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City of Brass

does the hijab protect women from harassment?

Billboard in Tehran: “Hijab is Security”

The image above is a billboard in Tehran which makes a clumsy case for wearing the hijab – it “protects” the woman like a candy wrapper from the attention of men. The degrading analogy of a woman as a piece of candy and a man as a housefly aside, the implicit message is that hijab acts as a shield against unwanted attention. But the problems with this argument are 1. it puts responsibility for avoiding harassment on the victim of the harassment (the woman) instead of on the perpetrator (the man), and 2. its easily proved untrue with evidence, as almost any hijab-wearing woman who has traveled outside the West can tell you first hand.

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Two recent pieces make the case in more detail. The first, by Josh Shahryar, details how as a 6-year old child in Pakistan he had to escort his 11-year old sister to school while she wore the full niqab. Despite his presence, she still endured obscene gestures and comments. After the personal anecdote (which is a must-read), he quotes various well-known Islamic scholars making the same case as the billboard, and notes,

The myth that there’s a correlation between the hijab and a low incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women actually systematically victimizes them. Men are doing women a disservice in that they are placing blame on women who don’t cover themselves, as well as insinuating that a woman who is attacked while wearing a headscarf somehow did something to deserve it. As with all victim-blaming, this prevents women from speaking up about sexual assault. Many mainstream conservative Muslim clerics and pseudo-social scientists—like Zakir Naik, in this video, which is a must-see for anyone wanting to learn about this issue—openly imply or proclaim that women who don’t wear the hijab are calling for sexual harassment and sexual violence. They go so far as correlating a woman’s right to wear what she wants in the West with a high incidence of sexualized violence against women there.

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They conveniently ignore all of the reports on how sexualized violence is underreported in many conservative Islamic societies because of its taboo nature and the stigma associated with it; they ignore the fact that sexualized violence leads to the honor killings of many of the women victims each year.

Perverts are perverts. They will sexually harass and commit sexual violence against women who wear the hijab or a miniskirt because they are perverts—not because women have exercised their right to wear what they want.

This is not an argument against hijab. It is an argument against using sexual harassment as a clumsy rationale for hijab (or to justify extreme interpretations such as niqab) – an argument based on trying to scare women into wearing it rather then encouraging them to wear it out of pride and identity.

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In fact, when worn willingly and with the intention of self-empowerment and identity, the hijab is a powerful symbol of women’s authority and self-sovereignty. The fact that hijab-wearing women are subjected to abuse and harassment has nothing to do with hijab, it has to do with uneducated men and degraded social values. The harassment does not undermine hijab’s value; it is irrelevant to it, and this is why the “candy wrapper” argument is so pernicious. It takes what is a woman’s strength – her control over her self – and turns it into a weakness.

As Shahryar points out, perverts are perverts regardless of whether a woman wears hijab or a bikini. We need to only look at Egyptian girl beaten by Egyptian security in Cairo or the 20-men group assault on a 16-year old girl in Guwahati, India as evidence that what a victim is wearing is totally irrelevant.

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The second piece, in AltMuslimah by Altaaf Saadi (a muslim woman who wears hijab), tells the heartbreaking case of “Noor” (name changed for privacy). Again, it’s worth reading the original for the anecdote. She goes on to comment,

Focusing on the clothing and behavior of the survivor is wrong for two main reasons. First, blaming the survivor falls under what psychologists call the “Just World Phenomenon.” That is, most of us want to believe in a world that is fair and just – that bad things do not happen to good people who are cautious and not involved in risky behavior. This worldview leads us to conjure up ways to blame the victim. Second, in a patriarchal environment, our attention to women’s dress and character has been used to shift the focus away from the perpetrator’s actions. As recent twists in the DSK case demonstrate, the media coverage has taken a turn to blaming the victim, neglecting the bruises found in her groin area, Strauss-Kahn’s abrupt departure from the hotel following the incident, and that he has been accused of being a sexual predator by other women with more social power.

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These two factors are a great part of why existing efforts to combat sexual violence focus on lecturing women about what they should be doing to avoid rape, instead of talking to men about the fact they do not have the right to women’s bodies without explicit consent. In Muslim circles, some believe sexual violence will disappear once a woman wears the headscarf properly, and is both appropriately vigilant and modest in conduct and character. The burden of reigning in sexual promiscuity falls on her shoulders alone. And yet even with full compliance of these Islamic moral expectations, Muslim women are still sexually assaulted every day.

It is time we challenge these hijab-protects-from-rape and flimsy-clothing-incites-rape axioms. We must reject the victim blaming rhetoric made by those in our communities, even if they are clerics or in other roles of leadership. Challenge those who say women must wear hijab as a protection against the advances of men and comparisons of how “our community” is superior to the “Western community.” It is true that many women choose to wear hijab so society views them for more than just their bodies, and it is true that Islam cherishes modesty in both genders. But as someone who wears the headscarf, I find many more beautiful reasons to wear it than just to protect myself from men’s sexual advances.

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Again, note the affirmation of hijab as a positive force. By treating it as nothing more than a defense mechanism, and an ineffective one at that, the inherent value of hijab is undermined – and that is exactly what socially-powerful males (in the muslim world, and the West) want – they desire the erosion of hijab as a symbol of female sovereignity and its perversion into nothing more than an instrument of their own control.

Women who do not wear hijab are no more or less likely to be assaulted than women who do. We need to be able to discuss assault, domestic violence, and sexual predation as the problem they are – of male dysfunction, not female error or invitation. Every muslim male needs to read these essays and be able to articulate this basic argument in defense of women and in defense of hijab.

I think I am fortunate to know so many women who do wear hijab, not out of some misplaced sense of fear of harassment but for the truly beautiful reasons of self-empowerment, identity, and to be closer to Allah. Wearing it is not easy for women, but it carries rewards that defy male understanding. I am humbled by their power.

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