A sermon that I wish I had heard: “We live in a rape culture”

Nobody to the best of my knowledge has preached such a sermon, but one can always dream…. Maybe if we keep dreaming good sermons, they will eventually balance out all the rotten sermons we heard.

This sermon would have been preached by Imam Hoda MacKenzie. Yes, that’s a Beatles’ reference:

Father MacKenzie writing the words of his sermon that no one will hear/ no one comes near/ look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there/what does he care?/all the lonely people, where do they all come from? all the lonely people, where do they all belong?… [“Eleanor Rigby”]

So, take it away, Imam MacKenzie!


All praise is due to God, whose help and forgiveness we seek. We seek refuge in God from the waverings in our hearts, and from our evil deeds. The one who God guides is guided, and the one who is misled will not find a patron or a guide aside from God. I bear witness that there is nothing worthy of worship but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. I seek refuge in God from the outcast satan. In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. All praise belongs to God, the sustainer of the worlds, and peace and blessings upon Muhammad, his family and Companions. ‘Amma ba’d:

God Most High says: “Wa man yaksib khatii’atan aw ithman yarmi bihi barii’an fa-qad ihtamala buhtaanan wa ithman mubiina” –“The one who commits a wrong or a sin and puts it (i.e. the blame) on the innocent has burdened themself with falsehood and  evident sin” (Q 4:122)

Sisters, Brothers, Friends: we live in a rape culture. We here in North America live in a culture in which straight men’s sexual assaults of women, children of any gender, and trans people—while illegal and punishable by law—are still also all too often regarded as somehow excusable, even justified. A culture in which the onus is most often placed on girls and women to dress and behave in ways that supposedly will reduce their risk of being sexually harassed or assaulted—rather than on boys and men to cease harassing and assaulting. A culture in which the onus is on trans people to pass, or at least to be unobtrusive, so that they don’t get harassed, sexually or physically assaulted, or even killed. And as Muslims, what is our place within this culture of rape? How are we responding to it? Do we contribute to it, and if so, in what ways? Does our Islam challenge us to work against this culture of rape? If it doesn’t, why not?

Recently, the media has drawn our attention to the fact that we live in a rape culture with yet another tragic story about a teenage girl who was sexually assaulted by several boys at a party, while she was drunk. The boys boasted about what they had done online, and apparently circulated at least one photo of the assault taking place. Word got around the high school that the girl attended, and her fellow students—girls as well as boys—laughed at her, harassed her, and called her a “slut.” Finally, the girl took her own life.

Reading about this incident, I was deeply grieved. As a woman, I identified with her. While I mourned her decision to take her own life, I could also understand why she would do so. After all, what girl could live with the shame of not only having been sexually assaulted, and everyone knowing about it, but with the knowledge that the evidence had been put online? Knowing that for the rest of her life, even if she moved away to the other side of the world, anyone with an internet connection could dig it up, laugh about it, forward it to others….?

And then I said to myself—wait a minute. And I asked myself why none of these stories about teenage girls getting sexually assaulted at parties ever seem to include the male perpetrators deciding to take their own lives. Why those boys could boast about having done such a thing, with little fear that they would be harassed at school, socially ostracized, or shamed online. Why, when the boys who are accused of having sexually assaulted girls at parties are actually charged and brought to court, that the laments about how “now their lives have been ruined” begin—as though they should have been able to get away with it, because “boys will be boys” and the girl put herself into a vulnerable position by being present at the party in the first place. How is it that a girl’s or a woman’s life is like an eggshell—so easily shattered, forever held hostage to the actions of one rapist with a camera in his cell-phone? Why? Is this really just the way it has to be?

I began to reflect on how we are socialized into rape cultures, the injustices that this socialization blinds us to, and how we are led to believe that putting the blame for the perpetrator’s crime on the wronged is in any way reasonable.

For those of us who are converts, our socialization into rape culture is multi-layered. We grew up in a rape culture. When we accepted Islam, we were further socialized into yet other rape cultures, whose details depend on the ethnicities of the Muslims who surrounded us and taught us Islam, as well as the scholars we followed or (for those of us who traveled to Muslim countries) where we went. But all the while, we were being told that actually, Islam has all the answers to preventing rape.

And as I reflected on these things, memories of sermons that I had heard came to mind. Memories of sermons denouncing the “immorality” of “the west.” Of sermons admonishing us not to have non-Muslim friends. Of sermons warning us not to even be in the presence of anyone drinking alcohol, even if we didn’t drink ourselves. Of sermons claiming that hijab and gender segregation protect girls and women from rape.

For preachers of sermons of this type, the “answer” to the problem of teenage girls getting raped at parties is very simple: These girls (and their parents) need Islam. Because if they had Islam, the girls would have been wearing hijab, saving themselves for marriage, and socializing in sisters’ halaqas rather than with boys in somebody’s house when the parents weren’t home. The parents would have carefully monitored their daughters’ interactions with non-Muslim kids, taught them never to touch alcohol or even hang out with kids who drink, and strictly forbidden them to go to any party whatsoever.

Problem solved—or more like it, illusion created so that the problem seems to disappear. This kind of “simple” solution conveniently overlooks a number of things: the many situations in which sexual assault takes place (including within marriage), as well as the fact that in reality, lots of Muslim teens even (or perhaps especially) those from strict homes do drink, go to parties and so forth behind their parents’ backs.

Not only is the problem made to seem as though it disappears with this kind of simplistic approach, but it is compounded. What message are we sending to our young people when we say such things? And what are we telling ourselves? That once people—whether they are male or female—decide for whatever reason to do something like, say, attend a party, that it’s a free-for-all in which anything can happen and since they are sinning by being there anyway that it is a zone free of any ethical or moral responsibility? That if girls wear hijab, avoid mixed-gender social situations, don’t drink and refuse to have sex before marriage that they won’t get sexually assaulted? What does that mean? That a girl who doesn’t wear hijab, or dates, or happens to attend a party and gets sexually assaulted, that it is her fault? That when a girl is sexually assaulted, the first question that should be asked is what she or perhaps her parents did “wrong” in order to allow that to happen?

Hijab is NOT a shield against sexual assault. The notion that hijab prevents sexual harassment and rape is a very dangerous myth that has been promoted by some in various North American Muslim communities for the last several decades. Part of the reason that it has been promoted is wishful thinking, as well as a desire for simple answers. Some people like the security of believing that as they are taking all reasonable precautions against bad things happening to them, that somehow they will be protected. Unfortunately, life is not that simple in reality.

But another reason that this myth has such traction is due to a literalistic, decontextualized, ahistorical and amoral reading of a verse in the Qur’an: “Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them. That is better, so that they may be recognized and not bothered” (Q 33:59).

This verse is read by some as though it is speaking about the god-given “nature” of all boys and men of all places and times; therefore, it supposedly follows that men in general “naturally” harass or sexually assault women. Trying to stop that is about as effective as trying to stop the wind from blowing. So, all one can do is for women to dress and behave in ways that make them less tempting targets for male aggression. The implication is that harassing men will leave hijab-wearing women alone and go and bother other, less “modest” women—but then, we don’t need to worry about that, because it is those women’s own fault.

There are many things that could and should be said about such a reading of this verse. One could point out the obvious—that the context of this verse is clearly admonition and criticism of the behavior of a group of people in Medina during the time of the Prophet who are called “the Hypocrites.” It is not a statement about male “nature,” much less some sort of back-handed endorsement of male sexual aggression, or a claim that women who don’t cover their heads and bodies somehow deserve whatever happens to them.

But I will focus here on the larger picture: We as Muslims have inherited a textual tradition and histories of interpretation that were forged in strongly patriarchal societies, which put comparatively little value on the subjectivities, wishes or aspirations of even free adult women (much less of female slaves). Recognizing this, we have to take responsibility for our readings on this textual tradition.

It is not enough to quote quranic verses, hadiths, or the rulings of jurists and attempt to apply them to our very different social situation, or to hide behind the directives of scholars. Did Muhammad come in order to save us from having to think, or to make moral decisions? Do we really believe that?

We need to ask ourselves serious questions about how these texts and interpretations are being invoked here and now, and what the social, behavioral and psychological impacts of these are. We need to read the Qur’an for its best meanings. In order to do this, we need to ask what the core values are that the Qur’an communicates. Is the Qur’an about God-consciousness, taking responsibility, justice and compassion? Or is it about letting off the strong and the powerful while putting the burden of their actions onto others? Is it ultimately about some straight men feeling affirmed in their “manhood” by subjugating women? If a text or an interpretation causes or promotes harm, or stunts anyone’s intellectual growth or ability to empathize with others, then we need to speak out against it.

God the Most High says: “la yukallif Allah nafsan illa wus’aha la-ha ma’ktasabat wa ‘alayha ma’ktasabat. Rabbana la tu’akhidhna in nasiyna aw athta’na…” (God does not burden a soul beyond what it can bear. The soul will gain what it has earned, and it will bear what it has earned. Our Sustainer, do not take us to task for our forgetting or our errors…) I seek forgiveness for myself and for all of us.

*     *     *     *     *

Praise be to God, and peace and blessings upon God’s messenger, his family and Companions, and peace.

A number of Qur’an commentators relate hadiths stating that this verse (33:59) was revealed to the Prophet because when his wives and some other free women would go out to the edge of town at night to relieve themselves (as there were no indoor toilets in Medina at that time), men would harass them. When such men were criticized for harassing the women, they responded that they had thought that these women were female slaves.

Who knows to what extent it reflects a historical incident. The Qur’an itself does not state that this verse is only directed to free women, to the exclusion of slave women. This verse speaks of “nisa’ al-mu’miniin” (women of the believers), without differentiating between slave and free. But the jurists did often hold that different dress standards apply to free and slave women. it is possible that this hadith relates to this legal debate.

But regardless of historical issues, what is important here is to examine how we read such hadiths, and take responsibility for that.

This hadith is often taken at face value, and read in an androcentric and classist way. We are led to believe that the way to read this hadith is by assuming the viewpoint of the harassing men—which has apparently been vindicated by God as within the realm of the reasonable. These men claim to have mistaken free women for slaves, and therefore, to have thought that they were within their rights to harass them. So, God doesn’t call them on that, but reveals a verse directing free women to cover up, so that they don’t leave those men any wiggle room for claiming that their actions are somehow acceptable. Which is what all sensible women ought to do, everywhere. Cover up, carry a rape whistle, don’t leave your home unaccompanied, and never, ever forget that public space is really men’s space. See, God is really thinking of your welfare!

But suppose we read it from the perspective of the harassed women. Those women who just want to pee in peace. In those days before those “stand’n pee” devices—which wouldn’t help you anyway if you had to do more than pee. Having to go out every evening, squat outdoors, and do their thing. There might be safety in numbers, so they went out in groups when they could. But still, a squatting position is one of vulnerability. Especially for those women who were old, or sick, or pregnant. And they weren’t left to get on with it in peace, either, because men would follow and harass them.

There are still many women living in that situation today. Refugee women in camps. Poor women who live in slums in which there are only public toilets—which they don’t dare use after dark, because of the danger of rape. Homeless women living right here in North America.

Where is the justice? How is it that the women in this hadith are being penalized for their biological and unavoidable need to relieve themselves? How is it that we read this hadith so that we are left with a god that takes the side of loutish, cruel men’s claims to monopolize public space against women who just want to be able to pee in peace? How is it that we are left with a god that not only doesn’t care that much if slave women are harassed or worse, but instructs free women to flout their comparative privilege over the slaves by veiling?

When this is where our readings of hadiths (or any other texts) get us, then our readings should lead us to pose serious ethical questions. And until we are willing to do that, to “stand up for justice, even if it be against our own selves”, then we cannot address our continuing complicity in the rape culture in which we live.

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  1. #1 by noahstepro on May 24, 2014 - 10:11 pm

    Giving a sermon on rape culture tomorrow…came across this…thanks for your thoughts

  2. #2 by srishti on November 8, 2014 - 3:45 pm

    Rape culture precedes modernity and is often used to compare immoral modernity with the peaceful moral past.

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