Cats and cunts

Posted on November 4, 2006


Yes, this will be about those remarks of Sheikh Taj el din el Hilaly likening unveiled women to uncovered meat that must inevitably be eaten by cats. Now, let me make this clear, because it’s been noted in the past that there are a lot of people out there who cannot be trusted to do that “reading” thing: I think this guy is a crazy motherfucker, and offensive to women – and humans – everywhere. In no way do I support the truth of his remarks, and in no way do I think there is room for cultural relativism when it comes to sexual assault or related violence against women. His entire analogy makes bile rise in my throat. OK?

But here’s an interesting thought for everyone out there. Is it not true that almost every single person judges the character of a woman based on her clothing (because of course, the character of a woman resides solely in her genital region)? Women and men everywhere around the world have said, at one time or another, that a girl was dressed “sluttily”. People often determine a woman’s likelihood of consenting to sex based on her garments. That, in fact, the very length of her skirt is implied consent to all and sundry. Hasn’t every girl’s father drawn the line somewhere about what she can go out wearing, because of his belief that showing too much flesh is likely to encourage boys to make unsolicited advances? It’s indisputable that all people do have ideas about how a woman’s clothing can affect other’s people’s behaviour.

This is, in essence, what I think that sheikh was trying to say. The only difference between him and some white guy in a bar somewhere in Melbourne, is where they draw the line the separates a good girl from a bad one. For Hilaly it is the veil, for Steve it might be those extra few inches of exposed thigh or that backless top. Either way, men often think that a woman is intentionally luring them with her sartorial choices. And it’s true – women do dress to be attractive to men, at least in part. However, we don’t dress up to be attractive to all men, and our attractiveness in no way reflects on our likelihood of indiscriminately consenting to sex. A piece of fabric never says, “You. Yes you, strange man standing in the grocery line. I want you to grab my breast!”

It’s out there. The Sheikh is simply the only person who had the guts to say what practically every man (and woman) in the world thinks: if you are really a respectable woman who doesn’t want men to paw her, don’t let them think you do by drawing too much attention to your body. People are judgmental of women, everywhere.

In law, when a sexual assault case is being tried, questions are asked about why the man thought consent was being given and whether it was reasonable of him to think that it was. It used to be that judges would take into account what the woman was wearing, but they don’t anymore – in the West. This is because consent cannot be given by a woman dressing in her own home who has not met you. Consent is when she you ask and she says yes, as well as a few other situations of crystalline clarity (e.g. the woman produces a condom).

So it’s disgusting and wrong and sexist and patriarchal to think that immodesty can attract unwanted sexual attention. But I think people should admit that the only difference between most people’s opinions about the modesty of women and the sheikh’s is a matter of degree, not of principle.

Posted in: gender, politics, religion