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:
(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.)