Hajj, Saudi Arabia, Rape, & Prayer: A Muslim Feminist Outcry

A Long Request For a Special Prayer During Special Days

by Khalilah Sabra of Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation *

As the Day of Arafat approaches, many of us will fast and pray that we be released from the punishment of our sins. This is a good thing. I will be doing a lot of this myself. I’ve certainly done my share of things I’d rather forget.

But this year, I will do something different and I hope you all will do the same. I hope that we will pray for even those things that seem beyond our condition to change and ask Allah to forgive us for accepting terrible things as a way of life just because it is easier and perhaps we are not experiencing them directly. Pray to Allah to help us recognize that no matter how many goals we frame and how much analysis we give to unfair structures, they will not change unless we take it upon ourselves to get up out of our chairs and do something about.

Whether you win or lose, whatever battle, big or small, that you dispute for the sake of God, you will be given victory on the day it really counts.

So, let us pray that Allah, in His enormous goodness, to help us all to overcome the multitude of different forces that diminish our opportunities to do the things that strengthen us in our pursuit to help those who cannot help themselves. Now I am sure you’ve heard this before, but frequent reminders seem to help me and I hope you will indulge and forgive my rather long advice. I submit it to you humbly and with our humble supplication for help we will all see peace, justice and reconciliation in the coming year.

As Muslims travel to Mecca to make the magnificent journey to Allah’s grace, let them pray that the country in which they stand will become what it should be, and not what it is. Let the symbols and history of that soil, once graced by the best of men; come to be a reality to those who lead it and for the people that must follow their rule. Let us pray that truth comes to power and that a well educated leadership learns to bear witness to the truth of a man (peace be upon him) who never lied and trusted in God’s word. If they can not do everything at once, may Allah allow them to honestly define what rape is and how it can destroy a woman’s mind and body.


To a woman the definition of rape is quite straightforward. A sexual assault to the body by force, an invasion into the private, personal internal space without consent, an inner assault by one of numerous methods-constitutes a conscious and premeditated violation of emotional, physical and indisputable honor; and is a vicious, hostile, degrading act of violence that warrants the name of rape.

Yet by tracing man's historical concept of rape as defined it the earliest laws, we now know with certainty that the criminal act that was viewed with horror, and the deadly punishments the law saw fit to apply, had little to do with an actual act of sexual violence that a woman's body might sustain. Although the law has, to an extent, distanced its definition since its beginnings when rape meant basically and categorically the theft of a father's daughter's virginity, a specialized crime that damaged a valuable possession before they could reach the matrimonial market, contemporary legal perceptions of rape are rooted still in ancient male concepts of property, clearly being the case in Saudi Arabia and other so called “civil” societies.

Man's historic desire to maintain sole, total and complete access to woman's body, as codified by his earliest laws of marriage, sprang from his need to be the sole physical instrument governing impregnation, progeny and inheritance rights. As man understood his male reality, it was perfectly lawful to capture and rape some other tribe's women, for what better way for his own tribe to increase?

But it was unlawful, he felt, for the insult to be returned. The criminal act he viewed with horror and punished as rape was not sexual assault per se, but an act of unlawful possession, a trespass against his tribal right to control access to all women who belonged to him and his kin. The act man came to interpret as criminal rape was the illegal damage of virginity outside a marriage contract of his making. Later, when he came to see his own definition as too narrow for the times, he broadened his criminal concept to cover the humiliation of his spouse's chastity as well, thus expands the law's interest to include non-virgins too.

Although these legal foundations have been shrouded in the quagmire of ancient history, as the law of rape continued to advance it never completely disassociated itself from the earlier perception that this violation was first and primarily a violation of male rights of possession, based on male requirements of virginity, chastity and consent to private access as the female bargain in the marriage contract.

To our modern way of thinking, these theoretical and cultural origins are abnormal and incomprehensible to fully grasp, or maybe we just pretend so.

A huge disproportion in thought, male-judgment versus feminine-judgment affects the opinion of rape to this very day, confusing reasoning processes of some of the finest legal minds. The present day rapist has no intent to capture another’s wife or securing an inheritance or property. His is an act of short-term conquest, not a practical tactic to acquire ownership. The economic advantage of rape is an ancient concept, although the issue of motivation seems to involve several factors and is controversial. What is retained is the critical male-female battle, a hit-and-run assault, a brief demonstration of physical power, a conscious process of intimidation, a targeted, revolting physical invasion with horrific lasting psychological effects on all of its victims which go beyond the victim who bears the actual assault.

When rape is placed where it truly belongs, within the context of modem criminal violence and not within the limited scope of archaic codes of understanding, the crime retains its appalling magnitude. It is, in one act, both an assault the body and to the mind, and a "seizure" of a body through force.

Although we know these facts to be accurate and true, one might wonder how a rape victim in Saudi Arabia is allowed to be punished along with her assailants and why would the all the countries who claim to support democracy, stand against oppression, and support civil rights, not, at least, call home their ambassadors, if only to show that this display of cultural retardation and blatant disregard for the rights and respect of women is clearly unacceptable to their political leadership and the people they represent?

It is no wonder that rape in war has never been seriously dealt with, and that at least 20,000 Bosnian Muslim women were raped by Serb forces during the Bosnian war and for the most part, nothing happened and rarely was anyone arrested, tried or convicted for this particular crime. But then we know, and cannot deny, morals are not about the way things are, it is about the way things ought to be.

Rape, in the course of war , dates back to antiquity, ancient enough to have been mentioned in the Bible . The Greek , Persian and Roman troops would routinely rape women and boys in the conquered towns. As many as 80,000 women were raped by the Japanese soldiers during the six weeks of carnage, in what would become known as the Rape of Nanking Up to 200,000 women, who were forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels during World War II . At the end of World War II, Red Army soldiers raped at least 2,000,000 German women and girls. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, women prefer to throw themselves into the river and drown, than be forced into becoming a war tool of the Soviet soldiers.

An overhaul in of present laws and an objective approach to enforcing just laws that violate women must go hand in hand with a fresh look at the rights of women in countries like Saudi Arabia. The question of who interprets and who enforces the law is an important as the contents of the law itself. Presently, female victims of sexual violence throughout the Middle East who seek justice must rely on a series of male authority figures whose masculine orientation, values, and suspicions place them squarely in the ‘criminal’ camp.

Let us be convinced that the battle to achieve parity with men in the critical area of criminal law will be the ultimate testing ground in which full equality with men has been consistently denied.

Blaming the victims relieves the authority of its moral obligation and creates a doubt about the character of the victim.

"Victim blaming" is holding the victim of a crime to be in whole or in part responsible for the assault. In the context of rape, this concept refers to the Just World Theory and popular attitudes that certain victim behaviors (such as flirting, or wearing sexually-provocative clothing) may encourage rape. In extreme cases, victims are said to have "asked for it", simply by not behaving modestly. Although defense of provocation is not accepted as mitigation for rape, there is an increasing trending that is allowing the victim to face public inquisition prior to trial. A global survey of attitudes toward sexual violence by the Global Forum for Health Research shows that victim-blaming concepts are at least partially accepted in many countries.

In a few other countries, victim-blaming is a worldwide dilemma: women who have been raped are often deemed to have behaved improperly. These attitudes are prevalent in countries where there is a major social division between the freedoms and status afforded to men and women. Although evolutionary psychologists regard blaming the victims as an effect of evolutionary pressure on men to want to monopolize their access to their women, feminist must not make this a cause. This is a humanitarian issue, not a feminist one and must not be allowed to spread into gender warfare. Despite all the feminist activism in the past 30 years, rape and violence in society has increased.

Cultural obstacles can only account for a part of the blame; Gender-based violence and other infringement of women’s rights are major phenomena in the Middle East and North Africa, due to the political leadership in many of the countries. Circumstances surrounding public dialogue about human rights in general are not common. These challenges pose an even greater challenge to those trying to create respect and protection for women’s human rights in society and under the law. The international community must insist on the abolishment of laws that penalizes a woman if she chooses to prosecute her attacker. It must also advocate for a just punishment for sexual assaults based on the damage done to the victim and viewed as a crime against the woman, not stolen virginity and the damage done to the honor of the family.

Few governments have done much to defend the basic rights of women in the Saudi courts. In most cases, America has refused to take on the powerful establishment that dominates or strongly influences most Saudi government institutions, including the judicial system. Contrary to media views, these countries do not follow the shariah law. Most Middle Eastern legal systems are based on cultural diffusion, not God's will.

Culture is often a solid rock that the people, who in their attachment, only break themselves against it.

Men, throughout the world, are a politically protected class, commonly given higher status than women. The root of the problem is the failure to honor human rights and correctly confront the perpetrators of crime fairly and without distinction to gender, class and the race of the victims.

A court of just laws ought not to determine whether this victim invited the attack. It is unheard of with any other crime of violence. When someone is robbed in a low income area, the fact that the victim was wearing an expensive coat is not a defense that can be used on behalf of the defendant. Under the modern rules of law, victims of robbery and assault are not required to prove that they fought back, consented, or that the act was accomplished with sufficient force, or sufficient threat of force to defeat their will, because the law assumes that it is highly improbable that a person willingly gives away all his money to a stranger except for a charitable reason, and the law assumes that no person would consent to a brutal beating and the infliction of physical harm and bodily pain. But victims of sexual assault often have to prove these evidentiary requirements that they did not consent, that their will was overcome by devastating fear.

The conflict surrounding the case in Saudi Arabia only helps to illustrate some of the reasons for the reservations that women have for not reporting crimes against their persons- a perception strongly endorsed by the Saudi government: If Saudi women, who are almost fully excluded from the legal protection of the law vehemently rebel against their status, how much harder it will be for other similar governments to suppress the human rights of their women? And will women elsewhere act in a similar fashion if it is being made clear to them that legal deprivation can be overcome when persistence outweighs fear and retaliation? This may be the only way that a society may be taught to modify a decadent tradition. Only then will they be forced to deal with the other failings that encompass inhumanity: domestic violence, societal tolerance of honor killings, and low levels of education for girls and women.

All societies have their human failing and try to cover their dark oppressive history with the appearance of good intentions. America is not exempt. Abraham Lincoln is recognized for being the “father” of equal rights, he was not. We all have ghost in our social closets, we recognize them only when we open the door and let them out. Bigotry and unfairness resides in societies where we cease to identify others on equal terms, a natural inclination when selfishness is part of a human’s nature. Social contract theorists contend that it is the selfish part of man’s nature, which makes it impossible for him to harm another man- with two exceptions: (1) mental illness, at least temporarily, or (2) a psychic conditioning that dehumanizes the human victim.

Abraham Lincoln once said that it was the duty of black people to leave America. “You and I are of different races.” he said to one James McPherson, and continued, “We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is of great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.”

Lincoln was not soliciting the opinions of McPherson or any other in attendance. Racism was not to be a topic for debate as to whether it is founded on reality and justice. He was plainly, he said, presenting a truth: white people didn’t want black people in America and therefore black people would have to go.

“There is,” Lincoln said, “unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” He proposed a settlement in Central America and asked his guests to help him locate black settlers “capable of thinking as white men.”

Abraham Lincoln was one of the most distinguished presidents but let us not ascribe to him virtues he did not possess. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, not because he was a fighter for the independence of black people and equal rights for all, but because it was to his political advantage to do so. His did so, moreover, only after the several years of resistance by the true emancipators of black people.

This president represented the masses who claim to love America, but clearly could not stand all Americans. Things, however, changed. It was through brave efforts of freedom fighters and those who spoke out against indignity.

Even in these times and in all our democratic audacity, our American intelligence agencies are still destroying evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq and other places. Other countries look at us and may justly ask, "How many times do you get to lie before you are a liar?”

You see in the end the truth sets us free and so does the help of a God who has enjoined truth on all of His creation. Let us seek this truth in these spiritual days that seem to be visiting most all of us around the earth and let us pray to increase our own personal potential to make it better world.

I speak for MAS-Freedom in wishing you peace, harmony and a path of spiritual transcendence. I speak for myself when I say thank you for all that I have learned about commitment, human kindness, and what can be achieve if we work together. Just like with the seasons, so can life the universe renew itself. For many faiths, this is a time to rekindle what is good and break down the walls that now divide truth from falsehood.

Khalilah Sabra

MAS-Freedom, NC

MAS Freedom (MASF ) is a civic and human rights advocacy entity and sister organization of the Muslim American Society (MAS ), the largest Muslim, grassroots, charitable, religious, social, cultural, civic and educational organization in America – with 55 chapters in 35 states. Learn more here .


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