US & World

Even before #MeToo, Muslim educators worked to demystify sex and battle abuse

Sahar Pirzada of HEART Women & Girls takes a selfie with fellow staffers.
Sahar Pirzada of HEART Women & Girls takes a selfie with fellow staffers.
Sahar Pirzada

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In a conference room full of Muslim twenty-something professionals in downtown Los Angeles, Sahar Pirzada presents an exercise that resonates in the #MeToo era.

"We’re going to be talking about different phrases used in the community to oftentimes victim-blame," Pirzada said. 

Even before the #MeToo movement shook up workplaces worldwide last fall, Pirzada has been asking Muslims to talk about issues involving consensual sex and sexual misconduct.

The 28-year-old Pakistani-American is programs and outreach manager for the national organization HEART Women & Girls, which for nearly a decade has been educating Muslims about sexual health and violence.  

The organization, which has been growing its reach online and through training workshops, puts sex education in a cultural context, recognizing that Muslim survivors of sexual abuse, especially women, face obstacles to reporting the crimes both within and outside the community.

Pirzada said some survivors worry, "'Who's going to marry me?' or, like, 'What will people think?' 'Is this going to bring shame to my family?'"

They also have to contend with the fact that Muslims face negative stereotypes in a post-9/11 world where hate crimes against Muslims have dramatically increased.

Pirzada said survivors fear reporting sex crimes because “they might be thinking about: 'Will this just make people be more Islamophobic and think that I'm experiencing this because I'm Muslim?'”

Sahar Pirzada, program and outreach manager for HEART, leads a workshop at Peace Over Violence in downtown Los Angeles.
Sahar Pirzada, program and outreach manager for HEART, leads a workshop at Peace Over Violence in downtown Los Angeles.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Then there’s the challenge of getting people to recognize sexual abuse when it's happening to them. HEART educators say, too often, that's not occurring. According to the group, some women aren't aware of basic anatomy and common sexual health disorders, and so don't have the language to describe if something wrong is taking place.

HEART has been promoting open conversations about sex and sexuality through its workshops and creating online videos.  In the last year, HEART has put out a series of sex education videos, including those on Pap smears, HPV and sexual dysfunction.

Pap Smear video

Pirzada said she wants to debunk the notion that sex is a taboo topic. Some Islamic scholars have pointed out that the Koran and other Islamic texts contain language promoting female sexuality.

"Islam, as a religion, is very sex positive," Pirzada said. "During the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, they used to ask very specific and explicit questions about sex and about their bodies because it was part of their faith to be informed and to take care of themselves."

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HEART holds workshops around the country at mosques, rape crisis centers and college campuses. Pirzada, from her base in L.A., has been leading trainings for HEART since 2015 throughout Southern California, home to one of the country’s largest Muslim populations.  

Not everyone has embraced their work. Pirzada said one mosque turned down her offer to run a workshop and then soon after held its own workshop on modesty.

But for others, just seeing Muslims talking about sex to Muslims has been life-changing.

"It was really emotional for me because I hadn't ever experienced an event like that where somebody who was Muslim-identifying kind of knew what I had been through," said Homam Almahdi, a senior at the University of California, Irvine.

Almahdi, who grew up in a Syrian-American household in West L.A., said he was sexually abused by a family friend, also a Muslim. Almahdi was 8 at the time, and said he’d never spoken a word of it to anyone until he sought out Pirzada after her workshop.

"I just grew up assuming that what had happened to me was unfortunately unique and that I had to just deal with [it] on my own and support myself on my own," Almahdi said.

Outside a recent HEART workshop in downtown Los Angeles.
Outside a recent HEART workshop in downtown Los Angeles.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Nationally, HEART members have spoken out in cases of alleged sexual abuse by Muslim clergy, as in 2015, when several women accused a respected, Chicago-area imam of molestation. Now, as the #MeToo hashtag blazes on, HEART educators and their supporters are cautious about their work being absorbed into the broader movement, which they see as led by famous, wealthy and mostly white women.

But they acknowledge that #MeToo has only further spotlighted the conversations that Muslim women like themselves have been pushing in their community.

In February, a Pakistani woman’s Facebook post went viral in which she described what she said was her sexual assault during a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. 

That prompted Muslim women from all over the world to describe similar stories, among them Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy. She tweeted what she said was her experience and started the #MosqueMeToo hashtag.

Mona Eltahawy Tweet

The online world has united Muslim women worldwide, and given them a space to talk about sex and sexual harassment.

Pirzada came to join HEART because of a Twitter chat on Muslim sex education. After seeing Pirzada’s tweets, HEART co-founder Nadiah Mohajir contacted her about working with the group. 

Pirzada said she became interested in outreach work partly because of her own struggles with sexual health — and her difficulty in finding help. Pirzada, who wears a hijab, said she once saw a white counselor who questioned whether her problems stemmed from her religion.

"Are you really making these assumptions about, like, 'Oh, well, maybe it's because your culture doesn't believe in this or maybe that?'" Pirzada recalled. "That was literally part of the verbiage that was used in my therapy session."

Part of HEART’s work is in working with non-Muslims so they learn how to treat Muslim clients.

Wendy Blanco is an L.A.-based social worker who’s gone through HEART training as a supervisor at the Pasadena office of Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit that assists survivors of domestic violence. She said she's not surprised that therapists might respond in "certain ways" to Muslim women wearing head scarves.

“What's important is for us to recognize how we're responding and how that affects the therapeutic relationship that we're building with folks," Blanco said.

Those following HEART’s work said it is bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. And it’s also letting survivors know that other Muslims are there for them. 

"Very often I would hear, ‘Well, why don't these people just leave the religious tradition?'” said Najeeba Syeed, an associate professor of interreligious education at the Claremont School of Theology. "Because for so many, that religious tradition is tied to their culture, to their language. It's where they feel at home.”

Homam Alhmahdi

For Almahdi, being Muslim is an important part of his identity. Some of his best friends are in the Muslim Student Union at UCI with him. After he opened up to Pirzada, these were the friends he told next. That prepared him to do what he dreaded most: telling his parents.

"I was concerned with the reaction," Almahdi said. "I was just a little bit scared."

As it turned out, they were "very, very supportive," he said. "I love them so much. I'm really thankful for them."

Today, Almahdi gets therapy and volunteers for HEART on the UCI campus. He said, for him, sexual violence is not only an attack on the individual, but on the entire community.  

Josie Huang covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.