Is the #MeToo Movement Leaving Black Muslim Women Behind?

Over the past several years, colleges and universities have been pressured to address an epidemic that has been ignored for some time: the pervasiveness of sexual violence on campus. Studies find that 11.2 percent of all students have experienced rape or sexual assault and college-aged women are three times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. The broader movement around campus sexual assault has called for increased accountability from academic institutions and prompted additional funding into studies such as Columbia’s $2.2 million research project Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation. But the conversations so far have failed to address the complexities of the issue and how sexual assault manifests.

The movement against campus sexual assault has struggled with developing a framework that addresses various causes of sexual violence. Sexual assault is an expression of power, whether through verbal or physical coercion, and can be used to violently express, or reinforce societal biases. This falls in line with hate crimes, which are categorized by motivations of prejudice and violence. Hate crimes are notoriously difficult to accurately track, due to internal biases within law enforcement and judicial branches and lack of reporting, but according to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes showed the sharpest increase, rising 67 percent within one year.

The illusion of peace

Many people remember when the illusion of peace was shattered last Ramadan. On June 18, Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old black Muslim girl, was abducted and murdered in Virginia. Police classified the crime as an act of road rage, not a hate crime. But Nabra's father, Mohmoud Hassanen, noted that his daughter and her friends were all wearing hijabs, making them easily identifiable as Muslims. He told the Guardian’s David Smith he believed his daughter was the victim of an Islamophobic attack. The year before, a Somali woman had a mug smashed in her face at a Minnesota Applebee’s and a bombing took place at Dar Al-Farooq Islamic center, also in Minnesota. Later, police and prosecution released an indictment and update of the case stating Nabra Hassanen had been raped.

In the age of #MeToo and increasingly violent anti-black Islamophobia, it is important to remember the black Muslims whose experiences with sexual assault are erased. Nabra Hassanen was not a college student, but her case is a clear example of how Islamophobia manifests in forms of sexual violence that can be deadly. Given the increased sexualization of black women’s bodies through the Jezebel trope and the additional layer of sexualization that comes from wearing articles like the headscarf, we need to stop seeing black Muslim experiences as inherently existing outside the scope of the conversation.

While the #MeToo hashtag is most often recognized in response to sexual harassment within Hollywood, Tarana Burke originally founded the Me Too movement in 2006. Her aim was to empower young women of color who had been sexually abused, assaulted or exploited, with a focus on those who lacked the class status, resources or even acceptable skin color to have their stories respected.

According to the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, 1 in 5 black women report having been raped in their lifetimes. Black women make up the largest education group in the United States. With 1 in 5 college students likely to be victims of sexual assault (and these numbers may be underreported—the Bureau of Justice Statistics states for every rape reported by a black woman, 15 go unreported), the statistics indicate that a high number of black women may be sexually assaulted on campus.

Currently, there are no statistics taking into account differing rates of sexual violence based on race or religious association. As our society places emphasis on data, our failure to calculate that information suggests the devaluing of certain stories. This highlights how the current framework misses discussing how sexual assault can manifest differently throughout populations.

Similarly, there is no clear data on which campuses have the majority of Muslims and what the racial breakdown is within that. However, according to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of all Muslims in the United States are black. Of Muslim American families extending three or more generations, 51 percent are black, highlighting the presence of black American Muslim communities. Taking that into account, we can assume, based on the total percentage of the black Muslim population and the rate of black women graduating college, there is a significant number of black Muslim women in higher education.

These women may have experiences with campus sexual assault, but because many people do not always report sexual assault, often believing specific events may not qualify, their stories slip by unnoticed.

The weaponizing of language 

The "weaponizing" of language also precludes black Muslim women from seeking assistance on an administrative level.

On February 10, students at Spelman College, a historically black college, practiced their own World Hijab Day. Shortly after, faculty members sent a concerning letter to the student body, bypassing attempts to hold a conversation with the students who had organized the event. In the letter, faculty members invoked a feminist framework for their pushback while citing Asra Nomani, who has publicly called for government surveillance and profiling of Muslim communities.

The letter is an example of how language is weaponized against Muslims, instead of working with the directly affected populations, and how administrations can make it difficult for Muslim women to seek the support they need.

Not every Muslim woman wears a hijab, but Spelman’s letter shows how the hijab is identified as an expression of gendered Islamophobia through a combination of Orientalism and anti-blackness. Orientalism, defined by Edward Said around 1978, describes the biases projected onto the Middle East, such as the fascination with Muslim women, who are sexualized in veils and painted as passive objects within their own narratives. When it comes to black Muslim women, the history of the hijab in America is complex, but has the additional layer of being read through anti-black expectations of Western femininity, which is essentially designed to be at odds with black womanhood.

Enlarging the discussion

In my brief time on campus, I engaged in several conversations with black Muslims about sexual assault. People do hold these conversations with each other; friends seek comfort with friends—but is that enough? Some students cite concerns about how student groups hold such discussions on larger platforms, noting that students who exist at various intersections essentially have to divide their experiences based on the setting they’re in.

The present framework still focuses on white survivors, despite the hard work and influence of black women around dismantling rape culture. Students organizations are simply not equipped to handle the depth of this issue; centers are unable to provide the necessary data, and many Muslim Student Associations have not been educated in how to discuss sexual assault at all. 

With an entire movement dedicated to addressing campus sexual assault, is it permissible for black Muslims to be reduced to sharing their experiences in whispers in the corners of the student lounge?

If black Muslim women’s unique experiences are not included in the national conversation about sexual assault, we are not tackling sexual assault as a whole. Campus sexual assault does not exist as an individual phenomenon, but is a reflection of rape culture and academic institutions that have allowed this problem to take root.

In order to begin dismantling the scaffolding holding this structure in place, the conversation must account for intersectionality, as scholar Kimberle Crenshaw intended—not as a badge to award yourself or any movement, but as an examination of systems.

DisHonorRoll is made possible through a grant from the Media Consortium.

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