By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
In the ladder of prejudice, we know things begin with talk that objectifies and dehumanizes the other.
During the Presidential election, there has been a lot of talk about the tape in which US presidential candidate Donald Trump discussed grabbing women and violating their bodies. The views I share here, about sexual violence and harassment, are strictly mine. They are not a scholarly
or legal analysis in the light of Islam, but instead my personal reflections about what a story of Prophet Joseph, peace upon him, can tell us about life today.
The public dialogue about sexual violence against women seems to hit flash points of rage. We go for a while, quietly simmering, largely ignoring the topic. Then something happens, and we dump all the anger and angst out of our systems. While this may be cathartic, it’s not necessarily helpful. Instead, things stay much as they were until another flashpoint.
What these flashpoints lack is the nurturing or transformation that can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves or others. Each time, there’s a fire, an exchange of insults, and a declared winner. Then we await the next crisis without fundamentally changing.
It’s true that these exchanges have helped bring about laws and policies that make many sexual assaults a crime. But they have also pushed the disease into hiding. Now, lewd, violating conversations about women take place in private, while outwardly people profess to be nothing but respectful.
This isn’t a reflection of everyone. However, Trump’s tapes and Harvey Weinstein scandal do call to mind the aftermath of many other scandalous assaults by people who had one face for the television and another behind the scenes.
When the Trump tapes were released on Twitter, a woman named Kelly Oxford encouraged other women to write about their experiences of rape culture. Oxford said she was getting 50 stories a minute. Clearly, this indicates a major problem.
Recently, the #MeToo campaign hit social media generating a lot of talk against sexual harassment. This is a global problem and requires us to first and foremost come to terms with our imperfections, weaknesses, as well as our biases and prejudices.
We must applaud the women who have stepped forward to share their stories. They help us understand the problem of rape culture, as well as a woman’s right to make choices. However, we often remain stuck on the problem. The numerous stories of sexual aggression, assault, and harassment tell us that our solutions have not yet helped to nurture men to a place where they can better respect women.
I pause here to share a part of a story of Prophet Joseph, upon him peace, and to share how this story helps us to move toward a genuine conversation where we—in all humility—nurture each other to a better place.
Each prophet’s story shares with us many lessons that help us in our growth and journey to God. Part of Joseph’s life experience was living under a King named Aziz and his wife. The King’s wife developed feelings for Joseph, upon him peace, and tried to seduce him. Joseph was a drop-dead beautiful man. When she was caught, she blamed Joseph for seducing her. When the evidence showed that this very powerful woman was indeed guilty, a scandal emerged, and she encouraged the other women to come to her defense. She said that either Joseph could accept her or he could go to prison.
Joseph preferred prison.
Why does God tell the story in this way, so that it seems to validate the view that women are temptresses or seductresses, and that men are blameless victims?
Sometimes, it is difficult for us to hear past our deeply held prejudices and biases, and it takes telling a story in a different way to make us see in a new way.
First, let us smash our biases and prejudices
It was not long ago now that Donald Trump attacked Ghazala Khan. After that, some Muslim women started a campaign called #CanYouHearUsNow, highlighting all the great work that they’re engaged in. This is indeed excellent work. But did Trump hear them? Well, no. When you can’t hear the tenor of your own private voice, you will not be able to hear others—not even God. When you have a false sense of self, you cannot engage or understand others. The ingrained biases and prejudices will FILTER out all the excellent work on display.
The campaign that is needed is, instead, #CanYouHearYOURSELFNow? This is also the campaign that’s needed for men boasting of their comments about domination over women and women who fail to realize they struggle with the same imperfections and human condition because they are human too.
So again, the question: Why does God tell Joseph’s story in this way, so that it seems to validate view that women are temptresses or seductresses, and that men are blameless?
God could, instead, have told the story about a woman who was assaulted and violated. But that story would have been blocked by too many unconscious biases. It would’ve been difficult for many to read—men and women alike.
When God tells the story, He first removes and clears the blockage that will filter out the nurturing light. In this case, our prejudices and biases of each other.
So instead, God tells us the story of Joseph, peace upon him, who experiences much of the abuse that women do. Back at home, Joseph had suffered abuse from his brothers. He’s from a marginalized group. And here, he’s being pressured to prove a negative, as women often are, that he didn’t seduce the queen.
Yet Joseph doesn’t take advantage, and he doesn’t succumb.
The “temptress” argument, that “she misled me, it’s not my fault,” is addressed in the Qur’an. This argument is never accepted by God. The one who misleads and does not repent will stand alongside the one who is misled and does not repent on the Day of Judgment.
Hence, the Prophet said: “I seek refuge with You from misguiding others or being misguided, or slipping or making a slip, or wronging others or being wronged, or feeling important or being made ignorant.”
One lesson from Joseph’s story
The lesson of Joseph’s story is not that women are seductresses. It is, instead, that men can’t point to how a woman is dressed, or how she acted, as a rationalization to rape, dehumanize, or portray all women as seductresses. Joseph’s story is a way of looking through God’s eyes at how a sincere man takes responsibility for his space in the world.
Most importantly, the story short-circuits the rationalization that “she seduced me” or “she asked for it.” Even if she did, Joseph can still walk away. Likewise, for women.
The story shows that God is a nurturer who wants to bring us to a new understanding. The queen later recognizes what she did wrong, and is nurtured, and seeks Joseph out of love of God. She no longer sees Joseph, peace upon him, as an object. Instead, she sees him as a human being.
Another lesson is that women are human beings too. If we accept the argument, “boys will be boys,” to justify sexual harassment of women, how do we feel about “girls will be girls”? We can only accept women in extremes. Either, sex objects or seductresses who seduce men or breeding machines divorced from any feelings or sexual desires that men experience and struggle with. Here, God is telling the story of a woman struggling with the same sexual desires as we accept and allow for men. What is good for the gander is good for the goose.
Talk that objectifies others has to go
Yet, talk that objectifies another has to go. The women of the Kingdom also repented, as they also realized this type of talk that objectifies the other gender is wrong and dehumanizing. Now review the story and change Joseph to Josephine, women of the kingdom engaging in talk that objectifies Joseph to “locker room” talk by men, and the Queen with the King. Have our views and feelings regarding sexual harassment and he/she seduced me changed?
A well-known Muslim scholar of the past, Imam Al-Ghazali, said “If the first inward thought is not warded off, it will generate a desire, then the desire will generate a wish, and the wish will generate an intention, and the intention will generate the action, and the action will result in ruin and divine wrath. Just so, evil must be cut off at its root, which is when it is simply a thought that crosses the mind, from which all the other things follow on.”
This is not just Islamic knowledge.
In the ladder of prejudice, we know things begin with talk that objectifies and dehumanizes the other. Whether this talk is political rhetoric or “locker-room” talk or women’s talk in the kingdom that objectifies the other gender — the reality is that it leads to hate crimes or sexual assault. In some cases, it can lead to widespread violations. Hence, we cannot continue to underestimate the enabling and reinforcing role that movies and songs depicting women as sex objects play or sermons that divorce women from having any sexual feelings or desires. Extreme views of women or men do not bring out nurturing change. Rather, the pendulum just swings from one extreme to the other.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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