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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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Lessons learnt: why don’t more women feel welcome in the mosque?

“Woman is a delicate creature with strong emotions who has been created by the Almighty God to shoulder responsibility for educating society and moving toward perfection. God created woman as symbol of His own beauty and to give solace to her partner and her family.”
Hazrat Ali ibn Abu-Talib A.S

barriers-to-faith-flickrLast month, Islamic centres around the UK joined forces to take part in the MCB’s VisitMyMosque initiative. Mosques taking part opened their doors to the general public and served tea and delicious cakes. However, rather than positive stories of communities getting to know one another, the initiative was overshadowed by Cathy Newman’s claims that she was ushered out of a mosque in South London. Through CCTV footage obtained, it is now apparent that Cathy turned up to the wrong mosque, and that the incident of ushering is at best, questionable, and at worse, probably not true at all.

Cathy has now apologised for “tweets sent in haste”; she’s now taken a break from Twitter. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a serious error of judgement on her part, and if there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s the all-too familiar modern-day adage “think before you tweet”.

But what else could the Muslim community could learn from this incident? Perhaps we need to scratch beneath the surface and ask why Cathy was so quick to assume the worst.

When there are any negative stories about Muslims in the mainstream media, it’s only natural that Muslims will jump on the defensive. That’s because the mainstream media paints an overwhelmingly negative image of Muslim behaviour, which is arguably grossly unfair. However, we also need to be insightful and self-reflective in order to move forward and improve our own internal problems within the Muslim community.

There’s no justifying what Cathy did, but perhaps she wouldn’t have assumed the worst, if the idea of a mosque being unfriendly to women was completely ludicrous. In this case, the incident was due to a mix-up, not sexism, but the fact is, many mosques could definitely do more to make women feel more welcome.

Sometimes it does feel as though some mosques are made for men. The men’s rooms are always bigger, and they always seem to get fed first, while women have to contend with not only waiting to feed hungry children, but also perhaps not getting any of the dessert. 😉

I can only think back to some of my own experiences of trying to visit unfamiliar mosques around London. I remember being pretty excited to find a local mosque close to my university and eagerly printing off Streetmap instructions for how to get there (Google Maps wasn’t around then – I am officially old). Then being turned away hurriedly at the door with the words “Brothers only, brothers only!”

As a working woman, I also felt it was quite difficult to visit mosques in the vicinity of my workplace in order to pray during the day. When I did muster up the courage to visit a local mosque in the City, I found that I was the only woman in the entire building. Moreover, there were no separate washrooms for women, so the Imam had to stand outside the bathroom to prevent men from coming in while I performed the wudu or ritual ablution. While a separate room was unlocked for me, in the end, I felt extremely uncomfortable being a lone woman in a mosque entirely filled with men, so decided I would be better off praying in peace in my own home at a later time during the day.

The imam did well to accommodate me as well as he could, but it seems that a working woman praying in a mosque in the city is perhaps a rare thing.

You could argue that these couple of incidents are one-off experiences that I’ve been unlucky to have faced. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that many Muslim women aren’t accommodated that well. In an article for The Independent, Sara Khan of Inspire argues that despite the Cathy Newman incident being a mix-up, many Muslim women have faced “very real, unambiguous discrimination.”

There’s a strikingly similar account to mine in an article for the Telegraph and Argus. The author, Nabeelah Hafeez, conveys her own terrible experience of trying to visit a mosque while at university.

And, in a piece for The Muslim News, Masuma Rahim recounts the time she tried to offer salat at the West End Mosque, but was told by the imam that she was “not allowed to pray there”. This, despite having prayed there previously, and the mosque having four floors of empty space.

It seems ridiculous that some imams are putting up barriers to offering prayers; these are people who are going out of their way to pray on time. Surely the role of the mosque is to make it easier to worship God.

There are similar accounts of women facing discrimination in the OpenMyMosque initiative. The campaign aims to highlight good and bad experiences of visiting UK mosques, via Facebook and Twitter:

Open-my-mosque

Posts from Open My Mosque on Facebook – click to expand in a new window

Check out the following tweet by the writer and activist, Raquel Evita Saraswati. It seems that in some mosques, men are often granted bigger areas to sit by default, regardless of numbers:

Raquel Evita tweet

https://twitter.com/RaquelEvita/status/518155563843088384

What about children in the mosque?

woman with child in the mosqueEase of access to the mosque seems to become even more difficult once you have kids, and this seems to be true regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve spoken to many mums who don’t feel comfortable bringing young children to the mosque because elders say they dislike the noisiness or complain of being distracted.

Furthermore, the lack of baby changing facilities or just a separate, private room to take your children if they need a nappy change, a feed, or just a handy time out can make many parents left feeling unwelcome or reluctant to visit the mosque.

This feels very strange to me. Surely, we should be making it as easy as possible to bring children to the mosque from a very early age, because undoubtedly, the next generation are the future of the faith. And it’s only when they become accustomed to sitting in the mosque from an early age, that they will want to visit of their own accord when they are older. Moreover, visiting the mosque regularly will allow children to socialise and make friends within their own community. Surely, that can only be a good thing.

Even with a separate children’s room, it would be better if some mosques allowed parents to make their own choices about allowing their offspring to sit in the main hall. Putting children in separate rooms often creates pandemonium, whereas in the main hall, children will eventually learn how to behave and sit quietly without distracting others. But, we need fellow Muslims to be understanding and sympathetic in order to allow this to happen.

There’s a good post which explores the importance of bringing children to the mosque in more detail by Aman Ali on Facebook. In this post, Ali recalls his own happy childhood experiences of running freely through the mosque and how this contrasts with what he sees as an adult.

The mosque he talks about had the sign “”NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN THE PRAYER AREA”, though one father chose to ignore this sign and insist on taking his four-year-old son to prayers.  The dad in question said he often receives complaints and gets shouted at for bringing his child to the mosque.

This is just so sad. We have to ask ourselves what is all this for, if not to allow for the continuity of the faith. How can we expect the next generation to practice the faith, when they are discouraged from visiting the centres of worship?

Is change on the horizon?

Having said all this, it’s not all bad news, however. Mosques such as Hyderi, where Cathy Newman ended up visiting have women on their committees and women are welcomed to pray in the main hall.

Some women have decided to start doing it for themselves and are setting up their own women-only organisations to counter the discrimination they face. Earlier this year, the US’s first women-only mosque opened its doors in LA.

One mosque I frequently visit, Bustan-e-Zehra, has its own women’s section where programmes are organised by a ladies committee. Though more can always be done, it works pretty well, because the women have their own programmes with female speakers and everything is organised impeccably.

While it’s good that women are empowering themselves, the ideal situation is for mosques to improve conditions, to reduce discrimination and to welcome women openly so they don’t have to set up separate organisations for the basic right to worship the Almighty.

I’m pretty optimistic and excited about the opening of the new Salaam Centre. It certainly feels like a new type of mosque, as the project will grant Muslims from all walks of life a much needed community centre. The mosque will provide worshippers not only a place to pray, but also a means for Muslims to educate themselves, socialise, keep fit and much more besides.

The Salaam Centre offers a unique shared space for the community. Open to all, it aims to fulfil the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of people from all walks of life, age and gender. Beyond the bricks and mortar, we seek to foster an environment of warmth, thought and creativity through the open interaction of users at the Centre, be it during a workout at the gym, a book club in the library or over coffee at the cafeteria. The Salaam Centre can become a place to enjoy with friends and family, a resource for work on projects and shared dreams, and ultimately a space to develop oneself and the community.

The Salaam Centre website

The opening of these new mosques and committees is definitely a positive step forward, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m reminded of the recent HeForShe campaign, because to really change things, we need to recognise that this isn’t a “women’s problem”. We need solidarity, with men and women coming together to implement change, because allowing access to the mosque regardless of gender, race, disability or anything else, truly benefits us all.

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

Image credits: Barriers to faith, Farrukh via Flickr, Woman with child in a mosque, jankie via Flickr