She harassed my visual senses by dressing ‘provocatively.’ She started it.
She flaunted all her body parts so I couldn’t control myself. She started it.
Since she is dressed that way, she must want to be objectified. She started it.
If she acts like that then she must want it, so I’m going to give it to her. She started it.
How am I supposed to see a woman for more than the sum of her body parts — a full-fledged human being with agency, choice, and humanity, when she does all this? She started it.
Such arguments are constantly put forth to justify male aggression and entitlement to women’s bodies. Society constantly uses this rationale to justify forms of violence that disproportionately impact women. These forms of violence include domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and femicide. We continue to perpetuate a culture of victim blaming that places the onus of violence women face on women. As a consequence, we exonerate the perpetrators from facing any accountability for their actions, and our society from taking any responsibility for upholding systems that result in such violence.
“The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage,” a blog post published on MuslimMatters, is a take by a Muslim man on street sexual harassment, who argues that women are the ones sexually harassing men by occupying public spaces in “provocative” clothing. This piece is in response to the recent video on street sexual harassment. The author calls all feminists, and by extension the movement, hypocritical. While the entire piece is problematic — and it’s concerning how MuslimMatters, a respected outlet, published it — here we address some of the most problematic points argued by the author. We are also responding because we have seen a dangerous trend of Muslim men speaking on behalf of women and chastising women for violence that is mainly perpetrated by men. This is a dangerous attitude and we are offering an alternative perspective based on our collective work on gender-based violence, our own experiences with forms of violence against women, and the current research on these issues.
The most problematic aspects of the author’s argument include, first, negating a form of systemic violence against women, such as street sexual harassment, which impacts 70-99 percent of women in the world. Second, the author mischaracterizes the demands of one of the most important social movements of our time: feminism. Third, the author centers male opinions and experiences on a form of violence that disproportionately impacts women. He purports to speak as an expert on a form of violence he hasn’t himself faced on a daily basis, and which he benefits from as an extension of his male privilege. Finally, the most dangerous piece of the author’s article is tacit approval of male aggression and violence against women as “deserved,” given that he believes that women are asking for it by their choices of self-expression.
The author treads this dangerous line of condoning the punishment women face socially for lack of compliance with ideals of modesty and respectable womanhood. He fails at examining street sexual harassment as a component of patriarchy — a global system of women’s devaluation. We further elaborate on these points below and hope MuslimMatters and all other institutions in the Muslim community carefully consider the type of messages they are sending about Muslim men, Islam, and the treatment of women by Muslims. We cannot continue to put forth that our religion respects women while perpetuating such sexist and deeply misogynistic attitudes that support perpetrators and negatively impact the quality of life for women and girls.
Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Harassment
The author contends, why don’t we accept that sexual harassment goes both ways? Because the truth is, it doesn’t go both ways. Sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence that disproportionately impacts women for the purpose of restricting women’s access to spaces. Forms of sexual harassment include: sexual and verbal comments; unsolicited and unwanted touching or contact; and staring, jeering, and non-verbal actions such as hand or facial gestures. Sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, educational and community institutions, in the home, and on the streets.
The author mischaracterizes sexual harassment as stemming from women’s dress, but, in fact, research on the causes of sexual harassment has found that there are three driving reasons for sexual harassment of women:
Harassment for individual male sexual gratification: called predatory harassers;
Harassment to assert male dominance and power over women: called dominance harassers;
Harassment to protect male spaces from women: called strategic/territorial harassers.
The literature hasn’t found that the leading reason for sexual harassment is women’s clothing. That is the personal opinion of the author.
Sexual harassment is a form of microaggression that enforces the larger system of patriarchy. Sexual harassment reinforces male entitlement to women’s bodies, robs women of autonomy, and enforces the fear of rape and male aggression against women in the case of rejection. Street sexual harassment continues to negatively impact women and girls’ perception of safety in their own communities. For example, Gallup’s study measured perceptions of safety between men and women within 143 countries. The findings demonstrated that women felt less safe than men in their own communities and neighborhoods at night. The underlying reasons for women feeling less safe than men include the fear of sexual harassment, rape, and murder at the hands of men.
Sexual harassment is also used to restrict women’s access to key spaces they need in order to make their livelihood. Far too many women face sexual harassment in the workplace and are forced to choose between appeasing the sexual demands of their male employers or facing severe retaliation. This reality is further compounded by the level of street sexual harassment women face. Countless women and girls can’t step out of their homes without experiencing sexual harassment on the street or in buses, subways, and other public spaces. Given that women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor, access to such spaces without the constant fear of male violence can mean being further trapped in a state of persistent poverty.
Rape and Sexual Assault
The author of “The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage” also writes, “while women in hijab are, unfortunately, frequent victims of catcalling in Cairo’s busy streets, for example, the undeniable fact remains that the harassment would be much, much worse if these same women were dressed in yoga pants, tank tops, and other common Western styles.” First, we recommend that the author familiarize himself with the level of brutality and forms of violence women face in Muslim-majority countries, including cities like Cairo. This assumption overlooks the facts and the sheer brutality that Muslim women face in Muslim-majority countries, which is compounded by state violence, war, occupations, and civil unrest. Some specific forms of violence that are connected to street sexual harassment in these countries include kidnappings, gang rapes, acid violence, bride kidnappings, torture, extortion, and murder. Second, the author’s point also plays into the dangerous myth that Muslim women who abide by “modest” dress codes don’t really experience sexual violence at the same rate that “less modest” women do.
We wonder how easy it would be for him to inform a gang rape victim, like Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan, that it would have been “much, much worse” if she wasn’t wearing her chador, or rape victims in Darfur that the systematic torture and sexual violence they endured would have been “much, much worse” if they weren’t wearing their veils. Would he like to tell the girls trafficked and forced into marriage by Boko Haram in Nigeria that their hijabs protected them from sexual violence? We wonder how the victims of sexual harassment and rape in Egypt’s Tahrir Square feel about the author’s assertion that street harassment would be far worse when there are cases of women having hundreds of men harass and assault them.
Further, we wonder how the millions of victims of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, feel in the United States after hearing that their own cases are really not that serious due to their own dress choices. One in every five women in the U.S. experiences sexual assault, 44 percent of whom are under the age of eighteen. How deafening and traumatizing does it feel for survivors to hear the same messages being supported over and over again that their dress is the cause of their own victimization? How simplistic is it of us to think that sexual violence, including street sexual harassment, can be prevented by pieces of clothing as if there is a magical guard?
We must move beyond the excuses used to condone sexism. We must understand that perpetrators of sexual violence seek to exact power and control over women, and that what a woman wears is irrelevant. Sexual violence isn’t just a form of violence that occurs at the individual level; it is used at the individual, community, and state level as as a weapon of fear and control. To diminish all forms of sexual violence by making it all about the wardrobe is an insidious lie used to veil [dual usage of the word intended] the root causes.
In the majority of sexual violence cases, which include women, men, children, and elders, the most common response is, “What did the victim do?” The victim blaming begins — and rape culture is perpetuated — by empathizing with the perpetrator(s) and glorifying the actions of public figures. For a clearer understanding of rape culture and bystander culture, we suggest the author check Dr. David Lisak’s model of how bystander culture, sexism, hypermasculinity, denigration of women, and victim blaming provide the environment for rapists to commit such violence. His work is based on some of the first studies done with sex offenders on understanding the root causes of rape. Since the author dismisses female feminists, perhaps he will listen to a male clinical psychologist.
Victim blaming is how society silences the voices of the suffering. Every time a news anchor simpers over the fate of a rapist, a politician asks what the victim was wearing, and an athlete’s violent behavior is glossed over by his exemplary athletic record, society reinforces the invincibility and power of perpetrators. The perpetrator is glorified while the victim is silenced and shamed. This is why the term “secondary victimization” was created; it identifies the ways in which victim-blaming traumatizes victims after the violence they’ve initially experienced. This explains why only 3 percent of all rapists are ever convicted and spend a day in jail in the United States.
Sexual violence, victim blaming, and a culture of impunity cuts across all societies. Sexual violence is a way for fear to reign over people. The shaming of victims reinforces a power structure that allows perpetrators to continue a cycle of violence with little to no fear of recourse. If no one talks about it, victims aren’t taken seriously, and victims are blamed, then it becomes impossible to create change.
Hypocrisy of Male Outrage and Understanding Feminism
The author labeled his piece “The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage.” What about “the Hypocrisy of” male outrage? The author makes the assumption that it is women’s dress choices that have resulted in the sexualization of public spaces. He ignores the fact that systems of power (e.g. media, government, the economy) are controlled by men who exploit women’s bodies and profit off dehumanized and hyper-sexualized images of women. Will the author also write a piece on the hypocrisy of men who chastise women for wearing provocative clothing but remain silent when men use the hypersexualized images of women and young girls to sell cars, music videos, or products — a key marker of our capitalist economic system? Will the author hold men accountable for being the major buyers of women and children (male and female) who are sold and trafficked for sex, or is the same logic applicable that it’s the individual’s fault for putting themselves in that situation?
“The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage” ignores these issues because it purports that women would be seen as worthy of respect as long as they fit men’s criteria of respectability — a key element of patriarchy. According to the author, all other women aren’t deserving of respect. Such a thought process only reaffirms the need for progressive movements like feminism. The author reduces equality to the right to show skin, but feminists’ demands of equality aren’t as simple as the right to wear certain pieces of clothing. Feminism demands the right for all people to be respected as human beings, and not to be judged or punished for individual choices of self-expression.
Feminism is a word that has spurred controversy since its very inception; a word that has empowered many, yet has somehow caused others to feel marginalized. What is that about? The thing about feminism is that it’s a broad concept — one that encompasses many schools of thought and gives way to even more interpretations. At its core, feminism is the advocacy for social, political and economic equality.
What do we consider social, political, or economic equality for women? What do we mean by ‘equal,’ and ‘equal’ to whom? This is where intersectionality comes in. The struggle for the equality of women is neither holistic nor effective if it does not take into account that all systems of oppression are interconnected. Institutions like racism, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia, and classism all play into sexism. As far as we are concerned, you cannot truly be a feminist if you do not recognize the far-reaching consequences of each of these systems of oppression and how they’re interconnected.
You can’t reasonably be against structures of inequality — structures that perpetuate racism, ableism, class warfare, ethnic bigotry, Islamophobia, and sectarianism (Sunni privilege, for example) — and then fall short of criticizing structures of inequality that perpetuate sexism. Either you’re against structures of inequality, see the logic that all forms of oppression are interconnected, and embrace equality for women as tied to your own liberation, or you aren’t about justice but rather individual liberation.
The author fails to recognize and understand these concepts and specifically how they relate to men dictating what are considered safe spaces for women. He fails to recognize how these intersections impact the lives of women on a daily basis. Even as women seek to take the mantle to speak to their experiences, men have silenced us, refused to listen to us, and have taken the mantle to do the speaking for us.
Stealing Our Narrative
It is common in society to redirect the little attention women’s issues receive by centering the focus on men. When we say “women’s issues,” we are referring to forms of oppression that disproportionately affect women. These include reproductive rights, child care, sexual assault, domestic violence, equal pay, domestic labor, etc. For other forms of violence, such as war and state violence, women’s experiences are virtually erased, men’s experiences are centered as deserving of community-wide attention, and women are asked to wait because it isn’t time to address our concerns. When such issues are discussed, the onus is on women to prove their credibility and legitimacy.
When addressing women’s issues, rather than having women participate in the dialogue and asking women for the solution, men constantly seize the public platform to discuss issues they cannot speak to and issues that do not punitively affect them. As a result, myths and structures that continue to place the onus on women for forms of systemic violence — that they don’t have the power to change — become further entrenched. When women do speak up, articles like “The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage” pop up, devaluing the female experience, spinning the female experience as a result of women’s own mistakes, and elevating male privilege.
Objectification of Women and Punishing Freedom of Expression
The author of “The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage” asks, “Is it completely outlandish to suggest that the way a woman (or man) dresses has an impact on how others treat her (or him)?” And to him, we answer: That is absolutely an outlandish suggestion. The question we instead need to ask as a society is “Why does a woman’s appearance, or anyone’s appearance, impact the way they are treated by others?” Perhaps the more important question we need to ask is, “Why does the author feel the need to determine hierarchies of respectability for women, based on dress, and then justify maltreatment committed against women, at the hands of men, for not fitting his notions of respectability?” The author fails to ask these difficult questions. He fails to recognize that appearance shouldn’t be the basis for humane treatment. This is a suggestion that our society should be evolving beyond.
Exploiting Islam To Justify Violence Against Women
At what point did we begin interpreting a lack of “modesty” as a license to mistreat our fellow human beings? At what point did we make it okay to take holy scripture and use it as validation for poor behavior? Why do we use religion to justify our own shortcomings? Why are we using our religion to negate and diminish forms of violence against women, when Islam addressed forms of violence against women 1400 years ago? Where did we lose the essence and spirit of Islam as being supportive of women’s empowerment, and instead allow patriarchal and misogynistic interpretations take hold? How long are we going to let Islam be used to justify violence against women and shame victims into silence?
The author does not address these integral issues. Why? Because addressing such issues requires a degree of self-reflection in which most people are unwilling, or unable, to engage. It requires recognizing that the fault exists not within the individual being harassed, but that the fault exists within ourselves, within the harasser, and within society as a whole. It requires an understanding of structure and systematic oppression to which most people, the author included, would rather remain blind.
Islam doesn’t condone violence against women. On the contrary, the issue is in the incorrect interpretations of the Qur’an. Islam is clear on asking men to lower their gaze and protect their modesty:
If Islam asks men to lower their gaze in order to respect their own modesty, we can logically infer that sexual harassment isn’t permissible under Islam. If even the male gaze that sexualizes women is seen as problematic within our religion, we highly doubt there is any permissibility for intimidating, objectifying, and harassing women.
An earlier article published by MuslimGirl described how the hijab can’t be exploited and used as a tool of victim blaming. As the author states,
According to the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the Maqasid al-Shari’ah, abuse and violence against women are religiously impermissible. If we look at the life of our Prophet (PBUH), he wasn’t abusive or controlling towards women or his family in the household. For example we know from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH):
Therefore, Islam does offer a positive model of masculinity, and we cannot argue that men can use Islam to justify the abuse and maltreatment of women. For a deeper explanation on correcting the misinterpretations of Verse 4:34 to justify domestic violence, we prefer reading the resources provided by Peaceful Families Project and Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE).
Further, the verse in the Qur’an that we believe provides the strongest call to stand against all forms of injustice, including gender-based violence, comes from Verse 135 of Surat Al Nisa, or “The Verse for Women”:
“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do.”
This verse makes it clear that we must stand against injustice in all its forms, including gender-based violence, irrespective of who we have to challenge. It’s clear that Islam not only supports, but also actively demands gender justice.
Overall, the demands of equality aren’t only about dress; they are about asking for a radical transformation of power as distributed by gender. They are about restructuring society to reflect equality across gender — and, when applying intersectionality, across all identities and their expressions. The demands for equality are about asking for an end to the global devaluation and dehumanization of women, which begins the moment the fetus is designated female and lasts throughout a woman’s lifetime. Otherwise, how do we explain that as of 2005, over 160 million women and girls are missing due to infanticide? How do we explain that up to 7 in 10 women will experience gender-based violence over the course of their lifetime? How do we explain that 94 percent of women murdered in America are murdered at the hands of a male they know? These are the questions that the author ignores, and ignoring them is a large part of why these issues exist in the first place.
None of the ideas expressed in “The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage” are new. Rather, the author provides the same centuries-old sexist and misogynist arguments that continue to uphold the global structure of patriarchy. The blog post is also laden with the same whining tone that some men have taken towards the progress of women’s rights and feminism. The real question we need to ask is when we are going to move forward and dispel myths so that we can begin the work of radically transforming the current global structure of inequality between men and women in order to create a more humane, just, and equitable world. In this struggle, Muslim men need to take a step back and let Muslim women lead this work from an organic space. Muslim men must allow Muslim women to define their own empowerment and stop dictating to us a male-centric definition. Rather than serving as a barrier to progress, Muslim men need to be allies and use their access and power in Islamic institutions to affirm women’s rights. Otherwise, Muslim men are preventing Muslim women from playing a critical role in shaping this global movement and benefitting from it. Silencing women and the larger movement from taking hold in Muslim communities has deep ramifications for our communities globally, especially when one of the strongest measures for a state’s security is the status of women in that society.
Kulsoom K. Ijaz