Growing up in a Muslim community, Nadya Ali knows all too well the silence that is expected of young girls who have been sexually assaulted by a family member or close friend.
In her new documentary “Breaking Silence,” Ali reveals how strict taboos surrounding women’s sexuality perpetuate a culture of sexual abuse, where perpetrators run free and women blame other women.
Making such a documentary wasn’t easy. “If you can’t even open up to your family about it, imagine talking about it on a film that was going to be shared across the country,” said Ali, 27, now a Ph.D student at the University of Chicago.
Although intimate partner violence and domestic abuse are pervasive problems throughout the country, women in Muslim communities may be at greater risk. In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Megan Hadley, Ali explains what drove her to make the film, how the #MeToo movement has made discussing these issues easier in the Muslim community, and the growing number of organizations available to help women in distress.
The Crime Report: Where did your inspiration for Breaking Silence come from?
Nadya Ali: Growing up in a Muslim community, it’s not uncommon to have friends or cousins who have been sexually assaulted. Because the Muslim community (at least the one I grew up in) is very insular and conservative, that information is not really shared with parents, it’s something you share with your friends. I grew up having learned there were several of my family members and friends around my age who had been assaulted and I recognized this is a really big issue in our community. And adults were not finding out about this because kids were too afraid to tell their parents because of the reactions they might get and they feared they wouldn’t be believed. So I wanted to tackle this issue in a way that was culturally sensitive but still pushing this community to see this is a very prevalent issue.
TCR: Did you have a hard time finding victims to come forward with their stories given the discreet nature of sexual assault in the Muslim Community?
Ali: I thought I would, for sure. At first it was difficult to find people but very luckily, it turned out that after I decided to pursue this film, that fall, at Columbia University we were having an event called “No more sexual assault,” and it was being held by the Muslim students association. So they had people talking there about their experiences. Two of those people ended up being in my film, and I found a few other girls through random connections.
I don’t think I would be able to find many more people than I did because it’s obviously so sensitive. If you can’t even open up to your family about it imagine talking about it on a film that was going to be shared across the country.
TCR: Did you have any backlash from the Muslim community or your family or friends for making the film?
Ali: Amazingly no, we haven’t had any real negativity coming from the Muslim community. In fact, a lot of the communities we are showing this to are receptive. I would definitely like to show the film to communities that are more sensitive to this, because those are the people we want to target, but I actually haven’t had any outright backlash.
TCR: Do you see anything changing in the Muslim community to help women and men who experience sexual assault?
Ali: I think there are a lot of strides being made. Now there are culturally sensitive social groups where you can go for therapy. And there’s social work. There are places where you can go and talk about this to people who speak your language.
Heart Women and Girls is an amazing organization that’s doing work to educate people of our religion on sexual education and that includes sexual assault. A lot of adults are uncomfortable with their kids going to school and learning about sex ed. They don’t want to talk about these things. So Nadia Mohajir, co founder of Heart Women and Girls, [wanted to develop a way] where kids, immigrants and their parents could get this education in a more culturally sensitive way. It’s been very successful. They do a lot of training programs and work with schools.
TCR: One of the victims in your film talked about how the first guidance counselor she saw told her to forget about being raped—causing years of post-trauma for the victim. So, what kinds of resources need to be put in place in Muslim communities to stop this problem of victim shaming?
Ali: I think that the guidance counselor should have recognized immediately she wasn’t equipped to deal with this. Guidance counselors can give advice on things they are trained in, like academics, or some other life problems, but sexual assault is a very specific type of trauma that needs to be dealt with in a specific way. I think it’s important for people to recognize when they aren’t trained in that, they need to step aside and refer that victim to somehow who has been trained.
I think given the #MeToo movement, there are things in place now that have made our society more sensitive, so don’t know if that would have happened now (the guidance counselor told the young victim to “move on” 25 years ago). Although who knows….look at the way the police reacted to Navila’s story. You’d be surprised by how insensitive people still are, even in our day and age.
Also, starting a conversation about this is helpful to get people to start thinking about ways that change can be implemented.
TCR: Do you have any statistics about rape in Muslim communities? The end of your documentary says one in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime… do you think this is higher for women in Muslim communities?
Ali: We definitely think, based on case studies and personal stories and experiences, that [the rate] is a lot higher for Muslims. We don’t have statistics because this is such a stigma to talk about and come out about, especially because most of the time it happens with family members and that would lead to destroying your family.
TCR: One survivor tried to tell police in Brooklyn, N.Y., about a rape she experienced and they made her call the perpetrator on the spot, and then told her she was “probably responsible” for the rape and she needed to “be a stronger woman.” Is this a perpetual problem in society regardless of race and religion?
Ali: It’s hard to know. There are so many subconscious biases people have; it could very well have been a combination of the fact that she is a young brown woman and claiming this white man raped her. Maybe that played into it. Maybe the police officers were all white. There are so many nuanced things that could play into this. But I know for a fact this is a huge problem in society. We’re seeing all the allegations against many people of power and I think police academies throughout the country need to have specialized training on how to deal with victims, because they are constantly getting calls from victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and I don’t really know if they have the proper training to deal with that.
What happened to the victim in my documentary was an unacceptable reaction from the police, and it re-traumatized the victim.
TCR: One victim stated, “We have to shame the abusers in our community and let them know they can’t get away with this or nothing is going to change.” Do you agree? Should perpetrators and their families be held responsible for changing the culture of rape?
Ali: I think that part of the reason why rape and sexual assault happen so much in the Muslim community is because the victims won’t speak out due to the shame and stigma. It’s very dangerous because there are many men and women who are serial abusers, and they do this to many people in their family, and nobody speaks about it. So it’s a cycle that needs to be broken and the only way it can be broken is by bringing these people out and shaming them.
If all these different actresses didn’t come out and shame the people that assaulted them, we wouldn’t have this #metoo movement.
It’s going to be really embarrassing for the family. But it’s better that they get embarrassed and get that perpetrator into jail (or at least some kind of punishment) rather than it becoming a perpetual cycle that is going to continue on for all the generations.
I was at a screening recently, and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, “you know, this is probably not going to change in India or Pakistan because incest is such a normal thing.” I was shocked to hear that. But essentially what she was saying is that sexual assault can become normalized in this environment. It just shows how deeply rooted this problem is. So I think shaming those perpetrators is essential.
TCR: From what you found in your research, is sexually assaulting young children a pervasive problem in Muslim communities? Particularly among family members?
Ali: I think that it is. I don’t know for certain if it’s more of a problem in Muslim communities than in other communities, but I think that it’s common enough that a lot of people you would know as a Muslim growing up did experience this as kids. Kids are also easier to sexually assault because you can threaten them or say, “don’t tell your mom.” It’s easier to do this to children because they wont react in the same way that an adult would. Again, because of our culture and staying silent, it’s very common and it’s very unfortunate.
Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.