What we need to guard against are such ready, sweeping and inaccurate conclusions as ABC drew about the Islamist fundamentalists’ being the “worst of all”, making a contorted connection between the origin of a word (“aurat”) and the “rape squads” in Egypt. Although I did not point it out to her (because even without factual corrections her conclusions were badly erroneous), ABC did not seem to understand that there was little “Islamist” (and nothing “Islamic”) about the Egyptian situation either.
The phenomenon of mass sexual assault on women in public places has been a well-documented fact in Egypt since 2005, and emerged after the security forces of Egypt and others acting at their behest used sexual assault as a weapon against female protestors on May 25, 2005 at Tahrir Square, Cairo. The use of sexual assault by crowds as a means to push women out of public spaces soon gained currency and by 2012 crowds of young men were regularly seen encircling and isolating protesting women and groping, stripping, beating and biting them, and many a time also subjecting them to digital penetration and/or rape. Several commentators have pointed out that these “circles of hell”, as they came to be described, are a manifestation of misogynistic tendencies of the Egyptian society with the sexual assaults aimed at penalizing women for leaving home and entering public spaces with view to terrorizing them out of public spaces back within the four walls of home.
So the Egyptian situation has nothing to do with Islamist fundamentalism, to begin with because the women there are not being attacked for not adequately observing a religious custom but for stepping out of houses to occupy spaces traditionally occupied and dominated by men, and such resentment is not unique to any particular society. We have seen it in all societies at different times, and we still see it rearing its head in subtle and crude ways. The near-universal gender-based discrimination against women is the manifestation of the same resentment. Rape, it has been settled by several studies, is not so much about sex or lust as it is about the assertion of male dominance over women and showing women “their place”. Wherever and whenever religion could be used as a tool to justify systematic oppression of women by men, it was promptly pressed into service and the violence was justified as religiously or culturally warranted to preserve the order divinely ordained. There is more than sufficient scriptural support for female suppression and oppression in the religious texts of nearly all major religions of the world, including Christianity and Hinduism, and that’s simply because men, in general, have brought to bear all means necessary to ensure the subjugation of women. It’s a problem indeed, but to see it as a problem exclusive to a certain society or confined to Islamist societies or a problem emerging solely from Islamist fundamentalism is to close one’s eyes to the cold truth staring in one’s face.
What’s even stranger, the article and the YouTube video link that ABC shared in support of her sweeping conclusion that Islamist fundamentalists were the “worst” did not serve her conclusion as well as she might have thought. The article was a random blogpost talking of sexual assault and attempted rape of a couple of Coptic women by a group of Muslim men who kept shouting “Allahu Akbar” as they went about assaulting them. The writer of the blogpost wonders “what are we to make of Muslims screaming Islam’s two most distinct slogans—“Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” and Islam’s very profession of faith, “there is no god but Allah”—while raping Christian women?”
What to make of them? That shouldn’t be hard. They are not furthering the cause of Islam or enforcing any of its fundamental tenets, however narrowly construed, by a long shot; so they are not even “fundamentalists”, properly speaking. They are just angry, frustrated men shouting religious slogans as they assaulted women for nothing other than stepping out of home into the domain they see as reserved for men, and the same goes for the YouTube video ABC shared. It also showed women protesters being sexually assaulted by groups of men, not for not wearing culture-appropriate clothing but only for stepping out of home to protest. Just like fundamentalism of all kinds, repression of women by men in all societies needs to be resisted; and just like fundamentalism, it does not exist only in Islamic societies even though, much like fundamentalism, it might be currently most visible there.
What ABC did was make herself see what was not there either in the article or the video, which is what confirmation bias does. It makes one see only what confirms one’s preconceived beliefs and prejudices, ignoring all that contravenes them, and in such failure of reason the primary casualty is the truth itself. It is such unreason that has been weaponized for political purposes in recent times. And when somebody points out that “their” radicalism cannot be answered with “our” radicalism because the replacement of monsters does not end monstrosity, the person is readily branded an “anti-“, and acting against the interests of his or her own community, people or nation, or less of a Hindu, Muslim or Indian.
And that brings me to the in-person discussion I had with PQR and XYZ, a wife-husband duo, not long after my textual exchange with ABC. The discussion was another version of the same set of biases that ABC had displayed earlier, but this one had a slightly different slant.
…to be continued
Originally published as part of my monthly column Street Lawyer in the May 2022 Issue of Lawyers Update (Vol XXVIII, Part 5).