The other day while our children played together, I chatted with a couple of Arab Muslim men about problems facing people living in America. I mentioned that once, while walking to the grocery store in Detroit, a gang of teenage boys followed me and I overheard them discussing throwing me into the trunk of their car. One brother asked immediately whether or not I had been wearing hijab. I said, “No, that was before I became Muslim – but I was wearing totally normal clothes and it was broad daylight.” Nevertheless, he commented without a hint of shame at his audacity, “Women who walk around uncovered are asking for it.” Restraining my shock, I allowed the other brother to gently disagree with this extremely offensive statement. I ended my story by saying that an Iraqi shopkeeper noticed the hoodlums waiting for me outside his shop door and chased them away, likely saving my life. So then of course it became a story of how great Arabs are. The brother never even thought to apologize for insinuating that I had dressed provocatively and had thus invited attack.
How can it be that a young woman, minding her own business, on her way to buy some milk, could be asking to be kidnapped, gang-raped, or murdered? Those men who advocate hijab as a means for avoiding attack are only looking at their own perspective. Perhaps they themselves would be less likely to rape a woman who was wearing hijab, and perhaps in certain neighborhoods, wearing hijab would make a woman less likely to be harmed. But in some other neighborhoods, a woman would be more likely to be raped or killed if she was wearing hijab, because her dress would attract negative attention from people who hate Muslims – or who view hijab as a rejection of their manhood.
In some cases, wearing Islamic gear can even attract unwanted sexual harassment! My friend Layla mentioned to me that a stranger in a restaurant once came up to her and said, “You dress like this when you go out, but I bet you sleep naked.” Another woman Maryam, wearing full covering including niqab, visited New York City with her husband and overheard some passersby having a disagreement over whether or not she might be beautiful or ugly. Instead of protecting her from objectification, Maryam’s Islamic gear actually invited a conversation about her physical beauty (or lack thereof)!
Quran says women should dress appropriately when they go outside, so that they would not be harassed. Yet, those women who are serious about not being harassed will have to do more than simply cover themselves with a certain amount of cloth. Recent American women converts can be especially vulnerable to loud laughter and jeering from strangers, as they unsuccessfully attempt to gracefully don ill-fitting, hand-me-down foreign costumes. Women who are seriously trying to avoid attracting unwanted attention have to respect the culture of the majority of people around them. They should dress modestly in a way that says, “I am a high class lady who commands respect” in a fashion language, which the local culture understands. This will vary. Women who seek to avoid harassment should not dress in a way that invites attention, mockery, or disrespect, even if that dress is considered Islamic.
There are certain types of rapists who actually target women with loose-fitting garments, who lurk outside fitness centers because sweat pants with their elastic waistbands are so quickly and easily removed, even if the woman is resisting. Contrast that ugly situation with the scene in an alley that a friend of mine, Liz, witnessed from a window. A man was attempting to forcibly remove the clothes of a woman who was screaming and fighting. Liz called the police and shouted out her window as the man relentlessly struggled with the woman but just could not rape her. Why? She was wearing extremely tight button-fly jeans that were so incredibly difficult to remove that the police arrived before the man had succeeded in sexually violating her. Therefore women who are serious about not being raped will have to do far more than merely wear loose-fitting clothing. They should consider wearing skin-tight button-fly jeans underneath their jilbabs.
While it is easy to find examples of male chauvinism in Muslim cultures, it also exists in the West. Because of the blurry lines defining what is socially acceptable vs. immoral behavior, women are easily violated and then blamed for being victimized. An American woman, Amy was at a party and was offered whiskey. Trying to be cool, she drank from the bottle that was being passed around. Before she realized it, she was unconscious on the sofa. When she awoke, she found herself without her clothes on, having no memory of the past four hours except for a few seconds in which things were being done to her, without her being in any condition to react or respond. Feeling horribly wronged, and knowing she never flirted with anyone nor agreed to get naked with anyone, she tried to get some sympathy from a friend but was told that she should have known that “men are pigs,” and was shamed for allowing herself to lose control of the situation. While this experience will certainly be a lesson for Amy about the evils of drink, is it really true that a person cannot reasonably expect to pass out on a friend’s couch without inviting oneself to be wronged in front of other party guests? Because she was a woman, Amy was expected to accept that “boys will be boys” and take the blame for what happened.
Huda al Khattab writes in “Bent Rib: A Journey Through Women’s Issues in Islam” about the hypocrisy of male chauvinism: “In most traditional societies, and even to some extent in the west, the entire responsibility for protecting morality is placed squarely on our (supposedly delicate and weak) shoulders. That this should be so is astounding – are men so feeble-minded and weak-willed that they are so easily led astray?… Moreover, such notions of women’s moral burden are in stark contrast to the Quran, where the command to lower one’s gaze and guard one’s modesty is given to men first.”
While moralists can argue that God commands mercy and justice among His people, and that all He basically asks of us is that we not wrong each other, realists can’t deny that there are plenty of egoists who would view only those aspects of Islam that benefit themselves as laws, while those aspects of Islam that require more in depth personal responsibility, they would view as mere moral recommendations.
As the weaker sex, women are always going to be vulnerable to various forms of oppression, tyranny and dehumanization. We cannot be fools.