Does the Hijab Prevent Sexual Harassment?
Note: This is a post I wrote in 2009. I don’t still agree with everything I wrote (such as the very simple explanation of the ayat provided or implied assumption that men from America are ‘better’), but I thought I needed to add a post.
Just read today an article about a niqabi who defends her right to veil in Al-Azhar University:
Like her mother and two younger sisters, she covers everything including her hands. Dressed that way, “I feel respect. I don’t have anyone looking at me,” she said. “Islam says all the woman’s body is a temptation.”
It is true that one of the reasons the ayats requiring women to veil was revealed was to prevent women from being sexually harassed. But the reasoning behind that was that otherwise there was no distinction between female slaves and Muslims. Hence, the ayat from the Qur’an:
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. [33:59]
(Depending on the translation, this ayat has also been used to promote the niqab by inferring that to draw cloaks around a body means to cover the entire body.)
Yet, many feminist scholars use this same ayat and exegesis to say that the veil is NOT necessary in today’s society. Feminists such as Asma Barlas and Fatma Mernissi state that in today’s society there is no fear of being distinguished incorrectly, and there is less of a fear for being sexually harassed in modern countries than there was in the seventh and eighth centuries.
Last year, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights did a study on street sexual harassment in the country. They found that 98% of foreign visitors and 83% of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment from men when walking on the street. The study found that women who wear the hijab or niqab are more likely to be sexually harassed than women who do not observe the hijab. During Eid-ul-Adha alone this year, there were 300 reported cases of sexual harassment in the country.
Therefore, in the case of Egypt it can be said that women who practice Islam and wear the hijab are treated with less respect, and can suffer from sexual harassment. Although, I can say it isn’t as bad in Pakistan, I also was sexually harassed on the street by men even when wearing the hijab in Karachi. Yet here in America, I have absolute no fear of being sexually harassed because of my hijab (A friend of mine told me how a few hijabis in NYC were publicly raped the week after 9/11, but Alhamdulillah, I live in a region that detests hate crimes).
Could this mean that the hijab has permitted Muslim men to act in sexually deviant ways? In the name of modesty or hijab, have men assumed a sort of right to sex over women? By making the argument that a woman’s entire body is a temptation has that reduced us to sexual objects that can be harassed if we don’t wear the hijab properly, or does the hijab inflame men’s desires because we are leaving more to the imagination?