Asking For It


In the last couple of weeks, the breathing space for Australian Muslim women has been sharply reduced. Trapped between dog-whistling media and politicians on the one side, and misogyny from elements in their own community on the other, Muslim women are aware that speaking out against either source of oppression risks providing ammunition to the other.

They are far from alone in this dilemma. Women from all marginalised communities are familiar with the truism that when they speak out against sexism, their voices will be opportunistically appropriated for the purposes of racism. This is a harsh reality; it is also, of course, an excuse for some men to indulge in bad behaviour while denouncing any woman (or man) who speaks out as a traitor to her community.



Even more than Islamist terrorist attacks, the Sydney gang rapes and the media portrayal of them as ethnically and/or religiously driven have poisoned public perceptions of Muslims in Australia. Muslim women, including me, spoke out as strongly as they knew how against the unfounded proposition that the gang rapes typified male Muslim attitudes towards Australian women.

In one swift stroke, Sheik Hilali’s speech comparing unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ who ought to expect to be attacked by hungry ‘cats’ not only caused gross offence to women of all religious persuasions and none; it also gave new life to the allegation that young Muslim men pose a particular threat to Australian women.

If Sheik Hilali considers rape to be a crime of lust rather than a crime of power, he should take a good hard look at Pakistan, where recent high profile cases highlight the use of sexual violence not as an outlet for excess male libido, but as a weapon to cut uppity women and their families down to size. Mukhtaran Mai is the most famous such case. Mukhtaran’s younger brother was found guilty by a tribal council of sexual impropriety with a higher caste woman (although later investigations found that the boy was prepubescent and that he himself had been a victim of sexual abuse by a higher caste man). The council sentenced Mukhtaran to be gang-raped in retribution.

In Pakistan, to be raped is not only a ‘fate worse than death’, it is often a literal death sentence, since many families consider that the dishonour of rape can only be wiped clean with the victim’s blood. If she escapes honour killing, the victim may find herself imprisoned for adultery under the Hudood Ordinances, unless she is able to provide four male Muslim eyewitnesses to her lack of consent.

However, Mukhtaran refused to be silenced, and with the encouragement of her local imam, she reported her attackers to the police. Her case became an international cause célèbre, and a source of severe embarrassment to the Pakistani Government, who tried to prevent her from travelling abroad where she might ‘blacken Pakistan’s name’ (a task the Pakistani Government apparently reserves for itself). There has been no suggestion that Mukhtaran incited rape by wearing revealing clothing; as with all rape victims, she was guilty not of being seductive, but of being vulnerable.

As an Australian researcher on Pakistani gender relations, I have spent the last couple of years following public discussions of sexual violence in both countries. The two strands are brought together by the case of the brutal ‘K’ brothers, who committed a particularly cold-blooded series of gang rapes across Sydney.

The K brothers managed to turn their trials into a grotesque spectacle through a series of stunts and implausible defences. The most explosive of these was their lawyer’s last-minute claim that his client, who he described as a ‘cultural time bomb’, was not fully responsible for his actions because his Pakistani upbringing had not acquainted him with the idea that a woman (especially an unveiled one) had the right to refuse sex.

In his recently published book on the case, Girls Like You, Paul Sheehan seized on the ‘cultural time bomb’ defence as evidence that young Muslim men view Australian women and girls as legitimate sexual prey. Sheehan recently argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that Hilali’s speech was further evidence of this as though the K brothers were tuning into religious discourse in between drinking alcohol, taking drugs and watching pornography.

It is true that the Pakistani legal system tragically fails rape victims, and the radical gender inequality suffered by many Pakistani women renders them vulnerable to violence of all kinds. And yes, it is absolutely clear that Hilali’s speech was somewhere in the general vicinity of beyond the pale.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

But it is one thing to acknowledge and denounce these facts, and another to claim that either of them conditions young Muslim men to commit rape.

Paradoxically, while it may be very difficult to prove rape to the satisfaction of a Pakistani court of law, Pakistani society understands rape as a heartless act of cruelty all the more so because the victim is more often punished than the perpetrator. And as many non-Muslim Australian feminists have pointed out, while Hilali’s words may have an ugly resonance all of their own, they are broadly consistent with statements made by Australian lawyers and judges over the years.

All of the empirical evidence points to the fact that crime occurs at higher rates among youths who suffer social and economic marginalisation. In Australia, a disproportionate number of Muslim youth suffer both, and the current round of dog-whistle politics is doing nothing to address this.

In the meantime, Muslim women pay, and pay, and pay. Women are most likely to suffer sexual violence from a man that they know, often a family member. On this basis, the most likely victim of a Muslim rapist is a Muslim woman. If Hilali and his supporters think that an apology goes halfway towards offsetting the insult he has directed at such women, they are delusional.

Last night, I appeared on SBS Insight alongside other Muslims and non-Muslims representing a spectrum of opinion on the Hilali issue. It was refreshing to hear articulate Muslim women such as the popular author Randa Abdel-Fattah reject Hilali’s speech, while Irene Khan and Meredith Burgmann warned against stigmatising a particular community for holding attitudes that are widespread throughout Australian society.

But trapped between Bronwyn Bishop on the one side, and Hilali’s translator and chief apologist Kaysar Trad on the other, I found the lack of breathing space almost physical. Bishop regurgitated her usual Islamophobic rant against hijab, making me wish that I’d put one on.

But it was listening to Trad describe Hilali as a victim of political and media persecution that really made me gag. Trad admitted that the Sheik’s speech was ‘fire and brimstone’ and ‘over the top’, but thought that we should be satisfied with the Sheik’s apology.

It is not good enough.

We know by now to expect that some political and media figures will use opportunities like this to stigmatise Muslims. Malcolm Fraser may well be right in predicting that the next election will be a ‘Muslim election’, in which we will be the Government’s chosen scapegoats. We must fight that as best we can. But I will not accept that as an excuse from Kayser Trad or anyone else as a reason for selling women short. We deserve better.

As for the Sheik, nothing says ‘I’m sorry’ better than the words ‘I resign.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.