UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 2: Saima Afzal

Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

 My name is Saima Afzal and I am founder and leader of a community organization called SAS RIGHTS CIC, founded in November 2016. I have worked in the field of the intersections of gender and religion both as an activist and as practitioner since the age of 18. Most of this has been undertaken in a volunteer capacity. I still to this day undertake volunteer work but in 2016 I founded SAS RIGHTS CIC, together with my partner Sven Richter. This community interest company invests its time and energies in raising awareness of the issues that have an adverse impact upon a number of marginalized communities – including women and men vulnerable to sexual violence. 

The SAS RIGHTS CIC team is not averse to starting difficult conversations and tries to deal with what comes out of these in a sensitive manner in order to bring about positive change. I myself was in a so-called Forced ‘Marriage’ – though I categorially state that I have never been married and I will stop and correct those that refer to my abuser as my ‘husband’. I continue to speak about discrimination and inequality and unlawful practices without fear. I am a registered ‘Cultural’ Subject Matter Expert and I am registered on the National Crime Agency Database.

 I am often called to assist Police Forces or, increasingly, Children Social Care Services to help advise and also to produce reports for both the Criminal and Family Courts.

 I have worked very closely with the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWAG) agenda – not least because of my own forced ‘marriage’. I always state clearly that I have never been married and that I was forced into a situation beyond my control. This does offend some ‘communities’, especially those where faith plays a key role. It offends, for example, that I have a child from my forced ‘marriage’, because being Muslim and having a child out of ‘wedlock’ is widely considered a ‘sin’. I am often encouraged to say I was married, for the sake of my child, or my reputation, but that is offensive to me. It suggests that I did something wrong, or that I should bear the burden of shame. My passion is to help any person, male or female, who has been abused, controlled or coerced, so they, too, can find support and speak out with confidence.

 I understand the realities of speaking out. Adverse and/or unlawful consequences are often faced by those that challenge cultural norms, including gender norms. I try and help not only in situations of crisis but before crisis occurs. So much work has been undertaken to identify and address crises but not enough to prevent, intervene and to engage with families, individuals and communities trapped in cycles of damaging behaviours that lead up to and precipitate crises. SAS RIGHTS CIC tries to do just that.

 How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I would love to hear more about how the notions of marriage and consent within faith-based communities are understood, and about how these inhibit the reporting of sexual abuse. I wish to explore and understand, in collaboration with the Shiloh Project if viable, the impact that the notion of ‘being married’ has on first-response practitioners. Some anecdotal accounts from victims, suggest that when they have mentioned that they were raped by their husband (and it is most often women who have disclosed sexual abuse to me), the responding officer has not appeared to understand or has not confirmed that rape within marriage is real and acutely harmful. In some cases they have informed the victim, ‘your husband can’t rape you’, or have said undermining things like, ‘are you sure that was rape?’.

It would be wonderful to undertake research with the Shiloh Project and to bring together the  expertise of researchers and of practitioners who help victims of gender-based violence in marginalized and vulnerable communities

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

I and my organization with willing volunteers hope to continue to work directly with those affected, to capture their experiences, to support them to overcome and challenge unacceptable norms, whilst also raising awareness amongst practitioners, communities and society as a whole of the challenges faced by those that are in abusive and violent situations.

In the coming years we hope to undertake some of the following: 

We would like to work in collaboration with like-minded individuals and organizations and welcome co-production to help maximize the impact of activities.

We will submit bids to undertake engagement and knowledge activities, as well as community empowerment work. We wish to access funding for film making with a view to  bringing to life the day-to-day struggles of those who are trapped in either abusive relationship or ‘cultures’.

We will continue to work with men in addressing and exploring the reasons why some abuse and control women in their communities. We particularly wish to focus on Visible Minority Ethnic and faith-driven communities. I have already undertaken significant work over the years in this area and have developed some impactful resources to explore some of the reasons some men are more likely to participate in abusive and controlling culturally-based norms.

We wish also to explore further Minority Ethnic Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual communities and to address the the culturally-based discrimination, abuse and control inflicted on members of these communities.

I have an established history of over 25 years of tackling controversial, taboo and sensitive issues. I will not stop any time soon.

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International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2018: Interview with Professor Musa Dube

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, designated as Orange Day by the UN Women campaign Say No, UNiTE launched in 2009 to mobilize civil society, activists, governments and the UN system in order amplify the impact of the UN Secretary-General’s campaign, UNiTE to End Violence against Women. Participants the world over are encouraged to wear a touch of orange in solidarity with the cause – the colour symbolizes a brighter future and a world free from violence against women and girls.

The 2018 theme is Orange the World: #HearMeToo and like previous editions, today marks the launch of 16 days of activism that will conclude on 10 December 2018, International Human Rights Day.

To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and to kick off our daily interviews with activists during the 16 Days of Activism period, we speak to Professor Musa Dube (University of Botswana) about her academic activism and her hopes for the future.


Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Musa W. Dube from Botswana. I work for the University of Botswana as a scholar of the New Testament. My research interest is primarily in reading the New Testament for liberation, which often involves reading for gender, postcolonial, cultural, Earth and international justice. I often interrogate texts for various forms of oppression as well as make attempts to re-read for liberation.

For the past twenty-one years, I have been active working with religious communities  in the struggle against HIV and AIDS. This epidemic, which has claimed millions of lives in three decades, is an epidemic within other epidemics that is driven and propelled by social inequalities. These inequalities include economic, gender, racial and age dimensions, as well as inequalities of sexual orientation and identity. With HIV and AIDS we learnt that the biggest violence we unleash on any group of people, and on the whole Creation Community, begins with structural sins that silence and marginalize creation members from their dignity and liberation to live whole lives. Violence is therefore founded upon the structural sins of patriarchy, imperialism, racism, heteronormativity, anthropocentricism etc., which propound worldviews that legitimize the marginalization of the Other. Gender-based violence, sexism and rape are merely symptoms of the foundational structural sin, which is patriarchy.  

HIV and AIDS activism has stood up to patriarchy and has called for the re-imagination of masculinities. And so, three years ago, I got involved in a movement that culminated in the formation of Pitso ya Banna, an association that seeks to provide space for men to discuss what it means to be a man, as well as to interrogate troubling masculinities and to provide models for liberating masculinities, that do not embrace violence, or depend on subjugation of women.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

Since religion remains a space that gathers communities under some agreed high ethical reflections, a project that looks into religion and rape is definitely important and stands a great chance towards building communities of gender justice. Most religious traditions and communities need conversations, regarding their scriptures, beliefs and practices concerning gender-based violence, and rape in particular. They need skills of naming and recognizing sexual violence and naming it as unacceptable sin. 

It is commonly assumed that members of religious communities are not sexually violent, but research indicates otherwise. It is also common that holy texts that deal with rape and gender-based violence more generally do not get read in worship, or if they are read, they often get interpreted from perspectives that normalize violence against women. Empowering faith communities to break the silence concerning rape and to equip them with skills of reading such texts to expose ideological structures that embrace sexual violence and gender inequalities is vital. Further, religious communities, at least here in Botswana, need to be empowered with skills of counselling survivors of rape.   

Recent rape scandals in a Pentecostal church in South Africa, where young teenagers were subjugated to rape by their pastor, seemingly with the knowledge of the congregation, indicate that both religious leaders and their congregants need to be trained to confront and resist rape. This must include training to empower them to blow the whistle when violence happens.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project? 

Theology and Religious Studies members of the University of Botswana are active members of the Shiloh Project. Indeed, the Project is partly hosted in my home department. I am committed to and skilled in reading and re-reading texts for exposing all forms of oppressions. Moreover, I can offer positive models of justice and gender justice in particular. Last year I read the story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34), exploring how it intersects with colonial desires and ethnic difference. Therefore, I am already strategically placed to interact and collaborate with the Shiloh Project in multiple ways that can advance its aims and goals.

I am also hoping that through Pitso ya Banna, we will collaborate in reaching faith communities and expanding the spaces where discussions concerning non-violent masculinities can be opened. Collaborating with the Shiloh Project might allow us to break the silence concerning rape in faith communities and to empower religious communities to speak out against rape and other forms of violence, within their congregations and in the general public.

In general, my assumption concerning violence is that it begins with structural sin, which is then manifested in various forms, including acts such as rape. The core of addressing gender-based violence, and rape in particular, should therefore begin by empowering religious communities to name patriarchy as a foundational sin, which is inconsistent with any form of acknowledging the Divine Creator. 

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Conversation about male rape, masculinity and religion

Conversation about Male Rape, Masculinities and Religion

Dr Aliraza Javaid is senior lecturer in Criminology and programme leader for Criminology at the University of East London. He recently published the book Male Rape, Masculinities, and Sexualities: Understanding, Policing, and Overcoming Male Sexual Victimisation (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2018). On behalf of the Shiloh Project, Adriaan van Klinken arranged an interview to discuss the book and the question of male rape. (Adriaan teaches and researches in religion and African studies at the University of Leeds. He is also Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.)

Congratulations, Ali, on the publication of your latest book, and many thanks for making yourself available for the interview. Could you summarise in a few sentences what the book is about?

Thank you so much for having me. The book is essentially a critical exploration of the relationship between gender, sexuality and male rape. In particular, it attempts to make sense of how state and voluntary agencies serve male rape victims and aims to identify any gendered male rape myths. Similar to female rape myths, these can potentially inform police practice and third sector practitioners’ response to male victims of rape. The book is about rape of men by other men, rather than focusing predominantly on male child sexual abuse, sexual violence committed by women, and other forms of sexual violence, though these are briefly touched upon to provide some context.

In the introduction to the book, you refer to a Master’s course about Sexual Violence you once took while at university, in which the topic of male rape was not touched upon at all. I’m afraid that also in the Shiloh Project so far, we have paid little attention to this issue (for one exception see here). Why do you think male rape and male sexual assault is often left out of discussions about rape and sexual violence?

I think this serves to maintain the status quo of heterosexuality and hegemonic formations of masculinity. To put it another way, the active invisibility of male sexual violence acts as a way of perpetuating gender norms and institutionalizing heterosexuality. Heterosexuality as ‘normal’ and ‘normative’ is so embedded in everyday discourse – including conversations about sexual violence – ingrained in institutions, such as the family, education systems, and religious establishments, that to discuss the unspoken or the tabooed is to invert gendered scripts and heteronormativity. The dichotomy between hetero/homo still remains strongly intact in social life, so by bringing male rape to the fore, female sexual violence and the construction of the ‘real’ rape norm becomes threatened or destabilised in terms of how we think about rape and sexual assault, both of which are expected to happen only to women and girls. However, when a man is sexually assaulted or raped, his masculinity is undermined, and male power and authority become contested. Male domination exists and gender inequality is clearly reproduced in all areas of life, but, when we discuss male sexual victimisation, we are discussing that men can also be victims; however, we are led to believe that men are expected to be invulnerable, unemotional, strong and powerful. This narrative overlooks that power is not distributed equally amongst men, that there are different masculinities that do no always equate to power and domination, and that men can be victims, too. When we speak about men in particular ways that challenge gender norms, such as the possibility of men being able to enact love and romance, which I discuss in my other book, Masculinities, Sexualities and Love (2018, Routledge), we almost become scapegoated as the ‘other’, the abnormal, the deviant, which often brings about backlash and produces barriers to career progression, questioning whether we can be accepted as a ‘real’ scholar. These issues, and more, I have encountered, which I detail in the book.

You argue that male rape is a critical social and legal issue, and is on the increase. Can you give us some background to the size and impact of the problem we are talking about, here in the UK?

In societies, we are made to believe that male rape does not exist or that it is not a ‘real’ issue. However, it is more common than we are led to believe. For example, in 2013, the Crime Survey for England and Wales roughly estimated that 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault a year, while 9000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape each year (Ministry of Justice 2014). Relatedly, each year, 72,000 men are estimated to becoming victims of sexual crime, whether reported or not (Ministry of Justice 2014). Much more recently, the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2017 estimates that, while 3.1% of women (510,000) suffered sexual assault in the last year, 0.8% of men (138,000) aged 16–59 experienced it in the last year. This estimation is made regarding the year ending March 2017. The figures are striking and deeply concerning, since there is no major change from the previous year’s survey. We know that male rape is on the increase. This might be down to two things; first, some male victims are now reporting at higher levels, with a slow increase in confidence in the police; second, because of changes in police practice, such as developments of ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advisers), SARCs (Sexual Assault Referral Centres), and specially trained officers, and so on, the victims are able to tell their stories and are encouraged to do so. Recently, male rape in the media, such as the recent Coronation Street storyline involving David Platt as the male rape victim, has also helped to increase reporting levels, as other stats have shown. We need to bear in mind, though, what lies beneath the figures are more incidents of rape and sexual assault against men, given that many victims continue to not come forward to report. There is a ‘dark’ figure of crime. These figures just represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Many incidents of male rape and male sexual assault continue to not get reported.


Of course, statistics only tell part of the story. Many cases of male rape and sexual assault remain unreported. What are the cultural, social and political factors that contribute to the culture of un-reporting?

There is a host of reasons. Men may have a much harder time acknowledging or recognising that what has happened to them was actually rape and that it can be reported, especially when sexual assault and rape are generally thought to only happen to females. The notion that sexual assault and rape occur only to females or that ‘real’ men cannot be raped can induce men’s risk of stigma, embarrassment, and shame; this may make male rape victims reluctant to report. Men hesitating to report may be feeling shame for not being able to sustain hegemonic masculinities, which I define as those masculinities that legitimate unequal gender relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and amongst masculinities. Male rape situationally feminizes men, so this makes it difficult for them to momentarily embody power and dominance through the enactment of hegemonic masculinities. Men, unlike women, are expected to be strong, powerful, invulnerable, macho, unemotional, violent, and capable of protecting themselves. The omnipotent threat of homophobia can also prevent many men from reporting rape, especially for those men who are not out of the closet or heterosexual male rape victims fearing that they will be seen as gay, both of which somehow interlink with homophobia. Further, it is a common misconception that, if men ejaculate or have erections when being raped, they must have somehow ‘consented’. Getting an erection and ejaculating are involuntary physiological reactions to male rape, though, but this could prevent some victims from coming forward for fearing that they might be seen as having ‘enjoyed’ the rape, that they instigated it, or ‘wanted it’. They might, therefore, be blamed for their sexual victimisation.

An important focus of your book is concerned with the way in which state agencies, in particular the police, respond (or fail to respond) to the problem of male rape and deal with male rape victims? What are your key findings in this regard?

With the support of empirical police data, I have shown that the police do not regard themselves as a support provider, but rather as a criminal justice agency that are there to try to get a prosecution. While some officers attempt to adopt a multi-agency approach, working with voluntary agencies to support victims throughout the police investigation process, many officers do not take this approach so leaving male rape victims unsupported. The victims are often treated more as a statistic, a number, rather than as a victim. This is because of constructs of hegemonic masculinity in the police; a gender order is present in the police, reproducing—materially, discursively, metaphorically, and symbolically—hegemonic masculinities at the local and regional levels across police forces in England. For example, I argue that police training reproduces hegemonic masculinities through police discourse at the local level. Thus, police training can enable officers to choose hegemonic discursive positions to assist them in warding off anxiety and avoid feelings of powerlessness; this is so that the police can address the threat of male rape or the possibility of it. By producing a ‘silence discourse’ about male rape, emanating from the absence of formal police training on male sexual victimisation, the police can deny the existence of male rape while perpetuating the male rape myths that ‘men cannot be raped’ and that ‘female rape is “real” rape’, thus reproducing gender inequalities.

One of the arguments you make is that male rape myths are born out of gender and sexuality norms that are created in the midst of social structures, including religious institutions. For the readers of the Shiloh Project blog, who have a particular interest in religion vis-à-vis rape culture, could you elaborate on the role of religion in relation to male rape?

That’s correct. I argue in the book that hegemony is not only attained through sexual violence, or even through violence more generally, but also through non-violent means to create and reproduce privilege and unequal gender relations, such as through religion. In conservative religious establishments, hegemony is often attained through the gendered division of labour. For example, in the Muslim milieu I grew up in myself, women are often positioned as those who do the childcare work while men go out to bring in the money. This dichotomy can also be seen in the example of bodies; Muslim men’s bodies are constructed as those that penetrate, while Muslim women’s bodies are those that are penetrated. This religious construction of Muslim bodies gives no capacity to even think about the existence of ‘male sexual victimisation’ because Muslim men’s bodies are regarded as non-penetrable. The penetrated body is often associated with femininity and powerlessness, and so women within Islam will only likely to be considered as ‘real’ rape victims for rape has connotations of weakness and subordination; words that are antithetical to Muslim men’s bodies. Similar dynamics can be observed in other conservative religious circles. I think, therefore, we need to think about how bodies are constructed not only in religious establishments, such as Islam, but also in everyday public life.

How do you think your book, and in particular the raw and honest account of your own experience beautifully narrated in the preface, may help to break the silence and stigma surrounding male rape victims? What are the conditions for a #MeToo movement of victims of male rape to emerge?

I would like my book to open up a platform in which to have a conversation about the existence of male sexual violence. It happens in our everyday life, but, because of gender and sexuality norms, we are not supposed to speak about it; to do so would disrupt the gender order. I took a risk, being susceptible to on-going backlash and being constructed as ‘deviant’ or the ‘other’, which has affected me in my personal life as I detail in the book, but I had to speak the unspoken in order to challenge gender inequalities. I hope my words encourage other male victims to speak of their painful silences.

That said, the movement for women rape victims has been enormous on a grand scale, with many historic victims of rape coming forward to report and to speak out. I think that a MeToo movement for male victims of sexual violence is possible. It will take courage and bravery, though, to get a conversation started. We are slowly seeing some adult men who were victims of child sexual abuse coming forward, so this is a start. I don’t know which direction this will take in the future, but it will be a slow journey since to speak out against male sexual violence is, as I say, to dismantle the gender order; but many men do not want this because it threatens to take away men’s power and privilege. Although not all men can embody hegemonic masculinities at the same time, they are often complicit in its manifestation, meaning that they benefit from the cultural and symbolic power that men as a social group hold. However, we know that not all men hold equal amounts of power at the same time, and that there are multiple masculinities during a given context, so there is always contestation in the gender order, but not enough to completely eradicate gender and sexuality norms in societies. It’s the same for women; we can’t simply argue that women are completely expelled from power, since power works in complicated ways, meaning that some women can and do configure patterns of hegemonic masculinities at particular contexts, times, and places. To suggest that women as a social group are powerless is to determine and essentialize women in this way and to reinforce their subordination, without considering the complexity of power and that it is negotiated between male-male and male-female bodies. The battle for gender equality remains: I am certain that we will see changes in patterns of gender social practices, but whether this will be for better or worse remains to be seen.

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