No matter how supposedly provocatively a woman chooses to dress it is not an invitation to rape

Dear Editor,
This letter is in reference to Mr Moeen-ul-Hack’s captioned, ‘Violence against women cannot be condoned,‘ (Stabroek News, 19 Decem-ber), a rejoinder to my earlier letter, ‘What constitutes modesty in dress?‘ (Stabroek News, 17 Dec).   I detect sincerity in his approach and a civility which must be taken into consideration and applauded.  I will also refer to Mr Abu Bakr’s ‘Dress is not all about personal taste,‘ (Stabroek News, 19 December).

As I have been thinking on what I hope would be a productive engagement to these responses, I could not help wondering if the Gods and the prophets of the dominant organized monotheistic creeds were female how different would all our revelations have been.

And, would we be even having this discussion today?
The Human Rights Commission of (the Islamic Republic of) Pakistan Annual Report for 2010 shows that there were 2,900 cases of reported rapes in the country. The country’s newspapers that did the analysis claimed that close to 95% of all rapes are unreported.  And, we could all hazard a guess that these women, girls and infants were raped not for want of modest dress.  My contention is that no matter how supposedly provocative or immodest a woman may choose to dress, it is not an invitation to rape, and most certainly does not justify it.

But, both Messrs Hack and Abu Bakr, deriving their perspectives from the literal and absolute word of the Quran, maintain that the “immodest” and “provocative” dress of the female semiotically suggests moral depravity, licentiousness and promiscuity, leading to rape.What I find truly astonishing in this exchange so far, is that neither gentleman has seen it necessary to even mention the perpetrator, as if, ipso facto, he is to be exculpated.  Are we to pity the poor helpless rapist who is a mere victim of the blandishments and temptation of the “provocative” and “immodest” female?

This interpretation could lead one to the conclusion that condemnation of the woman and exoneration of the male is an entrenched position in Islam, especially when it seems to have wider support. A respected and well-known scholar and commentator, Abu A’la Mawdudi accused Muslims who advocate ‘Western’ rights for women of abandoning the “sense of honour, chastity, moral purity, matrimonial loyalty, undefiled lineage, and the like virtues.”  In this regard, the only right he urged for women was the right to respect their chastity!

How are we to understand this purported Islamic interpretation, especially when it comes to the rights of the individual and their violation?  Many writers seem to take the path of cultural relativism, suggesting that the above interpretation of rape is a culture bound behaviour prevalent in areas under the domination of Islam.

I believe, however, that the answer lies in the way that Islam sees itself as a full, complete, and absolute, self-sufficient civilisational paradigm in need of no tutoring, especially from the West, its main civilizational rival seen to be suffused with Judeo-Christian values.  Islam perceives and projects itself not only as antithetical to anything extra-Islamic, but infinitely superior as well.

The source of this self-perception is founded on the authority of the Quran which in turn is held by Muslims to be the inviolable, infallible, literal and verbatim word of God conceived in heaven itself and transmitted to humanity through the medium of its prophet, the perfect man. It is perfect and inimitable in language, style, message and form. Given this understanding the text is beyond interpretation.  It is not susceptible to metaphor and symbolism.

To alter or interpret any Quranic text to bring it in line with contemporary universal values will imply its imperfectability, and worse the imperfectability of God, and compromise Islam’s civilizational self-perception.  To suggest a history of the Quran and a metaphoric interpretation is to offend Muslim sensibilities.

But it goes further than this.  Any attempt based on any method of textual criticism and analysis that will historicise the Quran would in effect deligitimise the entire historical experience of the Muslim community and would render meaningless the struggles of the last fourteen centuries.  The Quran is the word of God, and any questioning of its sanctity and authority, no matter how infinitesimal and trite it may seem in the eyes of others, cannot be allowed on account of the wider implication.

It follows then, despite a mountain of evidence and impeccable reasoning, which will not be “evidence” and “reason” if they contradict the Quran, and the massive changes, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world has undergone in the last 1,400 years, which will not be accepted if they consist of innovation contrary to the Quran, Messrs Hack and Abu Bakr must hold on to their position however demeaning and reprehensible it may be to others, in this case women.  So, if blaming the woman for rape and exonerating the man is in fact what the Quran says, then in no way can there be any change in this perspective.

Are we then hopelessly in the face of an impregnable impasse consisting of an Islamic universalism and absolutism on the one hand and on the other a Christian one, though the latter is somewhat more nuanced and modulated since events such as the Enlightenment?
Does our collective salvation lie in considering many of the world’s other perspectives such as found in the traditional theologies of African religions and those of the Americas, long demonised as pagan, heathen, animist but which have taught us the art of living in diversities? May we also benefit from the patient wisdom of the East, where truth is not seen as absolute but always contextually, in terms of gradations and approximations, where possibilities are infinite?

Yours faithfully,
Swami Aksharananda

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