The unending tide of accounts of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men that women are suddenly allowing themselves to share is a reminder of the ubiquity of sexual violence that women worldwide have long known too well — and that men in a few places are finally, albeit reluctantly, acknowledging.
It is a watershed moment finally to recognize the global reach and power of patriarchy, be it in entertainment, media, business or politics, whether in Hollywood, Washington, Paris or elsewhere.
In this month alone, terminations, resignations and accusations have starkly highlighted the prevalence of patriarchy’s crimes, for too long enabled by institutions that knew but failed to act.
The actor Kevin Spacey was fired by Netflix. Britain’s secretary of state for defense, Michael Fallon, was forced to resign. One current and three former female legislators told The Associated Press that they, too, were harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments by fellow members of Congress. After Valérie Plante defeated the incumbent mayor of Montreal in an election on Nov. 5, and women won seven of the city’s 19 borough mayorships, a prominent Quebec feminist, Francine Pelletier, attributed the gains to a “feminine wave of disgust at the way politics and powerful people conduct themselves.”
In Egypt and Lebanon, social media users shared stories chronicling their experiences, and in India, a woman opened an online campaign to name and shame university teachers alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted students.
Given the global reach of such claims, you would think that when the Swiss-born Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, now on leave from teaching at Oxford in England, faced (and denied) accusations of rape and sexual assault from at least three women, that report alone would have reminded everyone that sexual harassment and worse can exist in any community.
For Muslims, however, the reports have instead served as a reminder that we Muslim women are caught between a rock and a hard place — a trap presenting near-impossible obstacles for exposing sexual violence.
The rock is an Islamophobic right wing in other cultures that is all too eager to demonize Muslim men. Exhibit A is President Trump, who has himself been accused of sexually harassing women and was caught on tape bragging about it. Nevertheless, he has used so-called honor crimes and misogyny (which he ascribes to Muslim men) to justify his efforts to ban travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries.
An ascendant right wing in European politics meanwhile jumps to connect any reports of misconduct by Muslim men to their Muslimness and to Islam as a faith rather than to their maleness and the power with which patriarchy rewards it around the globe. Witness the aftermath of a sexual assault against women in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve two years ago, in which the men’s faith and ethnic backgrounds were highlighted as explanations of the assaults.
“Many Muslim women have been reluctant to discuss this Tariq Ramadan case because in part they don’t want to feed into elements of the media’s Islamophobic and racist framing of these allegations,” Shaista Aziz, an Oxford-based freelance journalist, told me. “This does nothing to encourage women to report sexual violence.”
The hard place is a community within our own faith that is all too eager to defend Muslim men against all accusations. Mr. Ramadan’s defenders have dismissed the complaints against him as a “Zionist conspiracy” and an Islamophobic attempt to destroy a Muslim scholar. Too often, when Muslim women speak out, some in our “community” accuse us of “making our men look bad” and of giving ammunition to right-wing Islamophobes.
But they get it wrong. It is the harassers and assaulters who make us “look bad,” not the women who have every right to expose crimes against them. Mr. Ramadan’s case is also a reminder of the veneration of Muslim male scholars that gives them incredible and often unchecked power.
Indeed, Mr. Ramadan himself accused me in 2011 of “betraying the community” (code for disagreeing with him) when we argued about the French ban on the face veil on a BBC television program. Mr. Ramadan, while insisting that any conversation about veiling must be among Muslims only, incessantly interrupted me as I tried to contribute my views as a Muslim woman who had worn hijab for nine years. He accused me of being a neoconservative. I told him that his attempt to silence me was a reminder that for some Muslim men, a conversation among the “community” was another way of saying that it was a conversation led and conducted by — and for — men only.
As a feminist of Egyptian and Muslim descent, my life’s work has been informed by the belief that religion and culture must never be used to justify the subjugation of women. I can write about my culture and religion because I am a product of both. Even when I’m accused of giving ammunition to the Islamophobic right, in the struggle between “community” and “women” I always choose the women. It is exhausting that Muslim women’s voices and our bodies are reduced to proxy battlefields by the demonizers and defenders of Muslim men. Neither side cares about women. They are concerned only with one another.
Earlier this year, a Muslim man — a stranger — emailed to chastise me for my views on sex, which he labeled un-Islamic. He hid behind the phrase, “Dear Sister, I say these things with greatest certitude of your Islam.” So I asked fellow Muslim women on Twitter to use the hashtag #DearSister to share their experience of being lectured to and reprimanded by Muslim men.
It is incredible what happens when Muslim women are asked to speak for themselves. Within 24 hours, #DearSister was used more than 18,000 times by women from Australia to Pakistan, Nigeria to Malaysia and South Africa to Canada.
Predictably, both the rock and the hard place tried to hijack the voices of those Muslim women. The Islamophobic right said the women would be better off if they left Islam. The Muslim men warned the women that Islamophobes would use their complaints against Muslim men.
But the women weren’t deterred. They continued to insist that they could speak for themselves, with power and humor.
“When conservative values prevent us from talking about sex openly, how can we speak about sexual violence?“ the Nigerian journalist Kadaria Ahmed told me.
Islamophobia and racism are real. Attempts to silence Muslim women “for the sake of the community” are real. But justice is far more important. We must not further shame Muslim women by expecting them to constantly defend our men.
“Why would any Muslim woman come forward?” I was asked by the women’s rights advocate Amina Lone, a co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, based in Britain. “The betrayal of one of our own is painful enough,” she said. “To then put yourself at the mercy of largely ignorant public bodies who routinely fail all women makes little sense. Put purity codes, racism and anti-Muslim bias in the mix and you have a potent cocktail.”
The answer to her question is this: While Tariq Ramadan’s accusers deserve justice and the scholar must be allowed to defend himself, we must not lose this watershed moment to a squabbling match between the demonizers and defenders of Muslim men.
Muslim women — like all women — have every right to a commanding voice in this moment of opportunity to expose patriarchy’s crimes.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.