Niqaab is not relevant to sexual harassment

A picture of two women in niqaab, one a dark purple scarf with matching face veil and one a navy blue scarf and veil, both wearing jackets over a long black abaya with visible leather shoes. Two women are facing them, one of them holding a large TV camera with two large grey microphones. The scene is a shopping street with an "Arke" shop behind them.What will women gain from squawking about sex pests? Niqab | Daily Mail Online

This piece appeared in today’s Daily Mail and has been widely derided by both Muslims and feminists on Twitter, and for the most part rightly so. It peddles the old cliché that ‘feminists’ who demand that men cease propositioning or touching up their female colleagues at work, or people who interview them or otherwise do business with them, are “Victorian prudes” whose demands will lead to women having to cover up every inch of flesh by wearing something like the Muslim woman’s niqaab (as a Twitter pal has noted, at least he didn’t call it a burka). This is a spurious argument.

Hitchens says that Fallon is one of the worst defence secretaries of recent years, his policies having left the army a “skeleton” and the Navy “dead in the water, largely motionless and stripped of its most basic capacities”, but lost his job not for this but “because he is alleged not to be safe in mixed company”. I’m not sure the criticism is valid as the policies he implemented were the government’s; it was the government that dictated that spending on the Armed Forces had to be cut to the bone and this meant they could not build or buy the aircraft carriers, etc., they demanded. He also tells us that we “have lost all touch with reality” and that we ignore major failings and lash out over trivial indiscretions:

The country is in the midst of its biggest constitutional crisis for a century, and wobbling on the precipice of bankruptcy.

The welfare system is about to melt down. And you think the most important thing in your lives is a hunt for long-ago cases of wandering hands, or tellers of coarse jokes? Yes, you do.

However, much of this was justified by the previous (Cameron; I include the pre- and post-2015 governments in this) government in order to reduce the deficit and then on ideological grounds (as when members of the Cabinet were questioned about the impacts of welfare cuts on disabled people in particular). The country’s threatened bankruptcy is the result of Brexit, which Hitchens supports (though he advocates the Norway option as a ‘quick and easy’ Brexit option). I do not see the ‘constitutional crisis’; Scottish independence is well and truly on the back burner, while Brexit does not really count as that; we will still be a Parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy and an outdated electoral system in or out of the EU. The people voted for all this, Brexit by a narrow margin and the government in as much as the rules allow.

Hitchens attributes some opinions to feminists in general that, for the most part, they don’t have, or at least most don’t. They don’t believe in a “feminised society”; many of them regard gender itself as a set of stereotypes that fosters male violence and oppresses women. They don’t advocate that women change their dress (or any other aspect of their behaviour) to avoid male harassment, although some disagree, especially as regards drink. The idea that objecting to powerful men making unwanted advances to women in less powerful positions (which is always the case; we never hear of this happening when the woman is the boss) makes them allies of “militant Islam” is laughable.

And the dress codes (which for most women do not include niqaab which, by the way, are not always black, despite the paucity of pictures online of any other version) and separation of the sexes in Islam is not even suggested as a preventive for sexual harassment, let alone rape; it’s to prevent temptation, desire for what one can’t have and dissatisfaction with one’s spouse, if one is married, and sin. There actually is a concept of chivalry and honour in Islam, and not touching a woman who isn’t lawful to you — your wife or close family member — is part of it, not least because it protects the woman from any suggestion of impropriety. In many Muslim countries, the sexual harassment problem is just as bad as it is here if not worse, particularly in the streets, for a whole host of reasons — youth unemployment (meaning a lot of young men hanging around with nothing to do), marriage customs that result in men being unmarried until their 30s and pornography among them, but the most important being the same reason we have here: people will always blame the woman for being too sexy, too showy or just there and not the man for not keeping his hands to himself. No amount of modesty and propriety can protect a woman from a man who is a lawless aggressor, be he a manager or a priest.

It may be true that some of the accusations are of things that happened a long time ago, and aren’t of the most serious nature, but as the comedian (and former mental health nurse) Jo Brand (very nicely) pointed out on Have I Got News for You last Friday, many women have to put up with a lot of these incidents; any of them may have been the umpteenth that day for that woman, or may have come after a more threatening encounter on the way to work, or whatever. It’s no bad thing that we are finally having a conversation about the way powerful men — and it is mostly men — use sex to intimidate those less powerful than themselves, whether they be in politics or in the world of entertainment, and it is no surprise that friends of some of the guilty men are squealing.

Image source: Roel Wijnants. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License, version 2.0.

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