By Imam Khalid Latif
07 May, 2014
I remember the first time I met a young Muslim woman who had been beaten by her father for refusing to marry a man from their country of origin. I was 19 at the time and an undergrad at New York University.
I also distinctly remember a series of other first time interactions: the first time I met a Muslim woman who had been raped; a Muslim woman who had been molested; a Muslim woman who had been told her only purpose in life was to please her husband; a Muslim woman who could find no one to help her break out of an abusive marriage; a Muslim woman who was completely confident that whoever she married would end up cheating on her; and many more. I also remember every other woman who over the years has told me about similar life experiences that they have had. All of them come to mind as I try to digest what is currently taking place in Nigeria and the over 200 women that were recently abducted there and have started to be trafficked.
The perpetrators of this crime are the Boko Haram, a movement that has existed for quite some time in Nigeria. They espouse a perversely skewed interpretation of Islam that I personally believe carries no legitimacy and is far removed from any Islam that I or the majority of Muslims practice. The unfortunate reality is my condemnation on its own can do nothing other than distance me from them. It by itself is not helpful to the victims of the Boko Haram's crimes. This group has taken the lives of thousands of innocent people and seemingly have a focus on targeting schools, including those that young men attend as well. The issue is much bigger than most of us might realize, given the lack of response I've seen from both the Muslim and broader communities.
The past few months have shown the Muslim social media world turned upside down by people all over the world commenting on whether or not it's ok for "Happy British Muslims" to sing and dance or female Muslim Hipsters to ride skateboards. On a global level we've seen Muslims take to the streets when things like the Danish Cartoons have been published. I am not saying whether these things are right or wrong, but I am left to wonder why there is not a similar level of passion or urgency when situations like what is taking place in Nigeria transpires.
Education is a basic right in Islam, regardless of what the Boko Haram believe. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, has said that "Seeking knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim." The pursuit of knowledge is an intrinsic right for every individual and the Boko Haram's ideology is attacking this God-given right. To simply say they are wrong is not enough. The attack that is taking place on Islam as a religion here is something that Muslims worldwide should really reflect upon and then ask ourselves why we are not being as vocal on this issue as we were on those mentioned before. Don't we all have a responsibility to speak out substantively about what is taking place in Nigeria? And more importantly, what is our responsibility to those women who were abducted and how do we demonstrate a lived consciousness of their realities?
The reason my thoughts were brought to women that I have met who have endured the realities of physical abuse, sexual assault, and forced marriage is that those things exist on a global level, including in the United States, and are found in every community.
I feel a duty to the women of Nigeria just as I feel a duty to the women of my own community who have confided in me regarding these issues. For Muslims in specific, every imam who takes the pulpit this Friday should at the very least pray for our sisters in Nigeria as well as every woman who faces religious persecution and oppression at the hands of those who claim to act on God's behalf, but really have no semblance of God in any of their actions.
Encourage your imams to speak out against it and then setup viable opportunities for women who find themselves in situations such as these to have ways out that come with the support of religious leadership and community. Support groups, shelters, financial assistance, job training and much more can be things that we can be motivated to build within our communities to demonstrate that we will not let the tragedies befalling these women in Nigeria to be of a further disgrace because we let similar tragedies take place in our own communities.
Imam Khalid Latif Executive Director and Chaplain, Islamic Centre at New York University