A young Pakistani woman named Sabica Khan wrote a Facebook post this month about her harrowing experience at Islam’s holy site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. She wrote about being sexually harassed while performing the tawwaf — the circling of the Ka’aba, the cubical structure toward which Muslims pray five times a day. In response, hundreds of Muslim women shared similar experiences on her wall. Her post was shared at least 2,000 times. To support her, I started #MosqueMeToo and tweeted about my own experience of sexual assault during the Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj. In two days, my Twitter thread had been retweeted or liked thousands of times. It was shared in Indonesian, Arabic, Turkish, French, German, Spanish and Farsi. I had never before seen such a response.
It was heartening to see other Muslim women speak out and say “Me too” about something so taboo. Their experiences were sadly familiar to mine. In 1982, when I was 15, I was sexually assaulted twice while my family and I were performing the hajj.
My family had just moved to Saudi Arabia, and it was the first time in my life that I was covered from head to toe in the white clothing required by female pilgrims. The first assault was by a man who was performing the tawwaf. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims perform the tawwaf on any given day during the hajj. It is very crowded. But you can tell the difference between someone accidentally bumping into you in a crowd and a determined hand shoved onto your buttocks, refusing to budge, despite all your attempts to squirm free. The second assault happened during the ritual of kissing the black stone that sits at one corner of the Ka’aba. My mother and I waited with other women until the Saudi policeman in charge of regulating the gender lines (men and women are separated for this) motioned for the men to step back and for us to proceed. As I bent down to kiss the stone, the policeman fondled my breast.
I could not turn around to confront him, even if I had the wherewithal. It is only as I got older that I learned to grab hands that assaulted me, and to kick, slap and spit at their owners. But at 15, all I could do was burst into tears. That such a violation was happening to me as we performed the fifth pillar of our religion at Islam’s holiest site traumatized and shamed me, even though I had obviously done nothing to be ashamed of.
Something broke in me, and it took years to acknowledge it.
I buried my sexual assault. I had no words for it. No one I knew had ever shared a similar horror. Who would believe that something so awful had happened to me at such a sacred place? It was better to stay silent. I was 15, and all I knew was that I wanted to hide my body from men. So I began to wear hijab. Of course, being covered from head to toe during the hajj had not protected me. But again, I was 15 and just wanted to hide.
It would take a few more years and feminism — and multiple more times when my body was groped, pinched and touched without my permission during the nine years that I wore hijab — to know unwaveringly that sexual assault has nothing to do with how you’re dressed. It has everything to do with the predator who assaults you. I also had to mature into the understanding that the men who assaulted me abused the sanctity of a sacred space to ensure the silence of their victim. They knew that no one would believe me. I did not know the writer and poet Audre Lorde then, but as my feminism grew, I began to understand what she meant when she said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
And so I began to speak. The first time I shared with an international group of women in Cairo that I had been sexually assaulted during the hajj, an Egyptian Muslim woman took me aside and warned me to stop sharing what had happened in front of foreigners because it would “make Muslims look bad.” I told her it was not I but the men who assaulted me who “make Muslims look bad.”
The next time I spoke publicly about my assault, it was in Arabic on an Egyptian prime-time television show in 2013. The segment producer told me I was the first person who had ever shared her sexual assault during the hajj on Egyptian television. It was such a taboo that he was lucky he still had a job after the backlash. As I continued to quietly share with fellow Muslim women my experience of sexual assault during the hajj, the stories started to flow, with more and more women saying “Me too!” All those years of silence were for the same reason: We thought it was impossible that anyone else had gone through such a violation at such a sacred place.
I wrote about my sexual assault in my 2015 book because I wanted a permanent record of what had happened to me. Muslim women would write to tell me that passage made them cry. Last year, as Muslims from around the world were preparing to converge on Mecca for the hajj, I posted a series of tweets about being sexually assaulted during the pilgrimage because I wanted to warn fellow Muslim women. Until the Saudi authorities who administer the holy sites take concrete steps to protect female pilgrims, we must protect each other. Men must stop assaulting us, yes. But women the world over, regardless of faith, know that until that happens, we are each other’s keepers.
Like many revolutionary moments, #MeToo is the latest iteration of many years of work by activists. Black feminist Tarana Burke first used #MeToo in 2007 to show solidarity with survivors of sexual violence. When famous actresses began to use it to expose sexual assault by powerful producers, #MeToo gained exposure that has helped it resonate globally. We must make sure #MeToo breaks the race, class, gender and faith lines that make it so hard for marginalized people to be heard. It has been good to see #ChurchToo expose sexual harassment and abuse in Christian sacred spaces. I urge fellow Muslim women to use #MosqueMeToo to talk about sexual violence during the hajj and at other sacred spaces.
What else can be done? I’d suggest that the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca give a sermon in the run-up to the hajj in which he acknowledges that Muslim women have exposed sexual assault during the pilgrimage and that men at the holy sites must respect women. Saudi authorities must launch a campaign about the safety of female pilgrims and the determination of the authorities to ensure every woman’s safety. Saudi authorities can also train their police to be on the lookout for assaults and make sure that male officers who commit sexual abuse will be held accountable. And more female security personnel must be present at the holy sites. There are a few at the entrance — but their main job is to yell at women to make sure they’re covered properly.
I am not naive. I know too well that Muslim women are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side are Islamophobes and racists who are all too willing to demonize Muslim men by weaponizing my testimony of sexual assault. On the other side is the “community” of fellow Muslims who are all to willing to defend all Muslim men — they would rather I shut up about being sexually assaulted during the hajj than make Muslims look bad. Neither side cares about the well-being of Muslim women. Reading the stories that women have shared with me of their sexual assaults during the hajj has undone something broken in me I thought I had stitched together. I was 15, traumatized and ashamed after I was sexually assaulted during the hajj. I am now 50 and shameless.
I will never ally with Islamophobes and racists. But in the choice between “community” and Muslim women, I will always choose my sisters.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author based in Cairo and New York. She is author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.”