Sexual Abuse of Minors Rampant in Muslim Countries

Children are sexually assaulted all over the world but the lack of awareness and mental health in the Muslim world exacerbates the problem.

In Pakistan, for example, the Associated Press found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of children by clerics in madrassas. The study was based on police documents and interviews with parents and public officials but advocates say that reported cases are the tip of the iceberg in a country where 2 million children are enrolled in religious schools. 

Situation in Bangladesh is equally worse. In one month in 2019 alone, after massive outrage over the killing of a teenage girl who was burnt to death after accusing her headteacher of rape, five clerics were arrested for sexually assaulting boys and girls studying at their seminaries. Authorities also arrested senior students for the rape and beheading of an 11-year-old orphan, while two clerics were arrested in the capital city Dhaka for having sex with a dozen young boys. 

Afghanistan, however, seems beyond repair. Infamously known as Dancing Boys, hundreds of these wholly innocent human beings are trained to entertain male audiences then prostituted to warlords and businessmen in what is locally known as “bacha bazi.” One warlord who was married with two sons boasted about abusing close to 3,000 boys in the last two decades because owning boys is a status symbol in the war torn country. 

The Arab world is right up there too. In Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, one 12-year-old girl died of internal bleeding after she had sex with her husband who was twice her age. Moving onto the richest country in the region, a 12-year-old child bride was married to an 80-year-old man in Saudi Arabia. 

So how did we get here? 

It is a combination of culture, religion and corruption. 

Kausar Parveen recalls the blood-soaked pants of her 9-year-old son who was raped by his religious cleric. 

“It is only because of Allah that my son is alive. What if he had died,” she asked reporters as tears ran down her face. 

Parveen lives in a small town in Pakistan and behind her words is an anguish that is shared by many people in Muslim countries: poor people are powerless. 

Her union councilor Azam Hussain says that “poor people are afraid, so they don’t say anything. Police help the mullah. Police don’t help the poor... Poor people know this, so they don’t even go to the police.”

Madrassas throughout the Muslim world accommodate poor students where they get free food, housing and education. That dependence creates a dangerous power dynamic resulting in parents’ reluctance to voice their concerns. The sentiment reverberates in Bangladesh which claimed its independence from Pakistan in 1971. 

"For years these crimes eluded the spotlight due to sensitivity of the subject. Devout Muslims send children to madrassas, but they don't speak up about these crimes as they feel it would harm these key religious institutions,” Abdus Shahid, the head of child rights' group Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, noted. 

Don’t talk about sex

Sex is a taboo in the Muslim world but is at the center of their daily lives just like it is in the West. I grew up in a Muslim majority country and I do not remember a single conversation with my school friends and male cousins where sex was not mentioned but we were never educated about it by our parents and our teachers never said a word on it. The Muslim population is to set to increase from 1.65 billion to 2.2 billion by 2030 making Islam the second largest religion after Christianity. 

“Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns,” wrote Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud. 

One main reason that pushes Muslims to not discuss sex is because of the stigma attached to it. In Islam sex is permitted only after marriage. Add to it the practices of the regressive Sharia law that prescribe lashing and lethal stoning for adultery and you have an environment where people find it easier to commit crimes then to assert their natural needs. 

In some parts of Algeria, park benches are sawed in half to prevent couples from sitting together and radical preachers encourage their followers to monitor female bathers at the beach. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, introduced a bill in 2019 wanting to ban sex outside of marriage putting millions of unmarried couples at risk of jail time. This repression of sexuality has given rise to crimes against children and has left Muslims with no choice but to fantasize about life outside of their countries and even the universe. 

"Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love,” observed Daoud. 

Does Islam call for sex with children? 

It is too hard to say what is due to religion and what is a creation of culture and traditions because there is a huge overlap between faith and culture. There are, however, clear examples where archaic interpretations of faith are to be blamed. 

Ultra-conservative priests justify child marriages by using Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to 9-year-old Aisha. Some sources point out that she was actually 19 and some say that she was indeed a young girl when she married the prophet but she did not leave her house until she was much older. 

A verse in the Quran, if taken literally, allude to puberty as the deciding age for marriage and then there are verses that reject child marriages. For instance, Chapter An Nisa, verse 4:21 prescribes the institution of marriage as a “strong solemn covenant”. An underage girl cannot even begin to comprehend what a covenant means and implies. 

Whatever the case may be, these practices, which are not limited to just the Muslim world, cannot be tolerated in this day and age. Not just because they are sick and disgusting but also because they leave children in a state of permanent shock and they have to carry that pain for a long time (more on that later). 

Cases of child marriages are few and far between still they are part of the national conversation in Muslim lands which indicates that a change of attitudes is in the offing. 

BBC News: Child marriage involving bride of 11 sparks outrage in Malaysia
Arab News: Child marriage’ bill stirs outrage in Iraq
Arab News: Outrage in Turkey over ‘child marriage green light’

Cases of sexual abuse, however, do not prompt the same kind of outrage. 

"Many madrassa teachers I know consider sex with children a lesser crime than consensual extramarital sex with women. Since they live in the same dormitories, the perpetrators can easily hide their crimes and put pressure on their poor students to keep mum,” Hojaifa al Mamduh, who posted a series of messages on Facebook about the abuse he suffered at a seminary in Bangladesh, told reporters. 

Authorities in both Pakistan and Bangladesh dismiss the charges as an attempt to malign Islam and the key establishments that promote it. Their opinion is popular with the people. 

One social media user responded to Mamduh’s post and accused him of being "an agent of Jews and Christians.”

So could it be that the imams raping young boys and girls think that they would all grow up to be agents of Jews and Christians which justifies violence against them?

The cleric who raped the 9-year-old son of Parveen, the Pakistani woman, enjoyed the support of a militant organization Sipah-e-Sahaba. They hounded her to drop legal charges and accept what is commonly known as “blood money.” A practice allowed in Pakistani law. 

Praveen caved to the threats and accepted $300 and the cleric was set free. Her story is similar to many other parents of abuse victims. 

Sahil, a non profit that provides legal aid to victims of sexual abuse, found 56 cases of assault involving an imam in 2016. None of the families accepted their help. 

It is not just limited to madrassas

Sexual abuse of minors is a global issue. In the U.S. alone, different studies indicate that anywhere between one to seven million children are victims of abuse and neglect every year. In the Muslim world, however, the absence of awareness provides cover to serial pedophiles which exacerbates the problem. In many cases, children are forced to feel guilty through no fault of their own. 

“I fail to understand why Muslims are so vocal on abuses by the west in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, but display moral blindness when it comes to children? It's about time this silence was broken, so these violations of innocence can be stopped,” activist Shaista Gohir wrote in the Guardian. 

Somy Ali, a Pakistani actress who dated Bollywood’s Salman Khan, recently revealed that she was abused by the cook in the house when she was 5-years-old. 

“My parents told me not to tell anyone because if you do no one will marry you.” She lived through the same thing when she was raped at 14 by a different person. 

“It is preposterous to me that in this generation, in this time, in 2021, we still have people not speaking up and not supporting victims of sexual abuse.” 

Just last year, Moroccan activist Najia Adib claimed that sexual abuse is “more prevalent in Arab and Muslim countries” than others.

“In these societies, the child is deprived of will and does not have any value within the family, and we always call him young and ignorant,” she noted. Children in the West, she says, are “sacred.”

Adib did not back up her claim with research and I do not blame her. Due to the absence debate, data is extremely limited and research contains a lot of gaps but there are several stories that indicate that assaults against children have reached an epidemic in Muslim communities. 

Speaking to a government investigation, Shaukat Warraich, chief executive of Faith Associates, told British investigators that there was '100 per cent' underreporting of cases of child abuse in British mosques. 

Naureen, a Pakistani woman now in the U.S., was 5-years-old when her elder cousin started to molest her. According to the writer who spoke with Naureen, “he forced his hands inside her clothes and touched her private areas. No one had ever talked to her about her body parts, but she could feel it wasn’t right. Sometimes, when he wanted to be touched, he forced her hands inside his pants. Her little hands would shake, her body would tremble, but how could she refuse? She was very young, 5, perhaps 6 and very scared.”

One day Naureen found the courage to tell her mom but was met with complete disbelief and victim blaming. 

“Her mouth felt dry as she talked, gulping down her sobs, but when she looked up at her mother, hoping to be hugged and comforted, her world was shattered by her mother’s utter disbelief! She felt as if she was under the scorching sun, with no roof above her for shade against the burning heat. She was alone, oh so alone in a home full of her very own. Where else could she go? Whom else could she turn to when her own mother blamed her of imagining things, things that the little girl could not even have known about?”

According to Sahil, the non-profit, there are 5.4 cases of molestation reported in Pakistan every day. The vast majority of cases are never found but its neighbor, India, can give us an idea of what that number could look like. There, according to a 2007 survey, over 50% of children reported to have experienced one or more forms of sexual abuse. In one survey, 95% of Pakistani truck drivers admitted that sex with young boys is their favorite entertainment.

I know I used a lot of examples from South Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and that is not to make you think that those countries are the root of all evil but because there is a level of scrutiny by the media and civil society which makes it possible to find stories like that of Naureen and Parveen. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for most Muslim countries. 

We cannot solve violence against children without addressing mental illness

In his New York Times bestseller - The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma - Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wondered if people who suffer from PTSD “find any real pleasure in their lives.” 

I ask the same question for kids. Abuse has a profound impact on a person’s life. For instance, abuse victims are not able to form healthy relationships. Girls who were sexually abused when they were young “develop a distorted perception of sex... They mistake sex as abuse rather than an expression of love. Given that molestation involves sexual contact, sexual body parts, and sexual stimulation, sadly, sexual abuse becomes their model for future sexual encounters” including sex with their husbands.

Victims are at a higher risk of addictions, suicide, depression and intimate partner violence. In one study, 80% of 21-year-olds who experienced childhood abuse were diagnosed to have at least one psychological disorder.

Currently 264 million people globally suffer from depression, Coronavirus has made it worse, which renders that abuse is a universal fact and is not going anywhere. The West understands this and that is why everyone here at least has an opportunity and resources to process their pain. But what about Muslim countries. Are their children from a lesser God that their governments do not even want to give them the opportunity to be able to work through their challenges and build a life for themselves. 

You are forgiven to think that the Arab Spring, access to vast amount of knowledge on the internet and improving relations between Israel and many influential Muslim countries indicate that Muslims have made real progress on arcane issues. Initiatives to combat mental illness exist and have grown in number but will you call that progress when the overwhelming majority of people have no concept of what mental health is? In Pakistan alone, 50 million people are suffering from mental health problems and there are only 400 psychiatrists to look after a population of 220 million. 

“I’ve been in conversations which have eventually turned into: ‘You should pray more’. As well meaning as these people are, and as much as I believe in praying, mental health issues can’t be prayed away,” said Mariam Khan, editor for the Metro and columnist for The New Arab. 

Dr Mounira Aldousari of Kuwait, who specializes in mental health disorders, agrees and adds that “Mental health depiction in the media is extremely negative, especially in the Arab world. It is always associated with madness or aggressiveness.”

In 2010, the Time To Change campaign looked at experiences of South Asians living in Harrow, London. “What they found was that a combination of fear, shame, ignorance, family pressure, social conformity and marriage prospects hugely affected mental health and prevented a discussion from taking place within the community.”

“It just so happens that the lack of understanding and the decisions not to talk about it mutually reinforce each other,” Khan added. 

It was not always like this

There was a time when the Middle East had the lead in psychiatric care. “Bimaristan” is a Persian word that means a home for the sick and was used to name hospitals that looked after their patients holistically: mind, body and soul. 

“There was no taboo attached to seeking help for matters of the mind,” remarked journalist Indlieb Farazi Saber.

Bimaristans were found in Baghdad and Fes in the 8th century, opened in Cairo in the 9th century and soon after in Damascus and Aleppo.

Things are changing though. Few years ago Pakistan revoked forgiveness for honor killings, where people are killed for bringing shame to their family like having premarital sex. Culprits of honor killings will now serve a mandatory life in prison. 

Akin to the case of Parveen, a cleric in Punjab, Pakistan, who was a serial rapist had this time sexually assaulted a minor girl. He was always able to settle out of court because of his links with terrorists outfits but a local advocacy group, Bright Pakistan, successfully persuaded the family to resist the pressure and the cleric was jailed for 12 years. 

Another step in the right direction came from Bangladesh. Hefazat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamist group that represents thousands of religious seminaries, told 1200 priests in a conference to tackle sex crimes more thoroughly. 

In 2019, Qatar became the first Gulf country to launch mental health education programs in some of its schools. Iran and Morocco have stepped up their efforts and Turkey launched a WHO backed phone counselling to mitigate coronavirus related anxiety. 

I hope that more and more Muslims share their voice to fight violence against children and to promote mental wellbeing. If nothing else, they can use the following saying by Prophet Muhammad to justify their intervention:

"If you see something wrong, you should correct it with your hand and if you are unable to, then speak out against it and if you cannot do that, then feel that it is wrong in your heart."

If you were abused as a child and that led you to question God’s existence I recommend that you read this piece.

An earlier version of this story did not include the survey on Pakistani truck drivers.