In October 2006, Sheikh Al-Hilaly, the mufti of Australia, got himself in a lot of trouble over comments made in a sermon, where he allegedly said that if a woman dresses provokatively and gets sexually assaulted, it's her own fault! Whether he really said this or not, the question of public dress-codes and their effect on society at large is a subject worthy of serious discussion. He did have a point, didn't he? Did we miss it somehow? I thought the errant Sheikh's point was that if girls are going around dressed like strumpets, that they're asking for trouble. If so, he's raised an important subject in my opinion, and one that needs to be discussed. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a father of a teenage daughter! Of course, it may well be that the Sheikh said a lot more than that. Indeed, he may have said way too much, and I'm not going to try to defend him.
Even so, it's about time we Australians took an honest look at the effect that dress codes in our culture (or the lack of them) have on our society at large, and on the male segment of the population in particular. We're very quick in Australian society to jump on the 'primitive' standards of Islamic communities, where women have to cover themselves in public, at least in part to lower the level of sexual temptation for men. We think it crazy that women should be so restricted and we can't see why men shouldn't be expected to simply take responsibility for showing self-control.
In my opinion though, the system has a solid logic to it. The logic goes like this: The community as a whole recognises the potentially destructive force of the male sex drive - destroying individuals, families and the community at large. Therefore both men and women and the government take responsibility for curtailing these destructive effects. Men are taught to pray and to take cold showers when tempted.
Women, for their part, cover themselves in public. And the government does its bit by legislating the death penalty for all rapists. OK. It's a brutal logic, and I'm not expecting it to capture the imagination of the Australian public, but you've gotta admit that the system makes sense. What doesn't make sense is our Western system, where women can dress and flirt and present themselves in public as they please, and men are expected to pretend that it doesn't affect them. A few weeks ago I was taking my younger children to a movie.
I guess it was because I was bending down a little to deal with one of the kids that when I pivoted around I almost fell headfirst into the cleavage of the young girl standing behind me. Frankly though, it was an obstacle that was hard to avoid. She must have been all of 18, wearing her push-up bra, putting her best assets proudly on display to the rest of the world, in a way that didn't leave a lot to the imagination.
Now, given that this is the acceptable standard in our culture, you might think that a rational response in that situation would be for me to compliment the girl by saying, 'Congratulations on your fabulous boobs, luv!', to which she'd reply, 'Why thanks. I was hoping that people would notice', though she'd probably add, 'though it wasn't really you I was hoping to impress'. Something along those lines would make sense, at any rate.
What doesn't make sense is how, in our culture, I'm expected to pretend that I didn't notice. It doesn't make sense. She wants men to look, but the man's responsibility is not to look. She's hoping to drive the guys wild with her sexual allure, but woe betide the male who wolf-whistles or makes some comment that suggests that she has had exactly the effect on him that she was trying to have. I remember seeing a Leunig cartoon some years ago, depicting a table-top dancer entertaining a client. She struts her stuff and waves her bits in his face.
Eventually the man jumps up and drops his pants. She screams and yells, 'Pervert', and the security guards come and drag the poor bastard away. That's how it works in Australian community. It's all available. It's all on display. It appears to be all there for the taking, but God forbid that you should make any sort of tangible response! I remember a while ago we had a court case where some guy was convicted for taking a picture of a girl who was walking around in public topless.
The girl made some statement that was recorded at the time, along the lines of, 'I've got a right to walk around topless if I like and nobody has the right to perv on me'. Now I'm paraphrasing, but I think I've captured the logic. The assumption is that how I dress (or undress) is my business and nobody else's, and this is just plain garbage.
If you're a fan of the Simpsons, you'll remember Bart saying to his sister, 'I'm going to start swinging my fists around, and if someone happens to get in the way of them, that's not my fault'. He then starts windmilling his arms and moving in Lis's direction, while trying to give the impression that he's not noticing her presence. It's the same logic. If you walk around swinging your arms, you have to take responsibility if you hit someone. If you wander around in public, loudly shouting and swearing, you're going to have to expect that people will get annoyed with you. And if you are a girl who is determined to walk around topless, you've gotta expect men to get excited.
It's natural. It's genetic. It;s the way we're built. I'm not saying that this gives male voyeurs an excuse to assault anybody, but girls need to understand that when they do this, they are playing with fire. I think a large part of the problem stems from the fact that most women in this community have no real awareness of the rapacious ferocity of the male sex drive, especially in testosterone-filled teenagers. Perhaps Islamic communities are just more realistic at this level.
I don't know, and I'm not pretending for a minute that I'd rather live in Tehran than in Sydney. But I suspect that the statistics on sexual assault and marital breakdown are much healthier over there than they are here. OK. Now I'm not suggesting that the Islamic dress code for all Australian women is the solution, and I'm not even saying that women shouldn't be allowed to walk around topless. All I am saying is that it's time we got real about the situation. Responsibility is a two-way street.
As I've often said to my teenage daughter, 'If you walk around a room holding a plate of h'orderves, you've gotta expect that sooner or latter someone is going to try and grab one and have a nibble.' Does that absolve a teenage boy from responsibility when he assaults some poor young girl, simply because she was dressed provocatively? Of course not. But maybe it's time we all took responsibility for the problem, instead of just leaving it to the lads to work it out for themselves, because they won't. Maybe that's what the Sheikh was trying to say? I don't know, though I do suspect that the media beat-up over his comments has more to do with an anti-Muslim political agenda than it does with anything he was actually responsible for. Either way, maybe it's what he should have said.
Rev. David B. Smith (the 'Fighting Father') Parish priest, community worker,martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three. Get a free preview of Dave's book,Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you subscribe to his newsletter at www.fatherdave.org