September 23, 2008

Naomi Wolf: Veiled Sexuality

Naomi Wolf gets it. It's a shame most Westerners don't. Read the full article here.

But are we in the West radically misinterpreting Muslim sexual mores, particularly the meaning to many Muslim women of being veiled or wearing the chador? And are we blind to our own markers of the oppression and control of women?

The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I traveled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channeling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.

Outside the walls of the typical Muslim households that I visited in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, all was demureness and propriety. But inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction, and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.

At home, in the context of marital intimacy, Victoria’s Secret, elegant fashion, and skin care lotions abounded. The bridal videos that I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom, suggested that sensuality was not alien to Muslim women. Rather, pleasure and sexuality, both male and female, should not be displayed promiscuously – and possibly destructively – for all to see.

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualizing Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.” This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognizably Western feminist set of feelings.

...

Nor are Muslim women alone. The Western Christian tradition portrays all sexuality, even married sexuality, as sinful. Islam and Judaism never had that same kind of mind-body split. So, in both cultures, sexuality channeled into marriage and family life is seen as a source of great blessing, sanctioned by God.

This may explain why both Muslim and orthodox Jewish women not only describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred – and when one’s husband isn’t seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long – one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the sanctity of the home.

...

I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognize that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top – in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue – it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

HT: Rozas

8 comments:

George Carty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George Carty said...

Are you sure that the feminist movement in the West isn't really about liberating women from the perceived oppression of femininity in all its forms?

(I often tend to think of femininity as being epitomized by the hijabi.)

By the way, what you say to someone who said "If hijab isn't oppressive, why don't you see non-Muslim hijabis?"

JDsg said...

Are you sure that the feminist movement in the West isn't really about liberating women from the perceived oppression of femininity in all its forms?

In other words, that "feminists" are really "masculinists?" Yeah, I've been thinking that since at least the 80s. Are you familiar with "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long," by Robert Heinlein?

"Whenever women have insisted on absolute equality with men, they have invariably wound up on the dirty end of the stick. What they are and what they can do makes them superior to men, and their proper tactic is to demand special privileges, all the traffic will bear. They should never settle merely for equality. For women, 'equality' is a disaster."


(I often tend to think of femininity as being epitomized by the hijabi.)

I associate the hijab more with piety. Women who wear hijab do look more feminine, IMO, but I think most women who cover would tell you (and certainly my wife would say) that they wear a hijab or tudung for the sake of Allah (swt) and not to look more feminine than a woman who doesn't cover.


By the way, what you say to someone who said "If hijab isn't oppressive, why don't you see non-Muslim hijabis?"

I'd say, "You do." I've heard of several cases of Christian women who wear hijab (following one of Paul's instructions; I don't recall what letter and verse, off-hand). Likewise, orthodox Jewish women cover in one way or another; if not through scarves, then through the wearing of special wigs. When I was a child, my mom used to wear a scarf all the time when she went to Mass. And then there are nuns... All sorts of non-Muslim hijabis out there.

And then there's the opposite tact: Buddhist nuns also recognize the problem of hair for a pious life, but instead of covering they shave their heads bald.

George Carty said...

In other words, that "feminists" are really "masculinists?"

Personally, I prefer the word "androgynists". I've never even heard of "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" by the way...

I associate the hijab more with piety.

That too - maybe my last paragraph should have been more on the lines of "why do only religious women cover?", without mentioning Islam specifically...

JDsg said...

The Notebooks of Lazarus Long are actually two sections within the 1973 SF novel, Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein. Lazarus Long is a recurring character of Heinlein's, and is "Methuselah." The notebooks are actually a large collection of aphorisms on a wide variety of topic, occasionally blasphemous and often witty. Check them out; I'm sure you'll be amused. :)

Anonymous said...

“The bridal videos that I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom,……”

Uh yeah Naomi – dirty dancing can come in handy when there are other wives to compete with for the approval of a husband who has the legal right to starve you to death if you fail in any way.

“It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality” she asserts, “but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling-toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.”

So hetero sexual marriage is the only choice, eh?

And Muslim women who dare to have sex on their own terms will continue to wind up dead.

JDsg said...

...dirty dancing can come in handy when there are other wives to compete with for the approval of a husband...

Who says that the videos in question were for a polygamous marriage? Polygamy among Muslims is rare. In this country, where polygamy is legal, the total number of polygamous marriages is less than 2%; in six years of living here, I've met two men who had two wives each. Hardly the need for "competition" between wives.


...who has the legal right to starve you to death if you fail in any way.

Not true.


So hetero sexual marriage is the only choice, eh?

It is in Islam.


And Muslim women who dare to have sex on their own terms will continue to wind up dead.

A so-called Muslim woman who has "sex on her own terms" isn't following Islam to begin with. We all know this. You don't. She won't necessarily "wind up dead"; that's your assumption. (And a piss-poor one at that.)

George Carty said...

On the subject of non-Muslim hijabis, here are some Greek folk costumes I found on Flickr. The resemblance to Muslim dress is uncanny...