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The Veil and Harassment

One additional issue that critics of the veil raise is that if putting on the veil is done out of fear of male harassment, sexual harassment may actually increase with hijab. Many studies affirm that street harassment is a problem in many parts of the Arab world.49 While there are fewer studies about workplace harassment, various investigations indicate that this is also prevalent especially if housework by foreign female workers is included in those studies. A 2013 report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women showed that 99.3%, of Egyptian women—virtually all women—have faced some type of sexual harassment.50 In another study it was found that more than 60% of Egyptian women have been harassed in the workplace.51What is interesting in another study is that about 62% of Egyptian men surveyed admitted that they have been involved in perpetrating some form of sexual harassment.52 The veil did not appear to reduce the incidents of harassment. In Morocco, about 63% of women indicated that they faced a form of harassment in public spaces. The percentage was about 54% in Tunisia. Another study conducted by Reuters that included Saudi Arabia noted that the country occupied the third place out of24 countries in terms ofsexual harassment in the workplace.53 In Libya, it is reported that harassment has been used as a strategy to intimidate and terrorize women who wanted to be politically active.54 A similar strategy was used in Egypt where some interpreted the rape crimes committed against revolutionary women, many of them veiled, during the Tahrir square protests as a political mechanism to bar them from participation in the revolution.55

In a 2008 survey of harassment in Egypt, it was found that women are harassed, whether veiled or not.56 The veil may reduce harassment in contexts where not wearing a veil is considered unacceptable, but it does not necessarily stop it.57 Actually studies show that most women who have been harassed were veiled,58 yet this does not relate to the fact that veiled women are targeted more. It just relates to the fact that most Egyptian Muslim women (who are the majority) wear a headscarf. One young veiled female in a YouTube video complained about the phenomenon:

If you are a woman who is skinny or over-weight, tall or short, veiled (with face veil or no face veil), or if you are not veiled, or even if coming from the outer space, a woman [in our context] will be subject to harassment. As long there is something related to “women”, you will be harassed.59

Critics of the veil argue that if harassment extends to veiled women, there would no point in veiling. Lazreg agrees with the notion that sexual harassment may actually increase with the veil. The argument goes as follows. A woman is usually harassed because she is imposing a barrier between her and other males. She is indicating that “my body is off-limits, and not your property.” Actions by harassers aim to violate this restriction by getting into the forbidden territory, that is, female personal space. A veiled woman presents more of a challenge. She is extending the limits of what other males can or cannot see. That’s why she becomes more desirable, and men become more motivated to violate the moral shield a woman is building around herself. In support of this argument, a veiled Muslim lady noted: “I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them.. ..The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them.”60

Lazreg does not provide empirical evidence to this argument, and coming up with such generalized evidence is not easy. While there is some evidence to suggest that both veiled and unveiled women are subject to harassment in various Arab localities, there are no studies that support the notion that veiled women are harassed even more in those contexts. In Western contexts of course the story is different. Harassment of a veiled woman in an Arab street would still reflect a male trying to invade a forbidden female body. It still represents acts with sexual overtones, an act of sexism. In the West, such harassment would mostly relate to discomfort in who she is and what she represents. It is an act of racism.

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