Refocusing: A Conversation about Rape Culture

Men ogling and catcalling women was always unacceptable and discomforting to me. I sometimes questioned if my attire was responsible for attracting that type of attention. If I was a victim of catcalling, I would keep moving and not respond. I felt voiceless doing so, and I began to realize how the culture I grew up in created a myth that the victims are somewhat responsible for sexual assault. By culture, I don’t mean Bollywood or Lollywood; I mean a much broader culture that makes it okay for human beings to hurt other human beings.

 Culture. It’s what ties us together in so many ways. It governs how we speak, what we wear, where we go, what we eat, and most importantly, our attitudes and behaviors. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about rape culture – and confusion about what constitutes it. Rape culture is comprised of everyday actions, media, and happenings that contribute to the occurrence of rape. They all have the same foundational tenet: dehumanizing individuals (typically women) to normalize rape. We are all a part of this culture because we are all a part of this society. Being Muslim doesn’t mean that we can ‘opt out’ from discussing or facing this problem. We are either speaking out against or supporting (even through our silence) whatever groups we belong to. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Victim blaming puts the responsibility of sexual assault on the survivor. It can sound like this: “Why was he out so late?” or “Why was she dressed like that?” However expressed, it translates to one thing: s/he brought this upon oneself.

 During Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April, many articles are circulating on how to prevent sexual assault. Often, ‘tips’ to prevent sexual assault can also be seen as victim blaming: “carry mace,” ”never walk alone at night,” etc. Rather than focusing on the type of person to commit such acts, the focus is put on the victim and protecting oneself. While everyone should do what they need to feel safe, language focused on the victim belittles the problem – the rapist and the culture that creates the conditions for rape to occur and that people find this treatment acceptable. Plenty of data illustrates rape and sexual violence as prevalent for women; however, rape occurs for men, and as with women, the known numbers are underreported. Regardless, the exact numbers should not determine the size of our response. One rape is one too many.

Victim blaming puts the responsibility of sexual assault on the survivor. It can sound like this: “Why was he out so late?” or “Why was she dressed like that?” However expressed, it translates to one thing: s/he brought this upon oneself. As long as we focus on what one did, there is little room to discuss what culturally enabled the perpetrator to act in this way. Think about it: if someone you love was sexually assaulted, what would you say to her? Would you want to comfort her? If someone was verbally harassing him, what would you do? If he was feeling sad, angry, or frustrated, how would that make you feel? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Sexual assault isn’t someone else’s problem.

 Rape culture normalizes inappropriate action. How often have we witnessed women being verbally harassed? How many of those times have we brushed it off as: “Boys will be boys” or “She is wearing a provocative outfit, what did she expect?” When we brush such inappropriate behavior away as normal, implying that perpetrators cannot control themselves, we become complicit in their actions. Human beings can control their behavior, including how we treat others. This acceptance of violent behavior begins young, starting with attributing aggressive behavior from young boys to the idea that “boys will be boys.” People learn social behavior from birth onwards, and allowing inappropriate behavior under the guise of “it’s just their personality” is a form of teaching. We teach kids, especially boys, that aggression is natural, that their masculinity lies in being strong and tough. We teach them that it‘s okay if they treat others inappropriately. We ultimately teach them that others are responsible for their actions, not themselves.

 Rape culture means adhering to our codes of honor, honor being elevated to sacrosanct status. Often, honor is gained through playing the part and adhering to strict cultural guidelines for appropriate behavior. For survivors of sexual assault, this may mean keeping it secret, as they are often encouraged to stay silent. Fear may exist such as retaliation from the community or the individual who raped them. In either case, change starts with us as a community creating a safe space where people can come forward and we support without judgment. It means encouraging survivors to pursue legal action and protection through the law. All it takes is one person who will stand with the survivor and their family. In my work within interpersonal violence organizations, I have seen communities provide housing and money for survivors, and may Allah bless them for this generosity. However, what I’ve seen less of is people inviting survivors and their children into their own homes and including them in their lives and community.

 As Muslims, we tend to keep rape quiet, but that does not mean it does not exist. In fact, removing the shame from discussing it is a good first step. The only shame involved with rape lies with the perpetrator. Let’s flip this narrative and focus on the horrendous actions of the criminal. Let’s challenge the narrative that men have no control of their actions. Let’s question the media that we consume. Let’s question the words that we speak. As the Persian poet Hafiz wisely wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” Choose to live in a house that honors an individual’s suffering without blame and condemns violence rather than the victim’s existence. Envision a world where women can walk without fear or mace. It may be a dream right now but we can’t make it a reality until we dare to dream it first.

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