Shame on You: Shame Cartoons

Shame on You: Shame Cartoons September 23, 2008

They’re popping up everywhere in harmless-looking packaging: shame cartoons.

A quick search online will turn up a multitude of articles, op-eds and full-on rants appealing to women’s sense of shame (One particularly delightful article was titled “I appeal to your sense of shame my Muslim sister.”)

And then we have cartoons.

The first kind are pretty straightforward: they want you to get veiled. But rather than engage you in discussions about interpretation of hadith or Qur’an, they try and shame you into wearing it.

As expected, most come across as being judgmental, preachy and rude. And ones that focus so much on women’s dress kind of miss out on an important point: what you put on your head is not necessarily more important than what goes on inside it.

The “hijabi shame cartoons” start from the fairly innocent “the veil is an obligation just like prayer” written next to a woman covering her hair and praying, to the more extreme: I’ve actually seen one of a woman wearing niqab (face veil) which shows her eyes standing in front of a fire (!) because according to that author, showing your eyes is haram (divinely forbidden).

Let’s take a cartoon that’s ‘in the middle’:

First off, it assumes that there is only one correct interpretation of hijab (veil),* and that those who wear it ‘improperly’ (let alone not wear it at all) are in the wrong, wrong, wrong.

Second, it equates dress with behavior, which in some ways is even worse than stereotypes of veiled women (oppressed, asexual, powerless, helpless, low IQ etc). Hijab is seen as the be-all and end-all. I’m a proud hijabi myself, but that doesn’t mean I was automatically transformed into a perfect Muslim the moment I wore it. Just because a woman wears a veil doesn’t meant that she doesn’t struggle with temptations just like any other person, or that she’s better than an unveiled girl.

(I particularly like the touch of designing the cartoon so the face of the veiled woman is ‘glowing’ because she’s so ‘good’).

The second type of shame cartoons are a hundred times worse. Because not only are they trying to shame women into dressing (and acting) in a certain way, but they’re trying to make them think that if they don’t veil and dress ‘properly’ they’re at fault if they get sexually harassed.

There’s a multitude of them out there, with the most recent being the “Veil your lollipop” ads, featuring a covered and uncovered lollipop—with the latter surrounded by flies and with the tagline “You can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself.”

Similarly another ad features a covered and uncovered sweet, this time with the tagline: “A veil to protect or eyes will molest.”

The ad campaigns have attracted furor from local and international press. I don’t know what’s more insulting: the idea that women are candy, or that men are flies.

As has been said numerous times, the veil doesn’t protect women from sexual harassment, which is about power and control, not sexuality. Let’s take Egypt as an example. The recent Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) study told us that in a country where over 80% of the women are veiled, 83% of women are harassed. During the Eid festivities in Egypt in 2006, mass sexual harassments went on downtown (video here), with hundreds of men sexually assaulting women.

What’s worse about the study (which surveyed 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 foreign women) is that 62% of Egyptian men surveyed admitted to harassment, and 53% blamed women for bringing it on. Sixty percent of the respondents (male and female) said that scantily clad women are more likely to be harassed though in reality 72% of the women who said they’d been harassed were veiled. But the worst part is the lack of understanding by Egyptian women that the harasser is a criminal and women had a right to dress as they pleased (read more about the study in Faith’s post here and about the “Respect yourself” campaign against sexual harassment in Egypt here.

According to the ECWR:

“[The cartoons] ignore [Egypt’s] large Christian minority, promote wearing the veil for wrong reasons, objectify women, portray men as mindless insects, contradict statistics showing that women who wear a veil, even the full face veil, experience high levels of harassment, and contradict religion’s call for respect and personal responsibility for all.”

Harassment in Arabic is “tahroush”, but is referred to in colloquial Arabic as mu’aksa (“teasing”), which is a very light-hearted term that detracts from the seriousness of the situation.

Attaching religion to sexual harassment just fuels the harassers, giving them an excuse for their behavior and coerces women into dressing a certain way when they may not be fully convinced. The ‘blame the victim’ mentality is only compounded by shame cartoons, which absolve the harassers of any wrongdoing. (Mona El-Tahawy has a great post about shame here)

There are also many cartoons that compare veiled women to pearls (where the veil is their ‘protective covering’). These ads are particularly annoying because as we know, the veil does not necessarily offer ‘protection,’ which is a kind of a weak reason to veil in the first place. And that’s another thing these cartoons fail to realize—the desire to ‘cover’ is multifaceted, and is not necessarily related to religion.

For the cartoons that do realize women veil for other reasons, their reasoning is even worse: not only are they trying to brainwash women into believing they are at fault for sexual harassment—they don’t frame veiling as a religious duty. Instead, they say that ‘decent’ girls cover while ‘indecent’ girls don’t. If you take that to its logical conclusion: only ‘indecent’ girls get harassed.

Translation: Who is the happy one? The good woman: Fulfills all her obligations and recites the Qur’an; Vigilant about modesty and calls to God; Does lots of supplementary acts and listens to helpful tapes.

The ‘not good’ woman: Goes to the mall a lot; Wears short and tight [clothing]; Copies the infidels and watches satellite TV channels.

So, what is it about shame? Why are we trying to shame women?

The answer lies in the fact that for many cultures, especially Arab ones, ‘honor’ lies with women, whose reputation, behavior, virginity, and appearance becomes a benchmark for the respectability of a culture.

Arab cultures, for the most part, are ‘shame’ rather than ‘guilt’ cultures, where the reactions and treatment of society mandates an individual’s behavior, rather than his or her personal feelings of right and wrong.

The concept of shame is often confused with modesty. So many cartoons emphasize that you should be ashamed of your body, as if it was an unwanted appendage. Hayaa’ (modesty), an important part of Islam (regardless of how it’s interpreted) is often translated as shame, which is not only incorrect but goes against the fact that Islam says “Certainly We created man in the best make” (95:4) and promotes healthy sexual relationships within the proper framework of marriage.

Appealing to women’s sense of shame (which has already been ‘cultivated’ since they were young) in order to get them to dress in a certain way is a shortcut for the lazy who do not want to engage in proper discussions with them and only care about appearance. But browbeating women for the actions of men is, I’m sorry, just low. How come there are no cartoons shaming men for treating women like objects? No cartoons shaming men into realizing God created men and women as equals?

Search as hard as I could, I could not find one cartoon pointed at men and aimed at shaming them. The best I could come up with were some radio and TV ads that are currently airing in Egypt asking men not to harass women because…wait for it…harassment is harmful to the economy! You see, harassment tarnishes the image of Egypt in the eyes of tourists and they might not want to come, so you should stop. At least during tourist season. You can watch one of the ads here.

But that’s enough from me. What do you all think?

*Please let’s not get into arguments about what constitutes proper dress/whether hijab (however you define it) is mandatory, etc.

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