Desi Talk - page 10

– that’s all you need to know
April 3, 2015
By Sunthar Visuvalingam
ainab Zeb Khan is an
award winning visual
artist, activist and
humanitarian, whose
works have been fea-
tured internationally.
She proactively addresses global
social justice issues to remove
barriers of gender, age, race, eth-
nicity, religion, culture or disabili-
ty. Zainab’s art is used by various
organizations to help facilitate
progressive change. Her paintings
are currently on display at the
Conrad Hilton Chicago. She
received the YWCA Chicago Racial
and Social Justice Award for 2014,
and was in the groundbreaking
documentary “Honor Diaries,”
the first film to break the silence
on honor-based violence against
Zainab published “How I Stood
Up to Chicago’s ‘Abusive’ Imam”
(March 26) on the website The
Daily Beast, referring to the
Indian origin imamMohammed
Abdullah Saleem, who has been
charged with sexual abuse. She
spoke to Desi Talk about contra-
dictions in the institutionalized
attitudes of patriarchal orthodoxy
toward women and on how
Muslim tradition could adapt to
their changing status.
What is the essence of the charges
against Saleem fromMuslim
Separately, four women have
filed a lawsuit accusing Saleem of
sexual assault and battery.
Plaintiffs include Saleem’s accuser
in the criminal case; the other
women say they were minors
when the alleged abuse took
place. Unlawful restraint and
attempted sex abuse charges have
been added.
I had encountered gender dis-
crimination from Imam Saleem
last May, when he refused to allow
us, three sisters, to participate in
the burial of our sonless father. He
finally relented, when challenged,
though our mother in deference
to tradition had to witness the
proceedings from the other side
of the road.
How would you characterize the
institutional response from the
Legitimate advocacy work was
carried out by the Chicago
Muslim community, especially
women, to address this case.
HEARTWomen and Girls, a sexual
health advocacy group for Muslim
women, took a stand for justice by
addressing challenges of blame,
shame and stigma. They shared
resources on services to provide
survivors with psychological sup-
The initial response to allega-
tions was met with “mediation”
efforts. This poses a clear dilem-
ma, as sexual assault is a felony
and must be reported immediate-
ly to law enforcement. Mandated
reporting of sexual abuse must be
complied with fully by all who are
aware or suspicious of it.
More often than not, piety is
associated with oppression, and
this paradigm needs to shift.
When this is in conjunction with
male dominated leadership in
Islamic institutions, it poses a
challenge, especially for female
victims of abuse from speaking
out even within their communi-
ties. My generation is recognizing
this and I am hopeful that we can
take the steps against ethical val-
ues that are visibly compromised.
There is a general consensus
that exposing such crimes or
inequities will promote social dis-
empowerment and further rein-
force stereotypes and cultural
stigmas already associated with
Muslims. Nevertheless, this stance
hinders proactive solutions by
deflecting acknowledgement.
Saleem’s case exposes us to much
deeper issues of abuse of power,
misogyny and corruption among
religious leaders. It took years of
alleged sexual abuse for a formal
charge to be filed. Some commu-
nity leaders and members are still
in denial.
Does this reflect fundamental
problems in the status of Muslim
Gender disparity does exist
within a large number of Muslim
communities. Domestically and
globally, the status of Muslim
women remains challenged by
norms, values, and laws that sup-
port misogyny and perpetrate
inequality between genders.We
have to develop new forms of
mobilization at both the local and
global level to address the prob-
Despite great diversity, a very
rigid ideology has been reinforced
in most Muslim countries not to
liberate women but to entrench
The Taliban or ISIS, with its
fanatical subjugation of females,
occupies an extreme, but it never-
theless belongs on a continuum
that includes Saudi Arabia,
Yemen, Pakistan and relatively
moderate states of Egypt and
How different is their dilemma
fromwomen in other patriarchal
Women from various faiths
and communities are subjected to
patriarchal domination. Religious
hierarchies dominated by men
and upholding outdated values
no longer resonate with modern
liberal lifestyles.We have to
remain honest in addressing the
continuum of violence and injus-
tices committed against women
to promote social justice, gender
equality and pluralism. The
dilemma for many Muslim-
Americans, particularly those of
Desi background, is that they
either have to submit to values
that don’t represent them, drop
out of the community, or take a
stand to try to shape a better
I have chosen to take a stand
and help nurture new leadership.
We need to create a new commu-
nity agenda that actually speaks
to the values of our generation,
which is what my group of like-
minded young Muslim-
Americans are doing in promot-
ing a narrative that includes our
As Americans, we value choice
and freedom as a cornerstone for
a better world. Heritage and iden-
tity range diversely; yet, we can
remain united in speaking out
against failed leadership and val-
ues that do not represent us.
Activist Zainab Addresses Sex Abuse at Chicago Islamic School
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