I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of Islam and Women’s Clothing since my post on the topic last week. The idea that so many women have so little control over their lives is one that I find very difficult and completely helpless to do anything about except try and make some of the issues more widely known. For example, I’ve written about cases that have come to light via various human rights groups where women have been punished by Sharia courts in Saudi Arabia after they have been raped because they were out without a man when the attack occurred. The rapist, on the other hand, was often not punished.
Then this morning a very disturbing video appeared in my Facebook feed via friend William Hounslow. Another friend posted it soon after:
(Disclaimer: The group who put out this clip, Freedom’s Final Stand – Standing Against the March of Liberalism, appears to be one of those that uses the reality of these situations in Islam to create a climate of fear and hatred towards Muslims, so I just want to make it clear that I don’t endorse the group in any way. Also, although it’s not up to me to speak for others, I feel sure my friends would find the values of this group equally repugnant.)
The clip being shown on Facebook is part of a larger video called Bangladeshi Gang Rape produced by Vice News in November 2014, and it is worth watching the whole report.
The views expressed by imam Mohammed Shahidul Isham in the clip are typical of conservative religion. As well as what he says in the Facebook clip, the extended video shows he also says that women should stay at home. Just leaving the house is enough to tempt men to rape apparently, and if it happens, it’s the woman’s fault. It’s not just the imam that’s the problem though. The reporter, Tania Rashid, showed that the attitudes he displays and presumably teaches in his mosque are pervasive throughout society. The police show the same appalling attitudes as the imam, and in many ways that’s worse. Women who are attacked have no one to go to and no hope that they can ever feel safe.
The words Imam Mohammed Shahidul Isham is quoting (inaccurately) in his interview with Rashid about women staying indoors are based on these:
In Surah Al-Ahzab, Allah addresses the wives of Prophet Muhammad [صَلى اللهُ عَليهِ وَ سَلم] with specific commands to guard their chastity:
“And abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance; and be constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto Allah and His Messenger: for Allah only wants to remove from you all that might be loathsome, O you members of the [Prophet’s] household, and to purify you to utmost purity.” [33:33]
The imam it seems has taken a leaf out of St Jerome’s book (see here) and is using his authority to spread an interpretation of the rules that is even harder on women and more favourable to men’s authority than the Qur’an already is.
As Rashid pointed out, all the men “rationalized why rape happened” and “shifted the blame onto the women themselves.” The situation was being “trivialized” while the men “maintained the image of a pure, God-fearing society.”
The graph on the right is one you’ve probably all seen before, but it’s a message that many still have not grasped. The idea that somehow a rape victim (male or female) is at fault needs to be stamped out. Blaming the victim creates an excuse for the perpetrator and the ability to fail to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
Conservative religion portrays an ideal where men have been granted not only the right, but the strength to take control. However, when it comes to sexual abuse they are apparently so weak that the slightest temptation can cause them to lose control.
In my post about Islam and Women’s Clothing I referred to the discussion at Islam.org around the need for rules of modesty for both men and women. What I didn’t go into was the extent to which those rules focus on sex. Here are some examples from their website:
Rules for Men
99 – Rule: It is haram [forbidden] to take off one’s clothes in the presence of other men or one’s Maharim [women with whom it would be considered incestuous to have a sexual relationship] with the intention of sexually arousing others. One’s spouse is an exception.
102 – Rule: According to Ihtiyat Mustahab [recommended precaution], men must cover other parts of the body that are normally covered by men, while in the presence of non-Mahram women, especially if the man knows that the non-Mahram women may look at them with the intention of lust.
107 – Rule: Men must cover their private parts from a child who is Mumayyiz [a child old enough to know right from wrong and able to tell the difference between men and women], whether it is a boy or a girl, Mahram or a non-Mahram.
Therefore: Men must cover their private parts in front of their Mumayyiz children in the showers and other places.
According to Ihtiyat Wajib [obligatory precaution], a man must cover his body from girls who have not yet completed 9 years of age, but who understand good and bad, even if there is no intention of sexual pleasure.
Rules for Women
108 – Rule: It is wajib [obligatory] for women to cover their entire body from non-Mahram Men; with the exception of their face and hands, as long as the following conditions are met:
Their face and hands must not have any kind of beautification (zinat) on them.
One will not look at their face or hands with the intention of lust.
113 – Question: Is it allowed to wear a mantou and pants in which the shape of the body is visible, in the presence of non-Mahram men?
Answer: From the point of hijab and covering, it is sufficient, but in the event that showing the shape of the body would lead to lust or corruption, then it must be covered.
121 – Question: What is the ruling for wearing flashy, repelling-coloured clothing, and clothing that draws the attention of others, in places where non-Mahram men are present, such as universities, stores, etc.
Answer: With the assumption that the clothing is arousing, it is haram.
And it looks like foot-fetishism was a thing in Mohammed’s time too:
118 – Question: Is it allowed to wear thick socks in which the shape of the foot is visible in front of non-Mahram men, or not?
Answer: In the event that there is no corruption related to it, and the skin of the feet does not show, then it is not a problem.
Answer: If it leads to corruption and sin, then it is not permitted.
Answer: In addition to this, the socks must not be of the type that would be considered as a zinat [beautification].
119 – Rule: Wearing of thin, see-thru socks in which the skin of the feet is visible is not considered as covering, and therefore, women must refrain from wearing these kinds of socks in the presence of non-Mahram men.
120 – Question: There are some women who wear pants, and then pull their socks over top of the pants in such a way that the shape of the bottom of their legs show – what is the ruling for wearing socks in this manner?
Answer: In the event that it leads others to excitement or pleasure, then it is not allowed.
These are many more rules than those above, and the idea that women are responsible if they receive unwelcome sexual attention is pervasive. Check out this as another example:
… according to the fatawa of the late Ayatullah Khomeini, if keeping the face and hands open leads the young man to look at her with the intention of lust, then she must cover her face and hands and if speaking to him leads him to falling into corruption, then she must also keep away from this.
So anyone who thinks wearing a chador is a minor inconvenience, think again. There are even rules about reaching for things on high shelves – you have to made sure your sleeve doesn’t fall down and expose your arm!
This, and all the other rules, put almost all the responsibility for non-consensual sexual interaction on women. They are required to dress in such a way as to not attract a man’s attention. If they do and things go badly for them, that’s their fault. And it’s not just their clothing – they are also required to guard their gaze. They must keep their eyes lowered. Just looking a man in the eye is enough to give him the excuse to force himself on her.
All this goes back, of course, to the idea that women are the possessions of men. The reason we are required to cover ourselves is because our bodies do not belong to us but to a father, husband, brother, or son. Our bodies are a tool for the enjoyment of men, to look after them, and to bear their children.
Conservative Islam teaches that women will be safe from abuse if they follow the rules relating to dress. The problem is, it’s not true. If children are brought up to treat one another with dignity and respect, taught values like compassion and kindness, and are given a sense of self-esteem, it is highly unlikely they will turn into rapists. On the other hand, a child who is taught that girls and women are possessions, are of lesser value than men, and that if they fail to dress in a certain way deserve some form of punishment, then a different result can be expected.
Further because of the attitude towards women in many conservative religious countries, it is impossible to even know the extent of the problem. Even in countries like New Zealand and Norway which are considered amongst the best in the world for women, many still don’t report sexual assaults because of the stigma attached. In countries like Bangladesh, they’re rarely reported at all. From Wikipedia:
Bangladesh has received criticism for its employment of the “two-finger test” in rape investigations. This test consists in a physical examination of women who report rape during which a doctor inserts two fingers in the woman’s vagina to determine whether the woman is “habituated to sex”. … This deters many women from reporting rape. More than 100 experts, including doctors, lawyers, police, and women’s rights activists had signed a joint statement in 2013 asking for the test … to be abolished, as it “does not provide any evidence that is relevant to proving the offence.”
The United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence asked men in rural and urban Bangladesh if they had forced a woman to have sex at any point in their lives. 14.1% of men in rural Bangladesh and 9.5% of men in urban Bangladesh said yes (10% averaged). 2.7% of men in rural Bangladesh and 0.5% (6/1252) in urban Bangladesh had raped in the past year. In rural Bangladesh 47.4% of rapists perpetrated more than once, 3.7% had four or more victims, and 40% first raped as a teenager. 82% of rural Bangladeshi and 79% of urban Bangladeshi men cited entitlement as their reason for rape. 61.2% of urban Bangladeshi men who had raped did not feel guilty or worried afterwards, and 95.1% experienced no legal consequences. 3.7% of men in rural Bangladesh had raped another man. 89.2% of urban Bangladeshi men answered ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ to the statement ‘if a woman doesn’t physically fight back, it’s not rape.’
A word Rashid used in her report for Vice News was “vulnerable.” It’s so true. They are completely powerless and have no ability to control their own lives, to make the simplest of choices. This is the life of most of the women of Bangladesh and millions elsewhere in conservative religious countries. This is not a situation that can be banned of Western colonialism. In fact, a bit of that might even help.
As Rashid said to end her report, “Until there is a cultural change, shifting a responsibility on the perpetrator, there will be no justice for rape victims.”
Update 21 May 2016: Jerry Coyne on his website Why Evolution Is True has also written a post about this video. It’s called: Imam: Women must cover themselves to stifle men’s uncontrollable lust and I thoroughly recommend it.