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No, Hijab Does Not ‘Prevent’ Sexual Abuse

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#Hijab_is_Protection was a top Twitter trend in Pakistan a few days ago. It was aimed at countering the backlash faced by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government on making hijab compulsory for women as a preventative measure. Once again, the self-righteous individuals were indirectly engaging in victim blaming rather than holding the perpetrator accountable. Thankfully the KP government retracted the order, but it generated a debate on hijab being the solution to the ever-increasing reports of sexual abuse.

Proponents of this debate included the columnist Orya Maqbool Jan and Editor of Investigations at The News, Ansar Abbasi. A woman reclaiming her right to decide what she does with her body (‘mera jism meri marzi’) is deeply threatening to patriarchy, with Hijab cited as counter-evidence, justifying restricting women to the chaar dawari of their houses.

 

Since Hijab is central to the woman question in Islam, many Pakistani men felt their control slipping, and defensive to a fault made the debate about the effectiveness of Hijab as a preventative measure about respecting Islam. The question isn’t about whether Hijab is a good choice or not. It isn’t about whether Hijab should be enforced or not- a prospective law, likened to Pakistan’s Saudi counterpart, which goes against the Islamic ethos since a deed is judged by its intentions and thus choice is necessary for being rewarded for good deeds. The question is about whether it protects against sexual abuse.

There’s endless evidence for Hijab not protecting women against sexual abuse because the problem lies within the predatory mindset of the perpetrator, not any characteristic of the victim. Asmat Junejo, a 26-year-old woman in Hijab was drugged, raped and murdered by doctors and staff at a government hospital in Karachi on April 2019. Her burqa didn’t protect her- the men, seeing her as a lone target, took advantage of her gender, their pleasure horribly intertwined with dominating and hurting her. This mindset cannot be eradicated by covering up women’s bodies.

 

With the advent of the worldwide #MeToo movement on social media, Muslims from all over the world took up the hashtag #MosqueMeToo, coming forward with the times they were harassed during Hajj. Despite being covered from head to toe, and at the epicenter of the Muslim faith, women are grabbed by the buttocks during Tawaf and breasts fondled while trying to kiss the Kabah’s black stone.

 

At a place where Muslims are supposed to be closest to their faith, they still abuse women, clearly indicating that the problem lies within their mindset and the culture which, rather than holding them accountable, makes it the woman’s responsibility to protect herself. By making the woman responsible, the blame falls to her when she’s sexually abused, further leading to silencing victims who already feel violated. Victim blaming adds to the problem, as it deflects blame from the perpetrator, and bodies like the KPK government direct their energy and time into a baseless and ineffective solution.

Sahil, in collaboration with the government, has been working on child protection since 1996, and its stats clearly point towards the rampant sexual abuse within the madrassas- male or female children are vulnerable targets, and their lives are potentially ruined by these transgressions by mullahs. The boys cannot don abayas, and girls aren’t religiously at an age where they should adopt pardah- this begs the question of hijab being a faulty protective mechanism.

Propagating religion as a protective mechanism is not faulty, but also deters society and institutions from holding madrassas accountable, since they are supposed to be the safest places due to their focus on the ‘pure’ teachings of Islam. This is one of the reasons that a lot of mullahs are bold enough to hurt the kids in their care since they know that they can use religion to protect themselves. Religion should never become a tool to deny the victims their rights to self-expression, acceptance, and rehabilitation.

Therefore, as an Islamic country, we should be highly critical of the way religion is being used to deal with social epidemics like the rampant sexual abuse, and as several male Twitteratis rightly pointed out, Islam should never unknowingly become deterrence to solving these issues.

 

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Naya Daur