In a Washington Post opinion piece published Thursday, Egyptian-American writer and feminist Mona Eltahawy wrote about being sexually assaulted during the hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca—and her efforts to bring other Muslim women’s experiences to light by starting #MosqueMeToo on Twitter.
The hashtag has provided Muslim women with the opportunity to speak out against the sexualized violence they’ve survived on pilgrimages, in mosques, and in other aspects of their religious lives—but it’s also raised concerns among some Muslims online that these public conversations are enabling Islamophobia or reinforcing racist perceptions of Muslim men.
#MosqueMeToo was started on February 5 with a tweet from Eltahawy, when she shared her experiences of being sexually assaulted while on the hajj in 1982. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and a religious obligation for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to take the trip. “It became obvious that we had all been too ashamed to speak about it—although we’d done nothing to be ashamed of obviously—because of the sanctity of Mecca and hajj,” said Eltahawy in a recent email to Slate. “But it’s that sanctity that predators abuse. They know women will be too ashamed or scared to speak out.”
Eltahawy’s tweet prompted hundreds of Muslim women to share stories of being sexually assaulted while in religious spaces, as well as their frustration that in religious contexts modesty is sometimes presented as a “solution” to the issue of sexualized violence. “#MosqueMeToo proves that a woman’s choice of clothing isn’t the root cause of harassment,” wrote one woman on Twitter on Friday afternoon.
Eltahawy has frequently come under criticism, including from fellow Muslim and Arab women, for how she opts to characterize the issue of gender justice in Islam. Eltahawy came to prominence in 2012 after publishing a highly contentious article, titled “Why Do They Hate Us?: The real war on women in the Middle East,” in Foreign Policy magazine’s “Sex” issue. The piece had cast Arab women as victims of a static and monolithic faith, said one critic, when a host of factors help explain gender inequality in the Arab world, including socioeconomic status, the legacy of colonialism and the rise of authoritarian regimes.
Others defended the piece. “When it comes to Mideast’s endemic misogyny, Eltahawy is dead right,” wrote Iranian-American writer Sohrab Ahmari on Tablet.
The conversation Eltahawy prompted through #MosqueMeToo comes on the heels of a number of other controversies surrounding sexualized violence in Muslim communities, as well as a growing backlash against the #MeToo movement at large. Earlier this month, prominent Swiss-born Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan was arrested in France and charged with rape. A petition started by his supporters, claiming that “anti-Muslim forces” were behind the “shameful attempt to destroy him,” has so far been signed by over 50,000 people.
Muslim men have also utilized online spaces to express staunch support for Eltahawy and #MosqueMeToo. “When anti-Muslims pounce on this opportunity to cast sexual abuse as a problem unique to the Muslim community, they provide Muslim men who don’t want to acknowledge it the perfect excuse to dismiss it—acknowledging the problem would be admitting the xenophobia is valid,” wrote Slate journalist Aymann Ismail. “The ‘rock’ and ‘the hard place’ feed off each other, suffocating victims while using their real stories as political footballs.”