Tight Jeans, Neo-Colonialism and the Sharia’h: Engaging Western Stereotypes of Muslim Women

[Published in The Issue, McGill University, 2003]

In February 1999, Italy’s highest appeals court threw out a rape conviction on the basis that it was “impossible” for Carmine Cristiano to rape an 18 year-old woman because she was wearing tight jeans.  This decision drew attention to the insoluble contradictions of women’s rights exemplifying the violation of womens’ bodies as a serious  legal and social phenomenon.  Such judgements systematically undergird a societal unconscious which subjects women’s bodies to certain comportment, scrutiny and ultimately, future acts of violence.  These legal rulings inevitably underline the cultural myth that women—not their aggressors—are empirically responsible for any and all violences besieging them and as such women—not rapists—are made the objects of critique.   This is the case with Touria Tiouli, a 39 year-old businesswoman from Limoges, France of Moroccan origin who has been held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, since 15 October, 2002  when she went to the police to denounce the three men whom she claimed raped her the night before.   Instead of having her charges filed, Ms. Tiouli was handcuffed, imprisoned for five days and charged with “adulterous sexual relations” and for making a “false rape accusation” since the accused rapists claim she was a voluntary “participant”.   Media responses worldwide appeared immediately.  Yet, the overwhelming embrace of this issue quickly made Ms. Tiouli a familiar Western fetish: the Muslim woman as the “oppressed victim” of Islam.  This has become a Leitmotif in the West as non-Western women’s injustices have come to represent all that is  good with Western ideals of “women’s liberation”.  The United State’s “anti-terror” campaign in Afghanistan had ostensibly “freed” Afghan women from the burqa, yet the closest the West would get to an intercultural dialogue about Afghan women was the repeated publications and improper translations of words like “burqa” and “madrasa” (ie. a madrasa is not a terrorist training school).   Now, media has not focussed on the facts of Ms. Tiouli’s rape or legal rights, but instead has obsessed over Ms. Tiouli’s “being judged by the Sharia√h”, suggesting that Muslim fundamentalism is the cause of this tragedy.

For instance, in “‘Gang Rape’ Victim Faces Jail on Adultery Charges” (Telegraph, January 3, 2003),  Philip Delves Broughton writes, “Sharia√h law is applied with varying severity in many Muslim countries”.  Not only does he never disclose this “varying severity” but indeed it is clear from this sentence that the writer has absolutely no idea what Sharia√h is.  The body of Islamic law that governs the daily affairs of Muslims, much like the civil and criminal codes of Western cultures, Sharia√h draws its authority from several primary sources: the Qur√an, Sunnah (the actions of the Prophet), Hadith (collections of the words and deeds of the Prophet), Ijma (consensus of juridic opinion) and Qiyas (reason by deduction).   As such, Islam actually has more “secular” influence in its domain than Christianity does in the West.   Yet, every article concerning Ms. Tiouli mentions the Sharia√h as if rape were not recognized by this law.  Both Article 354 of the Federal Penal Code of the Emirates as well as Sharia√h define rape as a serious crime.  Clearly, the problem of Ms. Tiouli’s rape lies neither in Sharia√h nor federal laws.  As Zaki Badawi, a leading Islamic scholar in London, maintains the problem of Ms. Tiouli’s rape is not with the Sharia√h but with “the tradition and custom of looking down upon women.”  Instead of worrying about the Sharia√h, we should discuss women’s issues in the world at large without pitting a moralizing Western ethos of freedom against an “undeveloped” and “oppressive” values of non-Western cultures.

But this is the orientalist trap, is it not?  The West has a compulsion of looking at how others treat “their women” while forgetting its own recent history and present of abuses against women right here in West.  We must look to Ms. Tiouli’s case as a challenge to our own systems that have treated women with similar institutionalized misogyny.   Mary Koss, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, has spent her career researching legal decisions in the United States that have allowed rapists to be acquitted because the victim was “provocatively dressed in a turtleneck and knee-length skirt”.  It is only recently that wife rape is illegal in the United States, but then “date rape” is still not recognized in all fifty US states.  In Victoria, Australia in 1992 (R v Hakopian), the Supreme Court upheld a 1981 ruling that men who rape prostitutes are entitled to a lighter sentence than that for “other types of” rapes since: “[I]t…is not as heinous as when committed, say, on a happily married woman living in a flat in the absence of her husband when the miscreant breaks in and commits rape on her” (R v. Harris 1981: 6-7).  And in 1993, the case of People v. Murphy, the [male] rape victim’s case was thrown back to a lower court because the determination that the victim was gay “cancelled out” his having been raped! The highly publicized Brandon Teena case is one of many examples of the law not recognizing rape as in the case of untried rapes in the U.S. prison system which is estimated by the FBI to be over 89,000—double this number for the rape of men in prisons (1999).

In “Rape in Islam: Blaming the Victim” (Front Page Magazine, 23. 01.2003), Robert Spencer accuses Edward Said of exonerating Muslim cultures for the crimes committed against women, referring to the case of Touria Tiouli: “For Sharia√h courts all over the Islamic world seem only too willing to reinforce the stereotypes of Islam that Said deplores, particularly where women are concerned.”  Unfortunatley, Spencer painfully exposes his incredibly racist concepts of the Muslim world and Islamic faith, ultimately embodying the very orientalism he attempts to critique.  To hold Touria Tiouli’s tragedy up as the model for understanding 20% of the earth’s population is to insult the hundreds of millions of Muslim women and men who have worked to advance notions of humanity and equality.  (Would Mr. Spencer use Brandon Teena as the archetype for women’s rights in the US?)  Had he attempted to study his subject at all, Spencer would have found that issues of women’s legal rights and social freedoms have been at the core of cultural and political debates in Muslim societies for centuries beginning with the Qor’an which set out to bestow women rights that denied by Judaism and Chritstianity (ie. inheritance, property rights, divorce and alimony).    More recently, Qasim Amin, Nawal El Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi, Halide Edib Adivar, Damia Benkhouya, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Assia Djebbar, Leila Ahmed and Moufida Tlatli are some of the hundreds of writers, filmmakers, philosophers and politicians who have maintained these dialogues.  Thus, while Spencer proposes that “orientalist clichés” of women lie within the Sharia√h, Fatima Mernissi turns the tables on such arguments contending that women’s rights do not conflict with Islam but rather with “the interests of a male elite”.  But such conflicts and “male elite” are not limited to Islamic societies.   Leila Ahmed has demonstrated that during colonialism the Victorian male “establishment”, while eliding domestic feminist claims, was busy redirecting this very language of oppression  to the colonies such that Lord Cromer, British consul general of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, advocated the unveiling of women, arguing against such “inferior” cultural practices.  Indeed it would seem that Spencer thinks himself in a position to judge Sharia√h as inferior, while ironically he comes from a country, the United States, which struggles with serious social problems of rape (in 1999, for instance, 383,000 rapes were reported, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, 2000).  Ultimately, the exploitation of non-Western rape as a means of demonstrating Western “supremacy” evidences a neo-colonial spirit whose sole objectives are: the discursive control of women’s bodies and rights; the convenient elision of domestic women’s issues;  and a blissful imposition of Western assumptions of freedom upon non-Western peoples and cultures.  So where Italians are told not to wear jeans, women in the United Arab Emirates are told not to take rides from strangers.  Such “lessons” are the patriarchal ghosts of history against which women everywhere must fight.  What Robert Spencer and much of Western media bring to this argument, however, is the romantic image of the Western agent rushing over to open up the door to save us all.  Sound familiar?