Victim-blaming: Was she “asking for it”?

In response to Bikini vs. Burqa, I was asked the following question:

          “In the context of Islam, are women who do not choose to dress modestly “asking for it”?  Who gets the

           blame when a woman is sexually harassed or assaulted?”

Here’s my response:

I believe this question is referring to the wording of the translation of Qur-an 33.59:

“O Prophet, say to your wives and your daughters, and the women of the believers to draw part of their outer garments over themselves.  It is likelier that they will be recognized and not molested.”

I supposed this could be taken as implying- or at least allowing- that women who do not dress this way will be molested (or harassed) and that it’s their fault.

This is absolutely not the case, however.  I base that on my understanding of other verses in the Qur-an, the primary source of Islamic information, including moral and legal information.

(1)    Qur-an 53.36-38

“Hasn’t he been informed of what is in the scrolls of Moses

And of Abraham, the one who fulfilled (his covenant)?:

That no bearer of a burden shall bear the burden of another…”

No one can bear the blame for someone else’s actions.  That’s clear.  If someone does wrong, he or she alone is to blame.  It should be pointed out that Muslims believe this concept to also be in the lost books of Moses and Abraham, so we don’t believe that Allah has ever allowed a person to be blamed for another’s actions.

(2)   Qur-an 24.30

“Say to the believing men to lower their gazes and to guard their private parts…”

Islaam has a practical approach to sexual harassment and assault.

The same directive is addressed to the believing women, followed by instructions about modest dress.  In the explanation given by scholars, this refers to lowering their gaze from women, other people’s private parts (i.e. those which are supposed to be covered) and at obscene objects.  The term “lower the gaze” is explained in narrations reported from the Prophet as not following the first (unintentional) look with a second (intentional) look or stares.

So regardless of how a woman is dressed (and she is allowed to dress in a way considered “immodest” in Islamic values) a man is not supposed to look at her.  If he’s not supposed to be ‘ogling’ her, or ‘checking her out’, then of course he is not allowed to go further than that.


(3)   Qur-an 17.32

“And do not approach zinaa…”

The word zinaa means sexual intercourse with someone to whom you are not legally married.  So it includes fornication (sex outside of wedlock) and adultery (sex with someone married to someone else), among others.

Now, look carefully at the wording.  In the original Arabic, the wording is not “wa laa taznuu”, which would mean ‘and do not commit fornication, etc.’.  It is “wa laa taqrabu az-zinaa”, which means “and do not APPROACH fornication, etc.”  So, regarding your question, regardless of how a man feels about a woman (or about how she is “making” him feel) he is already not supposed to be looking at her, as discussed above.  Further, he is not to, in any way, do anything that brings him close to sex with her.  No catcalls.  No advances.  No smiles.  No come-ons.  No touching.  No introductions.  NOTHING.  If he does any of these things, never mind surpassing all of them to grope or sexually assault her, he is clearly in the wrong.

(4)   Qur-an 23.1,3

“The believers have surely succeeded…

who turn away from laghw,…”

I think this relates more to the issue of sexual harassment than sexual assault.  Laghw is translated as, among other things “futile and/or indecent speech”, depending on the translator and context.  So the kinds of things that men harass women with are forbidden, regardless of the context.  In fact, there is no context in which futile, indecent speech is allowed.  Therefore, considering that such speech is wrong, and considering that, as above, no one can be blamed for what another person does, if a man harasses a woman, it is his fault, not hers.

That’s a brief review of what I think the Qur-an contains on the subject.  Now, turning to the secondary source of Islamic law and morals, the guided lifestyle of the Prophet, these are things that the Prophet either:

(1)   did,

(2)   said,

(3)   commanded, or

(4)   allowed (by staying silent about in its presence)

This, the sunna, is not in the Qur-an, but has been compiled in books of narrations or ahadeeth (singular:  hadeeth).  Every hadeeth goes through a scientific process of scrutiny where the reputation of every individual narrator is graded, and the entire chain of narration is also graded for authenticity.  Here is an example:

Narrated Wa’il ibn Hujr:

When a woman went out in the time of the Prophet for prayer, a man attacked her and overpowered [raped] her. She shouted and he went off, and when a man came by, she said: “That [man] did such and such to me”. And when a company of the Emigrants came by, she said: “That man did such and such to me”. They went and seized the man whom they thought had had intercourse with her and brought him to her.

She said: “Yes, this is he”. Then they brought him to the Apostle of Allah.

When he [the Prophet] was about to pass sentence, the man who [actually] had assaulted her stood up and said: “Apostle of Allah, I am the man who did it to her”.

He [the Prophet] said to her: “Go away, for Allah has forgiven you”. But he told the man some good words [Abu Dawud said: “meaning the man who was seized”], and of the man who had had intercourse with her, he said: “Stone him to death.”  Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 38, #4366

So it is clear that the victim was not to blame.

Now, do people always judge by the book of Allah and the example of His Prophet?  No.  Of course, the majority of the people in the world are not Muslim, so they are unaware.  As for the Muslims, not all of them are knowledgeable, and not all of them are sincere.  If a person is insincere, his or her knowledge does not benefit, and much less their ignorance.  If a person is ignorant, her or his sincerity does not benefit them, and much less so their insincerity.  Somewhere in the fray, among other things, women may not get their rights.  If that is so, it is not Islam, but those individual Muslims- or hypocrites posing as Muslims- who are to blame.

Now, in what way can a woman be to blame?  If she dresses immodestly, she is wrong for doing so, but the matter is between her and Allah.  To my knowledge there is no legal penalty for immodest dress, so it is not a matter between her and the authorities.  (A general goal of the sharee’ah is to stop the spread of indecency, so I imagine there are measures that can be taken in extreme cases, though.)  In any case, as we have shown, it does not in any way excuse sexual harassment or assault.  We must recognize, though, that while it cannot be said that she has encouraged harassment or assault, neither can it be said that she has discouraged it.  This is one of the benefits and purposes of modesty, to discourage the men who are not fearful of Allah.  It is a pre-cautionary measure mandated by Allah long ago, whose relevancy is still being proven today (see here).

(Everything I’ve written here is subject to the limits of my knowledge and understanding.  The truth of it is from Allah, and any inaccuracies are only from my self.)


9 comments on “Victim-blaming: Was she “asking for it”?

  1. Pingback: Shariah and Sexuality: A Seeker’s Findings | qãhırıï

  2. Mi hermano, could you please explain me what is a “modest dress” for a muslim woman acording to Islam in order not to be bothered or be the “center of attention” in the society where she lives? 🙂

  3. Qur-an 33.59 is clear. The veil’s use is to ‘distinguish’ Islam’s women from kafirs who are ‘mubaa’ (fair game).

    The rape of kafir women was never once criticized by Mohammed in the Sira or hadiths. He thoroughly approved of it as long as his jihadists did not use ‘coitus interruptus’. Mohammed decreed that all children of rape (of kafirs) were automatically Muslim.

    You are denying the plain significance of the text and the hadiths that contextualize it. You are free to deny the facts and fool yourself, but that is hardly admirable.

    • Dear Eleuthera,

      Thank you for commenting. Allaah is not ashamed of the truth, so I have posted your commented in keeping with the spirit of free inquiry.

      But is it true, though? Do your assertions and interpretations stand the test of analysis?

      Let us look at them one-by-one:

      (1) “Qur-an 33.59 is clear. The veil’s use is to ‘distinguish’ Islam’s women from kafirs who are ‘mubaa’ (fair game).”

      Here is a translation of the aaya (sign/”verse”) you are referring to:

      “O Prophet! Say to your wives and daughters and women of the believers to draw their cloaks over themselves. That is nearer to them being recognized, so they will not be annoyed. And Allaah is ever Oft-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Qur-aan 33.59)

      I am well-versed in Qur-aanic Arabic, so I will say that this is very near to a word-for-word translation, with no bracketed clauses of my own interpretation, etc.

      What does this phrase “be annoyed” mean? What does it, as a concept, imply?

      I translated it from the word

      (“yu-thayna”- same “th” as “that”)

      the equivalent to present passive feminine plural of the stem


      which means “he annoyed, he bothered, he harmed”.

      (In Arabic, the “basic verb” is the equivalent of the simple past/perfect masculine singular. Person, number, case and tense are conjugated from this root.)

      Can this verb be translated as rape? Could we credibly translate the verse as “… that is nearer to them being recognized so they will not be raped?…”

      Let us look at the context within which we find other uses of this verb. We won’t have to look far. In the same chapter, aayaat/“verses” 57, 58, and 69 all contain the same verb, in various conjugations:

      “Verily those who annoy/bother/harm Allaah and His Messenger, Allaah has cursed them in the lower (life) and the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating torment.” (Qur-aan 33.57)

      “And those who annoy/bother/harm believing men and believing women with other than what they have earned (deserved), then they have born on themselves slander and manifest sin.” (Qur-aan 33.58)

      Then we find the same verb (i.e., from the same verbal stem “athaa”) in aaya/“verse” 59.

      Ten verses later, it appears again:

      “O you who have believed! Don’t be like those who annoyed/bothered/harmed Muusaa/“Moses”, then Allaah cleared him of what they said. And he was honorable with Allaah.” (Qur-aan 33.69)

      In 33.57, if the issue of annoyance/bother/harm was an euphemism for rape, or anything sexual, than the implication would be that Allaah and Muhammad were raped- subhaanahu wa ta’aalaa- which is completely illogical.

      In 33.58, the issue of annoyance/bother/harm is equated to undeserved mistreatment (of men and women), and it says that the person who does this is guilty of slander, not seen in any legal system or logical interpretation or analysis that I am aware of as related to rape.

      In 33.69, the issue of annoyance/bother/harm is again equated to slander in the sense of Allaah clearing Muusaa/“Moses” of “what they said”.

      The entire context surrounding Qur-aan 33.59 is focused on two issues: unfair treatment and slander. There is nothing related to rape, or in any way sexual, about it. So to interpret 33.59 as implying that Muslim women should identify themselves as such so they will not be raped, and that every other woman will, is unfounded, baseless, and illogical.

      (2) “The rape of kafir women was never once criticized by Mohammed in the Sira or hadiths.”

      We would both have to have read every hadeeth to claim something that Muhammad never said.

      As for me, I cannot claim that there was a situation when Muhammad knew of a kaafir woman being raped and did not criticize it, but I can also not claim to have read every hadeeth. Therefore I can not directly or specifically dispute this statement of yours.

      For this statement to be credible, you would have to be able to say that you
      A. have read all the ahaadeeth (plural of hadeeth)
      B. read of situations where kafir women were raped (according to your definition) AND these rapes were brought to Muhammad’s attention
      C. read that Muhammad’s response was indifferent.

      Can you claim this?

      (3) “He thoroughly approved of it as long as his jihadists did not use ‘coitus interruptus’.”

      Please provide a reference if you have really read this.

      Sexual relationships between a man and the females that his right hand possesses/that his right hand possess (war-captives incorporated into the household of Muslims after no exchange of prisoners takes place) are lawful in Islam. This is made clear in the Qur-aan and ahaadeeth. Sexual relations are also lawful between a man and his wife or wives. That they are allowed to have sex with each other is clear. Nowhere has it ever been implied that force can be used from either side. No Arabic text or translation of any aaya/“verse” of the Qur-aan or hadeeth that I have ever read directly states or implies this. Please bring one to our attention if the opposite is true for you.

      You can read more on that here:
      You can also look here, some ahaadeeth about coitus interruptus with war captives. There is no language in the Arabic originals (I have these in a book here at my house) or in the English translation to suggest the use of force, or even a prohibition of coitus interruptus, for that matter.

      (4) “Mohammed decreed that all children of rape (of kafirs) were automatically Muslim.”

      Again, please provide a reference or references that support this statement.

      (5) “You are denying the plain significance of the text and the hadiths that contextualize it. You are free to deny the facts and fool yourself, but that is hardly admirable.”

      These are the facts:

      (1) I have provided a sampling of text (presumably you are referring to the Qur-aan) and ahaadeeth that I am aware of.

      (2) None of the rest of the Qur-aan or ahadeeth that I have read contradict them. Their significance does not refute or contradict anything in the article we are commenting upon.

      So unless and until you provide references from the same sources- the Qur-aan and ahadeeth- the significance of the Qur-aan and the contexts of the ahaadeeth support the conclusions and statements of the article.

      As it stands, you have provided an interpretation of a verse which does not stand the test of language, context, logic and analysis. You have made claims about ahadeeth (the source, along with the Qur-aan, of the Seera (biography) of Muhammad) without actually quoting any. Finally, you refer to a context that you have not actually presented or articulated in any tangible way. Not a single statement you’ve made is correct in light of the Islamic sources that you claim, vaguely, to take them from.

      There is an Arabic word for rape. With all the other issues such as childbirth, sex, postpartum bleeding, etc. that Allaah and Muhammad made explicit in the Qur-aan and ahaadeeth, they could have made this one clear as well. As for now, you won’t find it.

      Who, then, is in denial? Who has been deceived?

      As for your admiration, that is yours to give or withhold.

      So unless you have something further to bring to light, it stands at this: in the only recorded instance of rape being brought to Muhammad’s attention, he punished it with death, as quoted in the above article.

      The truth has been distinguished from error (Qur-aan 2.256)

      The truth is that rape happens. What’s worse is that it is part and parcel of many cultures. There is the date-rape culture of the United States where I am from. Some tribal codes have rape encoded into their system of reprisal. Nationalism at its extreme leads to the dehumanization and rape of minorities and “others”. Islam is the solution to this. If rapists worldwide know that they face instant execution, they will think thrice. If you want to eradicate rape in the world, I stand with you. If you want to rage and rant against Islaam, you will throw yourself against this rock until you break yourself against it.

      If you want to delve into the Qur-aan, ahaadeeth and Islaamic knowledge, I welcome and encourage you. But don’t dive in this ocean before you know how to swim. And as you stand at its shore, humble yourself with the knowledge that there are those who have traveled its depth and breadth…

      I wish you a long and full life, and all prosperity and success.
      And peace is upon whoever has followed the Guidance (Qur-aan 20.47)…


  4. AA, Brother, I find your opinions to be open minded, fair, logical and most of all presented with humility. The mindset of a scholar influences his understanding of the material he researchs. Unfortunately, many scholars coming from patriarchal societies see what they want to see. And many lack the compassion the Prophet (PBUH) was known for.

    • Wa alaykum as-salam.

      Dear Judy,

      Thank you for commenting. I agree with what you are saying about many people who speak and write about Islam. Please refer this article to whomever you think it will benefit. Also, there are similar articles under the “gender/feminism/women’s issues” category. I wouldn’t say whether I’m a scholar or not. I think I have been made able to see clearly, and I use words like paintings to share my views. Alhamdulillah.

      As-salamu alaykum

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