I have twenty-seven first cousins, so it is safe to say I come from a big family spread all over the world. Thanks to the proliferation of various social media and communication platforms, staying in touch with my big family isn’t too difficult. Often, my cousins and I use WhatsApp to wish each other Happy New Years, share links, and send each other photos. Sometimes embarrassing photos, like the awkward junior high photo of me in which a scowl hung from my face and my pin-up bangs, too sticky from hairspray, jutted from my forehead. I was upset with my parents over some minor thing, and of course, the moment captured on film, became a funny photo my sister enjoyed passing around on Whatsapp and teasing me about.
This past December, a male cousin of mine shared an article about the Nouman Ali Khan scandal on our cousins WhatsApp group. The ensuing conversation both surprised me as well as reminded me of just how much work needs to be done within our own family tree to bridge the gap on gender inequality.
Nouman Ali Khan is an American Muslim speaker and Arabic instructor who founded the Bayyinah Institute for Arabic and Qur’anic Studies. He is also a man of power, a religious preacher, who has abused his position to manipulate his female followers into sham marriages and then threaten them into keeping quiet.
As a person who has dedicated the past ten years of her life to working on issues of gender violence including domestic violence, trafficking, and female genital cutting, I truly believed that the majority reaction from my cousins would be contempt. And in light of the #metoo campaign, in which issues of sexual harassment, assault, and overall violence against women were being elevated, I hoped that the article would spark a conversation on how Nouman Ali Khan should be held accountable for his inappropriate and harmful actions.
I was wrong.
[Read Related: #MeToo: Sexual Assault is Real and No One Deserves It]
The #Metoo campaign created an atmosphere of empowerment through empathy for women everywhere who have suffered some form of abuse. In October when the #metoo hashtag went viral, I too wrote #metoo and posted it as my Facebook status because I wanted to acknowledge that I too had experienced violence. As I scrolled through my newsfeed, I saw that most if not all my female friends and family had made similar posts. This revelation didn’t surprise me; I’ve worked on gender violence issues for nearly a decade and understand how endemic violence is to our gender. But I also wasn’t surprised because as a female, it seems these conversations are intrinsic to our being and so watching this conversation take place publicly with women everywhere breaking out of their shell of silence felt connecting.
Yet, what I didn’t realize, and what I wouldn’t fully understand until my conversation on WhatsApp, was how misinformed many good men who have the utmost respect for women are regarding the reality of how “male privilege’ seeps into women’s’ daily lives.
After the link to the Nouman Ali Khat article was shared, a female cousin replied that the scandal had been going on for a while, and wrote that Nouman Ali Khan was “disgusting.”
A male cousin texted, “Why?”
He went on to write, “All he did was text someone that he was talking to with the intent of marriage. How can you label someone disgusting based on that? All the things he has done for the Muslim community in terms of spreading awareness and preaching/teaching and explaining tafseer (exegesis) is void because he texted a female?”
Initially, I thought he must be joking. My gut reaction to the article had been yes, finally, this man of power is being called out for the harassment he has inflicted on his female followers. Nouman Ali Khan did not just innocently text a female about marriage; he used his position and authority to manipulate women and threaten them into silence. Of course, he should not be held up as a pillar of Muslim teaching if he has spiritually, emotionally, and financially abused his followers. Just like the Catholic Church should never have allowed priests to continue preaching or working with minors after they became aware of allegations of sexual misconduct. Or like how Bill Cosby’s influential persona as a pioneering black actor on The Cosby Show (which did so much to break false, inaccurate racists stereotypes of minorities) shouldn’t have given him a pass to get away with drugging women for decades. No one should get away with inflicting harm on another person. Yet, every one of these men has, all for a very long time.
[Read Related: How I Overcame my Hesitancy to Write #MeToo]
My male cousin’s immediate WhatsApp response made me wonder if the reason his gut reaction wasn’t to identify with the women as mine was, could possibly be due to a privilege that comes with being male. My reactions to the Nouman Ali Khan article was to listen, to believe the women. My cousin was to defend the man, the “good” Nouman Ali Khan had done. Yet, my male cousin had never once had to think about how a man will look at him, what they might say, how they might sexualize you and make your skin prickle when they catcall out to you—“Hey beautiful, why don’t you smile more?” If you keep your head down and say nothing, they respond by calling you a “bitch” (I’ve had that happened more often than I’d care to admit). Was there a privilege in being male that kept my male cousin from seeing the biases that exist when victims or survivors speak about the harassment they’ve encountered as a result of being the minority gender?
Another male cousin responded as well, but with a joke, suggesting that one of the women who was bribed by Nouman Ali Khan was involved with him in the first place just for the money. “This chick’s a user!”
I had to say something, particularly since I noticed my cousin had stopped texting after saying Nouman Ali Khan was disgusting, her confidence perhaps temporarily diminished. Finally, I sent a text agreeing with my female cousin that the contents of the article were indeed disturbing, hoping to validate her feelings. What was comforting in the article, I said, was the discussion on the need to hold religious leaders accountable. I was glad to see the article’s author speaking to the backlash women face when they finally come forward to speak publicly about what happened to them.
Backlash is a reality with which I am all too familiar. Over and over again, I have witnessed how women who speak up about violence are told to remain silent and threatened they will lose their family, jobs, and reputations. I have worked with these women. As someone who has undergone female genital cutting and shared her story publicly, I am one of these women.
Since sharing my story, I have consistently been told I am only seeking fame, and that the fame comes at the expense of ruining the Dawoodi Bohra community’s peace-loving public image. For so long they were known as a progressive community, but now they are only publicly known for performing female genital cutting on minor girls, and it’s all my fault because I spoke up. Instead of being understanding of the courage it takes to come forward, I have been blamed. Certain female family members of mine have been made to feel shame for the actions I have taken in order to prevent these abuse from happening to others.
The male cousin who initially shared the Nouman Ali Khan article on Whatsapp added, “The question is to what extent can the allegations be believed?”
My social justice hat went on, the underlying gender bias in this questions would not go unchecked.
“Why does the responsibility have to always fall on the one who has experienced the abuse to prove the reality of it. Particularly when the person is in the position to be the more vulnerable one. Shouldn’t we look at the systems in place that have allowed Nouman to act in such a way, for such a long time? And question more how others could allow this to continue for so long?”
[Read Related: #MeToo: Workplace Harassment Isn’t Just a Hollywood Thing]
I asked, hoping my question would change the direction of the conversation from a “victim blaming’ one where always there is an examination of the victim’s motives to one of proactive dialogue regarding what in our society leads men to think they can act in such ways. What in “male privilege” allows gender-based violence to occur and for others to allow it happen?
I was shocked again by what followed. A fourth male cousin countered my question, suggesting we have to be fair and equal in our analysis of the situation. But equal rarely means equitable when it comes to women and violence. The conversation then morphed into one questioning the existence of male privilege for men outside the “white male” category.
A light bulb flashed.
I thought about what Minnie Driver said about how even good men like Matt Damon had a lot of work to do to begin to understand what abuse is like for women. The truth of her statement became apparent to me during my WhatsApp conversation with my male cousins.They had never lived the experiences I and all other women go through. They did not see how “male privilege” permeates every aspect of a woman’s life: the pressure to marry and have babies; the idea that she must change her last name once married; the larger realities of how she may not being able to leave abusive situations because culture, religion, or her family forbid that she goes against the wishes of their husband; the notion that she must tolerate male superiors to further her career. In some communities, women’s opinions on matters such as politics are believed to be inconsequential, as Aarefa Johari discusses in her article about the gender-based exclusion and suppression of Gujarat women.
The reality that I was the sole female cousin challenging the male cousins did not go by without my notice either. Later, I learned via one-on-one texts that quite a few of my female cousins were angry and disappointed at how the male cousins were responding, but they had felt too flustered to respond. For me, the silence demonstrated a feeling many women have when reflecting on whether they should speak up about men like Nouman Ali Khan. 1) Would they be heard? 2) Could they change people’s minds or would they just cause more strife for themselves and their families?
I love my male cousins, and I do not seek to place blame or point fingers at them by sharing our conversation. Quite the opposite: I applaud their willingness to speak on the issue. I hope they will take our discussion as encouragement to continue conversing. Perhaps they will even invite other women to share with them what their experiences have been in relation to violence and male privilege. As shown by our WhatsApp discussion, this conversation can be a scary one to have if a woman does not feel as though they are in a supportive atmosphere to divulge. And we need those conversations to take place, because if we never break the silence on these topics if we never point out the distance that needs to be covered to reach that equitable society, then how can we encourage that change?
For the past decade, Mariya Taher has advocated against gender violence through research, policy, program development, and direct service. In 2015, she co-founded Sahiyo to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting. The Manhattan Young Democrats honored her as a 2017 Engendering Progress honoree. Mariya also is a prolific writer whose articles have appeared on NPR, Ms. Magazine, Huffington Post, The Fair Observer, Brown Girl Magazine, Solstice Literary Magazine, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, The Flexible Persona, Cecile’s Writer’s Magazine, and more. Follow her on Twitter @mariyataher83.