I’ve been wanting to write about this for a particularly long time because let’s be honest, it’s hilarious, sad and just a little bit pathetic.
I first saw this picture (well, not this one exactly, but a variation – the internet’s filled with them) a few years back on – of all things – Facebook and laughed out loud at the gross, homogenized and overtly simplistic view of the hijab, sexual harrasment, men, and of course, Muslim women. It’s been a while since then and I’ve gained a certain degree of articulation 14 year old me didn’t posses so I thought I’d finally get around to deconstructing it.
There are several things wrong here.
First, is the obvious. In most Muslimy circles the talk about women seems to be about how contemporary Western capitalist culture’s fixation on the female body and its subsequent sexualization provides a narrow, unrealistic and over-sexed view of womanhood. Most of this is done by capitalist corporation’s need to make a quick buck. Couple that with patriarchy’s fixation on how women look and we’ve effectively created a culture where women spent huge amounts of time and money trying to fit into the mold of pretty. The cosmetic, clothing, diet and surgical industries are booming. By contrast – the story in many Muslim circles goes – Muslim women are ‘liberated’ because the hijab helps them cultivate a sense of self outside the anxiety-inducing fixation on attractiveness.
Cue candy wrappers.
I wonder if Muslims realize that by posting these images they are doing exactly what they accuse late-capitalism of: turning women’s bodies into over-sexed objects. The candy-wrapper is a very effective way of doing this. Textbook, really. A living human being weighed down by emotions and her socio-political reality is filtered through a minuscular lens until the sum-total of her personality is whether or not she wears the hijab. And her appeal as a sex-object. It is a sexualised image (the flies are harrasers after all) and this makes it even more disgusting. In fact the representation of women as irresistibly alluring, edible, juicy seems exactly like an advertisement. It’s reductive, demeaning and dumb. No matter who does it. I mean, sure, you can argue that an advertisement sells products through the objectification, while this one teaches a lesson (more on that later); but that’s laughable when the presentation of said lesson is packaged in the same wrapper (um, well.) as the culture you so staunchly oppose.
Case in point?
Behold: women as food.
(There were a lot more – but that’s enough disgusting stuff for now.)
Let’s move on. Sexual Harassment. It’s a heavy word and tricky one. It involves deeply thinking about the many, many issues that insidiously thaw away at our society. It’s definitely not something that can be summed up by a lousy image of lollipops. In terms of the concept of candy-wrappers, all I have to say is this: No. Stop. Move away from the discussion on sexual harassment if you want to talk about it via candy-wrappers. This is a really bad thing to do for multiple reasons but the first is always this: These images place the onus of responsibility on the victim (ie: women) – and not the perpetuators of harassment. Harassment has nothing to do with what any one is wearing or where they go. To speak of harassment and rape as something that happens in blind, dark alleys were women wear shorts is laughably pathetic. These acts of gendered violence take place in homes, offices, to women wearing hijab, and to women not wearing hijab. They happen in committed, romantic relationships. They are even perpetuated by mahrams. The hijab – while it may have a million benefits – does not mitigate, lessen or end harassment and this is something adequately expressed by Sheikh Musa Furber in his brilliant – and brilliantly titled -article in Daily News Egypt: It’s the harrasser who is responsible for harassment in Islamic Law.
From the point of view of even modern history, Egypt’s widespread sexual-harassment problem is recent. In the 1960s, urban women in Cairo wore miniskirts and short sleeves without fearing sexual harassment. Recent studies and reports indicate that the majority of sexual harassment is aimed at young women wearing headscarves, long sleeves, and long skirts or pants, simply walking through public spaces. Even for women covered from head to toe in black gowns (abayas) and face-veils (niqabs) are subject to sexual harassment.
Harassment – which is faced not only by women by the way, but also LGBTQ individuals and racial minorities, amongst others – is always about a power imbalance. An extension of this thought: it exists because the harasser knows that they’ll be able to get away without any consequences of their actions.
Which brings us to point number three: men.
(Or, if this post is to be believed, flies.)
I don’t like the characterisation of one half of the (speaking in terms of biological sex) population as insects – it’s de-humanizing. And it also pays homage to the old-age adage of boys will be boys. By constructing men as inherently animalistic, evil and ruled by sexual desires (flies gravitating towards candy) the story has a set plot: there seems to be nothing we can do about men – their need to harass is biologically ingrained.
And it’s not.
We know that sexual harassment is a crime that disproportionately affects women, and the perpetuators are disproportionately men. You don’t need to be in the advance throes of feminist awareness to understand that this is a learned trait. Contemporary culture – adequately described a ‘cult of masculinity’ – is to blame. We have an immense body of scholarly work and research showing that the hyper-sexualized environment in which boys are raised has an insidious affect on their psyche and mannerisms, contributing to learned beliefs about how women ‘deserved’ to be harassed on the basis of – but really, regardless of – what they wear.
Case in Point? The brilliant documentary: No Country For Women. (Go India!)
And then of course, there’s pornography. Which is itself, a whole other kettle of fish.
Gail Dines explores it thoroughly. I’ve read pieces by many men here in this part of the world – yes, Pakistani, Muslim – who defend their consumption of porn under some weird guise of liberalism. But this is dumb. There’s nothing wrong with religious criticisms of pornography (I love and welcome them, in fact, especially the fact that there are whole websites made by Muslims to help people struggling with pornography, that’s MashaAllah right there) but the ‘liberal’ arguments ignore one simple fact: feminist critiques of pornography have never had anything to do with ‘religion’ or ‘the policing of sexuality’ or ‘the Right’ – they centre on the reiteration of the fact that pornography is a violent, misogynistic, capitalist industry that exploits both women and children and sexualises and celebrates violence against women. Studies have been done showing that men are more likely to engage in acts of violence against women after they’ve viewed porn. Don’t underestimate the threat this industry poses – as Dr. Gail Dines has said – pornography has quite literally shaped “the sexual template” of a generation of men. Defending the industry under the guise of ‘liberalism’ or ‘sexual freedom’ is insane. (Take notes, libfems.)
Pornography is a huge part of our rape culture (and, by extension, culture of sexual harassment) and so is media and advertisements. (Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly documentaries, anyone?)
Of course, part of this culture of wide-spread sexual harassment is victim-blaming. I cannot stress how destructive victim-blaming is to any movement claiming to fight harassment on any level. Which brings us back to the candy-wrappers. Let me reiterate: your intentions may be good, but placing the onus of responsibility on women for their harassment and depicting men as animals or insects defeats your entire purpose. One more poor image on the internet buddy, that feeds into our horrific culture.
I’ll end this.
In a recent heartwarming piece in DAWN, Yusra Amjad talks bravely about harassment (Why do women walk so briskly in public?), it’s time for us to do the same. We must have better, healthier and more wholesome conversations. Urging women to wear the hijab and learning about its history – such as its evolution as a marker of class in a highly stratified society, for example – is a noble goal. But we must do this in accordance with Islamic ethos to always stand on side of the Truth – which has always opposed the tide of the contemporary, violent, oppressive culture. Conversations about Islamic obligations, gendered violence and our society are much needed. Let’s take a leaf out of Musa Furber’s book and have good ones. Let’s not reduce these important issues to a few flashy images shared around for Facebook likes and shares.
(And, man, let’s stop talking about candy. Y’all have put me off my favourite thing.)
(I’ll get around to fixing the grammar and spelling mistakes in this, eventually.)