October 26, 2006
Sheikh Hilali, Imported Imams and the Cultural Divide
Since I'm sick and daytime television is unbearable, thought I might write a bit about the emerging controversy around Sheikh Hilali, an Australian imam who recently made some rather provocative observations about women during a speech on marital relations and adultery.
Currently, the primary media hook seems to be that Hilali compared unveiled women to meat that gets snatched up by cats because it is left outside, uncovered. This is clearly drawn from the one-page English transcript noted above, which contains little substance save for the frankly bizarre and crude remarks about cats, meat and fridges (and some gratuitous mudslinging at People of the Book).
First, the offending comments:
"But when it comes to adultery, it's 90 per cent the women's responsibility. Why? Because a woman possesses the weapon of seduction. It is she who takes off her clothes, shortens them, flirts, puts on make-up and powder and takes to the streets, God protect us, dallying. It's she who shortens, raises and lowers. Then it's a look, then a smile, then a conversation, a greeting, then a conversation, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay jail. (laughs).
"Then you get a judge, who has no mercy, and he gives you 65 years.
"But when it comes to this disaster, who started it? In his literature, scholar al-Rafihi says: 'If I came across a rape crime – kidnap and violation of honour – I would discipline the man and order that the woman be arrested and jailed for life.' Why would you do this, Rafihi? He says because if she had not left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn't have snatched it."
"If you take a kilo of meat, and you don't put it in the fridge or in the pot or in the kitchen but you leave it on a plate in the backyard, and then you have a fight with the neighbour because his cats eat the meat, you're crazy. Isn't this true?
"If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem.
"If the meat was covered, the cats wouldn't roam around it. If the meat is inside the fridge, they won't get it.
"If the meat was in the fridge and it (the cat) smelled it, it can bang its head as much as it wants, but it's no use.
"If the woman is in her boudoir, in her house and if she's wearing the veil and if she shows modesty, disasters don't happen.
"That's why he said she owns the weapon of seduction.
To Western eyes, the meat remark immediately recalls the classic "she's asking for it" stereotype, widely understood as an excuse to commit rape because a woman wears revealing clothes or is promiscuous. Christian conservatives who want to encourage modesty will often make a similar point, but far more subtly:
Women and girls who decide to dress modestly often have another surprise in store -- men and boys treat them differently. In the book “Dressing with Dignity,” former model Colleen Hammond explains why:
“I believe it is because, subconsciously, men can read women’s body language. If they see a woman who dresses with dignity and carries herself with grace and femininity, they pick up on that. They take it as a sign to approach her with the respect, reverence and honor a woman ought to have.”
Exactly. And if a girl dresses like a streetwalker, they pick up the opposite message. Is that the signal we want our daughters to send?
I’ll close with something Muhammad Ali’s daughter says her father told her:
“Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. … Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered, too.”
The notion that immodesty will inevitably invite disrespect is still present, but not immediately offensive to Western sensibilities because it's framed ostensibly in terms of respecting women. The inability to understand and adapt to Western cultural sensibilities (including those of Western Muslims) is where I think Hilali really tripped up, as shown by his exceedingly crude analogy. In Western countries, where high profile campaigns against rape have been going on for years, the stereotype has been repeatedly exposed and argued in the public sphere, yet seems to be remarkably persistent:
Last year Amnesty International commissioned an ICM opinion poll showing that a disturbingly large proportion of the British public blame women themselves for being raped. The poll showed, for instance, that a third (34%) of people in the UK believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner, more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman has many sexual partners.
Similarly, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than a third (37%) held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say 'no' to the man. [Amnesty International - UK]
While domestic violence is one of Queen Rania's pet projects, it is not widely discussed or acknowledged as a serious problem in MENA, relative to Western countries (where it was recognized only in the last few decades). As I've mentioned previously, imported imams often fail to adapt their outlook to new cultural surroundings, and bring their old homeland's baggage along with them. It seems to me that the Sheikh Hilali incident is yet another example of this type of ignorance, which in the current climate, gets far more attention than usual.
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Personally I think the Iranians should stop taunting us with their oil, the vile harlots.
If they get invaded, it's all their fault. Well, 90% anyway.
Posted by: blue92 at October 26, 2006 03:37 PM
It's not surprising that some backwater shaykh made these remarks - it's surprising that it created such a media storm.
How did it get fed into Australian public and media debate, why is it seen as something of wider public import than, say, a bunch of Mennonites in the US distributing pamphlets and chanting slogans about chastity and women obeying morally-superior men, and how homosexuality will bring the wrath of god on you etc (which they often do in American cities)?
Is this because of tensions with immigrants in Australia? What's going on - anyone know?
Posted by: SP at October 26, 2006 03:50 PM
Well, he is theoretically important due to being declared "Mufti of Australia" by some group. Of course, knowing how fractious and regionalized Muslim communities are in Western countries, it's a stretch to say he represents Australian Muslims.
BBC also mentions a high-profile gang rape case with Lebanese perpetrators some years back.
Posted by: eerie at October 26, 2006 03:56 PM
Holy crap - there's a Mufti of Australia?! And they had to get him on the cheap, straight from the Said I suppose?
A propos, I got an email recently about a proposal to open up an English-language section at al-Azhar; though English-Azharis probably still couldn't fill the niche of a religious guide for Western Muslims.
Posted by: SP at October 26, 2006 04:37 PM
If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem.
Ergo, men are alleycats.
Oddly enough, today's Dilbert has the perfect riposte.
Posted by: Anonymous at October 26, 2006 05:09 PM
Ah, Dilbert is brilliant.
Posted by: eerie at October 26, 2006 06:23 PM
I think it's getting attention largely because of the vileness of the imagery. It's a common feminist talking point that misogynists regard women as meat, so it struck a dissonant chord.
Also, he is not some crazy backwater hobo, he is an influential cleric, a man of cloth. Not the bleedin 'Grand Mufti of Oz', but VIP nonetheless. I assure you if a minister had compared scantily clad women to 'uncovered meat', there would be a similar fallout. The question remains how this will affect community relations. Doubtless there will be racist attacks and angry letters. Perhaps it will also rally the various Muslim organisations against this line of thinking, which would be good. People are mostly governed by what they oppose, after all.
It further confirms the idea in the minds of Westerners that the hijab divides women into whores and saints, as evidenced by al-Halili's apology that he was only trying to 'defend the honour of women'. Hijab sexually objectifying females as much as the thong.
And finally, the subtext is the islamification of Western societies, the Fifth Column, the demographic attack from within. That these are the values imported (and not at all present in the first place).
Posted by: Klaus at October 26, 2006 06:23 PM
From what I've read in passing, a number of Muslim groups/leaders have been quick to condemn, but I believe the Leb Muslim Association (who runs the mosque where he preaches) told a radio station that his comments were misinterpreted. Not a terribly smart PR move.
Posted by: eerie at October 26, 2006 06:29 PM
What I want to know is, how stupid are we really? Don't apologise and make some weak, lame excuse about context, the remarks are there. Stick by your guns at least and don't be a coward as well as a bigoted twat.
I would hate to make a comparison with The Pope's kerfuffle but I couldn't resist as this, this really is hilarious..
'In a statement released on Thursday, Sheikh Hilali said he had been quoting another, unnamed, source and did not mean his words to condone rape.'
Ahem, deja vu anyone? At least the Pope has his notecards and citations ready, this is just slipshod.
Re assault/fidelity ah well that's just fine, how could one have confused the two. It is perfectly acceptable to claim that infidelity is the uncovered meat's fault. Ties into that perpetual conventional wisdom that men are just the happless victims in some collosal universal honey trap. Of course infidelity does occur in places like Saudi Arabia where women are covered from head to toe but you just know how alluring those abayas are. Why only today I almost tempted a man into straying when he caught sight of my seductively unmanicured knobbly toes.
What I want to know is, where are the Offenderati?? All those hotblooded men so proud of their heritage and identity. If someone compared me to a hungry cat I'd want to burn some embassies frankly, I don't think Muslim men have ever been so insulted.
I must also add Australia does have some rather draconian infidelity laws. 65 years seems a bit harsh. See that's what we've been saying all along, stoning is much more merciful than 65 years, just puts you out of your misery and spares you the incarceration.
The more unmaskings the merrier I say, so one can deal once and for all with the absurdity, isolate it and alienate it rather than have it lurking underneath in some diasporic disguise forever eliminating any possibility of integration. However, as long Muslims save their offence for non-Muslims and do not develop a healthy sense of comprehensive pride as opposed to selective pride, they will become the proverbial uncovered meat at the mercy of all who want a bite.
Posted by: Bint ash-shaitan at October 26, 2006 06:36 PM
He's Egyptian and his views sound typical Egyptian. Of course, I recall when I was living in the Montreal area some 15 years ago, there was a gang rape case in the farthest reaches of northern New York where the rapists got off scot free on similar logic.
There is perhaps then a universality in idiocy.
As to Bint supra.... I believe I followed the opening, but perhaps my attention deficit disorder impairs me from following the entirity. Or maybe slinky abayas do.
(Ah you laugh, well...)
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 26, 2006 06:50 PM
The "she's asking for it" excuse is certainly cross-cultural.
I recall drawing quite a bit of harassment in Egypt because so many people thought I was a local parading around unveiled in Western clothing.
Posted by: eerie at October 26, 2006 06:56 PM
Oh my dear Lounsbury, I did not know you had a toe festish mon petit chat
Posted by: Bint ash-shaitan at October 26, 2006 06:59 PM
I do NOT understand the foot fetish. Of all fetishes, that one escapes me the most.
Anyhoo...have a distant memory of an article about Hazedi men who confessed to ejaculating at the mere touch of a woman's hand. Also, how bare ankles were so very very sexy in Victorian Britain...oh, yeah. My favourite example is African tribes whose women did not cover their breasts. While Europeans were flabbergasted at their inmodesty, they didn't see the problem at all. Yes, the bra is the Western hijab, and we want to see nipples, by god.
So it's relative. And al-Halili comes from a different world.
Posted by: Klaus at October 26, 2006 07:16 PM
"a bunch of Mennonites in the US distributing pamphlets and chanting slogans about chastity and women obeying morally-superior men, and how homosexuality will bring the wrath of god on you etc (which they often do in American cities)?"
I always thought the Mennonites were rather mellow, if often oddly dressed.
Meanwhile, nothing justifies something so patently rational as an anti-Muslim pogrom as a sexist cleric, given that only Muslims have these.
Egyptian? Now there's a shock.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 26, 2006 07:23 PM
fetishes are not there to be explained. if a woman you want has a specific one - then you just play along. case closed.
as for "bra = western hijab" - when was the last time you heard a western cleric/politician/mediaperson hold lengthy sermons on how it's god's/nature's/etc. will to wear them, or scream that all women who don't wear them will go to hell, or that all women who don't wear them are themselves to blame when (not if) they get raped?
yeah. thought so.
Posted by: raf* at October 26, 2006 07:52 PM
sort of was a joke.
I thought it was funny, the "by god" was a nice touch.
Posted by: eerie at October 26, 2006 10:09 PM
and anyway, when was the last time you saw French politicians banning the covering-up of breasts?
This analogy has sit-com potential.
raf, I think Klaus meant that where a society draws the line between what must be covered up and what can be shown off is entirely arbitrary. Thus, if it became a social fad in the west for women to go around topless(copying dominant African styles), you're damn right western clerics/politicians/mediapeople would be bitching up a storm about it and calling it ungodly, immoral, and tempting rape.
Tops, rather than bras, are the western hijab.
On a side note, I do think that Muslim immigrant populations have trouble talking publicly about sexual topics, even while they live in the permissive west. A classmate of mine in college insisted that homosexuality just didn't exist in Muslim countries, that it was just a western thing. She was very smart and indistinguishable from an American cheerleader-type in accent and mannerisms, but refused to listen to reason when it came to questions of sex in society.
Posted by: Djuha at October 26, 2006 10:45 PM
Bint - I am as appalled by these stupid sexist backward remarks as anybody - I'm just used to hearing this sort of thing occasionally from neanderthals no-one takes very seriously (in the Middle East, South Asia and in the US - one particularly memorable Turkish fellow who had grown up in Saudi and imbibed their nonsense, was dismissed as an asshole by all the women of the university Islamic Students Association), so I'm surprised that this was a big deal. Didn't realize this chap was an influential cleric. Yet another reason why government-recognized religious authority is a lousy idea, makes it much harder to dismiss loonies as loonies.
Re: Mennonites - yeah, they distributed those pamphlets on the day of the Gay Pride parade in the city I lived. I saved a bunch of them too, because they were so damn fundie (and amusing to compare with Islamist fundies).
Djuha's point about the top being the Western hijab is a good one; I sometimes use the comparison of the midriff-revealing sari blouse to get Westerners to think about the relative arbitrariness of norms about modesty. But the kind of misogynistic "she asked for it" argument discussed above seems to go beyond considerations about social norms of decent dress. Rationalizing rape is qualitatively different.
Offenderati and insults to Muslim manhood - good point. Sexist and evangelical as they are, one of the things I have to give the Promise Keepers is that they at least take male responsibilities to women and families seriously. When will Muslim fundies start to harp on the duties of men to women(isn't there an injunction about giving your wife sexual pleasure)?
Posted by: SP at October 27, 2006 05:25 AM
Djuha - not entirely arbitrary. I don't play for that team. The niqab might make good sense in a desert, but be very annoying to wear elsewhere. Also, uncovered breasts are a bad idea in colder countries, and so forth. This becomes habit becomes tradition becomes dogma. As in: Marriage is promoted as moral, and arranged for horny young people, and children born outside of marriage frowned upon, because it makes sense for the community to have someone raise the bloody brats. Adultery is immoral while prostitutes are tacitly accepted, for the sake of stability. Women should stay home and tend to the children while men get stuff done, hence liberated women are immoral and a danger to society. Etcetera, etcetera. The social conventions mould themselves around reality and engage with it, to make society work.
So it got me thinking how human society would be if women went into heat once a year, instead of being fertile constantly. Can't figure it out.
Posted by: Klaus at October 27, 2006 06:51 AM
Sheikh Hillali has an unfortunate history of making these and other incendiary remarks.
We have a detailed analysis of it here:
Posted by: baybers at October 27, 2006 08:15 AM
Nice blog. That Wiki link on the Sydney gang rapes is particularly helpful re context.
Posted by: eerie at October 27, 2006 11:40 AM
Oh my dear Lounsbury, I did not know you had a toe festish mon petit chat
No, an abaya fetish.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 27, 2006 12:17 PM
Particularly damning is that the '65 years' apparently is a direct reference to the gang rapes. He can't honestly maintain he talked about adultery. So he's lying as well.
Indeed, Klaus. 65 years is too close to the gang rape sentence to be coincidence, particularly when considers his remarks immediately before/after.
Posted by: eerie at October 27, 2006 02:37 PM
Precisely, the Egyptian hick is lying; I expect nothing less. he's got a comfy position, his play is to the hicks and the lost.
The hicks and the lost are a problem, a challenge to avoid 7 july people.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 27, 2006 05:29 PM
I do NOT understand the foot fetish. Of all fetishes, that one escapes me the most.
I once read an interview with a foot fetishist (a man - nearly all paraphiliacs, particularly feet, seem to be men, don't they?) and he said it was because a foot with toes was like "five tiny penises".
Of course in the good mullah's eyes they would be five tiny sausages, and probably pork ones at that.
Posted by: secretdubai at October 27, 2006 06:04 PM
Thank god its only abayas then.
(no offense intended if we actually have foot-fetishist readers)
Posted by: eerie at October 27, 2006 06:25 PM
So this is Egypt, then? Link courtesy of Tom. Hilali was just being Egyptian, like L said.
Posted by: Klaus at October 30, 2006 07:08 AM
Just to extend the isnad a bit, I saw the link on the Aardvark's sidebar.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at October 30, 2006 09:19 AM
Rather captures my first impression of Cairo, yes.
Posted by: eerie at October 30, 2006 12:14 PM
The graveness of the incident also stems from the fact that by comparing women to meat, the Mufti is partaking in making women in objects.
Posted by: saqi namah at November 1, 2006 09:32 PM