Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, leader of a Sydney mosque and Mufti of Australia and New Zealand, has put his foot in it. The hullabaloo that has broken out over remarks on female immodesty he made last month, which have now found their way into the media, show that Western urbanites can be as hysterical as the most excitable Muslim when one of their sacred tenets has been trodden on.
In this case, it is the feminist article of faith that women are never responsible for male violence against them. A woman can wiggle around in skinny jeans, show most of her body, drink in bars till the small hours of the morning and then hitch a ride home — these and many worse things — but if a man acts on the assumption that she is advertising her sexual availability, he is simply a criminal and she is simply a victim.
Sheik al-Hilali does not go along with this creed, and no one should be surprised at that. If the truth were known, most Australians and other Westerners probably don’t believe it either, although in the face of a verbal onslaught from the czarinas of feminist orthodoxy they may struggle to express themselves on this point. The mufti, however, had no such difficulty. Reaching into the storehouse of his tradition he drew forth a lesson so vivid that it seems to fall straight into the opposite error: that of casting all the blame for sexual violence on women.
Before recapping exactly what he said, it is as well to remember another article from the contemporary creed: when considering offensiveness, context is everything. This is the principle that allows not only Danish cartoons against the Prophet, and Papal references to historic criticism of him, but also a constant stream of pornography — which, as we know, largely exploits women — to pass through censors’ offices and into society with token cuts and "adult" ratings.
The context of Sheik al-Hilali’s remarks was a sermon to the faithful — "a group of old men", according to his daughter — in the Lakemba mosque during Ramadan. The title was, he says, "Why men were mentioned before women for the crime of theft and women before men for the sin of fornication". The presentation "related to religious teachings on modesty and not to go to extremes in enticements." To drive home the lesson he said:
"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [veil], no problem would have occurred."
As is all too evident from the verbal lynching he has been subjected to in recent days, this is not the way to win friends and influence people in Sydney, London or New York. The comparison between immodest women and uncovered meat is crude and offensive. One hopes that some of the men in the mosque thought so at the time.
Far worse, however, was his attempt to use this reasoning to excuse, apparently, the crime of some young Muslim men who gang-raped four women in Sydney in 2000. One of the men was given a sentence of 55 years, later reduced. There are women, said the sheik, who "sway suggestively" and wear makeup and inappropriate clothes, "and then you get a judge without mercy who gives you 65 years".
He went on to say that women are "weapons" used by Satan to control men, and when it comes to adultery the responsibility falls on the woman 90 per cent of the time.
Now, this language is clearly over-the-top and any number of Muslim leaders, male and female, have said so publicly during the past two days. The sheik himself seems shocked at the effect of his words and has tried to make amends — apologising to women, denouncing rape as a capital crime and condemning the harassment of women under any circumstances.
In a statement he said: "Women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose [while] the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away. If a man falls from grace and commits fornication then if this was consensual, they would both be guilty, but if it was forced, then the man has committed a capital crime. Whether a man endorses or not a particular form of dress, any form of harassment of women is unacceptable."
Hopefully the mufti and his supporters have learned an important lesson, not only about diplomacy in speech but about justice in their attitude to women. And yet if we look behind the fiery rhetoric, Sheik al-Hilali’s ideas are not completely unjust nor are his words completely wide of the mark. There is a lesson for the rest of us if only we can find the right language for it.
Women do carry a special responsibility for the sexual tone of society. The meaning and the purpose of sex, its beauty and value find their ultimate expression in motherhood. Every woman is in some way marked by maternity and its sacred link with life and human flourishing. It is a gift that demands respect and even reverence — first of all from women themselves. If women do not value their high vocation, why should men?
How are women showing this self-respect today? It is certainly not evident in the parade of bare flesh (not "meat", but certainly "flesh") that is the most visible part of pop culture. It is not to be seen in the tight and revealing fashions that not only teenagers but their mothers and grandmothers squeeze themselves into to appear in public; nor in the weather girl who confronts us with her cleavage every evening on TV; nor in the way women kit themselves out for televised sport, so that a decent man would have to switch to the football channel.
What is all this display except the advertising of female sex for the purpose of provoking the interest of men? And once their interest is aroused, what are men supposed to do about it? It is no accident that pornography and sexual violence are increasing together; one feeds the other so it is hypocritical to tolerate one and come down like a ton of bricks on the other.
To be honest, it is not the mufti’s hyperbole we should be up in arms about but the hyper-sexing of the female image that is now reaching down into the ranks of preschool girls. I have read dozens of articles this year lamenting the "sexualisation of our children" through the likes of porn-star dolls and little padded bras, but the indignation of these few writers is totally eclipsed by the public outcry against a solitary Muslim preacher who was trying, in his own blinkered way, to address the cause of this trend.
Rather than ripping into the mufti or picketing the Lakemba mosque, we women should be turning out in our thousands at the head office of Barbie and Bratz dolls, ready to break their windows if necessary to persuade them to desist from corrupting little girls and exploiting their confused mothers.
More importantly, we should be thinking seriously about how we present ourselves and why. A few years ago a young American woman, Wendy Shalit, blazed a trail in this area with her book, A Return to Modesty, and she has continued the good work with her website . The online journal In Character devoted a whole issue to this virtue recently. There are many other efforts in this area — some more appealing than others — that show women are reclaiming modesty as an essential protection of their dignity and expression of their self-respect. Let’s join them.
Meanwhile, here is a modest proposal to our Muslim sisters. The niqab (the full veil with only a slit for the eyes), which has caused such a ferment in Britain in recent weeks, represents an extreme of modesty which is as unhelpful in its own way as today’s extremes of female exposure. What about a deal: they drop the niqab if we dress up a bit. That way we can beat this problem together.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.