The viral NYC Catcall video has caused a stir in social media and online forums. It records a woman receiving over 100 catcalls from men as she walks the streets of New York City for 10 hours.
Just consider the 100,000+ youtube comments alone. While most commenters found the behavior of the catcalling men disgusting, some took issue with how the woman in the video was dressed. These commenters were daring enough to suggest that perhaps she would have attracted less negative attention had she dressed more “modestly.”
This suggestion, in turn, was met with backlash. How dare anyone “blame the victim” by suggesting that a woman change the way she dresses because men cannot or will not act with common decency!
What do we make of all this?
Is it completely outlandish to suggest that the way a woman (or man) dresses has an impact on how others treat her (or him)?
A Different Kind of Sexual Harassment
Here is another suggestion: why can’t we recognize that sexual harassment can go both ways?
Often, we characterize catcalling men as the predators who harass helpless women. What about immodest dress? If a person dresses in “sexy” clothes and goes out in public, why shouldn’t we consider this a form of sexual harassment in its own right?
Let me be frank. As a Muslim man, it is not easy walking through the streets these days. Women’s fashion continues to get increasingly sexy and provocative, and, in effect, public spaces are increasingly sexualized. From an Islamic perspective, the harm caused to individuals by this is clear and inarguable. Even from a non-religious perspective, constantly bombarding men with sexiness can be tortuous. Think of men or adolescent males who for whatever reason cannot find a sexual partner. Or think of married men being endlessly tempted by strangers as soon as they step out of the house. And, of course, the same or analogous harm can be inflicted on women by provocatively dressed men.
So, given the extent of this harm, why can’t concerned members of society raise their voices and say, enough is enough?
Unfortunately, people who do suggest that public dress should abide by basic standards of decency are characterized as prudes and out-of-touch religious fundamentalists. Even the words “decency” and “modesty” are seen as relics of a patriarchal past.
“So what if a woman wants to show some skin?” is the typical line. “A woman’s right to bare it all is what freedom and equality is all about! This is the 21st century. Are we still talking about women dressing ‘modestly’? How quaint! Modesty is dead. Women have the right to express their sexuality any way they please. If some women want to dress in long skirts, cover their hair, wear burkas, etc., that’s fine, but don’t tell anyone else how to dress.”
These are the arguments, more or less, from self-proclaimed “feminists” (especially third-wave) and others on the subject of modest dress. (Of course, there are many schools of thought in the feminist movement, and we should be cautious about characterizing feminists with too broad a brush. For example, some feminists will argue that current fashion merely serves to “objectify” women and, thus, serves the interests of men. But, even among this group, few would analyze the issue of women’s dress from the lens of men as victims, and even fewer would endorse the view that women’s dress be dictated by the sensitivities of men.)
Whose Power and Control?
The problem with the above argument against modesty is that it is hypocritical or, at least, wildly inconsistent.
When it comes to street harassment, catcalling is considered indecent, disrespectful, and immodest, to say the least. That means that, contrary to the above rant about “modesty being dead,” we all recognize and understand the value of these concepts, at least in the context of street harassment. And that means that we all do recognize some standard of decency, modesty, and respect. So why don’t we similarly recognize that a person’s dress could (and should) also abide by standards of modesty and decency?
In other words, it is hypocritical to bemoan the lack of decency/modesty on the part of catcallers but then, in the same breath, deny that those same concepts of decency/modesty can apply to the way people dress.
In response to this, some might argue that their grievance against street harassment has nothing to do with some arcane notion of decency, modesty, or honor. Rather, what makes street harassment so odious is that it is an instance of a person “exerting power and control over someone else.”
But, again, from a certain perspective, provocative dress, too, can be understood as an exertion of power over others in the public space, even an act of violence. From the Islamic worldview, for example, a person’s gaze is an invaluable treasure to be protected as it serves as the gateway to the heart/mind. And, while much of the onus in protecting one’s gaze falls on the person himself, others bear some moral responsibility too in being mindful of what they display in the presence of others. As we will see below, this moral-metaphysical construct has clear parallels in the legal and psychoanalytical traditions of the secular West.
Double Standards Abound
Ultimately, the point is if feminists wanted to be consistent, they should adopt the same hands-off attitude with respect to catcallers as they have for fashion.
If it is ok for women to bare it all in public without regard to the sensitivities of those around them, why is it not ok for men to make comments regarding women’s dress without regard to their sensitivities?
After all, perhaps catcallers are just sexually expressing themselves. Perhaps that is what freedom and equality are all about. Few would deny that men and women have different, gender-specific modes of sexual expression. If women can “own their bodies” by displaying it, why can’t men “own their feelings” by expressing their instinctual reactions to what women display?
Besides, on what basis can it be argued that a woman being catcalled suffers any real harm? Are comments like, “Hey beautiful,” by strange men in actuality harmful to a woman? How so?
Of course, I believe there is harm, but I also believe that immodest dress can be equally if not more harmful to onlookers.
Blaming the Victim
The suggestion that people modify their behavior or dress in order to avoid sexual harassment or assault is widely considered as nothing more than “blaming the victim.” What do we make of this?
First of all, as I have already said, certain kinds of behavior and dress should be understood as unacceptable due to the fact that they cause harm to others. (This is in line with secular moral reasoning, namely that only acts that harm others can be legally regulated or even deemed immoral in the first place.) A woman or man dressed provocatively, walking in public causes acute harm to those around her or him. As Muslims, we recognize this harm in the Islamic sense, but it should not be too difficult for non-Muslims to recognize – or at least acknowledge the possibility of – this harm as well. A few examples:
1- Workplace standards of dress: All places of business in the West have dress codes. The idea is that dressing provocatively is inappropriate as it can cause distraction and unneeded sexual tension that can contribute to a hostile working environment. If those standards are commonplace, why is it so hard to understand that provocative dress can be cause for a hostile public space?
2- Children: Everyone seems to recognize that children should not be exposed to certain kinds of scenes or images. That is why the MPAA in the US puts out movie ratings (PG, PG-13, etc.) and pundits question the presence of dancing cheerleaders at professional sporting events where children are present. Few would deny that there is harm, psychological or otherwise, that can afflict children exposed to sexually provocative imagery. Well, why can’t we extend that logic to adults? Could regular exposure to sexually provocative imagery cause psychological or neurological harm in adults? Scientific research has already concluded as much.
3- Indecent exposure laws: As it turns out, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban are not the only governments that dictate to their populations how much to cover themselves. Secular countries also have laws about what parts of the human body can or cannot be exposed in public spaces. Oftentimes, these laws simply represent Western cultural norms and, thus, go unquestioned, whereas analogous laws in Muslim countries that do not reflect Western norms are criticized. But, as far as Western norms go, who gets to decide that certain parts of the body, such as genitalia or a woman’s chest, are the only areas on the body that need to be covered in public? As any anthropologist can explain, different cultures have different views on dress, nudity, and the metaphysical and social significance of displaying the body. What is considered “naked” in one culture might be “modest,” even “prudish,” in another and vice versa. By means of colonialism and mass media, however, Western standards of dress and nudity have been mass imposed around the globe to such an extent that much of the world’s intuitions and subjective views on bodily propriety reflect Western sensibilities. In contrast to these idiosyncratic sensibilities, Islamic norms are seen (and experienced) as restrictive, alien, even barbaric. Even many Muslim women in hijab consciously feel like the veil is burdensome and would prefer to dress “normally” and only refrain from doing so due to their (commendable) religious devotion. If these Muslim women were taken back in time to, say, the year 1910 in America or Europe, the hijab would not stand out at all, since, even then, it was considered improper for a woman to expose her hair in public, let alone wear miniskirts and high heels. While the “normal” in secular society is in constant flux, Islamic principles of `awrah have remained consistent.
With these examples in mind, it is not hard to motivate the idea that, even from a secular perspective, immodest dress can cause harm. Does this mean that the woman in the viral video deserved the disrespectful treatment? Does this mean that a scantily dressed woman (or man) deserves to be sexually assaulted?
Absolutely not. Such harassment is never justifiable. But that fact has no bearing on the question of what is or is not appropriate dress and behavior. As Muslims, we should not be hesitant to denounce sexual harassment in the form of catcalling while also noting that immodest displays are in their own way a form of harassment that ought to be curbed with appropriate dress.
Ultimately, the implication is that, through these kinds of arguments, we can justify and demonstrate the ethical superiority of modest dress, such as the hijab, even from a secular, non-religious perspective. In this way, rather than being defensive and apologetic about hijab, Muslims should be confident in the emphasis their religion puts on modesty and even propose the hijab (and its analogs) to non-Muslims as a clear moral alternative.
What About Sexual Harassment Against Veiled Women?
Of course, some will be quick to point out that modestly dressed women, even women in full hijab, are still victims of catcalling and sexual assault. This response completely misses the point.
No one claims that dressing modestly will completely foreclose on the possibility of receiving negative attention. The claim is simply that, all else being equal, modest dress, e.g., hijab, significantly reduces the likelihood of such harassment. In fact, a recent youtube video demonstrated precisely this claim in spectacular fashion. So, yes, while women in hijab are, unfortunately, frequent victims of catcalling in Cairo’s busy streets, for example, the undeniable fact remains that the harassment would be much, much worse if these same women were dressed in yoga pants, tank tops, and other common Western styles.
Defining the Provocative
Throughout this post, I have expounded on the harm of “provocative dress” without defining exactly what this phrase means. Are short sleeves “provocative”? Are skinny jeans? Are maxi dresses? Is a one-piece swimsuit more or less provocative than a bikini?
I do not need to define the term because, as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about the concept of obscenity, I know it when I see it. Clearly, what is or is not provocative is in the eye of the beholder, and cultural standards shift all the time. But all is not lost to radical subjectivity and relativism. For example, at the very least, people today generally share this notion of “sexiness” within a given culture. In fact, being sexy is a sought after quality when it comes to dress and general demeanor. So, it is this commonplace notion that I would tie to “provocativeness” in benchmarking a more extensive discussion of appropriate dress in the public sphere. In other words, let’s scale back the sex appeal.
It is noteworthy that in many cultures and religions throughout time we find parallels to the Muslim standards of hijab. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covering the hair and donning loose fitting clothes were the norm. These archetypal modes of dress can also be found in non-Abrahamic traditions. For the majority of human history, numerous civilizations independently maintained a common conception of modesty, virtue, and honor, as if these standards emanated from a universal source. Even in Western society, up until 60 or 70 years ago, these values still had currency. But, ever since, everything has been up in the air.
Rules of Engagement
If anyone can be blamed for the erosion of basic norms of sexual propriety as seen in the catcalling video and elsewhere, some of the blame must fall on the “Sexual Revolution” itself. What is obvious is that the hypersexualization of the public space in modern times, driven by the “sexual revolutionaries” of the past 50 years, is directly contributing to the catcalling and harassment happening on the streets of our cities, among other things.
The 20th century Sexual Revolution in the West was meant to subvert sexual norms and standards of behavior between the sexes — norms and standards deemed coquettish at best, oppressive at worst. What feminists, modernists, and sexual revolutionaries failed to realize in their haste to overturn the old rules is that some of those mores might have actually served a crucial purpose.
For example, is it appropriate to shamelessly proposition a stranger in public by way of catcall?
But what about “hitting on” said stranger?
Well, depends on the situation.
Is it appropriate to meet someone at a bar and decide to go home with her for the night?
In today’s culture, yes.
What if that person has had too much to drink?
Well, that becomes a little trickier…
How much alcohol is too much? What if the stranger is willing and ready? What if the stranger has boyfriend? What if the stranger is willing now, but changes her mind half way through? Or the next day? What if the person is not a stranger but a coworker? What if the location is not a bar but an office party? What if the coworker is married? etc., etc., etc.
The point is there are countless rules and standards of behavior — both explicit and implicit, of varying degrees of subtlety — that dictate appropriate sexual behavior even in “sexually liberated,” third-wave feminist Western culture. But the very existence of these rules squarely conflicts with the “no rules,” “no inhibitions,” free love,” “free sexual expression” ethos of the post-sexual revolution world we inhabit.
Hypocrisy Upon Hypocrisy
The hypocrisy is we are teaching and conditioning members of society, men and women, that “free sexual expression” is the only way to be healthy but, then, we are outraged by certain kinds of “indecency,” e.g., catcalling. Is it really that surprising that when people are incessantly told to, “Throw away your inhibitions,” “Don’t be a prude,” “Let the inner animal loose,” that the result will be an increase of indecency and socially taboo behaviors? Again, from a certain perspective, catcallers are essentially just expressing their sexuality. Maybe it would be “prudish” of us to suggest that they hold their tongues.
The lasting effects of the Sexual Revolution are reverberating in the street, in our homes, and in our psyches. Young people are the unfortunate victims. Things are so confused that girls are having trouble understanding if they have been victims of rape or not. Boys are insecure if they have not lost their virginity by the end of middle school.
Just look at the contradictions in the field of fashion itself. Girls as young as 10 are encouraged to dress sexy, but what does this amount to other than attracting sexual attention from others? Obviously certain kinds of attention are socially acceptable and others are not, but what are these standards grounded in? Not tradition, not cultural memory, not elderly counsel, not organized religion. The rules exist and the consequences are steep, but the institutions that historically were responsible for instilling these norms have all been undermined by the vicious anti-authoritarianism of modern sexual liberation. Yet the same voices calling for liberation are also the ones bemoaning the acts of catcallers and sexual harassers.
We are all victims of this hypocrisy.