The outcry concerning Sheikh Hilali's sermon on women as “uncovered meat” has been much discussed in both Australian and international press. Yet are Hilali's views really so unusual?
In his sermon, Hilali referred to women as the “best weapons” of Satan to bring about men's downfall. This idea is prevalent in Christian culture as well, and despite widespread information campaigns by governments and feminists alike on violence against women in Australia, women continue to be seen as somehow “provoking” sexual violence.
Earlier this year, the Australia Institute published the study Corporate Paedophilia by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, in which the authors expressed concern about the growing sexualisation of children, particularly girls, in advertising and marketing: areas where adult women are already omnipresent as sexualised encouragements to buy whatever product is being marketed.
Such use of women and girl children in advertising reinforces the message that women and girls are indeed “Satan's agents”, constantly both available and elusive sexual objects, designed to goad men into sexual fantasy that they then have difficulty in not acting out. With all these provocative women plastered over billboards and magazine covers, not to mention walking the streets, what's a poor bloke to do?
This is, for example, the message communicated in a Michael Leunig cartoon published by the Sydney Morning Herald, on November 4, 2006, on the plight of “Mr Lust”, who is “persona non grata”.
Poor Mr Lust has to fight his impulses when looking at the breasts, buttocks and crotches of skimpily-clad women in the street, so that he ends up “seeing nothing, feeling nothing and wanting nothing”. Then when he gets home, he has no lust left for his wife, who is upset. The implication is that the poor guy's libido is confused: he has to fight it down one minute and then is expected to turn it on the next. Apparently he is incapable of exercising discernment and choosing his moment: it is either all, or nothing.
The timing of this cartoon is odd and in the wake of the Hilali furore, does not appear coincidental, for its message is, in fact, not far removed from Hilali's. Women are responsible for provoking men's lust and men are victims and not aggressors.
In Hilali's view of the world, men are penis-controlled automatons unable to reflect on their own actions or consider women as people, while in Leunig's view, men are poor confused suckers who just can't get it right - and who can blame them, with all these scantily-clad voluptuous women walking about.
What sort of message is this sending to the Australian public, not only about women as the “provocative” agents of men's downfall, but about men's intelligence and capacity to consider fellow human beings (women) as other than rape objects?
Men are portrayed, in Hilali's words and Leunig's pictures, as incapable of exercising free will or making considered moral judgments when women are around, and the solution to this is not for men to start thinking but for women to go and hide.
Hilali and Leunig may both hold women in contempt, but it seems to me that they are holding men in even greater contempt. At least women, even in their negative incarnation as “Satan’s weapons”, are viewed as (potentially) responsible beings, capable of exercising judgment and making choices.
This message is all the more worrying because sexual assault against women and girl children is not going away. The Australian component of a multi-country International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), by Jenny Mouzos and Toni Makkai, found in 2004 that one in ten women had experienced at least one incident of physical and or sexual violence in the preceding 12 months.
In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found, in its Crime and Safety Australia study, that one third of women who had been sexually assaulted did not report the crime to police. Among the reasons they gave for not doing so was the fear that they would not be taken seriously or that the issue was a trivial matter, not important enough to waste police time with.
Taken within this context, Hilali's words, while extreme, and undeniably offensive to both women and men, sit well within the parameters of a certain “Australian value” according to which women are responsible for men's aberrant behaviour, even when they are its victims.
It is, worryingly, still part of the “norm” in the collective Australian psyche to consider women as sexual predators of unwitting men who simply can't help themselves. Clearly, making another sermon such as Hilali's unthinkable in Australia will involve more than just the removal of Hilali from office.