More than a dozen stories of survivors of sexual assault greeted students entering the Diana Center Event Oval on Thursday evening for a discussion about cultural and religious taboos surrounding sexual assault in Muslim and South Asian communities.
“No More Sexual Assault,” a panel and discussion co-hosted by the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center and the Muslim Students Association, sought to provide a voice to survivors of sexual assault in the Barnard-Columbia community.
Students’ stories, submitted anonymously through Tumblr prior to the event, were posted on the back wall of the room. The stories recounted abuse at the hands of relatives, friends, and strangers, as well as feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation that many survivors said they experienced in the wake of their assault.
Priom Ahmed and Zahra Bhaiwala, both CC ’14, organized the event after observing that other students of South Asian descent did not feel comfortable talking about sexual assault and rape.
“There isn’t a 10-step simple solution for coming to terms with something like rape,” Bhaiwala said. “There’s no vocabulary to talk about these things in the South Asian community, and we wanted to create a space for everyone to share their stories.”
Ahmed agreed, noting that the culture of Muslim and South Asian communities often silences survivors.
“Too often, norms about what is proper or not proper, about what honor means to a girl, what virginity means to a girl, prevent us from talking about intimate violence and sexual assault. But not talking about it doesn’t help us heal,” she said.
Speakers at the event talked about the importance of creating an environment in which intimate partner violence and sexual abuse are defined, discussed, and dealt with by a community that supports survivors and penalizes those responsible.
“As a community we are all responsible to build a place for these people,” said Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain at NYU and the executive director of the Islamic Center at NYU.
Latif noted that the Prophet Muhammad explicitly prohibited forced marriage and other sexual abuse in the Quran, and that Muhammad also called on every Muslim to “help in this affair.” Latif said that for communities to combat sexual assault, leaders need to be equipped with the resources to help survivors.
“The biggest problem isn’t that people aren’t talking, it’s that they don’t know who to talk to. Many local religious leaders, by their training, are not equipped to deal with this reality,” he said.
Maryum Khwaja, a clinical social worker who provides psychotherapy services to predominantly Muslim individuals, couples, and families, noted that survivors face a number of obstacles in speaking out.
“Many South Asian women are taught to maintain the image of family. Cultural respect, shame of crime, and fear of social stigma causes many to overlook abuse,” she said. “We need to campaign against fear, apathy, and indifference. These issues plague our families a lot more than we want to talk about.”
After the speakers finished, students formed small groups to react to the panel. They discussed their understandings of sexual assault and the challenges and limitations of addressing the crime of sexual assault within strong faith-based communities.
“Our chief goal was to create a space where it’s OK to start talking about these things and get some sort of dialogue moving, because there is nothing to begin with,” Bhaiwala said. “This event in particular was still a pretty public event, so I can understand people not wanting to speak up, but what was great was that we created the Tumblr online and that sort of got traction really fast.”
Bhaiwala said the page’s anonymity allowed some to open up in a new way.
“Both men and women have started posting their stories and articulating themselves in a way they haven’t done before, and that’s expressed in a lot of the stories, which are prefaced with ‘I’ve never told this before’ or ‘I’ve never said these things before out loud,’” she said.
Students agreed that the silence of sexual abuse in Muslim and South Asian communities needs to be broken.
“I read a lot of the stories submitted on Tumblr, and I found them to be pretty powerful and touching,” Maisha Rahman, CC ’14, said. “I wanted to come here to show my support and see what the panelists had to say because this is a big and important discussion that needed to be had, especially in the South Asian community.”
“I think it’s a great event that people who might not have anyone else to share with are coming out and voicing some of their experiences, and kind of just coming together and having each other for support,” Anjali Aidasani, BC ’16, said. “This is an issue that we don’t really talk about, but I think it’s something that has to be talked about.”