Who's to Blame, Who's in Control, Who Is the Accused?

October 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
An Islamic priest in Sydney, Australia, Sheik Al Hilaly, had some controversial things to say about rape recently.
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat. The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.
There’s a history to the story. In 2000, several Muslim men were convicted for a series of gang rapes of white women. They received very harsh sentences. Whites were angered by the rapes; some Muslims, like Sheik Al Hilaly, were angered by the sentences:

She is the one who takes her clothes off, cuts them short, acts flirtatious, puts on makeup, shows off, and goes on the streets acting silly. She is the one wearing a short dress, lifting it up, lowering it down, then a look, then a smile, then a word, then a greeting, then a word, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay Jail, then comes a merciless judge who gives you 65 years.
The story reminded me of the 1983 gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts — the incident that became the basis for the 1988 film “The Accused,” with Jodie Foster as the victim— and not just because it raises the question of who is being accused. In New Bedford, as in Sydney, the rapists were from an ethnic minority. They were first-generation Portuguese. But the Portuguese are a fairly large ethnic minority in that area, and many turned out at organized marches in support of the rapists.

One woman was quoted in the paper as saying, “I am Portuguese and proud of it. I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped. If you throw a dog a bone, he’s gonna take it — if you walk around naked, men are just going to go for you.” Nearly identical to the Sheik’s cat analogy 23 years later. And a Catholic priest, foreshadowing today's Muslim priest, said, “The girl is to blame. She led them on.”

There’s much to be said about the element of ethnic relations—dominant culture and minority group— but it’s the “blame the victim” idea that interests me. To put the blame and responsibility on the women you have to assume that men just cannot control themselves. They act purely on the basis of instinct, like animals.

This view of men may seem to contradict the image of Muslim men who are so controlled that they keep a strict diet, avoiding pork and alcohol, pray five times a day on cue, and willingly live under other constraints that we would find intolerably oppressive. But the contradiction is only apparent. It’s not a question of the presence or absence of control but where that control is located — inside the individual or outside in the situation and the group. In stable, traditional societies, life’s situations are predictable and under control. People can rely on the others around them to keep their impulses from leading to dangerous actions. But in modern, mobile individualized society, we don’t have the comfort of these external restraints. We have had to develop an elaborate set of internal controls that will keep us in check regardless of the situation.

For people with less internalized controls, it must seem incredible that people can live in a world filled with so much sexual stimulation and opportunity and yet not take action. So they fight sexuality wherever in becomes publicly visible, as when John Ashcroft, US attorney general in the first years of the Bush administration, had a cloth draped over the exposed breast of a statue in the Justice Department. The slightest hint of sex might cause men to lose control.

But the conservatives, Muslim and Christian, are fighting a losing, rear-guard action. They are right that sexual mores are becoming more liberal. There’s more sex in the media, especially with the Internet. Clothes are more revealing than ever. (Two summers ago, the Times had an article on back-to-school shopping
mothers and their teenage daughters in the liberal New York suburbs. The fashions preferred by the girls ran towards what their mothers referred to as “hookerwear.”)

The change, as with so many other fashions, seems to have filtered downward through the social class system, starting near the top. Co-ed dormitories, for example, appeared first at elite schools in the early 1970s; now it’s hard to find a campus that doesn’t have them. And along with the liberalization, the reliance on internal controls seems to have followed the same paths of diffusion through the society. How else to explain the decline in rape over the last fifteen years?

In the short run, the sexual conservatives may win a few rounds, passing a law here or there. But younger people do not share their attitudes, and over time, the rigid external sexual controls will become sort like Buicks, heavy and bulky mechanisms possessed by fewer and fewer people all getting grayer and grayer.

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