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The BBC’s “Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade” doc Reveals Some Ugly Truths

 “Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves.”

IMAM HUSSAIN (AS)

Last week, the BBC released a documentary called “Undercover with the Clerics – Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade”. The documentary highlighted that some clerics in Iraq are selling young girls for mutah, or temporary marriage, or as the documentary refers to them, pleasure marriages.

In harrowing detail, the film highlights that the cover of mutah is being used to sexually exploit women and rape young girls, in some cases, allowing men to rape children as young as 12. It is important that it is made absolutely clear that this is rape, as children are not able to give consent.

Given that the documentary is associated with cities that are home to some of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines (including Kāẓimiyyah and Karbala), the documentary has been accused of stoking sectarianism, promoting Islamophobia and presenting a biased view, particularly given that the timing of documentary is close to Arbaeen (the observance of 40 days after the day of Ashura).

After watching the film, although some aspects of the film were problematic, overall the documentary was well-balanced, providing the view of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (who unreservedly condemned these practices). This post looks at some of criticisms of the documentary, and why these criticisms are minor compared to the bigger, uglier truths depicted in this film.

If you love the Holy Prophet (SAW), and his Holy Household, then you must also love truth, and therefore, we need to recognise some of the facts that were presented in the BBC film, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Our discomfort at seeing such crimes is secondary to the pain and suffering of vulnerable women, who are raped, sometimes by men old enough to be their fathers, on a daily basis.

This is happening and we cannot turn a blind eye. It is not the first time that the western media has covered the issue of the exploitation of short-term marriages. In 2006, NPR’s Anne Garrels’ interview highlighted the rising popularity of temporary marriage after the fall of Saddam.

One of the criticisms of the film relates to the use of the phrase “pleasure marriage” as being inaccurate and sensationalist. This is a fair criticism, since the word “mutah” is more accurately defined as temporary marriage. Mutah is a point of contention among Muslims, and is a controversial and poorly understood practice. It can be utilised appropriately but it is also open to abuse.

However, the film was talking about the abuse of temporary marriage for a very specific purpose, i.e. primarily for sex, and so in this case, “pleasure marriage” is a phrase that encompasses the purpose of the men pursuing a temporary marriage for a distinct and specific purpose: for no strings attached sex in exchange for a price. In other words: prostitution. There is no other purpose than the pursuit of pleasure for the man.

In addition, such pleasure marriages violate the rules of mutah where there must be a two-month waiting period after the marriage expires.

Let’s make it clear that this practice as shown in the film is an abuse of religion and certainly does not reflect the beliefs of the majority.

A second criticism is that the film asserts that places of Shia pilgrimage are “dens of prostitution”. We don’t get an idea of exactly how widespread these cases of abuse are across Karbala or Kāẓimiyyah, but the film does state that many places around the shrines facilitate mutah marriage.

This takes nothing away from the sanctity of the pilgrimage itself. It is obviously not the reason why millions of pilgrims flock to the holy sites, year after year.

The key point is that it is happening, whether we like it or not, whether we choose to accept it or not. It does not need to be widespread to recognise it as an injustice.

In addition, it is crucial to understand that this abuse is not happening in the shrines themselves, but rather in the cities that are associated these shrines. And while Karbala of course resonates with Shia Muslims especially, as the final resting place of Imam Husayn ibn Ali (AS), the city itself is a city like any other city in the world, with normal people, and unfortunately, sinners, like in every other place in the world.

We cannot deny the reality of these crimes simply because they are happening in Karbala, a revered and holy place for Shia Muslims. Karbala holds a special place in the hearts of those who love Imam Husayn (AS), as a place where people go to seek truth, spirituality and nearness to Allah, and to pay their respects to the King of Martyrs.

However, it is also a city of abject poverty, widows, and orphans who have suffered in the aftermath of the Iraq war. And with poverty, comes desperation. It’s a toxic environment of desperation and poverty that allows sexual predators to exploit vulnerable women.

This injustice happens everywhere in the world where you have poverty and war. The bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure and fifteen years of war left people (especially women without a support structure) no option, but to resort to any means possible to survive.

It is argued that the so-called clerics shown in the documentary are fakes and charlatans, and have no standing in the Shia world. While this may be true, it is important to consider this from the point of view of the victims shown in the film. Potentially, anybody can claim to study at a hawza, or at an Islamic University and declare themselves an expert on Shia theology.

We see this clearly in the world of social media. The so-called “Imam of Peace” is neither an Imam, and arguably, nor does he stand up for peace. According to independent journalist, CJ Werleman, he’s nothing but a fake. He has also been denounced globally by many Muslims.

While it may be true that Sayyid Raad (shown in the film) may be nothing more than a pimp, from the point of view of women on the ground (and the men seeking such marriages), he is someone who claims to be qualified to perform the rites and rituals associated with temporary marriage. Women approach these kinds of clerics for help and charity, and some are advised to engage in temporary marriage as a solution.

The film could have made it clearer that the clerics were mutah brokers, although at least one of the men featured in the documentary was dressed in traditional religious garb. The film could have done a better job of getting commentary from more authoritative sources, although it was made clear that these men are abusing the religion. In no way were the men associated with the entire religion.

Of course, prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and it happens everywhere, but the key difference is that in Iraq, the men are falsely claiming abuse to have been made halal and religiously sanctioned. The film included a statement from “Ali” (who regularly uses pleasure marriages for sex): “This is not about religion, it is about money.”

In the majority of these cases, religion has been used as a tool for sexual grooming. Initially, the women are made feel that entering into a temporary marriage is a legitimate (and “halal”) way to alleviate poverty. It is only when they enter this dark world of exploitation that they find themselves trapped with no way out. It’s the shame that keeps them quiet; their groomers use the tactic of fear to keep them from telling anyone.

The documentary provides balance in three ways:

  • It makes clear that these so-called clerics are violating both Islamic and Iraq’s legal laws. In reality, the age of consent (or marriageable age) in Iraq is 15.
  • The clerics are offered a right of reply via telephone. The unabashed lying shown on camera makes it clear that these frauds have no moral standards and certainly no Islamic credentials.
  • Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani is approached and the respected scholar makes it clear to condemn this practice. It isn’t covered up, nor does the Ayatollah make excuses for these crimes.

I do not see the film as an attack on Shi’ism, nor is it anything to do with the holy pilgrimage itself. The power of Arbaeen, and the call of the prominent personalities is so great, that nothing will stop this movement. It is certainly true that the BBC could do more to cover Arbaeen, but I do not understand why we would expect the BBC to promote Shia beliefs. That said, in 2004, the BBC covered the pilgrimage to Karbala that many Muslims from the West undertake during Arbaeen, in their documentary ‘2004 Karbala: City of Martyrs’. In addition, this film isn’t about Shi’ism itself; it is about the topic of exploitative criminal behaviour by a minority.

It is quite possible to be nuanced enough to understand that sexual exploitation in Iraq is a reality, while also recognising that the BBC could do more to cover Arbaeen, which is one of the world’s largest peaceful gatherings. That being said, these critiques of the documentary do not reduce the authenticity of the narrative.

It is clear that so-called clerics (or perhaps more accurately, mutah brokers) are enabling bad men who take advantage of short-term marriages for their own sexual perversions.

There will be many who will use this documentary to make an attack on Shia beliefs, but that should not prevent anyone from exposing the practices shown on camera. Because this isn’t about Shi’ism, and it certainly isn’t about Islamophobia. It is about the victims, and this is happening everywhere.

Ultimately, as Ayatollah Sistani said in the film, it’s happening (and notably, the Grand Ayatollah did not deny this as a reality) because the police are not doing their jobs, and this is because women are not empowered enough to speak out. How can anything be done unless we recognise that this is happening? We need to stop putting our heads in the sand and wake up to reality.

We have seen this all over the world through the MeToo movement. By no means are sexual crimes or exploitation restricted to religious groups or the Shia community. It is happening in Hollywood. It is happening in mosques. It is happening in churches. It is happening in Hajj. And yes, it has happened historically at the BBC. This is not about particular groups of people. Sexual exploitation is about power.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves that just because someone wears religious garb or prays five times a day or “acts religious”, that such things are not possible.

Last year, female pilgrims spoke out about sexual harassment at hajj, which started the #MosqueMeToo hash tag on Twitter. Women used the platform to talk about their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault while they were at pilgrimage in Mecca. It is still taboo to talk about sexual harassment within the Muslim community, but things are slowly changing.

Just last week, GBBO’s Nadiya Hussain bravely revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child. Nothing will change unless women have a voice to talk about their own experiences.

This documentary is one part of the beginning of that journey, and the target of people’s outrage should not be the BBC. Rather, the focus should be on the criminals shown in the film who have the audacity to try to legitimise such heinous crimes in the holiest cities in the world in the name of Shi’ism.

Don’t be outraged that the truth has been revealed; be outraged that it is happening in the first place.

The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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An Open Letter to British Asians From Survivor Sara Karim

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Shafilea Ahmed, murdered by her parents

Trigger warning: This letter contains information about sexual assault and violence which may trigger a level of distress.

Dear Community,

My catalogue of transgressions began at the age of 14 when I was raped by a group of older teenage boys who had lured me away from the local youth centre for a game of hide ‘n’ seek in the stairwell of a local tower block. Here I was pinned up against a wall, before they took turns to rape me, running away when they heard my brother’s voice in the distance calling out my name in a bid to find me. As my brother entered the stairwell, he found me propped against the concrete wall dazed and in a state of undress. All I recall next are his vicious blows raining down on my head and face, whilst I was dragged home by my hair. Due to the extent of my injuries, which I found out at a much later date, included a fractured nose and cheekbone, I was absent from school for a fortnight. To this day, I have never spoken out about what happened to me.

“I was now damaged goods and I needed to be disposed of to the nearest taker, quick sharp.”

How could I? I had besmirched the honour (izzat) of my family; the very thing which I was indoctrinated to believe must be upheld at any cost.

My wanton behaviour needed to be curbed in order to repair the damaged honour (izzat) of our wider communal family. I was now damaged goods and I needed to be disposed of to the nearest taker, quick sharp. In my case, I was taken overseas under the pretence of a holiday (yes, that old chestnut) to attend a family wedding, only to find I had been promised to my maternal cousin, the eldest child of ten children, and 15 years my senior.

My only means of survival was to comply with the suffocating demands placed upon me as a newlywed bride, as I was fully aware that any further misdemeanours on my part could potentially lead to being abandoned, with very little chance of returning home – like so many others, I didn’t want to be another number missing off the school roll. Only when they thought my fate (kismet) had been sealed with the announcement of the impeding birth of my first child (only still a child myself at 16) was I allowed to fly home to begin the process of applying for a spousal visa for my cousin come-husband-come-rapist, to join me in the UK.

Only, being married and with child at 16 was not my fate (kismet), no, it was a well-orchestrated operation in reining me in. I was perceived as too great of a threat to their well-polished community image as a feisty, free spirited, and vociferous teenager. For many, like myself, our lives were severed at the artery the very moment we were deemed too much of a risk of tainting the good name of our family. But how? By simply stepping outside the realms of conformity. The women and girls who do challenge these age old draconian practices, despite the consequences, are either often subtly shut down through a convoluted process of being ostracised en masse by the community at large, or at the very worst, killed.

As my pleas for a divorce were rapidly dismissed, and further measures were sanctioned to restrict my movements outside the family home, I was left with no other option but to run away. Little did I know at the time that this would trigger a mass search initiated by my family, which would be led by the police, local councillors, and community leaders, all of whom colluded in perpetuating the cycle of abuse within which I had become entrapped. My family had gone as far hiring a team of bounty hunters to recover me from the safe house where I had been placed, whilst the Police Liaison Officer, who acted as the conduit between myself and my family, urged me to return home on the basis of the high volume of calls he had received from various members of the community, allegedly concerned for my wellbeing.

“I sit here quietly mourning my premature death at the tender age of 14, along with the deaths of thousands of other young women just like me – our lives brutally cut short.”

I returned home on the Officer’s assurances that no further harm would come to me. Within weeks of returning home, I was being coerced to remain in the marriage, to begin the process of having my husband join me in the UK, and to retract the police statement I had made against my brother for assaulting me. As their unrelenting pleas to comply with their demands mounted, I again felt I had no other option but to escape by running away again. Only this time finding myself completely homeless and living in a derelict property in a notorious part of town.

I sit here quietly mourning my premature death at the tender age of 14, along with the deaths of thousands of other young women just like me – our lives brutally cut short. I have since, like so many others before me been left languishing in the bowels of hell. 
The autopsies reveal a community complicit in these deaths, a community that chooses to remain silent in order to uphold the so-called honour (izzat) of its members. A community that turns a blind eye to the mass suffering among its women and girl folk. The very people it sets out to protect reflect the bizarre paradox, which besets the context of our very being, as British-Asian women living in Britain today.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are quick to retort back (as is often the case) with an air of McCarthyism, at how ‘our women’ are no longer downtrodden, women who cannot step foot over the threshold of their own front doorstep without explicit permission from their kith and kin. Don’t I know there are British-Asian women who can now speak several languages, who hold down high-powered careers with a string of letters after their name, along with neat six figure salaries, and a weekend cottage in the Cotswolds to boot – as somehow these caricatures of women are immune from male (and sometimes female) violence and abuse!

Yet, never questioning why for a number of decades’ schoolgirls, some as young as 11 or 12 years of age, have been systematically sexually exploited during the course of their school lives. Whether it was during the Bhangra ‘day-time raves’ during the mid 80’s and 90’s, or on their way to a local takeaway during their lunchbreak, or as they exited the school gates where they were targeted as sexual prey.

Rather than reporting the matter to the authorities to tackle the perpetrators at large, over recent years, some parents’ disquiet has led to policing the movements of their daughters through hiring private minibuses to ferry girls to and from school. Once again, perpetuating the damaging message that we as women must take responsibility for curbing the sexual predatory behaviour of men, which ultimately restricts our movements, as well as our right to feel safe in the wider world. A message we all too frequently communicate to our daughters. Since 2010, over 12’000 honour based crimes, including violence, abduction, and harassment have been reported to the police across the UK. It is believed these figures are not reflective of the true proportion of these crimes, as women and girls are often too frightened to come forward and disclose information.

Ten years on, and I have managed to carve a life out for myself; I have acquired a professional diploma and a 1st class degree, quite a feat for someone who had left school with a handful of mediocre exam results and for someone who many believed wouldn’t be destined for much more than a life of servitude. Over time, I have made numerous attempts to reconcile the differences with my family, however, each time I choose to live a life which is not governed by their prescribed set of codes, the process of elimination begins: invitations to family gatherings, community and religious celebrations slowly cease. So do the occasional social phone calls, text messages, and social media exchanges – I’m either unfriended or blocked. My presence is far too much of a burden upon their respectability, with my absence confirming their quiet disapproval.

“British Asian women are three times more likely to attempt or commit actual suicide compared to other women.”

A decade has passed, yet a quick search reveals 3 cases of forced marriage alone are being reported to the authorities every day in the UK, with the Governments Forced Marriage Unit having received over 12,000 enquiries about forced marriage in the last twelve months. Despite the consequences, I continue to strive to live a life that is authentic, unlike other women from the British-Asian community whose only means of survival is to live a life often dictated by family and the wider community, whilst choosing to assert their autonomy outside the glare of judgement. I do not wish to be viewed as a victim of my circumstance, but rather as a woman who continues to survive despite the odds. Unfortunately, Rukshana Naz, Shafilea Ahmed, and Sahjdar Bibi, were all killed for dishonouring (bezhti) their families. According to the UN, 5,000 honour killings take place around the world each year.

Those of us who are not killed are often driven to take our own lives – British Asian women are three times more likely to attempt or commit actual suicide compared to other women. Something I myself have not been immune to – I’m all too aware of other women in my community who have tried to take their own lives.

As a community, it is our moral duty to begin the process of openly bringing some of these issues to the fore by raising awareness through dialogue and debate. This is the elephant in the room that we simply cannot continue to ignore any longer. The recent BBC drama ‘Murdered by My Father’ was able to draw on the complexities of honour (izzat) and the way in which it is woven into the fabric of family dynamics through a father’s compelling need to control his daughter’s increasing rebelliousness.

The drama is a starting point; what is needed is a much more robust support system in place, that is able to combat the diverse and multifaceted nature of the issues at hand, which are often inextricably linked with other forms of violence and abuse. This includes a country wide centralised monitoring system to be in place to comprehensively record incidents of forced marriages and honour based violence in order to develop a clearer understanding of the depth and nature of the problem across the UK. Bolstered by a cross-sector support response to create a raft of provisions, including public awareness raising campaigns, specialist refuges, alongside increased resources to specialist grassroots community-based women’s services.

I am hopeful the next decade will bring real change.

Yours faithfully,

Sara Karim
,
A Survivor

Image of Shafilea Ahmed courtesy of Asian Media
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The copyright remains with the author, any reproduction of this post should accredit She Speaks We Hear.


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An Interview with feminist Huma Munshi

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This month we have interviewed inspirational fabulady Huma Munshi, who started the #fuckhonour hashtag, which trended on Twitter. Huma is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.

SSWH: Huma, how would you describe yourself?

Huma: I am a Londoner of Indian and Muslim heritage, a feminist, writer and activist. I work for a large trade union on equality policy, organising major conferences, researching and publishing policy papers and working with trade unions, public and voluntary sector and other organisations.

SSWH: What motivated you to work for a trade union?

Huma: There isn’t a history of activism or trade unionism in my family as far as I am aware. But becoming a trade unionist was a critical part of my evolution as an activist and working for one full time was a (bit of) dream. I was initially interested in organising in the workplace on issues of women’s equality such as the gender pay gap and sex discrimination. That’s how I became active.

One of my earliest activities was holding a recruitment event with staff showing the film, Made in Dagenham and using that as way to stimulate a discussion about women trade unionists who fought for equal pay.

I then started representing members in my workplace to help them get justice. I represented members who were disabled and were being put capability procedures due to disability related sickness absence or similar, or fighting different types of discrimination. I also helped develop policies on workplace support for women fleeing domestic violence and a mental health policy.

I am passionate and committed to the union movement because it is about organising, fighting and campaigning knowing we are stronger as a collective and that every employee deserves dignity and equality in the workplace.

I also research policies, write article in the press and blog, work with different groups and sometimes with politicians responding to government consultations. It builds on my time working for the Mayor of London which was a very tricky job but really challenged me, built my confidence and shaped my politics and values.

“For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour.”

SSWH: As a woman of colour and a feminist do you feel represented by mainstream feminism? If not what could mainstream feminism do to bridge this gap?

Huma: A tricky question!

I think a large part of my recovery as a survivor of a forced marriage was helped by understanding the structural inequality women face. Learning from other women, I developed the language and finally an understanding of the oppression I had experienced. This was very significant for me.  For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour. It was only as I read and listened to other women did this abate. It’s still not entirely gone, but women, and in particular women of colour, have helped me immeasurably. I realised it was never my shame.

I have many concerns about the wider feminist movement. As a woman of colour, my feminism must be grounded in race equality, (this blog by Claire Heuchan, a Black radical feminist, is really good on addressing racism within feminism), disability equality and an analysis of the impact of class. To not take that into account perpetuates many of the oppressions that the feminist movement should seek to remove.

I also find the silence of feminists who see marginalised women being oppressed or bullied utterly abhorrent. Their silence gives the actions of a few legitimacy to continue.

SSWH: Sharing your own personal story of forced marriage cannot have been easy. Why did you decide to share and write about your personal experiences?

Huma: I didn’t immediately share it with my name. For a while I wrote anonymously  nervous about the backlash  and my families reaction (though we haven’t been in contact for a long time).

I first started writing for the F Word blog and Media Diversified  on other issues such as film or theatre reviews or current affairs. I also wrote fiction and poetry .

When I started writing with my name it was a deliberate choice, it was in the knowledge that other women shouldn’t feel the shame I have felt. And someone has to stand up to the bullies because that’s what the perpetrators are. Like all bullies they continue because they expect victims to stay silent.  Unsurprisingly victims do stay silent because we are not believed, we are attacked, we have not been brought up to expect justice. I want to change that. All my campaigning has been about overturning this unjust system.

So I did it for women and I did it for myself. I wrote with my name after I returned from from a trip to India. This trip was almost 10 years after I had last been to India and gone  through the charade and trauma of my forced marriage. That journey was extremely triggering and scary but I realised I was a different person and I had worked tremendously hard to get better.

“Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.”

It felt empowering and it fell right to write that piece. It’s been tough since but I’ve never regretted it as it helped women and may go some way in shifting attitudes and bringing  about a wider change in service provision and attitudes.

Writing my comment piece in the Guardian addressing the comments made by George Galloway was another step. It addressed his victim blaming and sexist campaign.

SSWH: What advice would you give other women who have had similar life experiences to you?

Huma: Don’t give up. Even when it overwhelms you, even when your spirit feels like it cannot continue, don’t give up.

Remember: you are not alone, you matter despite what you’ve been told. Your thoughts matter, your desires matter, your intellect matter, your choices matter.

Seek out other women, read, listen and share. Get support through therapy. Don’t suffer your pain alone.

Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.

SSWH: Finally what helps you to feel empowered and confident?

Huma: Writing, speaking out and being an activist.

Letting love into my life (both with my partner and with other good friends who provide love and care) and cherishing that.

Remembering all I have achieved despite circumstances which may have broken me. Knowing that I worked tirelessly for my survival and acknowledging – on my good days – my victories.

Our sincere thanks to Huma for answering our questions!

Interview by Akeela Ahmed (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)