Shaikh Hilali, Westerners and rape

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In the past week, the storm over the sermon delivered a month ago by the Egyptian imam Taj al-Din al-Hilali, the imam of a major mosque in Sydney, Australia, and supposed “mufti of Australia”, has broken, with commentary on a number of Muslim blogs (and no doubt many more non-Muslim ones), the sermon being front-page news even here in the UK and becoming a main topic of conversation on this morning’s Vanessa Feltz show. Feltz blatantly misquoted the imam, suggesting that he had compared any woman covered less than completely to uncovered meat, which is not what he said at all. What he did say was pretty offensive, however. (More: Austrolabe, Abu Eesa, Umar Lee [1], [2], Muslim Apple, Muslim Anarchist [1], [2].)

You can find a transcript, sourced from The Australian, at the BBC News site here. He very clearly conflates adultery (he is likely to have said zina, which refers to adultery and fornication) with rape:

But when it comes to adultery, it’s 90% the women’s responsibility. Why? Because a woman possesses the weapon of seduction. It is she who takes off her clothes, shortens them, flirts, puts on make-up and powder and takes to the streets, God protect us, dallying. It’s she who shortens, raises and lowers. Then it’s a look, then a smile, then a conversation, a greeting, then a conversation, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay jail. [laughs]. Then you get a judge, who has no mercy, and he gives you 65 years.

The reference is likely, as other commentators have noted, to be to Bilal Skaf, who received a 55-year jail term for being the ringleader in a series of gang rapes against young women in Sydney in 2000. A jail term that long for rape is never the result of a judge’s lack of mercy; common rapists commonly receive sentences of between a tenth and a fifth of that, and many receive less. One would know from merely looking at that sentence that the crimes involved were very, very highly aggravated, and in this case the victims were often teenagers and the gangs sometimes fourteen-strong. Australia is not the old Deep South where such sentences are given out for racist motives.

It might seem obvious to anyone reading it that the scenario Shaikh Hilaly described, with a girl flirting with a man, or even a group of men, while dressed provocatively may well get the woman male sexual attention (sometimes this is the attention, sometimes not) and lead to an illicit sexual act, but it almost never leads to rape, much less to gang rape. It’s a very long way from making gestures and suggestions to a woman to raping her.

Umar Lee blogged on this earlier in the week and took apart the common objections to the suggestion that a woman is laying herself open to trouble by dressing in a sexually provocative fashion. It is not a victim’s fault that he is robbed even if he has laid his valuables open to view and walked in an area known for being infested with robbers, but he has in fact invited the attacks. If we are actually talking about women being attacked in a public place, the analogy falls down because most rapists are not looking for a sexy figure but for an easy target. Rapists, like bullies, are cowards, and they are not going to rape a woman who is 5ft 10in tall and clearly well built, however sluttily she is dressed unless that is really the rapists’s fetish and he has the necessary weaponry. He is more likely to pick on a more vulnerable looking (i.e. smaller and weaker) victim, even if she is well-dressed even by our standards.

Umar concedes that there “is never any excuse to rape a woman or to assault her and all such violators of these laws should be severely punished”; however, the “contributory negligence” a woman shows by dressing in a given way or by getting into a man’s car (because she believes the car to be a minicab and she needs to get home and does not want to be out on the streets at night) has actually been used by judges, in the UK and probably elsewhere, as mitigating factors which reduce a man’s sentence; in one case (admittedly, as long ago as 1982), such “negligence” (she was hitch-hiking) led to the rapist being given a £2,000 fine. The fact that the man had picked the woman up, knowing that she only wanted a lift home and possibly intending in advance to rape her, was apparently as nothing in the light of her foolishness (or possibly desperation) in getting into his car. There is this notion that men are somehow less responsible when they attack a woman, which I find offensive given that I somehow find it within myself to walk past women in various states of dress and undress every day without having the urge to jump on them. In reality, men rape because they want to, not because they have to.

Muslim Apple noted that this was another case of a foreign-born imam who does not understand the culture of the country in which he works and has chosen to settle. It’s not just imams who are guilty of this, however; my guess is that a fair proportion of the immigrants who came to this country from the Muslim world do not realise that things they perceive as indecent are not considered so here, at least in certain situations. For example, a swimsuit does not cover much more than a woman’s underwear, but much as we Muslims may dislike it, a woman wearing that, and nothing else, in or near a mixed swimming pool is considered perfectly normal in the west. It is in no way representative of how the woman dresses or behaves outside that situation.

If there is one thing about we can generalise with regard to western dress and behaviour, it’s that you can’t generalise, if you’ll excuse the cliché. The fact that a woman dresses in a short skirt, particularly if it’s a thick one and she has a pair of tights on underneath, no more makes her a slut than a woman dressing in a fashion one might think less than feminine makes her a lesbian. There are in fact lots of women, particularly middle-aged women, who live in jeans and T-shirts, there is at least one aspect of almost every season’s fashions which would offend Muslim sensibilities when worn in public, and there are lots of lesbians who are really rather feminine and whom you would not know to be gay unless you really knew them, or they told you.

But all this is academic given that rape is never acceptable, no matter how slutty the woman is or appears to be. You would be hard pressed to find any women in this part of the world, whether she is dressed in a miniskirt or in full Islamic dress with niqab, who would agree that a woman who was raped was “asking for it”, simply because of how traumatic rape is for the woman (and in the case of the woman in niqab, she may well have a sister or two who is not Muslim and not averse to wearing a miniskirt or a pair of tight trousers, and however much she disapproves of her sister’s lifestyle, she will not wish rape on her any more than on herself). It is not true that a woman who has sex outside of marriage (another thing which is common here; it is not uncommon for a couple to live together for years before marrying) will somehow not notice being raped because she is already so dirty - why do you think some rapists drug their victims by slipping a pill into their drinks first? Rape is a serious act of violence and is not comparable to a bit of teasing and ogling - however unpleasant and intimidating that itself feels.

Islam does not encourage men to act on every sexual impulse; it encourages continence, in both men and women. The fact that, in some places, vulgar Arab (and otherwise Muslim) men harrass women who pass them in the streets (and women who think they only do this to non-Muslim, or uncovered, women should know that in the Middle East, this happens to women in hijab as well) does not mean that they are acting according to Islam, and most religious Muslims do not want to be associated with them. It is disappointing that an imam would reinforce the stereotype by effectively allowing people to tar religious Muslims with the same brush as the faasiqeen (delinquents) who harrass women. Men, unlike cats, are human beings and responsible for their own actions, and the Shari’a takes a dimmer view of “diminished responsibility” than western law does - you can still be killed in retaliation if you kill someone who gave some sort of provocation, something which would result in a drastically reduced penalty in the UK - so how does this justify the notion that a woman’s dressing badly or flirting makes her responsible for a man’s attacking her? Rape is a man’s doing and a man’s responsibility, and whatever part a woman played in bringing about the situation in which it happened, it does not diminish the man’s responsibility for his own actions in the slightest.

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