Today the White House called on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus. ““Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said. “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need, like a confidential place to go, and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
He could have been addressing the Muslim world. As a community, we need to set our house straight. We need to change laws across the Muslim world to ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice, rather than forgiving them if they marry their victims, or worse, charging the victim with illegal sexual contact and punishing her while her attacker goes free. We need to rein in and obliterate jirga councils that prescribe the rape of innocent women as a communal punishment for families whose male members have transgressed in some way. We need to get serious about prosecuting those who harass women on the streets of the Muslim world. And most importantly, we need to be honest with ourselves about how mainstream and conservative Muslim rhetoric and theology around modesty, hijab, gender roles, and etiquette between the sexes enables harassment and rape, and excuses and encourages men to become harassers and rapists.
When we argue for hijab, modesty and restrictions on interactions between men and women for the sake of protecting women, we in effect make a statement that men are incapable of self-control, that they are born harassers and rapists who cannot be trusted to behave morally. When we argue that hijab is required to liberate us from the male gaze, we deny men’s ability to respect God’s command to lower their gaze when it becomes inappropriate. When we argue that women should be modest not only of dress, but also of speech, of glance, of step and movement, we empower the notion that men are nothing more than base desire waiting to be ignited. When we argue that men and women cannot mingle, work together, play together, eat together, or that women must be hidden away behind screens even during prayer when all focus is on the Divine, we give power to the idea that men cannot exert self-control and that the only impulse governing them is the sexual one.
Is it any wonder, when our arguments and theology are all based upon the premise that men cannot control themselves, that they are ruled by sexual drives and little else, that they live up to our expectations? Is it any wonder that sexual harassment and sexual assault are rampant in Muslim societies when our very conception of men, and of God’s conception of men, is so base?
Sadly, this theology of the weak man is rampant among Islamists, radicals, conservatives and more mainstream Muslim communities. And yet, it has little basis in the Qur’an. Men and women in the Qur’an are described as protecting friends of one another. (Chapter 9, verse 71). The verses about modesty address men and women asking each to exert self-control, and not to make a show of themselves. (Chapter 24, verse 31). In particular that verse advises women not to call attention to ourselves, advising us to control our desire to show off, to seek praise from others, to compete and to indulge our pride… that is, to control the very vice that led to satan’s downfall. It doesn’t say anything about modesty being needed because men will be driven to distraction by the sight of a women’s bosom or her hair, or that her practice of modesty is to protect her from men. Men, after all, are our allies, our protecting friends.
Even when the wives of the Prophet are advised to be careful how they talk, the Qur’an makes it clear that their circumstances are not like those of your average woman. They were, after all, the wives of the Prophet and people from all over the region came to them to curry favor or make requests of the Prophet through them. They were, in fact, in a unique position, just as the Qur’an says, and we should take the Qur’an at face value when it affirms that fact, rather than extrapolating and universalizing the verse.
The very fact that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a punishable offense in the Qur’an points to the fact that men can indeed resist temptation, and are in control of their actions regardless of what is going on around them. What sort of loving, just God would make men incapable of resisting women and then punishing them for living according to their very nature?
The bankruptcy of a theology that posits men cannot control their impulses is proven by the millions of men (both Muslim and non-Muslim) living in the West where women regularly dress in tight, short, and provocative clothing at school, at work, even in church. And yet, we do not see men stopped in their tracks, drooling and ogling. We do not see orgies on the street corners, or in the offices and churches. And while rape and sexual harassment are a problem, the problem is no where near the levels experienced in many Muslim countries.
Yes, it is way past time we set our house in order.