Uncovered meat and short skirts

On hearing Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali's comments about rape, my first thought was that the sheikh, Australia's leading Muslim cleric, must be Sacha Baron Cohen's latest alter ego. After all, some views are so extreme that you can only hope they're satirical.

In a Ramadan sermon, Sheikh al-Hilali compared women to "uncovered meat" and quoted approvingly from a scholar called al-Rafihi: "If I came across a rape crime - kidnap and violation of honour - I would discipline the man and order that the woman be arrested and jailed for life." This punishment was because women - skin-baring temptresses that we be - are, in Sheikh al-Hilali's view, ultimately responsible for rape.

"If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street . . . and the cats eat it," he then said, "is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem." (He didn't address the fact that "uncovered meat" is insensate matter, and that it is therefore quite difficult to blame for anything, but this is hardly the most serious problem with his argument.)

Given his view of women, the sheikh rather predictably suggested that we should all stay at home, "wearing the veil".

And news of these comments emerged in the same week that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had a right laugh - no doubt nudging and winking and making that "Huh? Huh?!" noise people make when they think they've coined the gag of the century - as he joked about allegations filed against the Israeli president, Moshe Katsav. "What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped ten women . . . We all envy him." Yes, Vladimir. How fucking hilarious.

And Putin isn't the only world leader to have expressed some dodgy views on rape. Explaining to the US media why he had initially blocked an application for the gang-rape victim Mukh taran Bibi to travel to the United States last year, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan said that rape had "become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and . . . be a millionaire, get yourself raped." When Musharraf was condemned for this freakish suggestion, he moped that Pakistan was being "singled out on an issue which is global".

This was disingenuous (if you are going to make misogynist comments, you must at least accept the fallout) but it was also, unfortunately, quite accurate. Although it's tempting to assume that we are far more enlightened and supportive of women here in Britain, we, too, are in the gutter when it comes to rape.

Of course, Sheikh al-Hilali's notion that rape victims are "asking for it" had long had currency here, but British feminists have spent the past few decades campaigning to change police and public attitudes - and, for a while, they really seemed to have succeeded.

Last year, however, an Amnesty International poll showed a huge regression. For example, 6 per cent of respondents deemed any rape victim who had flirted with her attacker entirely responsible for the attack - entirely responsible! - while 28 per cent said she would be partly responsible. And for any rape victim who had been wearing revealing clothes - the "short skirt" of lore - 6 per cent said she would be totally responsible for being raped; 20 per cent thought her responsible in part. Similar figures applied if she was drunk, had had many sexual partners, or had been walking alone in a deserted area.

These attitudes are reflected in, and trumped by, UK rape conviction rates, which now stand at an all-time low. It is estimated that 50,000 rapes occurred in this country in 2003, against 11,867 reported cases, resulting in just 629 convictions. When it comes to contested cases (those where the defendant does not admit guilt) women are typically believed just 3-4 per cent of the time.

Sheikh al-Hilali suggests that, because women are responsible for being raped, we should be punished for any attack. Well, in recent years, he will be pleased to hear, a number of British women whose rape cases have either been dropped by the police or have ended in acquittal have been charged with perjury or perverting the course of justice. Given that women are not believed in 97 per cent of all contested cases, this implies that any British woman who pursues a rape allegation runs the risk of attracting punishment piled on punishment - the trauma of an attack being followed by the trauma of the courtroom, followed by the trauma of an acquittal, and then, just possibly, by the hideous, lonely hell of a prison cell.

In the current British climate, which woman wouldn't be tempted by the sheikh's suggestion that we should stay at home? Many of you will remember the Reclaim the Night marches of the late 1970s and 1980s, and see them as a thing of the past, but when women gather by Nelson's Column at 6pm this coming Saturday 25 November, we should all join them. The way a culture deals with rape is one of the best possible indications of how highly it values women. As long as British attitudes remain so viciously prehistoric, we need to fight them all the way.