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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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The Brett Kavanaugh case shows why women must be believed and not blamed

Today (27 September 2018), around the world, women will be calling for action in support of survivors like Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who have been silenced. Women’s March movements across the globe will hold a minutes silence in solidarity with Dr Ford, wear black and white, and write “I BELIEVE” on their hands to highlight the routine silencing of female victim survivors of sexual violence.

Dr Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh have garnered global attention with President Trump himself tweeting about the allegations. As to be expected, Trump’s controversial intervention was at best biased towards Kavanaugh, whom he tweeted was a “fine man” however in reality it constituted the worst form of victim blaming, casting doubt over Dr Ford’s allegations. Trump went onto write further tweets stating that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says,” charges would have been filed. In a later tweet, Trump said, “Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?”

With these tweets Trump did not only attack Dr Ford, he also cast doubt on the credibility of the thousands of women who report historical sexual violence and abuse, each year.

There are many varied and complex reasons why a victim survivor may not report the sexual harassment, violence, abuse or rape that they suffered, till years or decades later. At the heart of these reasons are twofold central themes, the first being that women are often too traumatised from their experiences and are in a process (if they’re fortunate enough to receive help and support) of dealing with the aftermath on a continuous journey of recovery. Women who have been sexually assaulted report suffering from PTSD, suicidal ideation, severe mental health illnesses such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder, weight loss or gain, and in some cases it severely impacts on their life expectancy. The aftermath also includes the incredibly challenging impact the sexual violence will have on the relationships of the women with those around them such as partners, parents and families. A revelation of historic sexual abuse or rape, can destroy families.

The other central reason is fear of being disbelieved and vilified. The appalling victim blaming, reaction to the allegations against Kavanaugh, whereby the lives of his accusers have been scrutinised, shamed and the women themselves smeared, has shown exactly why women are reluctant to come forward and report their perpetrators of sexual assault. Dr Ford has said that since going public with her testimony, she has received death threats, her email has been hacked and she was told to leave her home.

Harassment and targeting of women and girls who speak up about their experiences of sexual assault is very common. A member of the She Speaks We Hear team who wrote about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child by someone close to her family, has recently been subjected to a targeted campaign of harassment. Messages on social media platforms have circulated questioning her narrative, shaming her and her mother, as well blaming them for the abuse she endured.

Under no circumstances is it ok for a woman to be targeted in this way. It is an attempt to silence her. Shut her down and stop her from speaking up and standing up to the person who abused her. More often than not this form of silencing is conducted by people close to the perpetrators or in high profile cases by their supporters. Often women will withdraw their complaints against perpetrators, as a result of the harassment which, let’s be clear on this, is another form of violence they have had to endure.

Women I have worked with very rarely report their experiences to authorities or even to their families, they stay silence because ultimately speaking up can be just as traumatic as experiencing the sexual violence in the first instance. There are cases of young girls and women who have taken their own lives after disclosing sexual abuse or assault, as a result of being disbelieved.

We live in a society in which women are less likely to be believed, rape prosecutions and then convictions are disproportionately low compared to the number of women reporting rape. Myths about the number of fake reports of sexual violence are regularly circulated to perpetuate a culture of rape denial, when in reality statistics show these are very few and far between.

Questioning victim survivors narratives, poking holes in their stories, pointing out inconsistencies, and labelling them as women who desire attention or having some ulterior political agenda, is potentially fatal.

Victim blaming is still very much the default position when a woman reports sexual assault or historic abuse. That is why women across the globe today are coming together to say “I BELIEVE” and stand in solidarity with the hundreds and thousands of women and girls that suffer sexual violence year on year.

To all women victim survivors, I believe you, stand by you and will not tolerate those who wish to silence you. To those who perpetuate a culture of rape denial and victim blaming, your targeting and harassment will not be tolerated, you will be called out on it.

By Akeela Ahmed MBE

Akeela Ahmed has been an equalities activist and campaigner for nearly nearly 20 years. On Muslim Women’s Day, she was listed in Nylon magazine as an activist that is ‘making a difference’. In 2014 she founded ‘She Speaks We Hear’ which gives unfiltered women’s voice a platform. Akeela advises and works with government in tackling anti-Muslim hatred, sitting on the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group. She is also a social entrepreneur within the social housing sector. Akeela is co-organiser of the Women’s March on London and in January 2017, she spoke to over one hundred thousand people at the Women’s March on London. For her work with WML she was listed as one of Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017.

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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He said, she said: why are the Nouman Ali Khan allegations of impropriety, so difficult to believe?

“I will never engage in victim blaming.”

My heart feels so heavy at the news of the Nouman Ali Khan scandal. It leaves me disappointed, angry, but not surprised or shocked. We live in a patriarchal world, and the status quo supports the oppression and misuse of women, so it comes as no surprise that a man in a position of considerable amount of power (fame, money, influence) has been accused of inappropriate behaviour. I have such a low level of trust of men (especially men of religion) that I am not shocked nor do I want to jump to blindly defending Khan nor is it something that seems far-fetched or impossible, is a testament to my lived experience as a woman and the saddest part of this ordeal.

I should be livid, but ironically I’m not; as I’ve come to expect very little of men in our society.

My stance on this on this scandal is that:

  1. I will never engage in victim blaming.
  2. There is sufficient evidence leaked against him yet his die-hard fans still continue to defend his alleged behaviour. In fact, they are unwilling to even accept that such a thing could have happened. This evidence could very well have been doctored, but let’s not be 100% positive that such abuse could not have occurred.
  3. Many are shutting the conversation down by claiming that this is slander. Let’s be clear, that this is NOT slander, especially if true. Slander would be that it was just a false case built against him.  Our religion asks us to be just, even if it is against our kin. Our religion also teaches us to search for the truth and hold those in places of power accountable. Khan being a public figure and a religious teacher/leader, is prone to more scrutiny than an ordinary person. If he is being framed as he claims; a due course of the law must be followed and insha Allah truth shall prevail. I do not say that we presume guilt before proof, but what we need is to be open to the possibility that he too could have fallen, as after all he is human and prone to flaws.
  4. This is not backbiting. Our religion teaches us to stand for the oppressed and to always stand up for justice. Many argue that this is an act between two consenting adults and that it may be immoral behaviour, but it isn’t a crime, nor are the women involved, victims. We must recognize why this is problematic. He is a teacher and in a place and position of power, he had a greater onus of responsibility than his students who might be adults but there is a power differential between him and the women involved. There is a reason why there are strict rules of conduct between therapists and their clients, doctors and their patients, professors and students, coaches and athletes etc. The same also applies to clergy such as Priests and Imams.
  5. If the relationships were consensual and the two were in a legitimate Nikah (muslim marriage), then the marriages didn’t need to be secret. They needed to be publicly declared because the very act of Nikah safeguards the right of a woman to be publicly known as the legitimate wife of an individual. Allah is aware of our fitrah, He knows, a woman wrongfully attached to a man, will be slaughtered by our tongues and hands.
  6. There is also the issue of there being multiple marriages. Some argue this may not be islamically immoral, (although there are near impossible criteria around polygamy); however, it is legally prohibited in the country of his residence. We need to adhere to the lawsof our adopted homelands. A man, who is a man of religion and owns a public platform accessible to everyone, has a greater responsibility to lead by example to not break the law of the country. Yes, the law of Allah trumps the law of the country, but the law of Allah also prescribes us to follow the law of the land. If we all decided to not follow the law of the land we live in, the world would be in absolute chaos and there would be no checks and balances in place.
  7. I don’t believe the story because other so called reputable and religious men are sharing it. I believe it, because in cases of abuse, I choose to believe the victims. I recognise this is my bias, but the statistics suggest that very rarely do people lie about being victims of abuse. It is a difficult task to come out and speak about being a victim and the repercussions are usually for the victims as our patriarchal culture will place more trust in the oppressor than on the victim.
  8. We need to accept that no one is above inappropriate behaviour. You could have the book of Allah in your heart and still fall from grace (how else do you explain imams involved in child abuse)? The whispers of shaytaan and the tug of our nafs, makes us prone to sin. None of us can claim perfection, nor can we claim to be without sin. Let’s at least accept the premise that the allegations being a reality is a possibility before jumping to an absolute defence of Khan.
  9. We should make 70 excuses and verify the accusations against someone before believing them to be the absolute truth. The die-hard fans have refused to extend that courtesy to the victims of this ordeal. It seems the 70 excuses are only for the accused (man) here.
  10. We need better checks and balances within our systems. We need equal spaces for women with qualified religious and social counsellors where women can go and discuss their personal difficult circumstances.
  11. Personally, I do not need to know the victims’ names to believe the truth, anyone demanding to know the victims are purely doing this to satiate their own curiosity. The way the blind herd is following Khan, no amount of proof will convince them otherwise. Exposing the names of the victims will only vilify and further victimise them. We can already see that the response from members of our community is not only vile, but often violent. Imagine the risk to the safety associated with disclosing the identity of the women.
  12. The biggest issue in my opinion has been the way this was disclosed by reputable members of our community. The allegations are vague, with enough being said indirectly on the topic (without naming Khan) by other religious figures such as Navaid Aziz, Yasir Qadhi and Omer Suleiman, leading us all to the worst possible conclusions. This is not a sign of wisdom, or good for community cohesion or development. The silence since last Friday from our leaders is deafening. If anything is slanderous, it is this behaviour. It does little to protect the victims or increase our understanding of abuse.

I pray that Allah protect us all. There is a lot we need to do as a community. This is a difficult conversation to have, but a conversation that is a MUST. We are supposed to be the best of examples, and to follow the footsteps of the best of Creations, Muhammed (SAW).

In order to do that, we need to be balanced in our approach especially when searching for the truth. Let us weigh what has been presented without making judgements either way. Let’s demand the leaders to be more transparent, and forthcoming than they have.  The evidence needs to be presented without the need for exposure of the victims. If this is a matter that cannot be dealt within the confines of our community, we must follow the process of law of the country.

“We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community.”

The leaders have a public responsibility to squash these rumours and be clear in their allegations. Khan, has every right to defend himself and to offer his narrative. But, we as a community also need to learn that if this can be an elaborate plan to trap/defame Khan, that it is an equal probability (if not more) that the allegations against him are true and that there are victims. We need to afford that same level of opportunity to speak their side of the story to those he allegedly has wronged. We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community. We need to actively engage in learning, and teaching this cycle, if we want to protect and safeguard those who are vulnerable in our society before perpetuating the cycle of abuse through blind following. The biggest lesson from this scandal is that we must not place any human being on a pedestal nor should we idolise them to the point where we assume no fault on their part. Idol worship comes in many forms, and this falls under that category. The word of Allah is true and perfect, but the vessel through which it is delivered can be imperfect and be full of flaws. This is a reality we must thoroughly accept.

Most of all, in our defence for Nouman Ali Khan, let us not engage in victim blaming and shaming. How we behave tells other victims (of physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence), that it is better to stay silent if ever abused. Through our actions, we also signal that we side with oppressors and abusers. This would be the biggest irony given that it is the month of Muharram-a month that commemorates the greatest injustice of our Islamic history. We have a choice to make, are we with the oppressor or will we be a voice for those who are wronged in our society and I choose to be the latter.

By Maheen Nusrat

Maheen Nusrat is a Pakistani born Canadian currently residing in the UK. She has also lived in Bahrain and in New York. She has a degree in Communications. Her portfolio includes working in politics, print and broadcast media, life sciences and the public sector. Maheen is the co-founder of Uplift Connections-a platform for women from all faiths and ethnicity to come together, and to help them succeed in business. Follow them @Uplift_connect.  Maheen has a real passion for social justice, equality and believes that our talents are meant to be shared with the world. Follow her @fireyfury1 

Image credit: https://www.pinterest.fr/pin/99994054199930669/
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the websbite


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Intersections (a Poem from the Maldives)

Image of rally organised by the opposition to ruling Maldive Government

Image of rally organised by the opposition to ruling Maldive Government

by Aisha Hussain Rasheed

@ishahr

Maldives is a small island nation in the Indian ocean known for its scenic beauty. What most people don’t know about the country is that it is young democracy where the first democratic elections were held in 2008. The first democratically elected government was forced to resign due to police and military mutiny in 2012. We are currently under an increasingly autocratic regime that has recently declared a nation-wide state of emergency. The declaration of state of emergency impeded a mass rally organised by the opposition to call for the immediate release of political prisoners. As such, the opposition organised an evening tea party (a favourite Maldivian pastime) instead, which was also crashed by the Police. When the Police barricaded the street, the attendees got separated in two groups, one inside the venue of the party the other across the street. When a friend attempted to cross the street so she could join those of us who were inside the venue, a policeman told her to go between her mother’s legs. The following poem in response to the incident. 

To the policeman who told a girl to go between her mother’s legs when she asked to cross the road:
Tell every girl and woman who is groped on the street that, as per the principles you protect and uphold, her body deserves as much protection as the public property she walks on.
That you will stand guard so no stranger’s hand can freely cross the barricades you set up and grab her.
Tell every third woman in this country that she would not have been violated had she been a cold, inanimate pavement,
Silent even when you stamp your boot upon her
Lying down, so you can grant or deny others to access her
Let your ignorance air-dry on her body, like red tinted saliva mixed with areca nuts and betel leaves
Chewed and spit out like bloody morsels of flesh
Leaving behind its mark on your crooked smile between your tainted teeth and staining her.
Tell her that if the nape of her neck was a causeway to the small of her back
And the nook of her arm and the bend of her knee were street corners,
You’d light up her eyes like street lights and set them up at every intersection so no man will flash at her.
Tell her you’d regulate the unwanted traffic round about the curves of her body
And the ridge of her breasts is set up far enough away from the end of the road for men to slow down and listen to her say,
“NO”!
Dear policeman who told a girl to go between her mother’s legs when she asked to cross the road,
Tell the woman who opened a way between her legs to let you cross out into the world
And the woman who harvested the seeds you planted inside of her
That the world you hope to leave for your daughters will protect their autonomy the way you protect the streets.

Image of mass rally against ruling party in the Maldives

Image of mass rally against ruling party in the Maldives

Aisha Hussain Rasheed is a Maldivian Muslim woman, who believes her Islamic heritage is the key to the  future of the people of Maldives. She is a student of Islamic jurisprudence and a political and social activist. You can follow her on Twitter @ishahr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Images Courtesy of Aisha Hussain Rasheed.