“Islam, the West, and Rape: Can We Agree?”

No topic more highlights the differences between Muslims and Westerners than their markedly different perceptions of an issue vital to women—rape.  We can appreciate the vast gulf by turning, first of all, to theUnited States.

Only forty years ago, American men who violated women sexually had little reason to fear retribution. Society—including the police—often assumed that the female victim had no one to blame but herself because she had “led the man on: through a combination of provocative attire and flirtatious talk.  Even if a woman possessed the strength to handle this “blame the victim” mentality and demand her day in court, the legal system made conviction very unlikely.  Operating on the presupposition that an accusation of rape was “easily made and difficult to defend against, even if the accused is innocent,” judges advised juries to convict only in the most clear-cut cases.  Consequently, if defense lawyers could demonstrate that the plaintiff had not fought the assailant with “all her might” or prove that she had a prior sexual history, jurors were encouraged to conclude that the sex had been consensual.  Due to the preceding cultural and legal factors, rapists usually went free. For example, in Chicago, during 1972, police received 3,562 complaints of sexual assault, but arrested only 833 men, and of these only thirty-three were convicted.

Today, after four decades of feminist activism, best-selling books, like Susan Brown Miller’s “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape,” blockbuster movies, such as “The Accused” (1989), not to mention thousands of “Take Back the Night” rallies, with their warnings about “date rape,” Americans have “zero tolerance” for sexual assault. And any man who dares to justify his violation of a woman with once-acceptable statements like “she was asking for it” or “she led me on,” can expect sympathy from neither the police nor a judge and jury.  Reflecting the nation’s profound disdain for rapists, in 1994 theUS. Congress passed its “Violence Against Women Act,” with overwhelming bipartisan support. This powerful piece of legislation increased the amount of prison time for those found guilty of gender violence and categorized rape as a male “hate crime” against females. It also allowed victims to seek financial damages from the men who attacked them, on the grounds that their civil rights had been violated. In terms of severity, then, rape has been put on a par with racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination.

Upon turning to the Muslim world, however, we find a diametrically opposite state of affairs, as the following case reveals. In 1992, during the sacred month of Ramadan, three men gang-raped a teenage girl in a crowded Cairobus-station. Although the girl had been impeccably veiled and accompanied by her mother, upon learning about this attack, the Egyptian public hurled abuse at the young woman and her parents, saying almost nothing about the culpability of those who had seized her virginity. Shortly thereafter, Egypt’s People’s Assembly began debating a “proposed law that would lay blame for rape on the victim’s family for allowing their daughter to leave home in the first place.” This perception of rape may seem antiquated and cruel to Westerners, but it flows from one of Islam’s bedrock assumptions about human nature.  Quite simply, men have been “created weak” (Quran 4:28) and are utterly incapable of restraining their sexual appetites in the presence of females.  Indeed, the sight, sound, touch, even the scent of a woman is deemed sufficient to “turn men into scary, irresponsible beasts,” in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s words, who have no choice but to satisfy their lusts.  So powerful is this assumption that Muslims—past and present—have enforced strict gender segregation and required females who leave their houses to put on ill-fitting and all-covering attire (Arabic, hijab), in order to avoid inflaming men’s passions.  If one subscribes to this view of make sexuality, it follows, quite naturally, that a woman, like the Egyptian girl mentioned above, is to blame for her own rape because by leaving home and crossing into the public sphere—male space—she was “asking for it.” Had she heeded the Quran’s admonition to “stay in your house” (33:33), the helpless man would not have been tempted to “jump” her.

A second presupposition underlies Muslims’ normative perception of sexual assault: the raped woman has dishonored her family, the attack’s true victims.  In Arabic/Islamic societies nothing is more treasured than a household’s honor or “sharaf.” This commodity is dependent, however, upon the chastity (Arabic, ird) of a family’s female members. Should a wife/sister/daughter indulge in illicit sex, the entire family suffers a humiliating loss of face.  Whether or not she consented is irrelevant because the final outcome remains the same: her ird has been tossed into the trash can.  And only cleansing violence against the tainted one can restore the family’s sharaf to an acceptable level.  Driven by this reasoning, Muslim men routinely dispatch their “just-spoiled” women folk.  Here is a graphic example from Turkey, but it could be Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, or many points in between: “Ignoring the pleas of his 14-year-old daughter to spare her life, Mehmet Halitogullari pulled on a wire wrapped around her neck and strangled her—supposedly to restore the family’s honor after she was kidnapped and raped… ‘I decided to kill her because our honor was dirtied…I didn’t listen to her pleas, I wrapped the wire around neck and pulled it until she died.”

In conclusion, let me state the obvious: despite their constant pleas for open-mindedness and sensitivity to others, Americans (and Westerners, in general), cannot accept the standard Muslim interpretation of rape.  Instead, they will perceive it as insane and primitive, the product of an unenlightened civilization that oppresses women.  Nonetheless, Muslims cannot jettison their faith’s views on women and sexuality, nor stop being preoccupied with family honor, the factors that underlie their distinctive attitudes toward rape.  Consequently, in this troubling matter, common ground between the two cultures appears totally unattainable.

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