Hijab or Not, Sexual Harassment Has Nothing to Do With Dress Codes

“You look hot in that outfit. Care to join me in my apartment after work to discuss your promotion?”
One in three women between the ages of 18-34 has heard a similar, unwelcome sexually harassing comment at work, according to a recent survey. In the tech industry alone, 65 percent of women reported unwanted sexual advances from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once.
It is really horrible. Worse off, female victims are often blamed for the harassment either because they “look, dress or behave in a provocative manner.”
The simplistic assumption is that harassers are motivated by sexual desire for their targets. Not only is this notion of victim blaming ugly and problematic, it raises many questions when the victim of sexual harassment is a Muslim woman dressed modestly in loose outfits covering her hair and entire body except her hands and face.
Yes, Muslim women who wear the hijab get sexually harassed all the time. Don’t believe it?
HarassMap, a volunteer-based initiative that works to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt, stated that it is a false notion when people think sexual harassment happens to unveiled and/or indecently dressed women and that “respectable” women don’t get harassed.
Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.35.32 PM
“Dress or behavior does not matter. According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights 2008 study, 72 percent of women who experience sexual harassment wear the hijab (head covering) or the niqab (full face and body veil). In 2008, that percentage was about the same as the percentage of total women wearing the hijab and niqab in Egyptian society, which indicates that the average Egyptian woman gets harassed regardless of her clothing and appearance,” stated the HarassMap myths page.
In a recently publicized case, former Iranian TV anchor Sheena Shoran, 32, revealed to the world years of sexual harassment advances from her male news director, according to Iran Wire. On Feb. 4, she posted online reordered evidence of his calls and text messages asking her for sexual favors in return for his support of her work.
Shoran wears the hijab and yet that did not stop her perpetrator from harassing her. Another 2013 study conducted by U.N. Women revealed that 99.3 percent of the women surveyed have experienced harassment in public places regardless of their appearance, conduct or manner of dress.

Muslim women who dress modestly do not conform to the ideal ways of femininity so the harassers try to punish them and exercise power over them to maintain their subordination through unwelcome advances and comments.

These facts dictate that someone’s clothes, way of walking, talking or behaving is not to blame. The actions and decisions of a harasser are. Social psychologist Jennifer L. Berdahl challenged the common perception that sexual harassment is motivated by sexual desire and, therefore, is directed at women who are ideally feminine in the way they look or behave.
In her widely cited paper “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women”, Berdahl conducted three studies and the data she collected proved that sexual harassment is primarily targeted at women who violate gender ideals.
“The current research suggests that sexual harassment as traditionally defined for women — as consisting of sexual and sexist comments, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion…is driven not out of desire for women who meet feminine ideals but out of a desire to punish those who violate them,” stated the study.
It is not about lust. It is about power to control, dominate and derogate women. Using Berdahl’s analogy, Muslim women who dress modestly do not conform to the ideal ways of femininity so the harassers try to punish them and exercise power over them to maintain their subordination through unwelcome advances and comments.
So what is classified as sexual harassment? The legal definition of sexual harassment according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Yet the problem within Muslim contexts have religious, cultural and societal dimensions stemming from the widely abused misconception about women, the hijab and modesty. Somehow, the choice for women to adhere to a dress code is misinterpreted by some as that women are so seductive and men are seduced by them.

It is not about lust. It is about power to control, dominate and derogate women.

This ideology gave men the excuse to blame women for sexual harassment even when they are covered up from head to toes.
The Guardian published an article on Sept. 15, 2015 about how the hijab has made sexual harassment worse in Iran. Describing details of the every day reality of sexually harassing women in public places in Iran, the author highlights stories of their suffering.
“Growing in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: The hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body is ‘awra’ (intimate parts of the body that should be covered) that can spread ‘fitna’ (chaos) among men,” says Sahar, a 26-year-old non-Iranian who has been studying in Tehran for a year. “But then I came to Iran, where hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked and worthless.”
In a study titled “Sexual Harassment in Greater Cairo” that HarassMap conducted in 2013, the authors explain how focusing on women’s dress in public as the reason for perpetrating sexual harassment harms by:

  1. “Portray sexual harassment as a women’s problem, they are responsible for it and they are its primary targets, and accordingly it does not require national attention.
  2. Distance and free men from any blame or guilt.
  3. Reinforce social acceptance and tolerance towards sexual harassment.”

A hijabi or not, embodying feminine characters or not, speaking softly or not, sexual harassment is not your fault. No matter how complicated the situation is, the harasser is always responsible for the abuse. Stand up for yourself and for others. Tolerate no blame!

Image: Screengrab from HarassMap Video