Sexual abuse, assault and harassment are awful crimes, usually perpetrated on women and children, both boys and girls. What makes this form of oppression difficult to deal with is the stigma attached to victims, as well as the hidden reality of it.
As an Imam, you may be confronted by someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse or harassment. Or you may sense something is not right in a family or between certain individuals. In this case, it is your duty, as the Imam and leader of the community to deal with this matter in a just, firm and proper manner. Here are some tips that may help, insha Allah.
1. Know the definition of sexual abuse, assault and harassment
From an Islamic perspective, if Islamic rules of modesty and relations between men and women and families were respected, there would be no sexual abuse or harassment. However, Shaitan is always there.
Sexual harassment includes touching someone sexually who a person is not married to. Sexual assault includes rape or attacking someone sexually, even if sexual intercourse does not take place. Sexual abuse happens over a period of time. Often this includes incest, or sexual relations between family members like parents and children, or brothers and sisters.
You can find more information about sexual abuse, assault and harassment at a local police station, women's center or women's shelter.
2. Know that these sexual crimes are unacceptable and must be dealt with swiftly and justly
Reading the above definitions of these sexual crimes make their unIslamic nature very clear. This is why as an Imam, you must be ready to address the issue of sexual assault, abuse and harassment very seriously. As Muslims we must help our brothers and sisters. If they are oppressed, we must help them out of the oppression. If they are the oppressor, we must stop them from oppressing. This principle must be applied to sexual crimes as well.
3. Know the consequences of not addressing this
If you, as the leader of the community, do not address this issue and deal with cases of sexual crimes, Muslim children who have been victims of abuse will either continue to be abused or taken out of their homes and placed with non-Muslim foster parents. These children will also most probably be raised as non-Muslims.
Similarly, if a Muslim woman has been sexually harassed or assaulted and nothing is said to the abuser by the community, or at least its Imam, then this is a signal to other men that such behavior is acceptable. Moreover, the sister who has been the victim of this crime may turn away completely from the Muslim community, where she was unable to gain any sort of justice.
4. Know what services exist in the community
You should give your name as a resource person to sexual assault and abuse hotlines and centers for victims, so that if a Muslim victim wants help from a fellow Muslim, you can be contacted.
You should also know and be in contact with social services and child welfare agencies, which often place children in foster homes. This way, by working in cooperation with them, you can ease placement of abused children in trustworthy Muslim homes.
5. Make yourself available
Contact information and Timings when you, the Imam, are available should be known to all in the community, either through announcements and/or newsletters and bulletin boards. All Imams should have a pager where people can easily reach them in emergencies. There should be one locked mail box which only you can open. There should be an email address for those who wants to seek guidance maintaining their anonymity.
6. Maintain confidentiality (Amanah)
This is extremely important, especially when it comes to victims of sexual crimes. Because Muslims, culturally, are usually very private and silent about these matters, the privacy of the victim must be respected. If it is not, not only is the victim likely to be humiliated and shunned, but you will lose the trust of this person, and possibly others as well.
More importantly, remember that when someone tells you their secret, this is a trust which you are required to keep for the sake of Allah.
7. Seek the help of a professional
Sexual abuse is an issue which must be dealt with by professionals like psychiatrists and psychologists, for example. Try to find a Muslim specialized in this field who can assist you in helping Muslims who are victims of sexual abuse and harassment, since it is very likely they may need counseling. If you know of no Muslim in your community, contact the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA). They can recommend a Muslim professional. Also, you can seek non-Muslim professionals, but make sure to give them some Islamic parameters within which to work.
8. If you know a child is being sexually abused...
Then you must get the child out of that home immediately. From an Islamic perspective, a parent who does this to their child gives up all rights of a parent. The abuse must stop. If the child is not removed from the environment, some of the future outcomes could be: this child grows up and abuses other children; sexual dysfunction; mental and psychological problems.
Please also note: if you are having doubts about whether a child is telling the truth or not, consider that children usually do not lie about sexual abuse. It's not something in their experience unless they are exposed to it. Your first instinct should be to believe them.
9. Bring the issue of sexual abuse, assault and harassment to the community's attention
This will be difficult but it must be done if this topic is to be addressed in the appropriate manner. This can be brought up in a subtle way during a Juma Khutba (Friday sermon) by discussing the Islamic perspective on how men and women should interact: what is Islamically appropriate behavior and what is not.
Similarly, the topic of incest can be dealt with by discussing Islamic guidelines of interaction within the family and the concept of "Mahram" in Islam. Also, discussing the issue of privacy, (i.e. the importance of knocking before entering a room, even within the home) can be a way of addressing this topic without becoming too graphic or shocking.
A note of caution: if you do decide to use a case study from the community when talking about sexual harassment and abuse, make sure not to disclose details which will make it obvious to listeners who is being discussed. This is a violation of privacy. Also be extremely careful in generalization. Don't put down the whole community because you noticed a few cases.
10. Talk about this topic in your study circle
If you teach classes and Islamic study circles, make sure this topic is openly discussed, but once again with wisdom. You can bring it up in the same manner as in the Khutbas.
11. Establish a social services system or committee
In cooperation with Muslim social service professionals in your community, establish a committee which will develop a system for social services in your community to tackle issues like sexual harassment and abuse.
12. Offer premarital counseling or "talks"
When you are approached to conduct the marriage of a young couple, do more than officiate the ceremony. Counsel the potential couple. Spend some time alone with the groom-to-be and discuss issues related to married life, including sexual relations. Get a knowledgeable sister to do the same for the bride-to-be. This is one preventative step to take when dealing the issue of sexual harassment and abuse.
13. Shun the abuser
If you know someone has abused a child, or harassed or assaulted a woman, this person should first be educated. If this does not work, they must be shunned. A clear message has to be sent to them that this behavior is completely unacceptable.
14. Make Dua
As a leader of the community, the well-being of its members is part of your responsibility. Make Dua that Allah helps you in this heavy task and that He eases the difficulties of all those suffering in the community, men, women and children.
May Allah bless you and your family for all the time you give to the community for the sake of Allah.
Some relevant resources:
Gender Equity in Islam
By Jamal Badawi
This book presents an effective overview of the status and rights of Muslim women as defined by the Quran and Sunnah.
The Muslim Marriage Guide
By Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
The best book for a key to a happy Marriage, explains what a Muslim should do to make his or her marriage successful!
DVD: The Ideal Muslim Husband
An eye opening DVD documentary for all who are married or planning to get married.
Photo Attribution: Bruce Guenter http://www.flickr.com/photos/10154402@N03/4842311819/