December 8, 2016

Respect isn’t based on what she wears

Muslim women who wear the hijab and dress modestly are often considered “oppressed.” But in reality, most Muslim women wear the head covering for religious purposes. It also protects them from the harsh reality of catcalling. Many women wish they could walk the streets without feeling the eyes of strange men on their bodies — and the hijab gives them that freedom.   

This issue of street harassment was recently brought to light by the viral HollaBack! video on YouTube. It featured actress Shoshana B. Roberts as she walked around New York City for 10 hours and now has more than 36 million views. The catcalls she received didn’t surprise me. I, and many other women, hear them frequently. What surprised me were the comments below the video.

Common phrases men said to Roberts in the video were “Hey beautiful”, “How you doing” and “Have a nice day.” Men and even women commented that they saw no problem with the men saying those things to the woman, and that some women are flattered when they get attention from strangers. However, they failed to understand why those men were saying those comments to her.

They weren’t telling the woman “Have a nice day” because they genuinely cared. It was just a way of getting her attention in hopes of a response from a woman they found attractive.

They thought expressing this attraction to a stranger on the street was a compliment, but they got mad if she didn’t respond.

YouTuber Karim Metwaly proved how wrong all these defenses of catcalling were.

A still from YouTuber Karim Metwaly's anti-catcalling video

A still from YouTuber Karim Metwaly’s anti-catcalling video

In Metwaly’s video experiment, actress Vanessa Bontea walked around New York City for five hours wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a cardigan. She was catcalled. 

But then she changed into a hijab and an abaya, a loose fitting cloak generally worn by Muslim women for modesty purposes.

Bontea did not receive one catcall, “Have a nice day” or “God bless you.” This shows the guys who told both Roberts and Bontea to “Have a nice day” only did so because of their looks, not out of a respectful desire to just communicate with them.

Dressing modestly is achieving freedom from vanity. It’s a choice men and women can make to rid themselves of the societal standards of provocative beauty. But dressing modestly doesn’t have to mean dressing from head to toe in a loose-fitting cloak. It is an individual decision, and levels of modesty can be relative to that person.

The hijab, or modest clothing in general, does not necessarily send the message “Do not communicate with me.” It’s a way of acting and dressing in a manner to not draw unwanted attention.

But it shouldn’t have to come to that point. Women should be able to walk the streets no matter what they wear, without fear of being catcalled, whistled or winked at by a stranger.

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