“Oppressing women and justifying it using Shari’a is more offensive to our Prophet than a cheap film.” Al-Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri
Fear of sexual harassment is a fact of life for women in Egypt. Many have posited that women themselves should bear responsibility for such harassment, with even seemingly religious arguments being deployed to support such a claim. Islamic jurisprudence and ethics, however, advocate something quite different.
While newspapers have covered the issue since at least 2007, coverage has increased since the birth of New Egypt in 2011. At least one case of harassment resulted in its victim’s death, so this is not simply a matter of restoration of dignity, but also preservation of life.
Public concern has led to citizen patrols to prevent and halt harassment, and the creation of websites like HARASSmap and Twitter accounts like “Tahrir Bodyguard” (@TahrirBodyguard) for reporting, and stopping, such incidents. One popular explanation for the harassment is that women themselves are to blame for their own harassment, since, it is claimed, they flouted religious and cultural norms by adopting immodest dress and otherwise provocative behaviour.
Many religious-minded people have embraced this explanation, issuing statements and pamphlets reminding women to dress modestly, and to avoid provocative behaviour, lest they be harassed in response. This might seem to be somewhat understandable, considering that Islamic jurisprudence and ethics include guidelines for dress and personal conduct, whether in public or private. With regard to dress, such guidelines aim to uphold the dignity of individual men, and women, and avoid a collective societal environment of depravity.
According to these guidelines, where safety is not an issue, and normal circumstances apply, adult Muslim women generally cover their entire bodies, excluding their faces, hands and feet. As such, so the reasoning goes, seeing as such guidelines aim to uphold the dignity of women, women are to be blamed for infringements upon their dignity if they abandon such guidelines.
Such an explanation, however, deeply misses the point, ignores history, and encourages extreme violations of Islam’s jurisprudence.
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.
Additionally, even women walking in groups in public spaces during the day are subject to harassment. It cannot be said that these women are inviting or provoking harassment, nor negligent in taking precautions to increase their safety. If the popular explanation is true, one would have expected the mini-skirted women in the 1960s to get harassed and the black-gowned and face-veil-wearing daughters of the New Egypt to go untouched.
Even if history confirmed that harassment is limited to women ignoring norms of dress and behaviour or who exposed themselves to danger through their own negligence, none of that would make harassment remotely justifiable. While individual Muslims are responsible for adhering to appropriate norms, neglect of their duties does not empower others to ignore their own responsibilities.
In terms of how women ought to be treated in public areas, those responsibilities are immensely clear: their dignity should be protected from being infringed upon by anyone, and their person should be off limits for anyone to even touch, let alone harass. Men in particular have a specific duty: that regardless of how women are dressed or behave, men are obliged to lower their gaze and keep their hands to themselves.
Islamic jurisprudence is utterly clear on this point. A woman’s dignity entails that a stranger on the street is forbidden completely from even touching her, let alone groping her. Indeed, a man who is even leering at a woman, without touching her, is guilty of a sin, regardless of how she may or may not be dressed. There is a way through which such things can become permissible: it’s called marriage. Otherwise, men need to keep their hands, their looks, and their cat-calls, to themselves.
Provocation is not an excuse for shirking one’s responsibilities and denigrating another human being’s dignity. Even if a woman were to go naked in public, demand men on the street grope her body, and threaten them with death should they fail to comply, it would be prohibited for any male to do so.
Furthermore, a general trend in Islamic law and ethics is that the irresponsible behaviour of others increases our responsibilities. What, then, of those who claim that a woman’s attire, gestures or attitude, somehow ‘invites’ or ‘encourages’ harassment?
In all likelihood, sexual harassers will continue to harass. Their empathy, concern for dignity, and their own humanity, are obviously in jeopardy, and it is down to Egypt’s religious leaders, educators and political figures to try to restore that awareness. In the meantime, such harassers and those who excuse them should know that not only are they failing to promote any ‘Islamic duty’ – on the contrary, they are guilty of committing a crime and of spreading public immorality and corruption under Islam.