After my previous 13 page lucubration I’ll keep this one much more brief – for your sanity as well as mine.
I wanted to comment on the recent viral YouTube video depicting an attractive young lady wandering the streets of New York being subjected to a seemingly incessant litany of catcalls and sexual innuendoes.
You can watch it (or rather a minute of it) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A
As its notoriety spread across cyberspace it spawned a host of imitations and parodies. One of these was a two part video which sought to highlight the very different reactions of men towards a woman dressed first in (by Western standards) “normal” attire and subsequently the same woman titivated with the Islamic veil.
You can watch this (again a short excerpt) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgw6y3cH7tA
The contrast was startling to say the least. Now nothing riles Islam-haters and feminists more than a suggestion that the outcome of a woman adhering to the Islamic dress code might actually be salutary for her. Reading their bilious diatribes generally has a certain cathartic effect on me, even if the rhetoric is exceedingly trite and tendentious. I guess I’m just wired that way, so trolls take note.
But to the matter of a woman’s dress – should it affect how a man treats her? As a Muslim I believe it is never right for a man to make any form of advance towards a woman other than his spouse (or concubine if he should happen to own one). Whether a woman happens to be wearing a burqa or is in a string bikini it doesn’t extenuate the Islamic injunctions that oblige a man to lower his gaze and avoid unwarranted interaction with non-mahram females. What would clearly differ in those two examples, however, is the degree of temptation a man would feel towards violating the aforesaid commandments. Concupiscence is, for most men under the age of 50, the most difficult of temptations to resist and it was to that end that women were asked to protect themselves by means of the khimar (commonly referred to as the hijab) and jilbab (one piece outer cloak).
But why should a woman be responsible for the foibles of man? Surely if a man harasses or in extremis molests a woman the fault lies entirely with him and not the woman? Yes and no. Yes, it is ultimately the man who chose to violate the law (Islamic law that is) but by inflaming those overbearing, divinely imbued, passions that percolate within him, a woman sometimes has a supporting role to play in her own abuse.
If you haven’t thrown up yet or hurled your laptop/mobile phone against the wall in the throes of an apoplectic rage then allow me now to explain why I feel both parties have a role to play in ensuring the safety and dignity of women in society.
It should be axiomatic that men and women while both equally human, differ hugely in their respective physiological and emotional makeup. The first hurdle that needs to be overcome when tackling gender related discussions is to understand that we cannot (truly) understand our opposite-sex counterparts. For example, I may know that launching into a full throttled tirade against Susan in accounts over the repeated delays in reimbursing my expenses claim will probably reduce her to a quivering, tearful wreck but I cannot truly understand what it is about her that prevents her from, pardon the pun, “taking it like a man”. In a similar vein Susan may know that her husband doesn’t much appreciate the nuances in the 100 different dresses she’s currently viewing in John Lewis but she can never truly understand why not.
Put simply, men (at least those that aren’t homosexuals) view women, first and foremost as potential sexual partners. Whether you want to attribute this trait to millions of years of evolution or to divine crafting it matters not. Instinctively the first evaluation a man makes of a woman – whether it be at a conscious or sub-conscious level – is a sexual one. Does this woman excite me? Do I have a chance with her? If a man’s mind can answer both in the affirmative it will then trigger the various physiological reactions that propel him to “try his luck”. Of course should the answer to the first question be no or if it is indiscernible it renders the second otiose. Once broken down like this I would hope that the purpose of the hijab and jilbab becomes rather apparent. By blocking the means by which a man evaluates the attractiveness of a woman it halts progression along the chain of events that can end in his making an advance. Is such a paradigm perfect? Does it encompass every scenario? Can it prevent every last man from ever making a sexually loaded comment towards a woman? No, of course not. Does it noticeably improve the experience of women, in general, in public life? Yes – a point the second video signally makes.
To those who aver that such reasoning transposes the roles of victim and perpetrator I offer up an analogy. Someone who decides to leave all their valuables out on the front lawn unattended while they go shopping and returns to find them purloined by thieves – is such a person partly to blame for their predicament? Most reasonable people would answer yes and such behaviour would no doubt elicit a fair degree of reproach for the recklessness it undoubtedly entails. But surely the fault is solely that of the thief (or thieves)? To suggest, in any way, that the victim was reckless is tantamount to “victim blaming”, no? The reality – that most rational people accept – is that avarice and covetousness are unfortunately human foibles present to varying degrees in most of us and to excite such instincts is like playing with matches in the presence of gasoline; it has a tendency to end tragically. So while the thief should be punished and made to know, in no uncertain terms, his/her behaviour will not be tolerated by society it is also perfectly in order to insist that people take such precautions as are reasonable to protect themselves from such depredatory behaviour.
To those about to intone “you can’t compare rape/sexual harassment to theft” or something similarly vacuous, please don’t bother. Such comments serve to highlight your own asininity and lack of mental acuity rather than to vitiate my argument. The principle is the same in both scenarios regardless the differing graveness of the respective offences.
I would like to conclude by briefly rebutting one objection that I have heard cited on more than one occasion. The Muslim community, like any other community, contains its fair share of sexual predators and abusers. It was once demurred by a Muslim female (Twitter) acquaintance that she was the victim of sexual abuse despite wearing the hijab and jilbab. In response I would say two things. Firstly, nothing will prevent that minority who are truly depraved and bereft of any moral restraints from committing their evil. Much the same as locking and bolting all the doors and windows won’t prevent the inveterate thief from burglary. Secondly this scenario is very different to the one under discussion above and depicted in the videos. The hijab and jilbab helps to ward off the random unacquainted stranger male in public who may otherwise be tempted to chance his luck. Behind doors, sexual grooming by acquainted males is a completely different scenario and often in such cases the male concerned is anyway Islamically permitted to seeing the female victim without a veil. Such abuse happens over a period of time and is as a result of extended unsupervised contact – which is clearly a scenario a world apart from the fleeting contact a woman inevitably has with random passer-by males in the shopping mall or market.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our master Muhammad – the seal of the Prophets. Ameen.