MARCH 19 — One of the greatest insults to women is to say that rape is a result of their being “provocatively” or “sexily” dressed. In this way, the heinous and deplorable crime of rape is blamed on the victim. In Malaysia, such views are trafficked not just by ignorant lay people but also some Muslim religious leaders who have been known to make incredible claims about the relationship between rape and a woman’s attire.
For example, it was recently reported that a Friday sermon distributed to mosques by the Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi), blamed social ills on the failure of women to conceal their intimate body parts (aurat). Such women were likened to uncovered dishes which attracted flies and became unappetizing to those who were fond of those dishes. It was also suggested that women’s failure to cover their aurat would lead to the committing of vices.
This perspective reminds me of certain rape myths that illustrate how simplistic views about the relationship between a woman’s attire and sexual crimes committed against her demean and insult women. It also highlights the point that religious leaders, who claim to be ‘ulama’ (Arabic for people of learning) ought to be learned in fields like sociology and psychology before daring to comment on vice and sexual crimes against women. This is so they make accurate statements about the issue and also refrain from making remarks that are insulting to women.
The Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault discusses a number of rape myths. One myth is that most rapes are committed by “weirdo’s” and strangers when in fact they are committed by people who are known to and trusted by the victim. It is also assumed that when a man is sexually aroused he has to have sex. This is not only untrue, but also deflects attention from the fact that rape is not about the need to have sex but rather to control and exert power over another. Another myth is that most rape victims are sexually promiscuous women. The data shows, however, that most sexual violence against women has little to do with sex and everything to do with power and control. It has nothing to do with whether women are promiscuous or chaste.
Perhaps the most damaging myth is that women who dress scantily, provocatively or sexily, are only inviting sexual violence against them and are more likely to be raped. Again, the data suggests that the way a women dresses has little to do with her being a victim of rape. The realty is that women who are conservatively dressed get raped. Women who are “ugly” and less good-looking by the standards of society also get raped. Rape is not a crime of desire. Motivated by power and control, rapists rely on forced sexual acts as a means of gaining power rather than sexual relief.
According to one theory of rape, the objective of the rapist is to debase, hurt and humiliate the victim verbally and physically. According to another theory, rape is a means for the perpetrator to compensate for their sense of inferiority and inadequacy. The forced sexual act gives the rapist a sense of dominance and mastery and helps him to develop a feeling of competency.
In fact, it can even be claimed that provocative dressing may actually save a women from sexual assault. To the extent that sexual violence is about power and control, the perpetrator of sexual violence targets victims that he feels he can dominate. A woman who is provocatively dressed may send a message that she is full of self-confidence and assertiveness. Such a woman is not the typical target of the rapist. Of course, I am not suggesting that women dress provocatively or sexily. It is not my place to advise women how to dress. What is important to stress is that the facts suggest that it is not how women dress that account for their falling victims to sexual crimes. Studies of rape victims in many countries prove this point.
To simply blame rape and other sexual crimes on the victims, our mothers, sisters and wives, on the way they dress or carry themselves in public is insulting, unjust and false. It is insulting because it makes them out to be lewd, promiscuous and irreligious women. It is unjust because it tends to dilute, however slightly, the attribution of pathological and criminal features to the perpetrator of sexual crimes. It is false because it is neither based on logic nor on the facts produced by research.
The religious leaders and so-called scholars ought not to make statements that concern the traumatic and life-scarring experiences of women unless they equip themselves with the knowledge that comes from domain expertise. We would all agree that someone who has not studied psychology has no business advising people how to deal with mental illness. We would be very uncomfortable entrusting our wealth to fund managers who have no training or practical experience in managing funds.
Similarly, it would be irresponsible of a religious leader to address the issue of sexual crimes unless he has studied the sociological and psychological literature on the topic. Failure to do so results in their making simplistic and erroneous statements about sexual crimes and their victims that even junior undergraduate students know how to avoid because they have been exposed to the right knowledge.
Religious leaders are in positions of responsibility. They must be mindful of that responsibility and avoid misleading people with distortions. This requires a sense of humility, the recognition that one does not know everything and is not qualified to speak on every topic, but should rather rely on the real experts.
* Syed Farid Alatas is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.