Speaker by Various Artists

When you hurt us, in the end you hurt yourself

by Anjum Rahman

I'm not sure who appointed Sheikh Taj Aldin Alhilaly as the mufti of Australia, but he certainly has no position in this country. He is the Sheikh for the Lebanese community in Sydney, a fact they seem to be regretting now.

There are claims that he has been quoted out of context. That seems a little difficult to believe. Even if it is true, I just can't imagine a context that could justify comparing a woman to a piece of meat. Nor any explanation that would allow a woman to be blamed for an act of rape.

For all the Sheikh's knowledge of his religion, he appears to be unaware of some simple facts. He follows a religion that requires him to lower his gaze when speaking to women - irrespective of how they are dressed. His religion is one that expects women to be treated with respect. There is no aspect of his religion that would excuse men who do otherwise.

Crimes of sexual violence are a man's problem. It doesn't matter how women dress. Completely covered women have been sexually abused, as have women who are scantily dressed. Women in the safety of their own homes have been sexually abused by people they know well and are closely related to. Women over the age of seventy have been subject to rape, as have young girls.

The only way to solve this problem is to change the way men think and behave. If the Sheikh had any concern for the women of his community, then that is where he should be directing his efforts.

If sexual violence is a man's problem, then why do Muslim women cover up? There is an argument that by covering up, women buy into the argument that rape is a woman's responsibility. They make it worse for the women who don't cover, because they create the impression that such women deserve to be abused.

Yet that seems to me to be a circular argument. It again relates sexual violence to women's behaviour (ie their clothing - too much or too little) rather than men's behaviour. It's the same as the argument that covering up allows men to beat women without the results being visible. If that were the case, then women who dress scantily would suffer much less from domestic violence.

The fact is that New Zealand has a shamefully high rate of domestic violence, even though women here are free to dress how they please. In the same city, we have boobs on bikes and women in burqas. We were the earliest to give women the vote, we have great female role models, and while gender inequality is still rife in many areas, in comparative terms Kiwi women live in a pretty good environment.

Clearly then, we should be safer than women in other countries, yet we aren't. It seems that the answer to reducing violence is in the hands of our men. In the same way that the answer to reducing violence against children is in the hands of their parents.

Requiring women to dress more (or less, as in the case of the French headscarf ban) is not going to solve these issues. This is why the Sheikh has and should be taken to task over his comments, whatever the context. It's heartening to see so many Muslim voices condemning his words and rejecting the thought behind them.

For many Muslim women, the requirement to cover is related to respect. It's related to another form of exploitation. It's a rejection of the societal pressure to be pleasing in appearance, and all that requires in terms of make-up, treatments, cosmetic surgery and the like. Yes, we are sexual beings, but we are so much more. We shouldn't be pressed to fit into norms devised by those interested in moving product. We shouldn't have to feel inadequate because of our bodies.

To put hijab (covering) in the context of rape-prevention is to negate its power. In reality, that is why the Sheikh's comments are so destructive and harmful, and why they make me so angry. For me, hijab is a position of strength, but he turns it into a position of weakness and oppression. For me, it's a personal statement of my relationship with God, but he makes it a statement about my relationship to man.

My wearing hijab should never have any negative impact on the woman who doesn't. I may dislike the way she dresses, but I can never accept that she has foregone the right to safety. I know my religion doesn't accept it either.

In the end, all we can do is educate and articulate, in the hope that our men-folk hear and respond. The message is simple and universal. We want to be respected, we want to be safe. When you hurt us, in the end you hurt yourself.