The December 17, 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Dehli, India stunned the country and the world. While rape is hardly uncommon in the city (Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures), it was the viciousness and ferociousness of the attack that stunned the world.
It is a cause that demands justice, and justice in Islam is for all. Like the rights of the poor and neighbors, it does not matter whether a person is Muslim or not. We have a duty to fulfill. This is why Muslims should be equally vocal and active on this rape issue in India.
Rape is a form of attack that is universal. It has been used to subdue and humiliate, from the battlefields of Bosnia to the jail cells of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But it is primarily women and children who are its targets. As one of the greatest and most destructive forms of evil one human being commits against another, it is imperative that Muslims actively challenge and fight it. It is our duty as believers in God, Who clearly orders us:
“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well- acquainted with all that ye do” (Quran 4:135).
Although Islamic law and the legal systems of most countries around the world today outline clear punishments for rape, ignorance, corruption, patronage, and an overall bias against women, the poor, and certain minority groups, often taint their execution. This is why punitive actions are not enough. We must create a culture where rape is never allowed to flourish.
The ideas below focus on changing not just mindsets, but behaviors as well. These aim to not only guide and empower the vulnerable, but also, those who are in positions of power, whether that is parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, principals, Imams, executive members of Islamic institutions, and others.
1. Constantly remind men of their personal accountability to Allah in matters of modesty
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And God is well acquainted with all that they do” (Quran 24:30).
Interestingly, this verse is right before the verse ordering women to do the same. Allah addresses men first when expecting modest behavior, then women. Many Muslims have for long done the opposite. We have placed so much emphasis on women not becoming a source of sexual temptation that we have forgotten the core message of every human being’s individual accountability before God, whether that is in matters of modesty, money, or anything else.
Imams in their Khutbas, Islamic full-time and weekend schools in their curriculums, and Muslim parents must emphasize this and emulate it for young Muslim men starting age nine and above. Considering the amount of exposure to sexual material children have nowadays through television and the internet, it may even require a discussion about lowering their gaze and behaving modestly sooner than that.
2. Offer proper guidance on sexual behavior
Talking about sexual issues remains difficult for most parents, even as the world becomes more open about it in songs, movies, television shows, online, and other venues. But shyness is not a virtue when it comes to the safety and well-being of a child or woman. The key is to give age-appropriate information. That can start the moment a child leaves home to stay with anyone but his or her parents, or earlier. It should begin with a brief explanation of what is appropriate and inappropriate touching. Rapists and pedophiles who prey on children use their ignorance of sexual issues to their advantage. Empower your child to fight back by making clear what behavior is acceptable and what is not. It is also critical to reassure a child that you will not become angry if they tell you someone touched them inappropriately. You will instead be proud of them for their courage, which is why they should inform you right away if it happens.
3. Curb opportunities for rape and sexual assault to happen
While rape can and does happen on the street, it is most often likely to happen via someone a woman or child knows. The American Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that 6 in 10 rape or sexual assault victims said that they were assaulted by an intimate partner, relative, friend or acquaintance. A study of sexual victimization of college women showed that 9 out of 10 victims knew the person who sexually victimized them.
“Stranger danger” is easily talked about and avoided. Women and children must be cautious while outside. But dangers within the family and circle of friends and acquaintances cannot be ignored either. That means never leaving a child alone for long with any relative, particularly male, be it an uncle, grandparent, nephew, cousin, or anyone else, as painful as that might be to accept. Popping your head in the room from time to time during a family gathering, for example, to check on where your kids are and what they are doing sends a subtle but clear message: you are on the lookout. For rapists, this automatically puts them on guard, since they operate based on secrecy and trust in their authority, as well as their close relationship with you or your child.
This same approach should be used for authority figures outside of the family, particularly teachers, principals, coaches, or leaders of any activity your child participates in.
4. Teach women and children the art of disagreeing Islamically
Early on, women and children are taught to defer to and respect authority, be it that of parents, a husband, a teacher, an Imam or a scholar. But looking at the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, we see that deference to authority is neither blind, nor passive. The Prophet’s wives sometimes argued with him, even as they respected his authority. Even Umar ibn al Khattab, known as a fiery leader, once explained to a man who had gone to complain about his wife why he, the leader of the Muslims, tolerated his own wife’s occasional anger or disagreement. And speaking of Umar, it was a woman who publicly challenged his authority in the mosque when he was Khalifa over the issue of Mahr. Even the Imam should be corrected if he errs in Quranic recitation during prayer.
The point is, obedience and respect in Islam does not translate into tolerating abuse of authority, be it physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. You CAN say a firm “NO” to someone in authority if they are doing something wrong.
You can also disagree and discuss without becoming disrespectful. We must model this and emphasize it in our own families.
5. Before hiring any authority figure, check the sex offender registry and do a thorough background check
This is especially important when it comes to those who work closely with children. In the United States, the Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website features lists of registered sex offenders in every state. Make sure to check these before hiring or signing up anyone, be it an Imam, a volunteer weekend school teacher, or anyone else. This can and should be done discreetly, and there is no need to inform anyone that they are being looked up. It should simply be a normal part of background checking.
Don’t let a desperate need for volunteers or staff be an excuse to forego this absolutely critical step before hiring someone or offering them a volunteer position.
6. Do not tolerate “rape talk”
Joking, mocking, or nonchalantly dismissing rape must never be tolerated in conversations. This is something to especially look out for when it comes to young men in high school and college. If a teenage boy in an Islamic school, for example, flippantly talks about raping or forcing himself on a girl or woman, be it a fellow student or the sultry celebrity of the day, call him out on it. Take him aside and calmly explain that what he said is clearly Haram and condemned by Allah and the Prophet.
7. Challenge media portrayals of rape and violence against women
Whether it’s a slap across the face or a shove against a wall, write and speak out against neutral or positive portrayals of violence against women and children in programs on television or in films, magazines, billboards, and other media. The idea behind this is that violent coercion, of which rape is one of, is acceptable. Tolerating “lesser” forms of violence builds up to the acceptance for sexual coercion.
8. Regularly educate men and women about healthy gender relations
Read the Seerah and study how the Companions of the Prophet, men and women, interacted in a way that respectful, positive, and healthy. The assumption that every male-female conversation or interaction would lead to sexual temptation was not there. They truly embodied the brother- and sisterhood of faith by being modest in their behavior, but capable of communicating with each other effectively. This is a Sunnah that has been ignored for far too long and must be urgently revived.
When Muslims learn Islamically appropriate gender interaction, men and women are more likely to see each other as brothers and sisters in faith, versus through the sole lens of sexual attraction.
9. Support or start rape crisis organizations or programs
Donating money is one way, but volunteering time for this task is critical. This is especially important for Imams and Muslim leaders, men and women. This will offer much –needed training on how to handle rape in the community. It will also help the Muslim community see that it is an urgent issue that needs attention and focus, just as domestic violence and other crises do.
10. Always report rape
As painful and embarrassing as this may be, it is our duty to report to police any incident of rape. Rape is not about family or community shame, but individual and collective pain. And its victim must get the support he or she needs immediately to survive this life-altering crisis. Secrecy and silence are a rapist’s best friends. Reporting takes tremendous courage but it is absolutely essential to curbing it. It can become the first step to healing for a rape victim, knowing that s/he is supported and will not have to carry an ugly “secret” to maintain some false sense of community or family “honor”. Rape is not a victim’s fault, it is the rapist’s. And reporting it is the first way to show that.