Last Sunday VP Rajeena, a journalist in Kozhikode, Kerala, put up a Facebook post where she described the sexual abuse of children that she had witnessed in a madrassa where she had studied many years ago. What followed was a vicious outpouring of hate and threats. Indeed, there was such an avalanche of complaints against her post, complaints that she was trying to besmirch her religion, that Facebook was forced to block her account.
Rajeena, who works in a Malayalam newspaper, wrote about a teacher at a Kozhikode madrassa who allegedly groped male students. Young boys would be asked to unzip their pants and the teacher would proceed to touch them, she wrote. She also talked about another teacher who apparently abused little girls.
This could be a snapshot of child sex abuse from anywhere in the world. It should have evoked shock and outrage, consternation even, that here was one more example of the fact that the schools where we send our children to study are not safe havens of scholarship; they often harbour sexual predators who may prey on them and leave them psychologically scarred forever.
However, the anger that Rajeena’s post evoked was not directed at the paedophiles she talked about. The anger was directed at her. Online lynch mobs quickly gathered around and rained invectives on her because it was felt that by turning the spotlight on the evil of child sex abuse in a madrassa, which is an Islamic school, she was trying to discredit the schools, and by extension, the religion itself.
A small incident of online harassment? A mere sideshow about an unknown journalist whose Facebook account was blocked because she said something which offended some people?
Not at all. In a sense, Rajeena’s experience encapsulates the dogma and intolerance that’s become almost the leitmotif of our society – a society where every community or group seems to be driven by zealots who cannot countenance any real or perceived criticism against any of its so-called institutions. The zealots are quick to mobilise and because they mobilise with such ferocity and focus, it’s their voice that gets heard – not the voice of the vast majority of sane people.
What was so earth-shaking about drawing attention to child sex abuse in a madrassa? After all, sexual abuse of children is a worldwide problem. For decades, the Catholic Church was flayed for protecting paedophiles who abused little boys and girls, and not taking any action against them. In the US, where the problem has been particularly rampant, the John Jay Report, commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, brought to light 4,392 priests accused of sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002.
Once prone to turn a blind eye to such incidents, the Catholic Church, faced with frequent allegations of paedophilia against its clergy not just in the US, but also in Canada, Australia, Ireland, South America, Britain and indeed, all over Europe, was forced to confront the issue. Eventually, the Vatican too weighed in on the problem. During a visit to the US in 2008, Pope Benedict said he was “deeply ashamed” about child sex abuse by the clergy. Moving from the earlier culture of impunity, today, the church takes punitive measures against those found guilty of child molestation. In November 2014, Pope Francis excommunicated Father Jose Mercau of Argentina for the crime of child sex abuse.
But it’s not just the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse of children is a horrifying crime that may take place at home, at school, and indeed anywhere at all. It is committed by all manner of men – the sordid and the superb. Michael Jackson, that immortal king of pop, whose voice throbbed with such purity of feeling that it could make you cry, stood accused of multiple instances of child sex abuse.
In India, there are regular reports of child rape and sex abuse – many of them taking place at home or in schools. A survey conducted by the ministry of women and child development in 2007 found that more than 53% of children in the country were subjected to sexual abuse. In most cases the abusers were known to the child or were in a position of trust and responsibility.
When child sex abuse is so endemic, is the idea of it taking place at a madrassa beyond the realm of possibility? Is an Islamic school distinct from the warp and weft of society at large, is it immune to its goodness and its evils?
A crime like child abuse has no religion. Once the Catholic Church too viewed this atrocity through the prism of religion – and refused to recognise it or take institutional steps to curb it. But it had to change with the times and recognise the fact that sexual abuse of children brings shame on its perpetrators — not on the religion to which they belong.
Rajeena’s post on the child abuse she experienced in that madrassa should have kickstarted a probe into the conduct of those teachers. It’s a testament to the raging bigotry of our times that all it did was to shut her up and shout her down.