Perpetuating the stereotype of the female

Dear Editor,

Before a person finishes reading this letter, thousands of women all over the world would have been raped.  Among the victims would be the young and the old, rich and poor, married and unmarried.  They will be from every country and culture in the world including those areas where women are draped from head to toe.

Contrary to his protestations, Mr Abu Bakr returns to the narrative that a woman’s dress “nourishes” the “ambience” in which rape is committed (‘The perception of the victim by the perpetrator could be one of the factors contributing to the incidence of rape’ SN, December 31, 2012). The female dress provides the “perception” of her lewdness, hence rape.  To appreciate the gravamen of this contention and grasp its disastrous implications for society as a whole and the victim herself, we need to locate this discussion in the Guyanese, if not the larger Caribbean, society.

We live in a society, with a popular dominant creole calypso culture permeated with sexual innuendos and stereotypes demeaning to the female.  We don’t have to look to the “decadent” west, as we ourselves have mastered the technique and style that revel in the objectification of the female body. When this pervasive mindset is supported by arguments made by respected men based on their religious convictions that a woman’s dress is responsible for her rape, the female is further demonized and traumatised.

Imagine, a rape victim reporting her ordeal to a police officer who feels that her mode of dress inflamed the passions of her attacker; imagine a lawyer defending a rape accused who believes the same thing; and add to this prosecutors, magistrates, judges, doctors and nurses, care givers, media people; and to add to all of this imagine one’s parents, siblings, and the community at large sharing the same belief, then we will be able to appreciate why the ul-Hack-Abu Bakr proposition helps to perpetuate the stereotype of the female.
But there are other implications. In his book, Book of Counsel for Kings, al-Ghazzali, arguably the greatest theologian in Islam’s history, informs us that as a result of Eve’s disobedience of eating from the forbidden tree, God has cursed all woman kind with eighteen kinds of punishments. So, to suggest that a woman’s wanton dress code has the power to seduce the man helplessly leading him commit rape is to re-enforce the Eve syndrome of the woman as an eternal temptress.

Secondly, the myth of the female temptress, discerned by her mode of dress, inflaming the passions of the man reduces the male to a helpless creature victim. While the female is endowed with effective agency using her mysterious sexual potency to lure the male, he on the other hand, a helpless victim of the woman’s satanic guiles, is denied any agency and responsibility.  The myth of the modest dress essentialises both female and male sexuality.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the literature on the subject tells that many rape victims are assailed with self-doubt in the aftermath of the attack, and to tell a victim that somehow she brought it on, provoked it, or by her dress helped to create the “ambience” for the rape, is to compound the victim’s self-doubt and to make her a victim all over again.  There is hardly anything that one can say to a victim that is ever likely to give comfort and solace, apart from giving unquestioning, unconditional love and compassion.   There is nothing else that a woman could have done to prevent the rape.  Care givers and the victim herself need to know this.

Mr Abu Bakr assures us that rape is a crime in Islam and that the severity of the punishment exceeds that which prevails elsewhere. First, however, the perpetrator has to be found and convicted. But Mr Abu Bakr knows that rape is virtually impossible to prove given the demands of Islamic law that requires four reliable male witnesses to testify to having seen the actual violation of the woman.  Think of a rapist who breaks into a female dormitory and rapes a student!

But this is not all. Since she is most unlikely to prove rape, she would in effect be admitting to committing either adultery or fornication, both of which are crimes under Islamic law with heavy penalties, including stoning to death. The irony of this situation is such that while the alleged rapist is innocent until proved guilty, the victim is presumed to be guilty until she proves her innocence! Hence large numbers of women in Pakistan and Iran, to name only two Islamic countries, are committed to prison precisely for this reason, where they are now subjected to “custodial rapes” seen as part of their punishment.

Mr Abu Bakr also knows that the expression “illegal sexual intercourse” to which he refers and which is defined by the Arabic word ‘zina,’ connotes consensuality and the willingness of two persons to engage in sexual intercourse, and covers both adultery and fornification.  And since it does not mean rape, one is only left to conjecture whether there is such a thing as rape in Islam, as it is universally understood.

It is clear from the above then that it is not just a matter of this or that dress code.  One has to be concerned with the reasons, implications and consequences of the assertion.  This is why my entire being rebels against the notion that a modest dress prevents rape and an immodest one encourages the rapist.   This is why also the “traditional Hindu practice” is in no way close to what is being advocated here.
Yours faithfully,
Swami Aksharananda

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