Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month
The viral NYC Catcall video has caused a stir in social media and online forums. It records a woman receiving over 100 catcalls from men as she walks the streets of New York City for 10 hours.
Just consider the 100,000+ youtube comments alone. While most commenters found the behavior of the catcalling men disgusting, some took issue with how the woman in the video was dressed. These commenters were daring enough to suggest that perhaps she would have attracted less negative attention had she dressed more “modestly.”
This suggestion, in turn, was met with backlash. How dare anyone “blame the victim” by suggesting that a woman change the way she dresses because men cannot or will not act with common decency!
What do we make of all this?
Is it completely outlandish to suggest that the way a woman (or man) dresses has an impact on how others treat her (or him)?
A Different Kind of Sexual Harassment
Here is another suggestion: why can’t we recognize that sexual harassment can go both ways?
Often, we characterize catcalling men as the predators who harass helpless women. What about immodest dress? If a person dresses in “sexy” clothes and goes out in public, why shouldn’t we consider this a form of sexual harassment in its own right?
Let me be frank. As a Muslim man, it is not easy walking through the streets these days. Women’s fashion continues to get increasingly sexy and provocative, and, in effect, public spaces are increasingly sexualized. From an Islamic perspective, the harm caused to individuals by this is clear and inarguable. Even from a non-religious perspective, constantly bombarding men with sexiness can be tortuous. Think of men or adolescent males who for whatever reason cannot find a sexual partner. Or think of married men being endlessly tempted by strangers as soon as they step out of the house. And, of course, the same or analogous harm can be inflicted on women by provocatively dressed men.
So, given the extent of this harm, why can’t concerned members of society raise their voices and say, enough is enough?
Unfortunately, people who do suggest that public dress should abide by basic standards of decency are characterized as prudes and out-of-touch religious fundamentalists. Even the words “decency” and “modesty” are seen as relics of a patriarchal past.
“So what if a woman wants to show some skin?” is the typical line. “A woman’s right to bare it all is what freedom and equality is all about! This is the 21st century. Are we still talking about women dressing ‘modestly’? How quaint! Modesty is dead. Women have the right to express their sexuality any way they please. If some women want to dress in long skirts, cover their hair, wear burkas, etc., that’s fine, but don’t tell anyone else how to dress.”
These are the arguments, more or less, from self-proclaimed “feminists” (especially third-wave) and others on the subject of modest dress. (Of course, there are many schools of thought in the feminist movement, and we should be cautious about characterizing feminists with too broad a brush. For example, some feminists will argue that current fashion merely serves to “objectify” women and, thus, serves the interests of men. But, even among this group, few would analyze the issue of women’s dress from the lens of men as victims, and even fewer would endorse the view that women’s dress be dictated by the sensitivities of men.)
Whose Power and Control?
The problem with the above argument against modesty is that it is hypocritical or, at least, wildly inconsistent.
When it comes to street harassment, catcalling is considered indecent, disrespectful, and immodest, to say the least. That means that, contrary to the above rant about “modesty being dead,” we all recognize and understand the value of these concepts, at least in the context of street harassment. And that means that we all do recognize some standard of decency, modesty, and respect. So why don’t we similarly recognize that a person’s dress could (and should) also abide by standards of modesty and decency?
In other words, it is hypocritical to bemoan the lack of decency/modesty on the part of catcallers but then, in the same breath, deny that those same concepts of decency/modesty can apply to the way people dress.
In response to this, some might argue that their grievance against street harassment has nothing to do with some arcane notion of decency, modesty, or honor. Rather, what makes street harassment so odious is that it is an instance of a person “exerting power and control over someone else.”
But, again, from a certain perspective, provocative dress, too, can be understood as an exertion of power over others in the public space, even an act of violence. From the Islamic worldview, for example, a person’s gaze is an invaluable treasure to be protected as it serves as the gateway to the heart/mind. And, while much of the onus in protecting one’s gaze falls on the person himself, others bear some moral responsibility too in being mindful of what they display in the presence of others. As we will see below, this moral-metaphysical construct has clear parallels in the legal and psychoanalytical traditions of the secular West.
Double Standards Abound
Ultimately, the point is if feminists wanted to be consistent, they should adopt the same hands-off attitude with respect to catcallers as they have for fashion.
If it is ok for women to bare it all in public without regard to the sensitivities of those around them, why is it not ok for men to make comments regarding women’s dress without regard to their sensitivities?
After all, perhaps catcallers are just sexually expressing themselves. Perhaps that is what freedom and equality are all about. Few would deny that men and women have different, gender-specific modes of sexual expression. If women can “own their bodies” by displaying it, why can’t men “own their feelings” by expressing their instinctual reactions to what women display?
Besides, on what basis can it be argued that a woman being catcalled suffers any real harm? Are comments like, “Hey beautiful,” by strange men in actuality harmful to a woman? How so?
Of course, I believe there is harm, but I also believe that immodest dress can be equally if not more harmful to onlookers.
Blaming the Victim
The suggestion that people modify their behavior or dress in order to avoid sexual harassment or assault is widely considered as nothing more than “blaming the victim.” What do we make of this?
First of all, as I have already said, certain kinds of behavior and dress should be understood as unacceptable due to the fact that they cause harm to others. (This is in line with secular moral reasoning, namely that only acts that harm others can be legally regulated or even deemed immoral in the first place.) A woman or man dressed provocatively, walking in public causes acute harm to those around her or him. As Muslims, we recognize this harm in the Islamic sense, but it should not be too difficult for non-Muslims to recognize – or at least acknowledge the possibility of – this harm as well. A few examples:
1- Workplace standards of dress: All places of business in the West have dress codes. The idea is that dressing provocatively is inappropriate as it can cause distraction and unneeded sexual tension that can contribute to a hostile working environment. If those standards are commonplace, why is it so hard to understand that provocative dress can be cause for a hostile public space?
2- Children: Everyone seems to recognize that children should not be exposed to certain kinds of scenes or images. That is why the MPAA in the US puts out movie ratings (PG, PG-13, etc.) and pundits question the presence of dancing cheerleaders at professional sporting events where children are present. Few would deny that there is harm, psychological or otherwise, that can afflict children exposed to sexually provocative imagery. Well, why can’t we extend that logic to adults? Could regular exposure to sexually provocative imagery cause psychological or neurological harm in adults? Scientific research has already concluded as much.
3- Indecent exposure laws: As it turns out, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban are not the only governments that dictate to their populations how much to cover themselves. Secular countries also have laws about what parts of the human body can or cannot be exposed in public spaces. Oftentimes, these laws simply represent Western cultural norms and, thus, go unquestioned, whereas analogous laws in Muslim countries that do not reflect Western norms are criticized. But, as far as Western norms go, who gets to decide that certain parts of the body, such as genitalia or a woman’s chest, are the only areas on the body that need to be covered in public? As any anthropologist can explain, different cultures have different views on dress, nudity, and the metaphysical and social significance of displaying the body. What is considered “naked” in one culture might be “modest,” even “prudish,” in another and vice versa. By means of colonialism and mass media, however, Western standards of dress and nudity have been mass imposed around the globe to such an extent that much of the world’s intuitions and subjective views on bodily propriety reflect Western sensibilities. In contrast to these idiosyncratic sensibilities, Islamic norms are seen (and experienced) as restrictive, alien, even barbaric. Even many Muslim women in hijab consciously feel like the veil is burdensome and would prefer to dress “normally” and only refrain from doing so due to their (commendable) religious devotion. If these Muslim women were taken back in time to, say, the year 1910 in America or Europe, the hijab would not stand out at all, since, even then, it was considered improper for a woman to expose her hair in public, let alone wear miniskirts and high heels. While the “normal” in secular society is in constant flux, Islamic principles of `awrah have remained consistent.
With these examples in mind, it is not hard to motivate the idea that, even from a secular perspective, immodest dress can cause harm. Does this mean that the woman in the viral video deserved the disrespectful treatment? Does this mean that a scantily dressed woman (or man) deserves to be sexually assaulted?
Absolutely not. Such harassment is never justifiable. But that fact has no bearing on the question of what is or is not appropriate dress and behavior. As Muslims, we should not be hesitant to denounce sexual harassment in the form of catcalling while also noting that immodest displays are in their own way a form of harassment that ought to be curbed with appropriate dress.
Ultimately, the implication is that, through these kinds of arguments, we can justify and demonstrate the ethical superiority of modest dress, such as the hijab, even from a secular, non-religious perspective. In this way, rather than being defensive and apologetic about hijab, Muslims should be confident in the emphasis their religion puts on modesty and even propose the hijab (and its analogs) to non-Muslims as a clear moral alternative.
What About Sexual Harassment Against Veiled Women?
Of course, some will be quick to point out that modestly dressed women, even women in full hijab, are still victims of catcalling and sexual assault. This response completely misses the point.
No one claims that dressing modestly will completely foreclose on the possibility of receiving negative attention. The claim is simply that, all else being equal, modest dress, e.g., hijab, significantly reduces the likelihood of such harassment. In fact, a recent youtube video demonstrated precisely this claim in spectacular fashion. So, yes, while women in hijab are, unfortunately, frequent victims of catcalling in Cairo’s busy streets, for example, the undeniable fact remains that the harassment would be much, much worse if these same women were dressed in yoga pants, tank tops, and other common Western styles.
Defining the Provocative
Throughout this post, I have expounded on the harm of “provocative dress” without defining exactly what this phrase means. Are short sleeves “provocative”? Are skinny jeans? Are maxi dresses? Is a one-piece swimsuit more or less provocative than a bikini?
I do not need to define the term because, as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about the concept of obscenity, I know it when I see it. Clearly, what is or is not provocative is in the eye of the beholder, and cultural standards shift all the time. But all is not lost to radical subjectivity and relativism. For example, at the very least, people today generally share this notion of “sexiness” within a given culture. In fact, being sexy is a sought after quality when it comes to dress and general demeanor. So, it is this commonplace notion that I would tie to “provocativeness” in benchmarking a more extensive discussion of appropriate dress in the public sphere. In other words, let’s scale back the sex appeal.
It is noteworthy that in many cultures and religions throughout time we find parallels to the Muslim standards of hijab. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covering the hair and donning loose fitting clothes were the norm. These archetypal modes of dress can also be found in non-Abrahamic traditions. For the majority of human history, numerous civilizations independently maintained a common conception of modesty, virtue, and honor, as if these standards emanated from a universal source. Even in Western society, up until 60 or 70 years ago, these values still had currency. But, ever since, everything has been up in the air.
Rules of Engagement
If anyone can be blamed for the erosion of basic norms of sexual propriety as seen in the catcalling video and elsewhere, some of the blame must fall on the “Sexual Revolution” itself. What is obvious is that the hypersexualization of the public space in modern times, driven by the “sexual revolutionaries” of the past 50 years, is directly contributing to the catcalling and harassment happening on the streets of our cities, among other things.
The 20th century Sexual Revolution in the West was meant to subvert sexual norms and standards of behavior between the sexes — norms and standards deemed coquettish at best, oppressive at worst. What feminists, modernists, and sexual revolutionaries failed to realize in their haste to overturn the old rules is that some of those mores might have actually served a crucial purpose.
For example, is it appropriate to shamelessly proposition a stranger in public by way of catcall?
But what about “hitting on” said stranger?
Well, depends on the situation.
Is it appropriate to meet someone at a bar and decide to go home with her for the night?
In today’s culture, yes.
What if that person has had too much to drink?
Well, that becomes a little trickier…
How much alcohol is too much? What if the stranger is willing and ready? What if the stranger has boyfriend? What if the stranger is willing now, but changes her mind half way through? Or the next day? What if the person is not a stranger but a coworker? What if the location is not a bar but an office party? What if the coworker is married? etc., etc., etc.
The point is there are countless rules and standards of behavior — both explicit and implicit, of varying degrees of subtlety — that dictate appropriate sexual behavior even in “sexually liberated,” third-wave feminist Western culture. But the very existence of these rules squarely conflicts with the “no rules,” “no inhibitions,” free love,” “free sexual expression” ethos of the post-sexual revolution world we inhabit.
Hypocrisy Upon Hypocrisy
The hypocrisy is we are teaching and conditioning members of society, men and women, that “free sexual expression” is the only way to be healthy but, then, we are outraged by certain kinds of “indecency,” e.g., catcalling. Is it really that surprising that when people are incessantly told to, “Throw away your inhibitions,” “Don’t be a prude,” “Let the inner animal loose,” that the result will be an increase of indecency and socially taboo behaviors? Again, from a certain perspective, catcallers are essentially just expressing their sexuality. Maybe it would be “prudish” of us to suggest that they hold their tongues.
The lasting effects of the Sexual Revolution are reverberating in the street, in our homes, and in our psyches. Young people are the unfortunate victims. Things are so confused that girls are having trouble understanding if they have been victims of rape or not. Boys are insecure if they have not lost their virginity by the end of middle school.
Just look at the contradictions in the field of fashion itself. Girls as young as 10 are encouraged to dress sexy, but what does this amount to other than attracting sexual attention from others? Obviously certain kinds of attention are socially acceptable and others are not, but what are these standards grounded in? Not tradition, not cultural memory, not elderly counsel, not organized religion. The rules exist and the consequences are steep, but the institutions that historically were responsible for instilling these norms have all been undermined by the vicious anti-authoritarianism of modern sexual liberation. Yet the same voices calling for liberation are also the ones bemoaning the acts of catcallers and sexual harassers.
We are all victims of this hypocrisy.
Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month
The Culture Debt of Islamic Institutions
The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month
Our community institutions are in debt – cultural debt. And the bill is due.
There are major consequences when the bill comes due on a debt you owe. Personal debt can lead to bankruptcy or foreclosure and the loss of your home.
If paid off before the bill comes due, debt can be a tool. Many communities in North America have utilized the qardh hasanah (goodly loan) as a way to expedite construction projects and then pay people back over time. When businesses fail to pay debt back, they are forced to liquidate and go out of business to satisfy their creditors. In extreme cases, like the economic crisis of a few years ago, major institutions repeatedly utilizing debt as a tool became over-leveraged, creating a rippling collapse.
Financial debt is not the only type of debt an organization carries. Every decision made by an organization adds to a balance sheet of sorts. Other types of debt can be technical, or even cultural.
Consider a new company that keeps making the decision to cut corners with their technology infrastructure – creating ‘technical’ debt. At a certain point, the infrastructure will need to be replaced. If not properly planned for, the cost to fix it could cripple the company.
Put another way, impatience and short-term decision making create (non-financial) debts that can destroy an organization.
The cultural debt for an organization, especially Islamic organizations, can be the most devastating.
These decisions may appear rational or well-intentioned compromises, but they come at a cost.
For example, if a community prioritizes money into a construction project instead of an imam or youth director, what is the cost of the compromise? A 5-year construction project means an entire segment of youth who will be aged anywhere between 13 and 18 risk being disconnected from the masjid.
What about the cost of marginalizing the one sister on the board multiple times such that other sisters become disenchanted and unengaged. Or what if the marginalized board member is a youth, or a convert, or a person of color? How is the collateral damage to those segments of the community assessed?
What about when the same 2 or 3 people (even without an official title) remain in charge of a masjid and aggressively push out people not in line with their agendas? Dedicated and hard-working volunteers will end up leaving and going to other communities.
What about when a few people are responsible for creating an environment so toxic and exhausting that volunteers don’t want to come to the masjid anymore? And they get so burned out that they refuse to get involved in a masjid again? Who is going to pay the bill for all the talent that’s been driven away?
What is the spiritual debt on a community that refuses to invest in an Imam or scholar for over 10 years? An entire generation will grow up in that masjid without a local resource to take guidance from. What is the impact on those kids when they grow up to get married and have their own children?
What is the cost of having overly-aggressive daily congregants who yell at people, make people feel uncomfortable, and ultimately make them want to stay away from the masjid?
Will the construction committee that decided to build a customized dome instead of a more adequate women’s prayer space ever make it up to them?
What is the cost on a community of building a massive albatross of a school that can’t cover its own overhead – and yet services less than 5% of a community’s children?
What is the cost on a congregation when the Friday khutbah becomes associated entirely with fundraising instead of spiritual development?
Did anyone plan to repay this cultural debt when they were making decisions on behalf of the community? Who is paying attention to it?
Some communities are able to shift, and make strides. Some communities are able to recognize a larger vision for growing and developing a community spiritually.
For other communities, they are now over-leveraged. The culture debt is due. To continue the financial analogy, they’re at the point of declaring bankruptcy.
These are the masjids that are empty. These are the ones where, pardon the crassness, after a few people die off, the masjid will most likely die out as well because there is no community left to take over.
These are the communities that people avoid, where they refuse to volunteer, and eventually where people stop donating.
The culture debt of the community is that people no longer feel a part of the community, and therefore the infrastructure they worked so hard to build will crumble.
Cultural bankruptcy is the loss of people.
Can the culture debt be repaid? Is there a way out? How do you undo the loss of people?
I was really hoping to have a nice and tidy 5-step action plan to fix this. The reality is, it’s not going to be easy. People don’t realize the collateral damage they’ve caused over the course of 10-20 years despite the good intentions they had.
How do you get them to accept responsibility, much less change?
It’s not going to happen. The change will be outside the masjid. This means there will be a continued rise in third spaces. Parents are using online tutors instead of Sunday schools, making their children even less attached to the masjid. There will be an increase in small groups of families getting together in their homes instead of the masjid to try and build a sense of community. There will be an entire generation of new adults who will not even desire an attachment to the masjid beyond the Friday and funeral prayers.
People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them)
We all see the masjids in our community that have been hit hardest by this culture debt. They’re the ones that used to be full and are now empty – while the same 2 or 3 people remain in charge for literally decades. They’re the ones that we fear will eventually close down or be sold off due to a lack of any real community – because the community was never invested in to begin with.
Those in positions of influence should seriously take account of the consequences of their actions on the community. Recognize the wrongs that were done and do your best to rectify them. At the least, seek forgiveness for the ramifications of your actions.
We can no longer make the excuse of having to do what we had to do in order to get institutions up and running from scratch. As the saying goes – what got you here won’t get you there. The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.
And now we see the consequences of those decisions. The culture debt is due, and we might not be able to pay it back.
Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month
I Encountered A Predator On Instagram
A predator on Instagram posing as a hijab modeling consultant, going by the name of @samahnation, tried to prey on me- an underage, 16-year-old. We don’t know if the photos on Instagram page have been stolen from a victim. These predators operate under various names.
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month
It was a Wednesday night in April and as I was getting ready to go to bed, a direct message popped up in my Instagram inbox. A little background; my personal account on Instagram is private and it is rare that I let anyone, whom I do not know, follow me. But seeing that this was a grown “woman” with a baby and I had at least seven mutual friends, I let her follow me.
I will say, I was definitely in the wrong to respond to someone I didn’t personally know. Somehow I thought her 105K followers gave her credibility.
I was gravely mistaken.
I opened the direct message.
She had sent me a message complimenting me. This wasn’t new to me because I often get messages with compliments about my appearance from friends — we are teenagers. However, the stark difference was that I didn’t know this person at all. (I came to learn that these types of messages can go under the category of grooming). After complimenting me, she asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company.Many young women are targeted by predators on Instagram. Here is my story. 'After complimenting me, 'she' asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company.'Click To Tweet
I replied, saying that if I had more details I’d consult with my parents and give her an answer the next morning; to which she responded demanding she must have an answer the same night as she had other offers to make.
I then went to ask my mother. Mama was sick with the flu, quite woozy, but despite her state she said,
“this sounds like a scam to me…”.
I decided to play along with it and test her.
I told @samahnation to tell me more and how I could verify her and her company. She then sent me numerous copied and pasted answers —hecka long— about how I could trust her; how the company would pay me and how they will still make money in the meantime.
Thankfully, I was apprehensive during the entire ordeal, but as you can see, this type of manipulation is so real and possible for young women and girls to fall prey. This experience was honestly quite scary and jarring for me. I was so easily distracted by what she was portraying herself as on her profile. She had a GoFundMe for a masjid in her bio and posts of photos depicting her love for her baby.
I began to do some research. I stumbled upon an article about a ‘Hijab House’ model scam. Using the title of ‘consultant director’ for a well-known hijab company, Hijab House, predators were allegedly preying on young girls in Australia. Hijab House has denied any link to this scam.
The predator went as far as to blackmail and pressure their victims into sending nude photos, or doing crazy things like smelling shoes! Eerily enough, @samahnation’s Instagram bio stated that she was based in Melbourne, Australia.
The more I engaged with this predator, the more ludicrous their responses and questions got. And this happened within the span of 24 hours.
She went as far as to ask me if I would answer questions for a survey, saying all that mattered was honesty and that the purpose of the survey was to make me uncomfortable to see if I “won’t fall under pressure.”
Clearly, this last statement about being a speech analysis specialist was a complete fabrication. Again, may I reiterate that even older people can fall prey. You don’t have to be young and impressionable, these manipulative perpetrators will do anything to get what they want.
This was the last thing I said to the predator before I blocked and reported them in an attempt to get them caught. Observe how as soon as I called this person out they immediately became defensive and tried to manipulate me into thinking that what they were doing and asking me was completely normal- that I was the crazy one for asking for proof.
Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. They had asked me questions I found too lewd to even answer or take screenshots of.
This bizarre encounter was honestly astonishing. I do not even know if I was talking to a man or a woman.
Alhamdullilah, I am so glad because even if I was a little bit gullible, I was aware enough about predatory behavior that I didn’t fall victim to this perpetrator. I am especially grateful for my mother, who has educated me about predators like this from a very young age; whom even in her drowsy state was able to tell me it was a preposterous scam.
I could have been blackmailed.
Talk to your parents or a trusted adult
I am grateful for having an open channel of communication, that my relationship with my mother is based on trust and I could go to her when this occurred. This is a reminder and a learning opportunity for all of us how these scary things can happen to anyone. We must learn how to take caution and protect ourselves and our (underage) loved ones against such situations.
Sis, please talk to your parents. They love you and will be your first line of defense.
Grooming is a very common tactic online predators use to gain the trust of their victim. According to InternetSafety101, young people put themselves at great risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know on a personal level. “Internet predators intentionally access sites that children commonly visit and can even search for potential victims by location or interest.
If a predator is already communicating with a child, he or she can piece together clues from what the child mentions while online, including parents’ names, where the child goes to school, and how far away the child lives from a certain landmark, store, or other location.
Online grooming is a process which can take place in a short time or over an extended period of time. Initial conversations online can appear innocent, but often involve some level of deception. As the predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child’s trust, he may initially lie about his age or may never reveal his real age to the child, even after forming an established online relationship. Often, the groomer will know popular music artists, clothing trends, sports team information, or another activity or hobby the child may be interested in, and will try to relate it to the child.”
These tactics lead children and teens to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child’s trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child’s inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child’s behavior.
They also flatter and compliment the child excessively and manipulate a child’s trust by relating to emotions and insecurities and affirming the child’s feelings and choices.
* Prey on teen’s desire for romance, adventure, and sexual information.
* Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities.
* Affirm feelings and choices of child.
* Exploit natural sexual curiosities of child.
* Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography.
* Flatter and compliment the child excessively, send gifts, and invest time, money, and energy to groom the child.
* Develop an online relationship that is romantic, controlling, and upon which the child becomes dependent.
* Drive a wedge between the child and his/her parents and friends.
* Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire.
* Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to blackmail them into silence.”
Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting?
According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. “Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed. For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind,” writes Dr Stephanie Sarkis.
Recognizing signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:
Second guessing. Are you constantly second guessing yourself when talking to this person or questioning your own morals that you wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise? For example, when this person popped up in my inbox I wouldn’t have thought twice about blocking or just deleting the message if it was a man but, since it seemed to be a woman I was duped into thinking that it was more acceptable or I could trust them more.
Feeling as if you are being too sensitive. Again I cannot emphasize this enough that you must trust your instincts, if you are feeling uncomfortable and your internal alarm bells are ringing- listen to them! Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting or manipulation.
Feeling constantly confused. Another sign that you may be falling victim to gas lighting is when you are constantly confused and second guessing your thoughts and opinions.
1. Trust your instincts (I’m going to reiterate this, always trust your gut feeling, if you feel like you are uncomfortable whether it’s a situation you are in or if you don’t have a good feeling while talking to a certain person I advise you exit the chat or don’t answer in the first place.)
2. Never answer to someone whom you don’t know. I will say this was my first and biggest mistake that I have made: allowing this person’s messages into my inbox, and replying to their ridiculous claims and questions. Now that I think about it I don’t even know if this was a woman or not.
3. Set your boundaries! This is probably the most important tip to take away from this article. Setting up your boundaries from the beginning is so important. Whether it is a friend, partner or colleague, if you do not set your boundaries from the beginning of your interaction or relationship with that person; people will not respect your limits and choices later on. Especially if your boundaries have to do with religion, moral compasses, or even specific pet peeves you have. I cannot emphasize how much boundaries matter when it comes to any daily interaction you may have in your daily life.
Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month
Are You Accidentally Supporting Corrupt Nonprofit Organizations and Charities?
Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month
Former Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has a compelling story. Even the State Attorney General, who recently charged her with several crimes, alluded to the pain she experienced in her life. It was a remarkable story of perseverance after being affected by gun violence, triumph and helping others. Yet, there she is, facing time in prison for using a charity called “MECA” for assorted alleged acts of theft, fraud, and other crimes of dishonesty.
According to the Attorney General, Johnson-Harrell has accepted responsibility for her crimes and is pleading guilty. She has also resigned from her public office. Johnson-Harrell has stated she may dispute some charges. She like any other defendant is innocent until the state proves her guilty.
What is also undeniable is that many of the kinds of things the Attorney General accused Johnson-Harrell of are common with nonprofits, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Indeed, the President of the United States has also done egregious things with his “charity” in New York, undetected by law enforcement despite his public profile, until news media started asking questions. The President faces no criminal charges.
My purpose here goes beyond Johnson-Harrell’s legal troubles. Instead, it is to help nonprofits and their leaders stay out of trouble and to give donors an essential tool in being a thoughtful donor. We often donate because of “social proof.” Someone invites you to donate online; a friend invites us to a fundraiser, we hear a good speech or testimonial, and we give.
We often don’t particularly care about accountability. We should. Let’s dig deeper to understand how charities work so that we can be better donors with the limited funds we have to give with excellence.
The Role of Government Oversight in Charities
What state a nonprofit is in makes a difference. The state attorney general typically has regulatory authority over the nonprofit sector. Charities have tax benefits because of the social good they theoretically provide. But what happens if the charity is not keeping faith with its beneficial role? If a CEO of an environmental charity pilfers funds for personal use, you cannot reasonably expect a family of ducks to sue. The Attorney General is there for the ducks, the trees, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the beaches, the works of art, the future poor patients who are not yet poor or sick, and everything else charity should benefit. At least that’s the idea.
Abuse by nonprofits is a violation of the public trust. It is public corruption against society and not merely cheating a donor.
Because of this role, from time to time, you see lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions by state attorneys general for corruption by nonprofit leaders. A high-profile state representative like Johnson-Harrell is an obvious target since prosecuting her lets the rest of us citizens know law enforcement is paying attention. But these lawsuits and occasional criminal prosecutions are rare compared to how rampant nonprofit corruption is. Attorneys General typically don’t put adequate resources into regulating the more than trillion-dollar nonprofit sector.
Religious Charities Can Usually Get Away With More
In some states, for example, California, religious corporations are exempt by statute from oversight for things like breaches of fiduciary duty. The lack of accountability is remarkable since religious charities can be extremely corrupt, something known to Americans for much of its history. Exposing religious charity corruption has long been fodder for documentaries and movies. Certain Christian preachers on TV are known to abuse nonprofit status to flaunt extreme wealth with no negative consequences.
People who run religious nonprofits, including Executive Directors and board members, can still be criminally prosecuted, but you usually would not expect it. Various taxing authorities also have authority over charities. The IRS is the primary regulator for charities nationally. For the most part, though, the IRS has been leaving nonprofits, even obviously bad ones, alone. Religious nonprofits, like those classified as “churches,” don’t need to file Form 990s, annual disclosures required for other nonprofits. Therefore much of what these groups activities are opaque to both the government and the public.
With some notable exceptions, governments and law enforcement at all levels mostly ignore nonprofit corruption. The times they do is typically the exception that proves the rule.
For the most part, then, sorting out the good nonprofits from the bad ones is left to donors. We all contend with hard-sell data-driven marketing tactics from social psychology. We don’t usually don’t know how to distinguish between good organizations and bad.
Look Beyond The Pitch
Stories of nonprofits and their leaders can be compelling. But narratives can also be used to manipulate, distract, and hide. The raw charisma of a speaker quoting Quran and Hadith can be waived up to donors to make them think they are doing good work in the path of Allah when they may sometimes be enabling criminality. Charisma and the power of stories can get us to contribute to causes better than just about anything.
There are various red flags to look out for, but I will focus on perhaps the most obvious one, an executive of a charity acting as a member of the board.
No Real Board Accountability
Johnson-Harrell was on her own nonprofit board while also serving as an executive. This practice was also present at scandal-plagued Ta’leef Collective. State law does not typically forbid a CEO or other employee (like an imam) from being a board member, despite it being a glaring conflict of interest. It has never been nonprofit best practices to have employees oversee themselves since it is a horrible idea on its face. The only possible real justification for this is when a nonprofit is new, small, all volunteer-run, and there are not enough volunteers or funds available to make accountability a priority. While there is potential for abuse here, we tend to ignore it out of practicality.
Now larger nonprofits can have employees, as well as others, with personal, family or business interests with the charity (like a vendor) on the board might point to a “conflict of interest policy.” Of course every nonprofit should have one in case unexpected conflicts come up. They are not, however, solutions to self-created problems the organization never needed to have.
Accountability is Hard
It still begs the question: Why engage in the reckless practice of having an executive overseeing himself or herself? Are there no sufficiently qualified people in the Muslim community capable of helping with the board of an organization? Unlikely.
What we do know is the main reason Muslim leaders (non-Muslims as well) chose to police themselves is that real accountability is hard, maybe even a little messy.
You may have heard this story before: An Imam and a Masjid Board have a conflict, resulting in the Imam leaving. The Imam does not go quietly, though, since he is angry with the board. He tells his supporters (of which he has many in the local community) that boards are incompetent, imbecilic, don’t understand the “youth” or whatnot. The best way to run a Masjid, you see, is for the Imam to call all the shots. He will usually adorably say all this with the earnestness of someone who feels he is the first person who ever had this insight. Plenty of Muslims believe him and are hurt by whatever petty drama took place at the Masjid last week. They will join his new storefront Masjid, sometimes across the street from the Imam’s former Masjid.
These are often pop-up institutions born out of vainglorious temper tantrums, built on the foundation of one man and some upset donors who soon move on to chase the next shiny thing, or simply rejoin their old Masjid. Such places typically do not last over the long haul. If you have been around a Muslim community for a few decades, you have seen several come and go.
Badly Governed Respected Institutions
More of a long-term threat for the Muslim community is when real institutions with staying power with endowments, employees, and buildings go the route of slipshod accountability-free governance where an executive gets to oversee himself. Eventually, when you set up institutions with plain-as-day opportunities for corruption and abuse, everything can collapse. It happened in a spectacular style for Christian institutions with no real accountability for the people running it (many are still like that). Many Muslim institutions we all respect that do good work have nonprofit governance so poor they almost seem custom-built for corruption.
The beautiful Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles once boasted a massive endowment, a global TV viewership for its “hour of power” and donor memorials that would last forever. It fell into bankruptcy because of the same kind of nonprofit governance increasingly common in the Muslim community. Inadequate or non-existent board oversight is a form of structural corruption, even if no abusive practices are currently taking place. It should be enough of a red flag that someone can abuse authority with no real accountability. Unless we start demanding accountability from Muslim leaders, those we trust our donations to, we should reasonably expect more criminal charges as we saw with MECA, scandals like Ta’leef, and spectacular failures like the Crystal Cathedral.
Other Board Members May Not Be Much Help
One response by self-interested board members may be to point to the existence of “independent” board members to keep insiders (like the CEO or equivalent) in check. You should never assume this creates accountability. We cannot stereotype nonprofit boards, of course, and many operate in different ways. I have seen Muslim institutions were board members:
- Have no visibility into the organization’s operations, budget, or much of anything else important. Though they do have meetings and manage to argue about things.
- Never attended board meetings despite being members for many years and did not know if the charity has been having meetings all these years.
- Were never informed they were members of the board, despite their names being on public information filings with the state.
- Helped start the organization as Ph.D. students and got a lifetime membership on the board, but that was decades ago when they lived in the United States.
Those who dislike accountability prefer “straw” board members who are either not present or can be “handled” by management. A well-known example of this is Theranos, a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a fake blood-testing product. Many supposedly sophisticated investors were reassured when the company stacked its board with famous octogenarians and nonagenarians. None of them knew and did not bother to ask if the entire operation they were overseeing was a fraud.
These kinds of board shenanigans generally take place where there is a CEO who is also a board member and would prefer to run things without dealing with pesky difficult questions. Board members are there for the appearance of accountability but are often little more than seat-warmers.
It’s Not About a Leader’s “Integrity”
Some Muslim leaders will take a call for accountability as a personal insult to their integrity. This sentiment is misguided. Instead, it is about building systems that make our institutions sustainable. I don’t know Johnson-Harrell. However, no Muslim can honestly claim to be better than her, either in intent or commitment to the community. Yet, without a system of accountability, the fallibility of decent men and women magnifies.
You need to have a Shura (mutual consultation) in leadership, that is how the Quran advises us to handle our affairs. A nonexistent or fundamentally insincere “Shura” designed to not hold anyone accountable is asking for trouble.
Muslim nonprofit leaders can find their freedom to spend charitable dollars without meaningful accountability intoxicating. Leaders who you would never think can make severe errors in judgment start to make them. It only gets worse from there.
Work in an Islamic charitable institution is bigger than one man or woman. If you create a charity with no meaningful checks and balances, your work won’t be sustainable.
Abu Bakr , the first Khalifah, could not determine his salary as the leader of Muslims. He was always accountable, and as I pointed out in a previous article, he preferred it that way. Muslim leaders should welcome accountability and not think of it as a personal slight when asked about the issue from within the community.
What Board Members Should Do
If someone entrusted you with oversight of a charity, there are helpful educational resources that can help you be excellent. Use them. Remove board members with conflicts of interest, especially employees and vendors.
You need to prepare for and be present at meetings. Hold the organization and each other as board members accountable. Don’t be on the board to win anyone’s favor, least of all the CEO or Imam. You have an Amanah (a trust), to make sure the charity is operating with excellence in everything it is doing. Ask difficult questions that donors will rarely know to ask. Read all financial statements and reports, that is where the mischief happens. Make sure no executive can “handle” you into submission. If you cannot do these things, don’t be on the board.
The common denominator in virtually all nonprofit corruption cases is executive domination. Don’t be used.
What Donors Should Do
Encourage charities you like that have weak governance to change their practices. Uncritical support can enable structural problems, which can be destructive to the organization over the long term. Sometimes, the best contribution you can make to an organization is to encourage them to reform their governance. You can do this as a small donor. Don’t expect major donors to request such changes.
You may not know much about the organization’s finances or how good or bad the organization’s operations are. However, you do know an employee or vendor is on the board of a charity is a signal the organization is uninterested in holding its leaders accountable. There are plenty of good charities worth supporting. If the charity remains stubborn about not allowing accountability, move on to the next one.