Recently, it was reported that Muslim cleric Sheikh Feiz Mohammad caused a stir by publicly stating that women who wear sexy clothes only have themselves to blame if they are victims of rape.
The comments were of immense media interest. The cleric was interviewed on Channel Nine and Ten, where he “dug himself into a deeper hole” (as reported by Miranda Devine, in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 1, 2005). His comments triggered a backlash on talkback radio airwaves, because it was seen as an attack on the “Australian way of life”. Even the politicians felt the need to voice their opinions on the issue. Bob Carr has gone so far as to say that he would lay criminal charges on the cleric if he incites rape.
In the same week, it was also reported that a Federal Magistrate ruled that an employer could order Susie Zhang to wear mini skirts at work because she wears them socially. In contrast to the response to the comments made by the cleric, there was barely a whimper of reaction to the judgment from either the media or the public in general.
In the course of his judgment, Federal Magistrate Rolf Driver said, "Ms Zhang was not asked to do anything that she was unwilling to do outside the workplace", alluding to the fact that she had posed in a bikini in an issue of FHM.
Personally, I found the magistrate’s decision just as outrageous as the comments made by the cleric.
To take away a woman’s right not to wear a short skirt at work on the basis that she wears them socially is to suggest, as the cleric does, that a woman’s autonomy can be compromised by what she chooses to wear.
Some may argue that rape is a much more sensitive issue. However, at the heart of the comments made by both the cleric and the magistrate is a blatant disregard for the importance of a woman’s consent or right to choose what she does with her body.
What a woman wears is not relevant to, and does not qualify, the fact that she has the right to be free from either abuse or objectification.
Both the cleric and the magistrate are guilty of absolving men of the responsibility to respect a woman’s right to say no to sex or to being treated as a sex object, on the basis of her clothing alone. It seems that in both cases, what she wears is more important than what she says.
Yet the public and media’s focus on, and condemnation of, the views of a fringe Islamic cleric at a community gathering stands in stark contrast to the muted response to the equally damaging promulgations of a court of law.
We seem far more willing to condemn the Muslim cleric than to examine the similarly harmful values embodied in the process of bringing justice to those who are victims of discrimination on the basis of sex. This is despite the important role of the magistrate as society’s arbiter of justice and despite his power to set precedents and affect the outcome of future cases to come.
It points to a dangerous and deep-seated prejudice in our psyche. Perhaps it is simply easier to believe that “the other” is more likely to be guilty of forsaking the autonomy of women than “one of us”.
The danger of concentrating on the foibles of those we perceive to be different is obvious. First, it is a hypocritical and self-righteous exercise. More importantly, it precludes examination of whether those who supposedly share our liberal views are in fact slowly eroding our rights and freedoms as women.
That lack of critical reflection, and not the words of a Muslim cleric, is the ultimate threat to the values that we as a society hold dear.
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