For Muslims who grew up in the West, a mosque can be the only place where you get to be yourself. As a member of a highly politicized minority group, being with other Muslims can feel like the only way to not have your identity assigned to you. Like other places of worship, a mosque is more of a multipurpose building: karate classes, basketball in the parking lot, you grow with the community of regulars. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together there, mourn those who passed together there. The mosque is my home away from home, the congregation is my extended family, and Muslims from other mosques feel like family I just haven’t met yet.
So you can imagine my shock after reading through the seemingly endless stories attached to the #MosqueMeToo hashtag. I was overcome with shame for letting so many of my Muslim sisters down. It’s not that I haven’t been following #MeToo—from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to Roy Moore, the movement has been formidable. But like every grassroots movement, it’s contested with defensive deflections, particularly when it comes to your own doorstep. And I get it, it’s very easy to be defensive, especially when your experience of a place has always been one of warmth and home. But now is no time for defensiveness. Crimes were committed in the holiest of places for Muslims, and it’s time for accountability.
#MosqueMeToo was started with a tweet from author and columnist Mona Eltahawy. Like me, she’s from Egypt, which has some of the highest rates of street harassment in the world. She started the conversation by opening up about her first experience in the holy city of Mecca, where more than 1 million Muslims gather to complete a pilgrimage, an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim. It’s five days of religious introspection and practice. What it shouldn’t include is a threat of sexual violence.
In an email, Eltahawy described being sexually assaulted during hajj when she was only 15 years old. She kept it to herself until she heard other stories similar to hers. “It became obvious that we had all been too ashamed to speak about it—although we’d done nothing to be ashamed of obviously—because of the sanctity of Mecca and hajj. But it’s that sanctity that predators abuse. They know women will be too ashamed or scared to speak out.” I can’t imagine what it must have been like to expect religious sobriety and in return be taken advantage of. This isn’t OK anywhere, but reading about its prevalence in a holy city made it that much tougher to swallow.
I started reading through some of the responses to these stories, expecting solidarity and disgust with what happened. Eltahawy was joined by hundreds of Muslim women sharing their harrowing stories of survival in the most sacred of places. Instead, I found myself scrolling through brash aggression toward the victims. In sharing her story of assault, Eltahawy was met with disgusting defenses of the abuse from within her own community. Some refused to believe that such abuse could take place. One suggested Eltahawy was being paid to invent propaganda against Muslim men. This unwillingness to listen is not only a problem, it also protects the perpetrators.
But what wasn’t surprising, as a Muslim who spends way more time on Twitter than he should, was the hijacking of this hashtag by anti-Muslim xenophobes to validate their stereotypes of all Muslims. I asked Eltahawy if this was something she considered before sharing her story. Her answer was of course it was. “I am very aware that Muslim women are caught between a rock and a hard place: Islamophobes/racists who demonize all Muslim men and our community that defends all Muslim men,” she wrote. “Neither side cares about Muslim women.”
When anti-Muslims pounce on this opportunity to cast sexual abuse as a problem unique to the Muslim community, they provide Muslim men who don’t want to acknowledge it the perfect excuse to dismiss it—acknowledging the problem would be admitting the xenophobia is valid. The “rock” and “the hard place” feed off each other, suffocating victims while using their real stories as political footballs. And I can’t help but notice another parallel—if you compare the reactions to the #MeToo movement, like that of the president of the United States, with the defenses of what’s being talked about in the #MosqueMeToo feed, you’ll find plenty of overlap. It’s the same systematic patriarchy that enables this kind of sexual aggression toward women no matter who’s responsible.
But as Muslims, we are religiously bound to protect one another. It’s up to us to prevent this kind of violence from taking place in the future. Sex is taboo in any religious community, but we can no longer avoid talking about it. And while I can’t imagine being a victim of that kind of violence in a holy setting like Mecca, I need to recognize that it’s there, and it’s back home too. A flurry of imams and religious leaders were found guilty of using their positions to assault their students. I personally haven’t experienced it, and that’s my privilege, but that also doesn’t make it any less my problem.
Eltahawy believes it’s up to us men—to first acknowledge the problem and then to start addressing it. “I urge Muslim men to listen, reserve judgement or victim blaming,” she wrote. “And most importantly, Muslim men must talk to other Muslim men about sexual harassment and assault. It happens everywhere and men must call out their brothers and friends and tell them to stop assaulting women.” She’s right. While bringing this to light is an important first step, it’s now up to us men to recognize it and begin the work to stop it. We cannot ignore this as a “woman’s issue” when the perpetrators are so often men. We cannot shy away from acknowledging it because bad actors will try to use it to justify their toxic views. It’s up to us to eliminate the notion that these kinds of assaults will go on without retribution. Only with accountability can a problem of this scale be fought, and I’m well aware that as a Muslim man myself, that accountability lies with me. I commend my brave sisters for voicing their concerns and want them to know that they are not alone.