Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist and writer whose primary area of focus is the rights of women and girls in the Muslim world and in Islamic communities in the West.
Raquel is a vocal advocate for religious reform, freedom of speech, and equal rights for women and girls. She works to eradicate honor and gender-based violence (including female genital mutilation), end forced and child marriages, and protect the separation of religion and state.
Raquel’s work has been published in papers and journals worldwide, and she has lectured in North America and Europe on issues like honor killings, dissent and the role of women in transforming the Muslim world. Raquel also works with Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Raquel Evita Saraswati:
Ryan Mauro: How widespread is gender-based violence?
Raquel Evita Saraswati: Gender-based violence is nothing short of a worldwide epidemic. I have yet to meet a woman from anywhere in the world who, if not a survivor of violence herself, doesn’t know at least one woman who has endured some kind of violence.
While I work to combat gender-based violence generally, I do focus specifically on gender-based violence within the Muslim community, particularly honor-based violence, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and domestic violence (including issues like marital rape).
While we know that gender-based violence is rampant generally, different types of violence are more regularly quantified by groups like the World Health Organization, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and independent rights groups.
We know, for example, that rates of FGM in Egypt have hit over 90% for women between the ages of 15 and 49. Less reliably studied are crimes like honor violence. We do know that at least 5,000 people worldwide, mostly women and girls, lose their lives in honor killings every year. Unfortunately, however, many of these killings go unreported, or are falsely categorized as “accidents” or suicides. In many situations, women simply disappear.
Other types of violence – rape, for example – are also severely underreported. While this is true everywhere, it is especially problematic in places and communities where many men feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where women and girls may be punished or even killed for being viewed as sexually impure.
In some places, there is minor to no punishment for perpetrators of sexual violence – but there are nearly always consequences for the women they target. Whether the punishment comes in being deemed “unmarriageable,” or is as extreme as an honor killing, women and girls are regularly re-victimized by the very systems and families who should be protecting them.
Mauro: What is the source of this type of abuse?
Saraswati: Globally, abuses of women are sourced in misogyny – which can manifest in political, religious and other systems. In my work, I am most often working against abuses whose perpetrators and their apologist allies justify with religion and culture.
Islamism – a theo-political ideology responsible for the subjugation of women, minorities and Muslim dissidents – does not recognize the value of the individual, and misogyny thrives wherever it is found. Malignant interpretations of religion are often to blame for these abuses, especially when questioning the “divine” is impermissible.
Where Islamism thrives, evil is deemed sacred, and challenging it is a punishable offense. Islamists have no interest in allowing Muslims to have a personal, dynamic relationship with our faith, because when we do, Islamists lose power. One of the methods by which they retain their power is to make women public enemy number one, and to treat their control of our bodies as a divine mandate.
Culture is also often to blame. Too often, people ignore the frequency with which these abuses occur outside of the Muslim community, or how often non-religious people commit them. In fact, some of my best allies in this work are devout, practicing Muslims; while some of my worst critics are those who have abandoned their religion while retaining their misogyny and fostering it within the culture.
It is vital that we understand these trends to combat horrific abuses of women and girls.
It is worth noting that for some perpetrators of honor and gender-based violence and their apologists, abuses will be justified with a combination of both religion and culture.
For those who abuse women in this way, these tend to be inextricably linked. Truly moderate Muslims separate the two, abandon archaic practices sourced in religion when necessary, and embrace pluralism and individual liberty in our practice of Islam.
What those concerned with ending the kind of gender-based violence I describe above must realize is this: In all of these abuses, women’s bodies are seen as the property of the identity group. The task of representing group identity, piety and purity is placed squarely on women’s bodies.
Things most of us would consider to be normal, innocent interactions with the opposite gender are seen as unacceptable indiscretions because they may lead to expressions of sexuality not authorized by the group.
Irrationally segregated public spaces (fast food restaurants in Saudi Arabia are an example) are a visible manifestation of this pathological focus on how the genders interact. This ideology is not good for men either, who are assumed incapable of existing with women in a healthy, natural fashion.
Mauro: What kind of role can the U.S., Europe and other Western countries play in combating these evils?
Saraswati: Unfortunately, our own government (I am an American) regularly fails to identify “honor” as a motive in the murder of women and girls. In some cases, I think this is because politicians and law enforcement still don’t understand what “honor culture” is, much less why identifying it is a necessary part of combating these crimes.
In other cases, I do think they are willingly sacrificing women’s safety because they fear backlash from individuals and groups who think that protecting the lives of Muslim women and girls is “Islamophobia,” despite the fact that of course we also work to combat honor violence in other communities. (Here is a link to a memorial I wrote for a young Sikh girl killed by her father in Canada. The poem beneath it is by a young volunteer.)
This is particularly troubling to Muslim activists who work against honor-based violence. If our law enforcement and politicians are afraid, where does that leave us?
Thankfully, the number of Muslims publicly working against honor violence is growing, as is the fortitude of our non-Muslim allies. I would encourage law enforcement, service providers and schools to receive training from experts in this area, and to initiate comprehensive programs to identify cases of potential honor violence, institute intervention programs and, in the worst cases, properly identify an honor killing for what it is.
The US, Europe and other Western countries must identify and empower truly moderate Muslims, many of whom feel drowned out by those who have access to endless petrodollars and the apparent endorsement of Western governments.
I regularly say that while the United States must stand against the secular fascists of the Middle East, we absolutely cannot whitewash the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood and other theocratic monsters in the region.
If we do, we are not just betraying the many innocent people who suffer under these regimes. We are also reinforcing the bigoted notion that people in the region deserve nothing better than secular fascism or theocracy.
We must do everything in our power to identify and support those who work to establish a third path, based on liberty and individual freedom.
I realize that there are some who believe that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim; and that those of us who identify as anti-Islamist are being deceptive.
This belief, while certainly something people are entitled to hold, is neither valid nor constructive. There are, in fact, many Muslims who think the way that I do, and who actively combat the kinds of abuses I’ve described above.
Many do this without the freedoms I enjoy in the United States. Further, all anti-Islamist Muslims speak out at great personal risk. I would ask both skeptics and non-Muslim allies to help us. You can begin by encouraging the media to hear from truly moderate voices, and by pressuring politicians to abandon policies and practices sympathetic to Islamists and their ilk.
Mauro: How has your message been received by the Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad?
Saraswati: As I said above, there are many Muslims who think the way I do. Unfortunately, there are two problems: One, speaking out invites hostility from a very vocal and powerful minority; and two, there has not been much effort to make sure that truly moderate voices are represented in the public sphere.
I often reference an extreme example: When Christiane Amanpour [of CNN] had a special on Islam in America last year, she invited Anjem Choudary (radical British supremacist, perhaps most known for his role in “Sharia4UK” – and for shrieking on TV screens) to talk about Islam’s role in America! I for one found this terribly offensive.
[ad] That having been said, I have found that despite hostility (which yes, has included threats), I am incredibly moved and inspired by the passion young people in particular have for advocating human rights, especially women’s rights.
I work with Muslim women and men (our male allies being a vital part of this work!) from all over the world. In the past year, I have helped feminists in Iraq to build a women’s studies-focused wing of a library, worked with a magazine published in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, allied with activists in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and beyond, and have also spoken in multiple American cities and worked on several projects in the United States and Europe.
Social media, especially Twitter, has been an incredible tool to connect with like minded individuals, share resources and strategize. It’s also been wonderful and humbling to see how many young people are achieving extraordinary things despite tremendous odds.
Mauro: As a Muslim activist, what affect do you feel Muslim Brotherhood-originated groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have on the Muslim community?
Saraswati: While groups like these are easily assumed to represent American Muslims, people like me are not alone in not feeling represented by them. A recent Abu Dhabi Gallup poll of Muslims in America revealed that only 13% of Muslim men and 11% of Muslim Women said CAIR represents our interests; 4% of Muslim men and 7% of Muslim women named ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). It’s even bleaker for ICNA (The Islamic Circle of North America) – only 2% of Muslim men and 0% of Muslim women polled responded that they feel represented by ICNA. (Page 26 of the report.)
So, while many of us may attend banquets or conventions to socialize with and meet other Muslims, does the rhetoric of some within these groups truly appeal to the vast majority of Muslims? The answer is no. I have seen this in my own interactions with other Muslims nationwide – more and more of us are criticizing the bullying tactics and rhetoric of some “Muslim leaders.”
By consistently being held out as the representatives of all Muslims, these individuals effectively silence alternative viewpoints. In turn, non-Muslims who fail to see an alternative to this kind of rhetoric become distrustful of Muslims, and inter-community relations are strained.
The burden lies not just on Muslims, however, to combat this trend – but on non-Muslim politicians, the media and others in the public sphere to seek out alternative voices.
It is important to remember that many of these groups have enormous budgets, incredible public relations machinery and significant political connections. It is unreasonable to assume that grassroots groups could reach just as broad an audience with competing ideas, without the assistance of non-Muslim allies.
Ryan Mauro is Clarion Project National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Project. He is frequently interviewed on national TV.