“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – my interview with Margarida Santos-Lopes for Expresso (Portugal) now in English

Margarida Santos Lopes interviewed me for the Portuguese weekly “Expresso” in June, following the horrific attack on the Pulse nightclub. It is now available in English, posted below (you can also read it on her blog, here).  To read the full article in Portuguese, click here.

“Those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of abuse of women” – by Margarida Santos Lopes

Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist who focuses primarily on issues related to the status of women and girls in Muslim-majority societies and communities. She is also a member of the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). She gave me this interview a few days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. This massacre was considered the deadliest incident of violence against LGTBQ people in U.S. history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in America since 9/11.

What was your initial rea­­­ction when you heard about the dreadful massacre in Orlando? 

I initially heard reports of a shooting in a nightclub and was saddened but not shocked – we continue to have a problem with gun violence in the United States, and nightclubs are certainly not immune. When I heard that there were twenty victims, I knew something was different.

Then the news came that there were nearly fifty victims, and that the act was potentially carried out by someone who claimed my faith. At first, all I could do was cry. Out of sadness for the victims, the horror of their last hours, and the pain of their community.

I received a phone call from a friend – someone who is like a brother to me – checking to see if I was ok and calling to coordinate a response. I spent most of that terrible day in tears. At the same time, I was aware that this would initiate a national conversation, expose tensions between communities, and add petrol to an already noxious political climate. I was devastated and frightened.

How do you assess the events – terrorism/religious fanaticism, self-hating, addiction to violence (he allegedly abused his ex-wife, idolized the NYPD, worked for a security company…), easy access to guns…?

As someone who has looked closely at these issues for over a decade, the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen comes as no surprise. I have for years been drawing the connection between misogyny and extremist ideology, noting that those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion often also have a history of violence against and abuse of women.

Even now, the only reason we are talking about Omar Mateen’s history of domestic violence is because he ultimately killed [almost] fifty people – and the discussion of his misogyny has been but a brief footnote. Further, it is also true that many of those who endorse radical extremism, as well as those who carry out the acts, often have a history of indulging in the very acts their radical ideology condemns.

Radicals recruit these individuals with the promise of salvation in exchange for their full membership in what is ultimately a cult. It is my view that if there were more conversations about this, we could understand and counter radical ideology well before blood is spilled.

However, it is simply true that the lives of girls, women, and LGBTQ people are valued less in our society than the lives of those who would seek to oppress us. Thus, these conversations are not had, signs are missed, lives are lost – and the media and politicians pull out the same cue cards they use after every massacre – “we are shocked” – “what were the signs?” – etc., and the same five self-appointed experts are invited to comment, offering nothing useful to say.

The attack revived a perception of “Islamic homophobia”, not only in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran – where gays have been subject to imprisonment, corporal punishing or even death penalty -, but also in the American Muslim community. Is this perception right and how do you explain it? What should be done to change it? 

I do not believe that my faith is homophobic, but unfortunately there is rampant homophobia within my community.

Following the Orlando attacks, self-appointed “representatives” of the Muslim community rushed to condemn it, and some even feigned support for the LGBTQ community. These individuals are leaders of the very organizations who host “scholars” and preachers who believe LGBTQ people are sick, criminal, and worthy of death.

As tragic and disgusting as this past week has been, it has caused many to see through the charade. It also now provides us with an opportunity to hold these individuals and organizations accountable once the cameras and microphones are off, and to demand that they live up to the words they uttered for the press.

In addition to holding these organizations accountable, we must fight with urgency the rise of far-right fascism and the ignorance that tells us that identities like LGBTQ and Muslim are mutually exclusive. They are not. There are many of us living at the complicated and at times deeply painful intersection of these identities.

Further, it is worth noting that some of the conservative voices who have used this opportunity to condemn Muslims and Islam for homophobia themselves support measures to restrict the rights of LGBT people. Some of these individuals and groups in the United States even support murderous policies – such as the notorious “Kill the Gays Bill” in places like Uganda. We must also demand accountability from these individuals and groups, and let them know that we are not fooled.

Scholar Mehammed Amadeus Mack writes in Newsweek: “The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled ‘homosexuality.’ Later on, the community of people pathologized by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights.” What is your opinion? 

It is true that the word “homosexual” does not appear in the Quran. Indeed, it has been interpreted that the Quranic story most often used to condemn LGBTQ people – the story of Lot – is not about same-sex attraction, but about a people cursed for their violence – including sexual violence – and other forms of cruelty and abuse. The fact is that interpretations of the Quran based in what we believe to be the nature of God – merciful and compassionate – DO exist.

It is also true that these interpretations are theologically sound. They are not fringe or un-Islamic. They have, however, been pushed to the margins and made difficult to access. This has been done by those within our community who have malignant and political intentions; and by governments who continue to ally and exchange favors with the very regimes who murder people like me – women and LGBTQ people especially.

Saudi Arabia condemned the attack in Orlando – why? Because gays were shot rather than beheaded? Because it was in a private establishment rather than in a town square? And then Barack Obama rushed to meet with Saudi leadership. This would be a joke if it weren’t so dangerous.

How do you characterize the Muslim American community and the LGBT Muslim American community? At to what extent what happened in Orlando will influence them? 

Both communities are diverse; and while they hold political and social power to some degree, are also marginalized. The attacks in Orlando provide an opportunity for each community to reposition itself as a stakeholder in the conversation about today’s political and social climates.

How this is done, and with what level of integrity and consistency, is what we will come to see. It is absolutely true that both communities have been and will continue to be pushed into the national spotlight. I continue to hope for and advocate for accountability from those in positions of power, though that hope is currently hard to come by.

You belong to the steering committee of an association for gender equality. Can you give us some information on its work? And also on your other roles as a human rights activist? 

The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) was founded in 2013 following the dissolution of al-Fatiha, an organization many of us were involved with. The mission statement of MASGD is as follows:

“The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) works to support, empower and connect LGBTQ Muslims. We seek to challenge root causes of oppression, including misogyny and xenophobia. We aim to increase the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim communities, and to promote a progressive understanding of Islam that is centered on inclusion, justice, and equality.” We host a retreat for LGBTQ Muslims each May.

My own personal work outside of MASGD is focused primarily on the rights of women, girls and minorities in Muslim-majority societies and communities. I work to combat various forms of gender-based violence, and while I absolutely do this work outside of my faith community, my primary focus is my community. I work to combat honor-based violence, forced and child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as other violations of human rights and decency.

Would you share with us some personal info on what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in America, and what impact did the Orlando massacre had in your daily life?

In the past week, I’ve been harassed on the street – first called a “stupid terrorist [expletive]” by a non-Muslim man who pushed me in the street; and by a Muslim man who screamed at me, accusing me of apostasy.

While these examples are extreme, they are true – and they encapsulate perfectly what it’s like to be a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and advocates for universal human rights. Because I exist at the intersection of Muslim womanhood and the LGBTQ experience, the past week and a half has been especially raw and painful.

It must be said, however, that many people have been incredibly loving, and that there is great power, beauty, and strength in my communities. I would not sacrifice who I am for any price or promise of ease. I choose instead to live in love, working for our full liberation.

Extracts from this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese news weekly EXPRESSO on June 25, 2016

Pakistan: acid attack victims find beauty – in themselves

**Update: May 6, 2010**
Dear readers,
It has been brought to my attention that the Depilex Smileagain Foundation and its founder, Massarat Misbah, are being investigated for misuse of funds and other charges.
I have been in communication with activists on the ground in Pakistan for many months and am very alarmed by the information I’ve received. Please see a statement from the Italian sponsors of Depilex here.
In any event, and whatever the ultimate verdict is in this case, the stories of acid attack survivors, and the dangers against women and men in Pakistan are very real. I have left the below posting up because women like Irum Saeed and Urooj Akbar must be heard and must be helped.
To learn more about how to help survivors of acid violence, please see this post – where I introduce you to an organization I’ve worked with personally. I encourage you to support their efforts.
Irum Saeed, survivor of an acid attack (photo: MSNBC)

My post on acid attacks in Pakistan was viewed 4,000 times in less than 24 hours. No post of mine has ever gotten that much traffic so quickly. The post quickly skyrocketed to seven thousand and counting. While reactions have been mixed, many of you are taking action. Thank you.

Emails have continued to come in, asking about the welfare of Pakistan’s women. While so many accounts are bleak, I was referred to a story last night that I need to share with you.

Meet Saira Liaqat and Urooj Akbar, who work at a Lahore beauty salon founded by Massarat Misbah. They are acid attack survivors who have found new promise after experiencing the unthinkable.

Massarat Misbah is not an acid attack survivor herself. However, five years ago, she encountered a woman whose face had been maimed in an attack by her husband. The woman needed assistance, and Misbah came to her aide. She also placed an ad in a local newspaper looking for other women who needed help. Misbah learned that several of the women who had been maimed had wanted to work in beauty salons like her own.

Since then, Misbah has founded the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, which employs acid attack survivors to work in beauty salons. She has arranged for ten women take beauty courses in Italy last year. The Foundation also raises money to help women find refuge and obtain medical care.

“I’m independent now, I stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I have a job, I work, I earn. In fact, I’m living on my own … which isn’t an easy thing for a woman to do in Pakistan, for a lone woman to survive.”

– Urooj Akbar

Regular clients of these women are inspired by their resilience, and they also say that they’re more aware of the trials faced by women in their society.

Read the rest of their story here, and learn more about the Depilex Smileagain Foundation here.


PS: I know I owe you some Jumu’ah Dispatches! I’ll get on it as soon as I can. I also received a comment from a reader asking me some really interesting questions about human rights, liberalism, and more. Rather than answer it buried in a comments section of another post, I’ll dedicate an entry to my answer when I’ve got more time on my hands.

Iranians protest honor killings after the death of another young woman

Iran Telegraf)
Iranians demonstrate against honor killings (photo: Iran Telegraf)

On August 14th, eighteen year-old Fereshteh Nejati was murdered by her father. Forced into marriage at 14, Fereshteh was seeking a divorce.

The details of her murder are gruesome. The response to the tragedy, however, shows signs of hope for Iran’s women.

Where am I finding this hope? Well, Fereshteh’s community decided that enough is enough. Some 2000 people – men and women – gathered in the streets to demand an end to honor killings, and to claim Fereshteh’s body for a respectful burial.

See photos of the demonstration here

As always, check out the International Campaign Against Honour Killings . There, you can join communities like Fereshteh’s in their efforts.


* Please remember to keep taking action for Kobra Najjar, an Iranian woman facing imminent stoning.

* Sign the anti-honor killing petition I’ve told you about here.

* Send letters to the Pakistani government demanding that they take action against honor killings.

* Work against the epidemic of rape in Afghanistan.

* Help protect women threatened with acid attacks.

Niqabi woman denied French citizenship – your thoughts?

Miss France (Flickr)
Credit: Miss France (Flickr)

In June of this year, Faiza Silmi was denied French citizenship because of her choice to wear the niqab – a facial covering worn by some Muslim women. French officials cited her lack of “sufficient assimilation” into French society. They elaborated that they viewed her niqab to be a “straightjacket”, “prison”, and a symbol of her willingness to be oppressed by the men in her family.

So far, the New York Times reports, citizenship had only been denied to those Muslims who had close ties with fundamentalist groups. Ms. Silmi does not have such ties – this decision was based on her choice of garment alone.

It seems that Ms. Silmi leads a pretty standard life as far as that of a Western housewife is concerned: caring for her children (all born in France – her husband being a French citizen himself), shopping for their necessities, driving to run errands, etc. She does all of these in mainstream French society. Nonetheless, officials viewed her niqab as prohibitive to her full integration.

When it comes to the niqab within a democracy or open society, I have only one question myself – I am not sure that it is possible to navigate societies functioning on identifiability  – from driver’s licenses to banking – without permitting your face to be seen. (Note – I said I am not sure. I’d be interested to hear what niqabis have to say about their experiences with this). In any event, it isn’t made clear that Ms. Silmi has encountered troubles in the public sphere. All that is clear is that the French officials deciding her case determined that she is oppressed.

As a twisted sidenote, officials apparently approved of one thing in evaluating her case: that she had seen male gynecologists during her pregnancies. Are they seriously using that as a mark of feminist liberation these days? What is this, the year 1700?

Perhaps what the French could have noted is that Ms. Silmi actually felt freer to wear her niqab in France than she did in her home country of Morocco. In France, religious freedom in one’s personal life is protected by law. Not so in many Islamic countries – where religious expression must often look exactly the same across the board.

The burden falls on the French government, then, to make the case as to why Ms. Silmi has not assimilated. She chooses to wear the niqab not to work as a judge or a public official. She chooses to wear it in her personal life – as French law would seem to permit.

What are your thoughts?

P.S. I dig this commentary.

My commentary on Benazir Bhutto – Haaretz (this time in English!)


“…Bhutto’s position as the Muslim world’s first female prime minister defied the tribal culture in which she lived. Her leadership, however, did not. Bhutto’s legacy certainly attests to her determination and resilience. What her leadership did not demonstrate, however, was something more than mere lip service when it came to issues of human rights.

For all of her grandiose statements – for example, that she saw “all of Pakistan’s children” as her very own – she did precious little to protect Pakistan’s daughters. In fact, she did precious little that had a positive impact on the plight of Muslim women in general…”

See the entire piece here.


Special thanks to Roi Ben-Yehuda for linking to the piece as well – be sure to check out his thoughts on Bush’s visit to Israel.