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|Sunday, 13 January 2013
Recently, the world has been overwhelmed by news about sexual violence against women. Starting with public outcry for justice against perpetrators of the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in India, Indonesia has witnessed numerous sex crimes over the past few weeks.
The most shocking news came from Rawa Bebek on the outskirts of East Jakarta, where an 11-year-old girl died, allegedly due to complications resulting from sex assault, after nine days of treatment at a hospital. The police are still trying to uncover the cause of her death and the perpetrators of the alleged sex crime.
The series of sex assaults has evoked a very strong response from the public. In India, hundreds of guitarists launched a movement to fight sex crimes. In Indonesia, activists, students and the public held an “anti-sexual abuse” rally at the Proclamation Monument in Central Jakarta.
Ironically, at a time when the public was condemning perpetrators of sex assaults and calling for severe punishment against them, a potential Supreme Court justice cracked a joke about rape during a selection hearing at the House of Representatives. This act showed not only his insensitivity, but also the public’s ignorance.
In the past, we often assumed that sexual harassment could only occur in public places or places synonymous with alcohol, but now this has changed. In reality, sexual crimes can happen anywhere. They may target children, occur in the house and be committed by people nearby.
Sexual abuse can even in places of worship. I personally experienced attempted sexual harassment in a place of worship when I performed haj along with my husband and siblings in Mecca in Saudi Arabia last October.
As I was exhausted, I slept on the ground floor of a place for the sa’i (ritual walk), while my husband was performing thawaf (circling the Ka’bah seven times). The place where I slept was not quiet as there were a lot of people there. I tried to sleep facing the wall.
About half an hour later, suddenly I felt somebody groping and rubbing my bottom. Realizing something was wrong, I immediately jumped up and kicked the man’s hands and face. At that time, he was lying down, so he could not fight back. In a semi-conscious state but confused, I shouted “Haram, haram [Forbidden, forbidden]!” The man pretended to know nothing and closed his eyes again.
The man, aged between 40 and 50 years old, had slept right next me with his head level with my waist. Of course, it was not an ideal way to sleep unless he was deliberately going to sexually harass me. Besides, there were many other places to sleep.
I had never imagined that a holy place like a mosque could be littered with indecent acts. I am sure I was not the only woman who experienced sexual harassment. I have heard of women who have fallen victim to
sexual harassment during thawaf.
The second incident of harassment I experienced during my haj pilgrimage took place in Madina, the second holy city in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was buried. En route to Nabawi Mosque for noon prayers, I passed a road where construction was underway. There were five construction workers taking a break, and when I walked past them, some of them whistled apparently to tease me.
I originally wanted to take their act lightly, but I thought I would take through the same route over the next four days and I would probably meet people who intended to harass me. If I did not take a stand then, I thought that tomorrow they would be more brazen to me or other women.
Finally, I went toward them and told them, “Okay men, do you know where you are right now? You sit only 100 meters away from Prophet Muhammad’s grave. Muhammad is there. How can you commit such a very bad act against women? Muhammad always respected women, but you? Are you Muhammad’s or Satan’s followers?”
These incidents taught me that sexual harassment can happen in sacred places where acts of evil are not supposed to occur. They showed me that women can fall prey to sexual harassment anywhere, no matter how they dress. While in Mecca, I covered my whole body except my face and hands, but harassment still took place.
To prevent sexual abuse, we do not need to improve the way we dress, we need to change our mind-set.
The writer is an East-West Center fellow and PhD student at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in Yogyakarta.
It has been published in The Jakata Post Newspaper on 18 December 2012