“Honor cannot be stolen. It can only be surrendered. Surely, in the act of rape, it is the perpetrator, not the victim, who surrenders honor.”
—Leeza Mangaldas, “Misogyny in India: we are all guilty”
I walked into my friend’s house and greeted all the guests with salaams and a hand shake. When I reached the young Arab woman cradling a baby in her arms, I could not keep from glancing repeatedly in her direction even after I had settled down on the carpet surrounded by other women.
For some reason the Arab woman didn’t seem to belong, and I was searching in her countenance for the answers to my unspoken questions. It wasn’t the predominately African-American group of women that made the woman seem out of place. In all parts of the city, even in the lower socioeconomic area where we were right then, there were multitudes of ethnicities, colors, and nationalities, Arabs amongst them. But she seemed to be feeling out of place herself…
“She recently came to America,” my friend told me later. “Her family disowned her, so a brother from our community married her and brought her here.”
I creased my forehead in confusion. “Disowned her? Why?”
“She was raped,” my friend said, her expression conveying that she herself was puzzled by her words. “So they didn’t want anything to do with her anymore.”
Rape at a Glance
Rape is the act of forcibly having sex with someone without their consent, and although anyone can be a victim of rape, women are disproportionately the victims, and the aggressors are men.
Recently, the issue of rape made international headlines when the India gang rape case, in which the victim ultimately died from the injuries sustained after five men sexually assaulted her on a bus, sparked new questions regarding what motivates sexual aggressors and what laws should be in place to better protect women and prosecute criminals.
However, while the world debates psychology, motives and legalities, there are thousands of victims of rape who must face life after rape—often without social, psychological, or legal support.
Wounds of Rape—Physical and Psychological
Rape is often thought of as primarily sexual in nature. However, rape is more an act of aggression than it is an act of “intimacy.” More than anything, rape is a violent crime—intended by the aggressor to exert power over the victim—and can cause more long-term damage to the body than an act of physical assault. Some of the physical after effects of rape include the following (According to “Effects of Rape: Psychological and Physical Effects of Rape” by Samantha Gluck):
painful intercourse (with significant other)
uterine fibroids – non-cancerous tumors in muscle wall
Though the physical after effects of rape are quite damaging, some of the most traumatic after effects are psychological. “Healthy Place” writer, Samantha Gluck says:
“One of the most common psychological consequences of rape is self-blame. Victims use self-blame as an avoidance-based coping tool. Self-blame slows or, in many cases, stops the healing process.”
Gluck goes on to list the following emotional and psychological effects of rape:
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – feelings of severe anxiety and stress
flashbacks – memories of rape as if it is taking place again
borderline personality disorder
dissociative identity disorder
distrust of others – uneasy in everyday social situations
feelings of personal powerlessness – victims feel the rapist robbed them of control over their bodies
Victims Reclaiming Their Lives
Although rape is undoubtedly one of the most traumatic experiences for many women, experiencing rape does not mean that life stops for victims. Many rape victims are able to live normal lives after the experience, and many go on to have healthy intimate relationships later in life.
When we hear about the more than 15 million women who have been victims of rape, the numbers can be disheartening. But amongst these millions of women are survivors who refused to allow a single incident, no matter how traumatic, to define their entire existence. In other words, they reclaimed their lives.
And amongst these remarkable survivors are Muslim women.
I met Amatullah [Name and minor details have been changed to protect victim’s identity] as anyone would, a good friend, during a social gathering of Muslim women, and I liked her right away. We shared common goals in life; we loved reading and writing; and we were excited to attend as many faith-boosting seminars that the masjid could offer. Her husband and my husband also got to know each other, so we spent lots of time together whenever we could. In a sentence, she was one of the most balanced, down-to-earth sisters I’d met.
So I was surprised when she mentioned to me that when she was fifteen years old, she had been raped.
At the time, I held a stereotypical view of rape victims. I imagined that they were so emotionally and psychologically traumatized that “normal social behavior” was unlikely and a happy marriage almost impossible. But Amatullah proved me wrong.
And what was most therapeutic for Amatullah was her faith.
“I turned to Allah,” she said. “But it was a really confusing experience for me because I just couldn’t understand why it was happening to me.”
She told me that the rape occurred one night when her parents were out and she was babysitting her younger brothers and sisters. The aggressor, who she says appeared to be in his late teens, entered her home and dragged her away from her younger siblings, then raped her.
As she fought the rapist—but to no avail—she says that all she kept saying to herself was ‘But I’m Muslim. But I’m Muslim…’
“I grew up Muslim and I followed all the rules,” she said. “I never dated or had relations with boys, so in my mind this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was saving myself for marriage like Allah told me to, and I never imagined that this would be my first experience [with sex].”
‘But I’m Muslim’
How well a victim fares after an incident of rape depends largely on the culture in which she lives—both in her home environment and in the society at large.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it,” Amatullah says. “It wasn’t that I didn’t think I’d get help. It was just that I couldn’t believe it happened. So when he finished with me and left, I just put back on my clothes and went to check on my brothers and sisters.”
She says, “Till today, I have no idea who that guy was, and I never tried to find out.”
But for many victims of rape, the decision to not tell anyone is a very conscious one; and sadly, this tendency is rather common amongst Muslim women.
Unfortunately, in many predominately Muslim societies that have deviated from Islam and embraced tribal customs, the decision to not reveal an incident of rape is motivated by a construed notion of “honor”—the idea that the moral and social nobility of a woman or her family rests in a female’s private parts, regardless of whether or not she is guilty of moral transgression. In some of the more barbaric societies that exist today, a woman could be murdered if her name is connected to even the rumor of “dishonor,” hence the term “honor killing.”
Thus, for many Muslim women, the decision to not report an incident of rape is not a question of morality; it is a question of survival.
‘Your Honor Is Most Important’
I was teaching a class of female high school seniors (most of whom came from predominately Muslim countries) when some of my students shared with me the advice their parents had given them as graduation approached.
“My mother told me to be careful,” one of my students shared. This student had received a full scholarship to study abroad and would be living far from her family, and her mother wanted her to be very cognizant of any contact with males. “She told me, ‘Remember, your honor is most important.’” My student contorted her face. “I told her, ‘No it’s not.’”
I nodded, proud that my student had come to this realization despite her home culture. “That’s true,” I said. “Your honor is not most important. Your soul is.”
And it is through focusing on our souls—by turning to Allah for help and direction no matter what our backgrounds or experiences—that keeps our lives healthy, rejuvenating and “honorable”, no matter what our bodies may suffer during life’s sojourn.
I personally would love to add: to safeguard yourself until the very last, until wedding in this case, and stay strong and true and to recover and stand back again even after being raped, means that a woman pertain her honour. There's no losing it(editor)