Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment
In a conversation I happened to listen to, one of my male friends, Jamal, had asserted quite boldly that, if women dressed decently, there wouldn’t be cases of sexual harassment.
In response, my girlfriend Abbie had retorted, “there’s absolutely no link between a woman’s dress and sexual harassment.”
“No one would harass a woman dressed in a Jilbab,” Jamal stated again
“Why would you harass anyone either dressed in a Jilbab or not,” Abbie asked.
“Well, the Quran clearly instructs believing women to dress modestly,” Jamal replied smugly.
“In the same vein, it instructs believing men to lower their gaze,” Abbie cut him off bluntly.
“You know we all can’t lower our gaze.” He said in resignation.
“Fine! we all can’t dress modestly too and we do not deserve to be harassed regardless,” Abbie replied.
This conversation left me pondering upon the dressing choices of women and how society has weaponised these choices to justify sexual harassment. It made me curious about the experiences of women who dress modestly, wanting to find out if their experiences are different from those who do not dress modestly. I found myself asking; “Does a woman’s dressing choice really matter? Does sexual harassment respect modest dressing? I talked to some hijab-wearing Muslim women and asked them to recount their experiences with sexual harassment despite choosing to dress modestly.
Amal told us that she didn’t start out dressing modestly and wearing head coverings. However, she began to get more attention after she started wearing the hijab than when she wasn’t. “I have all kinds of Toms, Dicks and Harris catcalling me with the ‘salam’. I always feel like I’m obligated to respond, but responding opens up a floodgate of questions that I’m not interested in answering. And when I do not respond to such ill-willed ‘salams’, it leads to harassment. How dare I not tell them my name, smile courteously, give away my phone number and respond nicely. After all, they are all nice Muslim brothers and we are all one in faith.“
For Amal, It’s a two-way street. According to her, “Sometimes, I get told something along the lines of ‘I don’t want to harass you because you’re a ‘Hijabi’ And other times, I hear the more aggressive statement: ‘Which hijabis? they are all hypocrites, wolves in sheep’s clothing, do not spare her.“
The length, type, size and style of the hijab also plays a role in how a Muslim woman is perceived. In the Muslim world, modesty has a spectrum and Muslim women are measured by these parameters. I found out that amongst others, women fall into groups. There’s the “Jean with cute top and turban” group, the “long flowy skirt with scarf group”, “baggy pants and long tops group”, and “the fully clad Jilbab with/without veil” group. Each faction, according to my research has different lived experiences of sexual harassment.
When I talked to Iswat, she was quick to tell me about the various groups that Muslim women are categorized into. “Whenever I put on a scarf with baggy pants and top, with literally no part of my body on display, I get called the “Slay Hijabi”. Sometimes, I’m told that pairing eye-catching colours with my dress style is simply immoral. My elder sister who wears the Jilbab still gets stared at, sized up, catcalled and taunted about how pretty she is, evident from her face and her body outline. She hears statements like ‘if you look like this in Jilbab, I wonder how you’d look if you dress more like your sister’. Women can’t ever win, can we?.“
God tells men in the Qur’an “to lower their gaze from looking at women with desire other than their wives, and to protect themselves from fornication.” (Noble Qur’an: 24:30). However, Muslim men have failed to keep to their bargain by not looking away, lowering their gazes, and not harassing women.
Muqsith is another respondent who tells us that sexual harassment and the policing of women’s bodies and dresses are rooted in misogyny. “Society tells women a million ways, how to avoid being harassed, how to dress modestly, how not to walk alone at night, how to be extra careful, how to be a nun practically and live in the forest or disappear. No one preaches hard to men to refrain or endeavour to look away as enjoined in the Qur’an. It’s really not about dressing. It’s about power dynamics and zero consequences.”
The consequence and harm of using modesty as a tool for victim-blaming breeds the culture of silence and shame when harassment happens.
Maria’s experience was quite painful. She was raped while wearing an Abaya. “The assailant told me that he had undressed me in his mind long before that day and he couldn’t wait to unwrap me for himself.” Maria tells us “I honestly felt that there was something wrong with me. I asked myself countless times why he chose to do this to me despite dressing modestly. Since my dressing was not to blame, everyone who heard about my case chose other reasons to victim-blame me. I’m so glad he’s serving jail term now.“
Purity culture is insidious. Weaponized under the guise of religion, it continues to fuel acts of violence against women and girls, reinforcing harmful customs, including but not limited to slut-shaming women for dressing indecently, justifying rape as punishment for not dressing modestly, genital mutilation in young girls and forced and early marriages to prevent young girls from being tainted.
Kasfat, told us that when she started wearing the hijab, she became the poster girl for modesty. “Other girls were slut-shamed and compared to me. I would hear comments similar to ‘See that girl, always dressing decently. Look at that girl. Isn’t her dress beautiful?’. At some point, I started to feel afraid. While I love and choose conservative dress styles, modesty did the opposite for me, inviting the attention I neither signed up for nor wanted for myself. While my dress protects me from being slut-shamed, it has elevated me to false standards of purity.“
Reinforcing the myth of purity and allotting non-existent stellar rewards for modest dressing fuels the problem of sexual violence. Modesty is not a magic wand that expels sexual harassment. Weaponising it only continues to breed the culture of silence and shame when harassment does happen. Perverts are perverts who will sexually harass and commit sexual violence against women who either wear a hijab or walk down the streets in miniskirts. Rape happens because the perpetrators are power-drunk perverts—not because women exercise their right to wear what they choose to wear.
**Names have been changed to protect identity.