Do Western women deserve what they get?

Published in Turkish Daily News, 28 July 2008

Not long ago, when I was still a budding postgraduate sociology student, I was thrilled to see a stand by the Muslim Society in the middle of the tiny road that is the “campus” of the London School of Economics. The stand was attended by a group of Muslim women covered in the hijab, who were asking those passing by to try one on to see for themselves how it felt.

I was fascinated by the creativeness of these women, who, I thought, were trying to challenge misconceptions about Muslim women in the West. I approached them with sincere appreciation and questions about their experiences during the day. After a couple of minutes of conversing, one of the girls told me a story, which shook me to my bones.

A dark story:

She was returning home late via a dark road. Right in front of her walked three white British girls, drunk and wearing miniskirts. A group of British men started verbally abusing the girls and asking them aloud for sexual favors. The drunken girls were rightfully petrified and did their best to run away. Then, my new Muslim friend reflected on the experience and pointed out that the men had not disturbed or said anything to her. She then proceeded with a passionate exhortation that if these girls had been more virtuous -- meaning covered -- they would not have ended up in that situation and that it was for this reason that rape was so common in the West. In other words, Western women were asking for it.

I have in fact heard and read this bizarre idea frequently in the Islamic world, but to face it in the middle of one of the most prestigious universities in the world was mere horror. As I struggled hard to control my temper, I pointed out to her that rape was as common, if not more, in the East as in the West, just as homosexuality, corruption and domestic violence were. I shared with her how the majority of the satellite pornographic channels were geared toward an Arabic audience, and how every computer at every Internet cafe I had used in the Islamic world was full of pornographic images in their browsing histories. In response to this I was told that I had been reading too much propaganda and that these were all lies. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who believes that there are no homosexuals in Iran, would be proud of her.

An Islamophobic liar?:

The worst thing, I continued to argue, was that even though rape is as common in the East as it is in the West, at least a woman has access to justice and protection in the latter. And one of the reasons why rape cases seem common is that actually women can and do report them in the West. I also added that premarital sex, prostitution and use of drugs were equally common in the Muslim world as any other place. Following this rebuttal, another girl manning the stand fell just short of naming me an Islamophobic liar. However, my criticism had nothing to do with Islam, but rather with problems in countries with a dominant Muslim population, which, according to the ladies’ faulty rationale, should have none of the things I pointed out. Having consumed all logic, truth and sincerity, I walked away truly disturbed.

To be fair, we are all vulnerable of falling into the trap of deeply believing in our own moral, cultural and intellectual superiority over those that are not one of “us.” Concepts such as ethnocentrism and logocentrism express inherent attitudes we all have, which blinds many of us to seeing the value of other people we share this fragile planet with. So in one sense to see the West as completely corrupt because it is not Islamic is not too far from the mistakes of those who see Muslims as violence-seeking, uncultured people trapped in the Middle Ages. Being aware of our own failures provides us with empathy towards those in whom we see our own weaknesses. There are serious problems in Western societies and none of us can blindly defend them. However, the problem in the Islamic world is not just that such reductionist and unethical representations of people from developed countries are seen as naked truths, but that they are hardly challenged by fellow mature Muslims.

What needs to be done?:

Whether this can be attributed to a religious cognitive dissonance (the disparity between what one believes about her community and where that community sits on a more realistic scale), a shame and honor worldview (believing that it is more important is to save face and have a good name, while not confessing or honestly acknowledging any shortcoming), or a mere inferiority complex (Muslim societies are often at the bottom of the economic, political and social development lists and hold a deeply internalized belief that they deserve to be at the top, believing they are not there because of the “Evil West,” but at least they can claim to be morally superior), is quite irrelevant.

If Muslims, particularly those living in Europe and North America, want to counterbalance the negative image of Islam brought upon their communities due to actual actions of extremists and less educated co-religionists in far-away lands, the least helpful attitude they could demonstrate is to adorn themselves with languages of perceived moral superiority over a “morally bankrupt” West. They would earn our genuine respect and adoration if they stop preaching feeble apologetic and aggressive sermons to us and actually combat serious social ills that drain the soul of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and humbly address serious problems their communities have in integrating with Western societies.