computer and the internet – these are the very things I was trying to get away from!
This is when I started looking for off-line recovery; somewhere I could find local people who I could work with towards sobriety. I started exploring anonymous 12-step programs designed for sex addicts. I was hesitant at first and my ego kept getting in the way; I thought I wasn’t as bad as ‘those addicts’, but since nothing had worked, this was my only hope. There are several 12-step sex recovery programs out there with various definitions of sobriety and cater to different audiences. I finally found one that works for me and I believe it will for most Muslims. It is called SA: Sexaholics Anonymous
SA is a fellowship of addicts who admit to being powerless over their lusts and work together to overcome addiction to things like pornography, masturbation and illicit relations. They define sobriety as having no form of sex with one-self or with partners other than the spouse; “spouse” is defined to be one’s partner in a marriage between a man and a woman. Given this strict definition, most people that attend SA meetings have a religious background. Luckily for me, the fellowship in my neighborhood is made up almost entirely of strict Hassidic Jews! It is ironic that of all the religious company that I sought, it is the company of an orthodox Jew, my current sponsor, that finally put me on the path to recovery from pornography.
In the SA fellowship, I’ve found all that I was looking for in a recovery program. It is completely free of cost and has introduced me to committed people within my neighborhood who I can work with. Since I live in a big city, we have several anonymous meetings a week that I can attend at my convenience; they are held in churches, synagogues and in rented community centers. Most recently, a fellow Muslim member of SA started meetings at an Islamic community centre as well. The program has forced me to physically get out of the isolation of my dark room and has given me a support network of some incredible people I can rely on. SA has worked for me, and the remaining wisdoms I share below will be based on my experiences in the program.
2) Find a sponsor and call them daily
A sponsor is someone who holds you accountable for your sobriety and helps you work through the 12-steps. Two months of attending weekly SA meetings, I found they alone were not helping me stay sober. I had to find someone who I would commit to working the program and building a personal relationship. In SA meetings, senior members who’ve accumulated decent sobriety usually volunteer to take on new members. If you choose not to join SA, find someone from your social circle you can rely on: this can be a friend, Imam, spouse, family member etc. I highly recommend getting the White Book and Step-into-Action and working through these with your sponsor.
In early stages of your recovery, you must call your sponsor every day to check-in with them. Checking in means to give them a call and let them know how you’re holding up that day and if you’ve stayed sober. If you’ve lost sobriety, you MUST tell them what happened. You can’t recover unless you start being honest. Your sponsor is supposed to talk you through what triggered you and figure out how to avoid it again. If you don’t share with them that you acted out, you’ll never recover. This step of sharing with another human being my darkest secret was the hardest thing for me to do – and it is the one thing that helped me stay sober. Every time I wanted to act out, I would think about the embarrassing experience of telling my sponsor that ‘I did it again’. I could no longer keep acting out in secret; this crucial change has made all the difference for me.
3) Set a sobriety date and take it one day at a time
SA’s matra of being sober is: one day at a time. It is one of the most powerful concepts I have found in my recovery. While we must intend that our long-term goal is to give up pornography for good, as someone who’s deeply addicted, it is foolish to set a ‘quit date’ where you decide to give it all up and pretend like you’ll never return to it. Truth be told, our claim of quitting is often insincere because part of us can’t bear the thought of never watching porn again. I pretty much vowed never to return to porn on a weekly basis for seven years; I would relapse with a far greater sense of guilt and depression every time because I felt I had betrayed a promise I made to God. Forever seems too long for us and never is just too hard. Like they say in SA, ‘Stopping is easy. Staying stopped is the hard part’.
Taking it ‘one day at time’ means your goal is to stay sober for just one day – only 24 hours. No long-term sobriety targets of going for two weeks, a month or six months without porn. You just have to stay sober for a day. At the end of the 24 hours you are free to choose: do you want to stay sober for another 24 hours or no? If you decided yes, then you put your energy into staying sober for another 24 hours. Going through the daily sobriety renewal with your sponsor during your daily call is an excellent practice. The practice of taking it one day at a time means you’re never under the illusion that you ‘quit porn’. You’re always on thin ice and you’ll fall right back to where you started if you don’t actively work on taking care of yourself. To track your progress, you should set a ‘sobriety date’. This is the date you last acted out and it should be renewed every time you relapse. With God’s grace, you will see that the period of time between each relapse will grow longer and longer as you progress in your recovery.
4) Define Sobriety: Don’t try to separate pornography and masturbation
One of the biggest mistakes I was making when trying to give up porn on my own was that I defined staying sober as ‘staying away from porn’. But porn and masturbation are inherently related for most addicts – one eventually leads to the other. Masturbation is always accompanied with lustful fantasizing which either leads to pornography or other forms of unwanted sexual behavior. You should instead use the following definition: staying sober means no sex with one-self or others except the spouse. This technically means you could watch porn and stay ‘sober’ but that is just being dishonest and there is only so long before you end up masturbating. If you are the rare breed that is only addicted to watching porn (and not masturbating), you should modify your sobriety definition with your sponsor to include pornography in it as well.
5) Read this prayer when lustful thoughts come to you
One of the spiritual sages I met advised me to recite the following prayer of the Prophet :
O Ever-Living, O Sustainer! I call upon Your mercy for and I seek refuge from Your punishment. Rectify all my affairs and do not entrusts me to myself or to any of Your creation for even the blink of an eye.
Yā Ḥayyu yā Qayyūm, bi-raḥmatika astaghīth, wa min ʿadhābika astajīr, aṣliḥ lī shaʾnī kullah, wa lā takilnī ilā nafsī wa lā ilā aḥadan min khalqika ṭarfata ʿayn.
Another very useful prayer is the following:
My Lord! I seek Your protection against the insinuations of the devils and I seek your protection against them approaching me. (23:97-98)
I recite these repeatedly whenever I am triggered or lustful thoughts enter my mind. I have found consistently that these thoughts go away and I get distracted by something else after reading the prayers. These prayers can be found in many collections of daily supplications. I personally recite it from the collection of Imam al-Haddad called Wird-al-Latif. If you don’t already have a routine of reciting supplications, I highly recommend incorporating this collection in your daily routine. It has all the important prayers the Prophet advised for daily recital and takes only a few minutes to complete.
6) Install the K9 Web Filter on your computer
Of all the filters I experimented with, this is the most effective one and comes free of cost. I installed it on my machine, set a jumbled-up password I couldn’t remember and then put my parents email as the recovery account. There’s no way I am calling them in the middle of the night to recover my password; the time I am usually most vulnerable.
7) Your smart phone has to go; ideally, the internet in your house too
I resisted this for the longest time; I thought I could manage to hold onto my smart phone. I tried all kinds of filters, locks and productivity applications. I would find a loop hole every time and ultimately realized that my sobriety mattered far more than being able to use google maps, check my emails or respond to WhatsApp groups. Plus, these phones provide access to non-pornographic material such as YouTube and Instagram which can act as triggers. So, the smart phone went away and I got an old-fashioned phone (I managed to find one with a keyboard) which I only use to make old-fashioned phone calls. After I made progress in my recovery, I only allowed myself a smart phone at work and I still only use the non-smart phone when at home.
In addition, for the first several months into the program I did not have internet at my house. It was challenging but necessary, as I simply couldn’t be alone with the internet at that time. My house then became a safe space and I was completely off the grid: no internet, no smart phones and no distractions. After accumulating some sobriety, I did allow myself cable internet. However, I still don’t have a Wi-Fi connection at home as I fear I might use handheld devices to act out.
8) Stop feeding your lust
‘I’ll act out this one last time and get it out of my system so I can focus again’, this was a common justification I would use to give into my cravings. There’s no ‘one last time’. The more you feed your lust, the stronger the cravings will be the next time the temptation returns. Imam Busiri’s words in his famous Burda are the best piece of advice in this case:
Don’t attempt to break the desires by indulging in disobedience
For food only strengthens a glutton’s craving
The self is like a child -if you leave it, it will grow up
wanting to suckle
But if you wean it, it will lose its desire for the breast
Once you stop feeding your lust through hardcore porn and masturbation, you will incline towards feeding it using other means. This could include activities such as: voyeurism, stalking people both off-line and on social media, engaging in virtual sex and fantasy, watching ‘softcore’ material, visiting strip clubs and seeking out illicit relationships. So, after getting a degree of sobriety from the hardcore pornographic material, you must slowly work towards achieving sobriety of the mind by eliminating these behaviors. If you don’t fix these, you will slowly fall back into the hardcore material and will return to square one.
9) Work on purifying your heart and removing your character defects
Attaining physical sobriety is only the beginning of the recovery process. Years of exposure to pornography has deeply damaged our hearts and spirits. We have to purify our hearts by increasing our zikr and prayers on the Prophet. Like other forms of addiction, the nature of this problem has only intensified our preexisting poor character. We must confront our selfishness, dishonesty, pride, anger, inconsiderateness and arrogance. Steps 4 to 9 of the program our designed to help us take a moral inventory of our actions, address our shortcomings and make amends with those we’ve wronged. This is the heart of recovery; so be sure to work through these steps slowly and carefully with your sponsor.
10) Don’t be fooled by early success; sobriety is a lifelong commitment.
Once I attainted some decent sobriety, I stopped going to meetings and working the program. Why put all that effort in when I no longer watch porn? I could go on for months without watching it now. I thought I was ‘cured’. All I had to do now was just get married and I won’t have to work so hard on staying celibate.
So, I went out looking for a spouse again thinking I was cured. I relaxed the strict rules I had imposed on myself, allowed myself masturbation periodically and stopped keeping track of my sobriety date. I soon realized after going ‘out there’ that getting married isn’t a simple business and it doesn’t just happen with the snap of a finger. I grew frustrated, I stopped taking care of my recovery and slowly but surely, I fell right back to the dark place where I started. For us addicts, ‘reduction’ is simply not an option – we allow ourselves ‘one drink’ and that’s enough to get us back to square one.
Don’t make that mistake. I had to pick myself up again, recommit to sobriety and started taking active care of myself. While reasons for committing to sobriety are obvious when your life is out of control, this becomes more challenging as you progress and your temptations are not as intense as they used to be. I am sober today for different reasons. I am sober because I’ve come to accept that I might never be ‘cured’ and I need to keep track of my sobriety to ensure I don’t go back to where I started. I am sober because I know it takes time to find the right person and I must learn to control my desires – lest I rush into a marriage for lowly reasons. More importantly, it is because I realize I have to exercise control over my lust even after marriage. I am no longer under the illusion that marriage is some form of unrestricted access to sex which will satiate all my base desires. If I can’t control my desires as a single person, I won’t be able to control them after marriage either and will end up engaging in sexually unwanted behaviors. Ultimately, my sobriety is for God’s sake and to earn His pleasure – these practical reasons outlined are simply a functional tool, for those of us weak in faith, to make the connection to our motivation more accessible.
My fellow addicts, don’t give up on your recovery. Sobriety is possible and it is a beautiful thing; I am living proof of that. Follow what I have outlined above and you will see that change is in fact possible. It will take time: I spent seven years struggling on my own and have been on the SA program for almost three years now with real results. Don’t make the mistakes I made; get help and work with someone to overcome this sick addiction. There’s hope for all of us and with God’s help, all is possible. I remind myself of the words of Imam Busiri when I am short on hope, I pray you find comfort in them as well:
O soul, do not become despondent due to your grievous sins –
When God forgives, even mortal sins become mere blunders.
Perhaps the mercy of my Lord when handed out,
Would be distributed in proportion to one’s sins.
My Lord! Don’t make my hope in you deterred,
And don’t leave my expectations unfulfilled!
Ahmed J. is a porn addict in recovery and a member of Sexaholics Anonymous. He blogs about his experiences in recovery at Jihad Against Porn
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