Breaking Barriers in Muslim Communities: Working to Raise the Sexual Health Literacy of Muslim Communities

 By Nadiah Mohajir & Sadia Arshad

Autonomous. Sex Positive. Empowered.

These are not words that would initially come to mind when asked to think about Muslim women and sexuality. Yet, despite common understanding, these are exactly the words inspired by the Islamic faith in respect to faith values and the complexity of Muslim women’s experiences – especially in the realm of women’s health and sexual violence.

Based in Chicago with educators nationwide, HEART Women and Girls is a non-profit working with faith communities to promote sexual health and sexual violence awareness via education, advocacy, research, and training. Founded in 2010, and led entirely by women of color, HEART creates safe spaces for women and girls in the Muslim community to speak, learn, and access resources about women’s health and sexual violence.

Over the years, we have collected countless stories, including:

  • Girls who are unable to identify basic anatomy or common medical problems, like yeast infections, and do not seek treatment as a result
  • Young women struggling with intimacy issues in their marriages/relationships, unable to consummate or struggling with painful sexual experiences
  • Women and girls who are unable to identify sexual abuse when it is happening, or where to go for help

While these issues exist across cultures, socio-economic status and the like, these stories shared a common theme: these women and girls—particularly those in Muslim communities—did not have a safe space that was free of blame and shame to explore these issues, ask questions, and exchange information. They were not given the tools to negotiate discussions about their bodies, sex, and relationships.

Last year, the importance of this work was more evident than ever. A brave young woman came forward with allegations of sexual assault against a prominent Muslim leader (imam) in the Chicagoland area. Within two days, HEART received dozens of concerns from additional survivors of the same perpetrator. We learned that the abuse spanned decades, and there were more than 20 known victims. HEART worked to offer culturally-sensitive advocacy, resources and information for the survivors, their families, and their communities.

From this story – and other poignant stories – collected over the last six years, lessons emerged about sexual health and sexual assault unique to Muslim communities, such as:

  • No tools. Many Muslims don’t have the tools or the language to identify sexual violence. Many people don’t have an understanding of what is happening to them or even a basic understanding of their bodies and sexuality.
  • Lack of first responders or resources. There are not enough culturally competent resources or first responders and professionals trained to address the needs of Muslim survivors in a religiously and culturally competent way.
  • High rates of underreporting. We know that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in this country, with nearly 68% of sexual assaults never being reported to law enforcement. From our work with Muslim survivors, we know that the likelihood of not reporting is even higher among Muslims, due to the shame, stigma, and lack of awareness associated with sexual assault.

Why is do so many survivors not disclose? This important video, developed this year for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, discusses some barriers to disclosing, and how you can help support survivors of sexual assault.

You can help Muslim women – and women from faith communities collectively – by creating safer, more inclusive, spaces and by using culturally competent resources like those offered by HEART Women and Girls. Our site has fact sheets, toolkits, videos, blog posts, as well as a blog specifically for adolescent girls and their families.

In addition, HEART Women and Girls has partnerships with organizations such as Rape Victim Advocates, Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood. When women’s health organizations and faith-based organizations collaborate, safer spaces can de-stigmatize and educate women and girls about their bodies. Join us as we work to build safer spaces for women and girls to learn about their bodies and ultimately, become resources for each other.