Rape is not a matter of religion

A street preacher’s remarks about the way Canadian women dress fuels a tired debate

In Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square, street corners are crowded with religious buskers, preachers, end-of-lifers. They’re often ignored until they make statements so foolish that you have to stop and stare.

A Muslim street-preacher in Toronto recently stated in a letter to the Toronto Sun following a string of sexual assaults that he believes women should be forced to cover up in Canada if they don’t want to get raped. Al-Haashim Kamena Atangana believes that Canadian laws “give too much freedom to women” and that Canadian women should adhere to a dress code to avoid being raped.

It’s an old narrative that suggests women who dress provocatively are going to be treated accordingly. It’s a warped argument to make; victim-blaming at its worst. “She was asking for it,” is perhaps the laziest rape apology out there.

Such beliefs, which inspired the city’s SlutWalk movement, matter. Atangana may be a no-name street-preacher in downtown Toronto, but he represents the views held by some men—not all, but enough that it matters—that women deserve what they get. Which is nonsense. What we need is not more blame for girls and women who are victims, but more education and accountability for boys and men to prevent them from becoming perpetrators.

It was heartening, at least, to see that responses to Atangana’s words were exactly what they should be: bewilderment and the refusal to accept that as a reasonable solution to sexual assault. It was irresponsible from the get-go for the Sun to publish the comments of a radical who sent them an email. Once those statements are publicized, however, it’s important to counter them.

After the Sun published Atangana’s comments, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Dr. Farzana Hassan wrote a reply. She argued that the blame for rape should be placed on the perpetrator, and not on the victim. But she also noted, “While rape is more often reported here, it occurs with equal if not greater frequency and ferocity in the Middle East and South Asia.”

In other words, dressing conservatively is unlikely to dissuade sexual assaults—in Middle Eastern countries where women dress more modestly, there are still rapes with little consequence for the perpetrator. The rules of rape are different there, but it’s clear that a rape is a rape, regardless of a woman’s dress.

The trouble with Dr. Hassan’s argument is when she claims that Atangana’s point of view is more widespread in Islamist communities.

“Many Islamist men do not understand the imperative of consent in a sexual relationship,” she writes. “They believe rape is a normal rather than a criminal reaction to female physiology, and assume that this would be every man’s response to a glimpse of skin.”

True enough, Islamists are fundamentalist and extreme conservatives, and their views aren’t the norm throughout Muslim culture. But this argument does nothing for the conversation we’re having about a woman’s ability to feel comfortable in any neighbourhood, regardless of what she wears.

Instead of examining why finding men with victim-blaming beliefs in any community is easy, we can instead blame the Qu’ran. What an easy out.

Atangana’s statements reveal the extremities of Islam, not the moderate middle. In matters of religion, it’s always the smallest minority that screams the loudest. The wide majority of people—of Muslim men and women—are too busy living their lives to be fundamentalists. That’s where the majority lives, but they’re not as sexy a headline as “crazy Muslim guy is crazy.”

“This mythology that there are some religions that are religions of the sword and that some are not is, I’m sorry to say this, but it’s bullshit,” said religious scholar, Dr. Reza Aslan, who is an actual scholar and not a street-preacher who was inexplicably elevated to cleric. “It’s not religion that’s violent or peaceful, it’s people who are violent or peaceful.”

Indeed, it’s absurd to suggest that one, or three, or even 20 men speak for the majority of men in their community. We can’t let the fringe control the message.

Sexism and abuse against women happens in every corner of the world. It happens when a Sault Ste. Marie man takes a Kickstarter campaign too seriously and goes for blood. It happens in Topeka, Kansas, where a domestic violence law was repealed because of budget cuts. It isn’t isolated to traditionally Muslim countries—women are devalued across the globe, regardless of culture or religion.

But Dr. Hassan’s suggestion that all Islamist men are the same in their views on women does nothing to fix, or even address the problem. Rape isn’t religious; all that assumption does is make it seem like an isolated problem.

And that, as Dr. Aslan would say, is just bullshit.