Originally published in May 2013.
I recently moved to a country in which cat-calls and invasive comments (in certain areas) have become a part of the norm. While walking down the street, it is expected that a girl will be commented at and called out for anything she is wearing. But that’s not the part that was strange to me. What really stood out to me was the fact that these men would make these comments as if they were entitled to say these things. As if the mere existence of a woman gives them the pure right to say (but not do) whatever pleases them. It was almost as if the message behind their words was actually “If we don’t look at them, and comment at them, what’s the use of having them around?”
At first, when analyzing the situation, I thought it was a young male problem. I thought that perhaps these youth just hadn’t matured yet or hadn’t realized the manners in which a woman should be dealt with. But then I realized that wasn’t the case. It was more than that. I began to notice that some of the women would actually take pride in getting commented at (and I don’t mean corny-at times funny-pick up lines, I mean full out disgusting comments). I also witnessed grown women laughing and nodding approvingly at men whistling at “nice looking” women. As a woman, it is natural to want to look attractive. It’s in a woman’s nature to want to look nice and feel nice. But is that the same thing as wanting to be looked at by strange men? Is it the same thing as wanting to be ogled at and commented at by men who have no relation or duties toward us?
I was perplexed at first, but then I realized that this was a much bigger problem than what I first thought. It was a problem of self-worth and self-definition. And I began to realize that this problem is not just one that lies within the culture that I was witnessing first hand, but also in our entire lives as women. So many of us women have begun to define who we are by the comments from others, the pleasure of others, the opinion of others; so many of us have forgotten where our true worth lies. It’s like there’s an emptiness inside that we scramble around trying to fill in any way possible even if that way is normally degrading and humiliating. And the sad part is we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. And we don’t realize that the approval of God or focusing on the approval of God would fill up that aching emptiness better and faster than any of those comments that are received on the streets or in restaurants or even just that look in someone’s eyes. Our validation should come from one source, and one source alone. Charles Upton beautifully sums up this concept in his book Virtues of the Prophet by reminding us that “If we know for certain that God sees all we do and all we are, we will not be tempted to ask others to validate us by displaying our virtues, nor will we tempt others to judge us by displaying our sins. Only God can validate us; only God can judge.”
When we go out seeking the approval of others we are not only harming ourselves but we are making relationships and normal interactions difficult. We are allowing our own intimate space to be invaded and by doing that, we are actually invading the personal space of others. But if we are self-sufficient and we know that no matter what is said or done, when we walk out the door, our self-worth comes only for God, we allow ourselves and others to actually experience life. Charles Upton says that “this is the root of Courtesy. If we are not just intellectually but also emotionally certain that we are always in the presence of God, if we understand that He has first claim on our intimacy, then we will not demand absolute intimacy from others, which is something that no-one can really give. We will no longer try to command other people’s attention; we will stop prying into their affairs.” When we grant ourselves the courtesy of intimacy only with God, we naturally grant this courtesy to others.
But I also realized that the issue of women’s self-definition/self worth is not the only problem. The problem is also in some men, (note: I said some men. This does not pertain to all men just as my comments about women do not pertain to all women), in the sense that they feel like they have the right to look, the right to comment and the right to be pleased by anyone in their presence. They act as if they are the center of the universe and women are placed in this world simply as an enjoyment to them. I was once riding in a taxi with some family members and the (older) driver began to explain the concept to one of my male relatives. He explained, in what in his mind was a fact, that “when you look at a car and make comments about a beautiful car, what do you take from it? Nothing. What hurt comes out of it? Nothing. You are simply admiring it and making it known that you admire it. It’s the same thing with women: as long as we don’t touch, it’s not a problem.” And the truth is that this absurdity is not the problem that must be fixed, it is a symptom of an ever bigger problem: distance from God. Charles Upton addresses this issue highlighting the root of this evil, and similar evils: “To ogle and peep at other people, whether or not this is sexually motivated, is to treat them as objects. It is to say, in effect, ‘I am the one who is real, the one who is conscious; this other one only exists through my consciousness of him; he is not a person in his own right; he is nothing but a part of my experience.’ When a given society loses its belief in God, or at least its concrete sense that God is actually watching, people turn each other into objects in just this way. We forget that we are dependent for our very existence upon God’s attention to us; we treat our separate individuality, our ego, as if it were God. And when we no longer experience ourselves as dependent upon God, we become dependent upon each other for our very feeling of existence. We include the other within the circle of our ego as if he or she were a personal possession, and then demand that the other do the same with us. All this is a violation of Modesty. In the Prophet’s words, ‘Allah has mercy on the slave who feels true modesty in the face of his Lord, who protects his mind and what it perceives.”
In the end, this is what this well-rounded group of issues comes down to: we have forgotten our dependency upon God. We have forgotten that regardless of the opinion of man, if we don’t have the approval of God, our time has been wasted. We have forgotten that our self-worth is to be based purely on our relationship with the creator. And because we have forgotten this big part of our lives, we have begun to scramble around like a lost puppy searching for his mother, taking any kind of validation we can get from anyone who wants to give it. We try to get our humanity from the words, gazes, and comments of others. We try to feel alive by the opinion of others. And this, in and of itself, is a recipe for disaster because we will never please everyone. When we place our lives in the hands of the creation, we will live in a constant roller coaster—moving left and right with the whims of others. But when we place our lives in the hands of our Creator, our lives will then begin to even out. Our emotional state will not be based on the unstable opinion of humankind, but will be based on the stable opinion of the Ever-Lasting Creator. And really and truly, He’s the only one that matters anyway.