Swami Aksharananda has concluded that “No matter how supposedly provocatively a woman chooses to dress, it is not an invitation to rape.” For a reason that escapes us, the point is made as if in opposition to a position taken by myself or Moeen ul-Hack. This is not so.
Neither myself nor Bro Moeen advanced that appearance of the victim should be elevated to the level of a legal defence to be used by rapists. My position is that one of the factors that could contribute to the incidence of rape would be perception of the victim by the perpetrator. Then, there is the social and cultural ambience in which the crime is committed and the contribution of dress (as a lifestyle choice) to creating or nourishing this ambience.
Islam is clear on this score. Rape is a crime, in all circumstances, including war. And all victims, in whatever social or gender category they find themselves, whether raped in a home or in public, have the same rights, which may extend to monetary compensation and certainly include the satisfaction of seeing their aggressor punished. It is a crime that may be punishable by death. In this case Islamic legislation is even more stringent than what is current in most countries. Islam treats rape as a class of assault on the public rights and decency (hiraaba) and recognises that it is non-consensual, often violent, and may be motivated by varying factors. None of these factors diminishes the seriousness of the crime or the punishment it attracts.
The question of Islam’s approach to rape is not, therefore the basis of the discussion. The question is whether the behaviour of woman (or of men) invites, suggests and creates a context in which access to illegal sexual intercourse of any type is facilitated. The way women dress is understood to be one such case, even if, in the West today the message sent by dress is interpretable in a situational framework. Meaning that decking out in the equivalent of underwear on a beach is acceptable in many cultures. Identical dress in a situation that the culture regards as serious or solemn is not regarded in the same fashion. It is admissible that the sexual stimuli, visual, that are available on a beach have now invaded the television screen and feature in advertising and other campaigns.
The understanding is that the visual stimuli, sexed and evocative, help attracts attention and sell the products on which they are grafted. This also is beyond dispute. The point being that the female body, in bikini in a public context, in societies that do not normally offer men in loin cloths and women in thongs, serves a function linked to its sexuality, and therefore creates an ambience in which the practice of one type of sexual activity (showing and admiring) is open and public. An entire attitude to sex and libertinage occurs as both result and cause of this development. Cross-dressing men are similarly understood to be communicating something in public that goes beyond a personal taste.
The above is common knowledge.
What Islam has done, as has traditional Judaism and as had some previous forms of Christianity, is to save public sexuality from the ‘situational‘ hypocrisy that ends up in the Playboy magazine attitude to women, and the pornographic industry rendering female bodies a visual good to be consumed. Islam says that visual intimacy (such as it is permitted) is limited to the interaction of the married couple. In private. And that the boundary of the private is fixed at your front door and that even at home adults need to be careful and modest in dress.
Other opinions, differing from the Muslim’s, are abroad and other social models for managing public sexuality are available.
Since our position is close to traditional Hindu practice in these matters we do not understand what it is that that the Swami is advocating or objecting to. He has not disengaged from the idea of public modesty as such. His prime concern seems to be with who is advocating the public modesty and on what authority. His problem seems to be with an imperious Islam proclaiming standards fixed in a divine authority that is, as he puts it, unquestionable. The conception of Islam at work here accords with the sentiments of many Muslims, but in fact flies in the face of an encouragement by the Prophet Muhammad that we question, analyse, interrogate everything with the exception of the nature of Allah…”This religion is based on logic…” a hadith (prophetic saying) warns.
In taking his analysis in this direction the Swami in fact turns to a matter that has been greatly exercising Islamic scholars and the general Muslim community of late, as it has flown through the Muslim community for generations. The matter is that of ‘Islam and current definitions of modernity.‘ And it is perceived as the interpretation and application of Islamic principles of social and societal organisation across space and time. And while it is true, as Swami Aksharananda states, that Islam “sees itself as full, complete, and absolute, a self-sufficient civilisational paradigm….” (Well put!), Islam sees itself also as ceaselessly renewing itself as fresh social and cultural situations arise that require the extension or re-interpretation of founding principles. And thus their justification in an exegetical process seen as dynamic. The fact is that Islam sees itself as establishing relationships that are both natural and necessary, and therefore life-enhancing, between the human being and every other element of the universe. It defines who is the Supreme and what our relationship with him should be. Who we are and our rights and responsibilities to our own nature. Who women and children are in a hierarchichal universe and our rights and responsibilities. It extends the definitions to our relationship with our material possessions, with animals, the environment, other faiths – these relationships having been defined in the masterwork of the Holy Quran and fixed in the ‘fitra‘ or software/hardware that fixes our human nature, within limits set that we cannot sensibly extend. Life and living is constrained by our need to function within the limits set by our nature.
Islam defines itself and is defined by its conceiver and sustainer, as Peace, and all that tends to harmony and equity and equilibrium. The idea to be contemplated then, is not whether Islam vaunts of itself as super-ordinate, but whether, in its recommendations and legislation governing the network of relationships a man knows during his life, there is injustice or harm to others.
Islam establishes an order in which the head of the human family is the male partner. But it prescribes consultation with the women, it specifies that Allah has put “love and compassion” between us. This is his will and the bedrock on which the relationship is founded. Women have equal rights. It is written in the Quran. The fact that all communities have not lived this truth is not singular to Islam and the historical reasons were well laid out in the previous letter from Bro Moeen.
We do not judge Hinduism by the latest reports on bride burning for dowry payment, or any of the list of bizarreries with which the press regales us. And we feel no particular attachment to the man with the Muslim name committing this or that horror. Religions, like ideologies, have from their very start been used as vehicles for the best and the worst of behaviours.
A mark of our love and respect for our faith is precisely that fact that care is taken that it not drift into submission to the vices of the age.
As to the nature of God, Supreme and Unique, we understand this to be the nature of Godhood. We understand truth to be in clear contra-distinction to error. The alternatives, relativisms of all sorts, are declensions of a chaos that renders all reality unreadable. It is in the nature of man, as legislator, to fix a body of the human law on first principles of an unassailable truth. It is true of maths or physics or linguistics or bio-chemistry. The universe is, in its physical as well as moral sense based on truths. Human nature Islam teaches, is unvarying and a truth. Laws that govern it have to be based on this truth. And invariable.