Final Essay: Implications of Language and Naming in Issues of Gender and Sexuality in Islam

I. Introduction: Language and Communication

There are many means of effective communication amongst humans, including body language, facial expression, music, visual art, and more, but the most widely accepted and perhaps generally effective means is indubitably that of language. From birth, we absorb the ways people around us use words and string them together so as to produce understandings between one another, in both mundane and seemingly spiritual ways; as we grow, these words shape our understandings of our environments, and we eventually emanate these understandings through words ourselves. Thus, language has the power to both build and destroy worlds in the realm of human consciousness.

II. Amina Wadud: Language in Activism, the Importance of Definition, and Interpretation

One of the first things that Amina Wadud addresses in Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, a work that contributes to her objectives in “fighting the gender jihad,” or the gender “struggle,” is the complexity of the process by which people communicate through language; she maintains that “the most basic aspect of [this] process is that people understand and use language on the basis of their contextual experiences and the potential of their imagination beyond those experiences” (95-96). Consequently, she asserts the cruciality of paying due attention to the role of language in defining the terms of a movement. In her eyes, the act of determining definition is power. Defining important terms and concepts ensures an understanding of what is being discussed amongst all parties, which is crucial for forward-movement. This emphasis on clarity of definition is particularly important in discussions of religion and other concepts that must be interpreted for “accurate” implementation, as Wadud notes that “definitions are the heart of interpretation” (18). This stress on clarification of definition in religious contexts is necessary, as “ultimately the textual meaning is neither fixed nor static”(22) because basic understandings of meaning result only from “human interaction with [doctrinal] texts”(22); thus, “a single source can and has led to diverse conclusions”(22).

This is where many people who, along with Wadud, advocate for the inclusion of women in discussions of textual, cultural, and legal implications of Islam, find the first flaw in historical interpretive processes; Wadud explains that “the patriarchal norms of seventh-century Arabia left its mark upon the nature of the Qur’anic articulation and continued to do so for centuries with interpretation and implementation” (22), so the “historical and current method of interpretive reference mostly excludes women and women’s experiences”(22). This lack of perspective is detrimental to attempts to most accurately and completely understand Islam, as, in Wadud’s words, “the Qur’an is the one ultimate source of direct verbal access to Allah’s self-disclosure and of the order of cosmic justice”(50), and it is a human duty to “[establish] and [maintain] dynamism between a linguistically articulated text, of divine origin, addressed at a fixed time while simultaneously intending to provide eternal guidance” (22-23). Therefore, in order to most effectively and precisely understand and implement Qur’anic values, “women’s experiences [are] essential to the work of human contribution and compulsory to the construction of how meanings affect ethical codes” (50). Unfortunately, many insist on the authenticity in traditional, patriarchal interpretations, even claiming that some of these alternative methods of interpretation “[deny] or [go] against ‘Islam’” (21), and thus, “[inhibit] a large majority of Muslims in their intent and claim to honor Islamic tradition” (18).

Here we run into the issue of defining “Islam” itself, as well as the concepts it employs, and the values it advocates for. For example, a widely misinterpreted concept in Islam is that of shari’ah. Though often used for fearmongering, Amina Wadud quotes Feisal Abdul Rauf in his explanation of it as “an immutable divine order”(34), meant “to make judgments about appropriate actions (92). In fact, while shari’ah is indubitably intrinsic to Islam, its historical origins are in “an intellectual movement that began after the death of the Prophet, the end of revelation, and [shari’ah] is never referred to in the Qur’an to mean a man-made legal system” (34).

The word “Islam” alone carries diverse connotations, not in its place as the descriptor of a religion, but in its many written and unwritten implications. These implications depend upon the context in which it is invoked, and by whom it is invoked, but each invocation claims authority; “people attach the word ‘Islam’ onto their arguments to acquire definitive authority and to authoritatively construct limits on discourse”(18). These usages, however, are oftentimes misled or manipulative. For example, some understand the actions of Muslims as reflections on the meaning of “Islam” itself, and some Islamic “political regimes or opposing political parties corroborate with certain definitions provided by their own experts incorporated in ministries, advisory councils, or think tanks specifically set up to determine religious legitimacy” (19). The many invocations, and the intents behind these invocations, establish different “fixed” meanings of Islam. This wide array of “fixed” meanings counterintuitively blurs pure meanings of Islam, and simultaneously “narrow[s] the space for genuinely free and open dialogue” (19).

For clarity and maximization of inclusion, Wadud chooses to define Islam as “engaged surrender,” asserting that “Muslims either choose engaged surrender to Allah’s will or justify deviation from it by selective inclusions and omissions within the broad possibilities for naming ‘Islam’” (21). Other important terms that Wadud emphasizes are tawhid, the concept of “the unicity of God”(14), taqwa, “moral consciousness, not accessible to external human judgment” (28-29), and khilafah, or the idea that that “human beings are created to be trustees on earth… that [they] are charged with fulfilling a trust with Allah” (33). These terms and their importance in Islam further Wadud’s argument for the urgency of women’s inclusion in major Islamic discourses. In her discussion of taqwa, she attempts to deconstruct the importance of the hijab, a hair covering many Muslim women wear so as to maintain modesty. She contends that “over the past several decades, the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance within and without Muslim communities… [and that] it is certainly not the penultimate denotation of modesty, as mandated by the Qur’an, ‘the best dress is the dress of taqwa’”(219). In this context, the definition of taqwa as “moral consciousness” takes on the moral incarnation of “modesty.” Wadud attempts to redefine taqwa and its implications for modesty as not directly related to covering up certain parts of the female body. In her discussion of tawhid, Wadud explains that “God acts upon all creation to bring peace, harmony, and unity … [so] ultimate separation between creature (self) and Creator (Allah) is an allusion. Separation between one person and another is literal, but metaphorically or internally an illusion, causing prejudice” (29). This extends to the separation between men and women; the hierarchical nature of who has (and does not have) permission to determine the meaning of doctrinal texts and thus shape a just world on Earth, is contradictory to the concept of oneness that tawhid embodies. From this, we see responsibility in being khilafah, or the trustees of Allah, to employ taqwa, or moral consciousness, into everyday life as it pertains to maintaining “equilibrium and cosmic harmony” (28).

Interestingly, the “oneness” and “equilibrium” of tawhid is not interchangeable with “equality” and “sameness.” In Islam, the gender binary remains quite present, and gender roles are traditionally, culturally, and even at times, doctrinally determined. Wadud explains that she does “not adhere to a definition of equal that requires some feigned sameness in order to be applied” (155). Rather, she believes that the inevitable “distinctions are worth celebrating – especially for women, who have been compared to and contrasted with men for too much of our life in civilization”(155).

In addition to defining religious terms, Wadud emphasizes the importance of defining social terms, as they are affected by religion, and influence how people understand religious and cultural values. Some critical social terms concerning women that Wadud endeavors to define for the modern Islamic world include “mother,” “motherhood,” and “family.” She claims that, in terms of the relationship between, and the purposes of, the mother and father, “the word family is also a word for gender relations” (140), and that “family is a construction of relationships…  [in which] the procreation, protection, and care of offspring” (131), are central. In these claims, her definition of family is somewhat traditional, as she employs standard notions of the gender binary, and its role in childbearing and the upbringing of children. Its strand of traditional thinking, however, is thinned by Wadud’s employment of the term “egalitarian” to the ideal family unit, which she understands as “the means by which both the inherent equality of human beings and the equity of responsibility toward other members in the family are reconciled” (156). Further, she explains that motherhood “is socially constructed [, and that] The ‘role’ of mother has been variously conceived and variously fulfilled” (127). This explanation lifts more weight off of the potentially rigid separation of gender roles, in that it lifts the traditional rigid definition of “motherhood” from its pedestal; she follows by explaining different understandings of the meaning of “motherhood” throughout history. Further, she criticizes the common understandings of “maternal traits,” such as selflessness, as solely belonging to the mother. Ultimately, Wadud emphasizes the importance of redefining the term “family” by redefining the roles of family members in her assertion that

the failure of civil society, including Muslim civil society, to look carefully at the underlying notions of the term ‘family’ while simultaneously relying upon it as a ‘cornerstone’ of social well-being, the source of a system of ‘values,’ and the place for the development of morality, implicates those societies in the commitment of the various crimes and abuses which occur within the family (131).

 

This not only points to issues in defining gender roles and related terms as they affect the less physical or visible realms of consciousness and understanding, but highlights the issues as they contribute to physical and emotional abuse.

 

III. Aysha A. Hidayatullah: Implications of the Term “Feminism” in Islamic Work

Besides religious and social terms and definitions that have direct bearings within discussions of Islam itself, Aysha A. Hidayatullah demonstrates the importance of defining the terms we use to describe the discussions of the place of women’s work in Islam themselves. In her book chapter “The Frames of Feminism” from her book Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, Hidayatullah focuses specifically on the term “feminism.” She prefaces the chapter with a quote by Asma Barlas, who critiques the dominating nature of the term “feminism,” and following, the inevitable consequences of definition, as she pronounces that “one can’t avoid being called a feminist any time one speaks about women’s liberation or equality, no matter what sort of language one speaks in…Even if we believe that reality exists independently of how we choose to define it, as we know, the very process of defining it also gives it a particular shape” (37). Defining something is not without consequence, as Wadud demonstrates in her emphasis on carefully defining terms for discussions of Islam for effective conversation; here, we see that similar to the term “Islam,” the term “feminist” adopts a wide array of “fixed” meanings, and Hidayatullah presents the consequences of this – she is hesitant to define how works are placed within a field with the term “feminist,” as the very definition of “feminist” is so all- encompassing that it becomes ambiguous and shapeshifting; for Barlas, her understandings of the definition of “feminism” as problematic in certain forms, discredits its credence in any and all forms. She furthers this, insisting not only on its lack of applicability due to its lack of credit, but on its dangerous nature; its claim to all work on “women’s liberation or equality” gives it the ability to appropriate “agendas that are so widely divergent as to be absurdly contradictory to one another; granting feminism this openness means that positions that are offensive and even dangerous to the proponents of other positions are called by the same name”(42). Here, she refers to the discontinuities “Western feminism” has with the widely adopted term “Islamic feminism,” and its almost inherent attacks on not only Islam itself for its supposed treatment of women, but on the ways many so-called “Islamic feminists” see the role of women in issues such as modesty. Additionally, Hidayatullah quotes Ziba Mir Hosseini in her argument that even within Islamic feminism itself, the stances of self-proclaimed Islamic feminists are so “‘local, diverse, multiple and evolving… [that it is] futile and even counter-productive to try to put these diverse voices into neat categories and generate definitions’”(41).

In discussions that effectively serve as counterarguments to those of Barlas and Mir Hosseini, Margot Badran and Sa’diyya Shaikh maintain that the term “feminism” is applicable and even important to issues Islamic feminists take on. Hidayatullah explains that Badran believes that

the terminology of Islamic feminism provides a common, inclusive language to describe the wide variety of Muslim women’s profaith work against sexism and male domination… [and thus] remains useful for resisting assertions that ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ are inherently opposed to one another, as well as for challenging the notion of any one group’s exclusive ownership of feminism (37).

Badran thus pushes for more broad and cohesive definitions and understandings of “feminism” and “Islam,” as she believes “the view of Islam and feminism as mutually opposed to one another is due to ignorance about Islam and/or feminism and utilized by Muslims threatened by gender reform to discredit the activist and scholarly efforts of Muslim women”(40). Of course, while Asma Barlas rejects the term “feminism,” she is not “threatened by gender reform,” and rather, in her rejection of the threatening agendas of certain incarnations of feminism, denies all of its incarnations. Similarly to Badran, Shaikh argues that due to its claim to all discussions of women’s liberation and equality “to accept feminism as a Western concept is…to concede the most visible discourses around women’s rights and gender justice as the property of the West and to marginalize the indigenous histories of protest and resistance to patriarchy by non-Western women” (40), but emphasizes, in perhaps a more effective counterargument to Barlas, that Islamic feminists must ‘“navigate the terrain between being critical of sexist interpretations of Islam and patriarchy in their communities while simultaneously criticizing neo-colonial feminist discourses on Islam”(40).

This duty seems to embody the saying “caught between a rock and a hard place,” as criticism comes from both “sides,” which explains why the authors of much work on women’s liberation and equality in Islam stray away from using the term. Their attempt to “win over” Muslim communities often precedes their attempt to convince Western feminists of their validity, and they “are aware that the legitimacy of their readings by be undercut by Muslims’ negative associations with feminism” (42). These negative associations can cut so deep so as to sever their works off of bodies of Islamic work entirely, labeling them as “un-Islamic,” so many authors have resolved to argue that “their approaches are firmly internal to Islam…[; that they] derive from ‘Islam’ itself … [and even that] their readings are ‘prior’ to feminism”(42). Hidayatullah, however, argues that

their stances continue to be shaped by feminism, since their opposition to it is still a response that is connected to an irrevocable history…Feminist discourse still sets the terms of those who resist it. Thus, referring to this field of Qur’anic interpretation as something other than ‘feminist’ does not isolate it from feminist discourse, as it is inescapably impacted by it (43).

This stance responds to both Wadud and Barlas’ holdings that definition has consequences, as Hidayatullah holds that even when a work is labeled as “unaffected by feminism,” if it deals with concepts under the umbrella of feminism, due to its historical placement, it is indubitably affected by feminism. Barlas would certainly resent this holding, as she believes that “when we ignore how people choose to name themselves, their work, and their struggles, we necessarily do some epistemic violence to them”(43). Ultimately, Hidayatullah reasons that “one is unable to control the [greater] meanings attached to Islamic feminism, no matter how one chooses to relate to it or define it” (41), and that the meanings and implications of Islamic feminism depend “first and foremost on one’s definitions of ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’”(41). Thus, it is crucial to clarify those definitions in discussion to promote proactivity.

Tales of the Waria: Language in Discussions of Gender

Formal discussions of gender, not in relation to gender roles and the gender binary, but in relation to the diversity of gender and the “gender spectrum” seem to be more scarce than those of the prior. Tales of the Waria, a documentary about a community of Muslims in Indonesia, introduces the complications in discussing the gender spectrum when it comes to different cultures; while westerners may view the film and proclaim that it is about “transgender” women, “gender fluid” or “gender non-conforming” people, “drag queens,” or simply “flamboyant gay men,” these descriptions are inaccurate and even perhaps insensitive. These terms come from secular, Western understandings of gender, and other cultures and histories have different notions of the concept of gender and its “options.” For the waria, religion plays a critical role in determining their essences as human beings, including their associations with gender. The gender binary is deeply ingrained in this culture and religion, so it translates to the idea that the waria are essentially “men with the souls of women;” note that this does not allow for more western understandings of ambiguity in the gender binary, as this definition still fit into it – they cannot simply be human or androgynous in their essence. This definition prompts questions of the roles of souls in religion to those of bodies – it is interesting that it is acceptable to consider the soul, the seemingly most religiously-connected aspect of humanity, as the so-called “opposite” of the “intended” gender. This “intention” is confirmed as it is explained that many of them that they cannot simply embody the so-called “opposite” gender through conviction or drastic bodily transformations, as Allah sent them to Earth as men, so in death, they must return to Allah as men. This is reflected in their approaches to prayer – they remove any indication that they identify as something other than “male,” and wear modest “masculine” dress. Again, are their bodies returning to Allah, or is it their souls? Does the acceptance of the soul as that of a woman change the gender they return to Allah as? These are questions that arguably arise from my lack of understanding in coming from a western perspective; perhaps they are deemed irrelevant based on the gender-language of the communities of the waria. I am limited to provincial understandings of how the waria exist in soul and body, due to my limited notions of how gender manifests in humanity.

V. Conclusion: The Ability of Language to Create and Destroy

From our explorations in the role of language in human understanding and communication, and the complications in defining religious, cultural and social terms so they are able to shift and change along with time and progress, so that they stand alone, and so they can encompass their purest meanings as they relate to to the humans who employ them, we see that definition, clarity, and conviction of intent is crucial. Even so, many terms are – sometimes literally – “lost in translation.” Nevertheless, it is clear that language frames discussions of religion, gender roles, women’s rights, and activism – all highly contested and fragile topics, – and has the ability to do so in both detrimental and constructive, fruitful ways. The nature of its usefulness is determined through careful word choice and definition.

 

Works Cited

“Chapter 2: The Frames of Feminism.” Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, by Aysha A. Hidayatullah, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Huang, Kathy, director. Tales of the Waria. New Day Films, 2011.

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oneworld, 2008.

 

Modesty and the Female Body in Islam

Many world religions preach modesty, and many so-called “civilized” people believe in practicing modesty. In many cases, this refers to bodily modesty – covering the body appropriately – though it can refer to other types of presentation, such as work or disposition as well. I will focus on bodily modesty in Islam, as this seems to be a more socially complex embodiment of modesty, not involving the human character, wherein it seems to simply be an inherently positive practice, perhaps akin to that of kindness, but involving the human body. Through my discussions of the body, modesty, veiling, and gender, I hope to come to an answer to the question of whether the origins of religious modesty matter in the modern day when choosing to veil – do they propagate patriarchal ideals?

I. Islamic Views of The Body and Sex

The human body, through a religious lens, may be seen as a vessel for the soul or spirit, an earthly container of the holy. This notion, however, does not typically disregard the existence of the human body itself. Indeed, the vessel is often seen as a holy thing, and is often used in holy rituals; in the case of Islam, the most obvious being the actions of recitation and bowing during prayer, fasting and abstaining from sex in the daytime during the month of Ramadan, and running between the hills of Safa and Marwa during Hajj. Further, many traditions and rituals include consumption of certain food and drink, sometimes even meant simply for the purpose of physical stimulation and elation. A blog post from “Quran Reading,” an interactive online religious school that offers teachers and tutors, both male and female, of the Qur’an, and live courses in reading, memorizing, translation, and recitation of the Qur’an, claims that “Islam is a complete code of life and enables a Muslim to enjoy life in the best way possible, whether it is spiritual or physical,” and explains how modern interpretations show how the five pillars of Islam promote physical wellbeing along with spiritual wellbeing; the pillar of prayer promotes cleanliness and hygiene due to ablution, and physical exercise due to the bodily movements and postures during prayer, and the pillar of fasting during the month of Ramadan rids the body of toxins and contaminants that infest the body due to unhealthy consumption habits.

The bodily realities of sex and sexuality, however, may exist on a different plane than those of cleaning, eating, and moving. Valerie Hoffman, in her book chapter Islamic Perspectives on the Human Body: Legal, Social and Spiritual Considerations, explains that “the basic needs of the body are recognized as valid in all of Islamic tradition” (42), and that, in actuality, “the human sex drive is widely interpreted as not only natural, but even overwhelming in the normal, healthy man or woman” (44). An adaption of Dr. Scott al-Haqq Kugle’s writing on sexuality, for the website of the nonprofit organization Muslims for Progressive values, maintains that “early Muslim scholars talked about sex in a very straight-forward way as a normal, positive part of life” (Kugle ed. Power),  and further, in his book Marriage and Morals in Islam, Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi explains that “Islam says that the biological parts of our body have a purpose; they have not been created uselessly” (15). This reveals that it was the intention of God, or Allah, to give human beings sexual organs and sexual drive. In fact, “the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) helped people see that spiritual life and sexual life are connected” (Kugle ed. Power). Hoffman, however, notes that there exist Muslims called sufis, who, similar to monks, “emphasize the need to transcend the body in order to travel the spiritual path” (39), and “have often felt that the desires of the flesh must be crushed through fasting and other practices of mortification” (41), though they still regard fundamental physical needs as valid.

When it comes to the human body in relation to divinity and other humans, we switch planes from basic needs, rituals, and values to a more complex manifestation of human nature. This is apparent in beliefs as deeply rooted as the Qur’anic creation story; after Adam and Hawa (Eve in Judeo-Christian traditions,) listen to Iblis (Satan), and eat the forbidden fruit, they become aware of their nakedness, and feel shame. In response to this knowledge and pain – shame – they attempt to cover themselves with leaves from trees in the garden. And this creation story indeed helped to shape the future of Islam’s view of the body. In terms of spirituality, humans are expected to be modest and ashamed in the obvious presence of God – “special covering is demanded in prayer for both men and women” (Hoffman 43). This seems clear and logical, as prayer is supposedly a direct communication with God, and abandoning more mundane bodily needs – the physical self (even if it is, in fact, connected to spirituality through intent of creation) – by covering it and thus drawing focus to overtly holy words, meditations, and movements, perhaps brings humans closer to God. Regarding interpersonal relationships, though – especially those of sexual nature, – perhaps we may assume that the laws and expectations are less shame-focused or concerned with modesty, based on the positive views of active sexual relations. Contrarily, though, modesty and shame is still encouraged; “even in sexual intercourse the Prophet advised his followers not to be ‘naked as asses’” (43). And this emphasis is furthered by Barbara Górnicka in her book Nakedness, Shame, and Embarrassment: A Long-Term Sociological Perspective, as she accounts for the disencouragement of nudity “even when one is ‘alone’” (125), and sheds light on the fact that this is due to the Islamic belief that “absolute solitude does not exist in a world in which we share existence with the djinns and angels’ (Bouhdiba, 2012: 38)” (125).

II. Historical and Doctrinal Origins of Veiling/Covering

Stepping back, we notice that at this point, there is no distinction between the modesty required of men than that of women, and further, while there is evidently a connection between modesty and shame in the human body, we do not see an apparent connection between modesty and human sexuality. So we may ask: why is there a clear disparity between the levels of covering practiced by many devout Muslim women versus those practiced by many devout Muslim men? We must note that this disparity is not true in all cases, of course, there are devout Muslim women who do not cover or veil, and there are devout Muslim men who cover every part of their bodies except their faces. But in general, the expectation for women to cover at least their hair is more present, and, following this expectation, more widely practiced.

The reason may be originally woven in history, rather than religion on its own. Barbara Górnicka, in her ambitious analysis of human understandings of the naked body throughout the world, provides context for the historical movement towards modesty, claiming that “at the core of the problem of nakedness lies its association with the sexual drive and the way many people believe that this is an inseparable bond” (21); Valerie Hoffman provides context for the problematic nature of this inseparable bond, explaining the widely-held view that “sexuality is… a potentially destructive force, which presents its greatest threat in the exposed female body” (52).  This natural association between nudity and sexuality led humans away from the once-held notion that “the naked body was a symbol of purity and innocence, power and virility” (13), and into the existing reality “in all or nearly all known societies [that] the sight of the naked human body [is] hedged around with avoidances, restrictions and taboos, enforced by the emotions of fear, shame and embarrassment” (13). For a more refined understanding of nudity, sexuality, and modesty in Islam itself, we may look to Phillip Nel, who analyzes ancient Near Eastern societies in their legal dealings with gender, sexuality, and veiling in his article  “The Sexual Politics of the Head : The Legal History of the Veil.” In order to understand the basic understanding of gender in these ancient societies, we must know that there was a clear hierarchy similar to the way many understand gender dynamics today, ingrained in language and cultural values; Valerie Hoffman reveals that “virtue was defined in pre-Islamic Arabia as a constellation of behaviors summed up in the word muruwwa, ‘manliness’” (46). Women, however, were not completely neglected, as Nel contends that “the rights of women were universally protected… [, even though] the protection afforded was dictated from the male vantage point and in actual fact served to protect male interests” (43). From this understanding of gender relations, we can delve into our discussion of veiling. Veiling was not mentioned in written law for a long time, and there is evidence of women in ancient Mesopotamia practicing varying degrees of covering, including not covering at all. Nel explains that a part of the reason veiling began to appear in legal issues was due to a change in the economy, in which women’s “sexuality and reproductive potential became economic commodities,” (45-46), which led to the exploitation of women’s sexuality. However, the first laws requiring veiling (as well as requiring certain women not to veil,) can be found in historical evidence from Assyria, and in this case, the veiling was required for certain higher-class women, to mark them as the property of the men who “owned” them, and thus protect them against illegal “injury.” This would hold the men who injured them accountable against their “owners.” Conversely, if women such as prostitutes veiled, harsh punishments befell them; Nel asserts that the original reasons for veiling are “neither natural nor innocent” (60), as they stem from the “need” for men to “control” women.

While Nel does touch on the mentions of veiling in the Qur’an, he does not explain the reasons Islam adopted this practice, and the implications of it for the religion and for Muslim women. Perhaps prophetic and Qur’anic Islam was a product of its time, and thus veiling found its way into its identity, as the gender dynamics were so ingrained in the culture that reform against veiling was inconceivable, or perhaps it was genuinely in line with the ideology of Islam. In partially understanding the historical context through which Islam emerged, we can delve into some of the Islamic values that relate to the veiling, specifically in its prevalence among women. Perhaps the value of modesty is encouraged simply because of the view of the body as a part of a spiritual being – viewing the body as holy may lead to an inclination to use the body for holy purposes, and to share it with only trusted people, through encouraged mutually beneficial sex. But as for the emphasis on the modesty of women, there are many doctrinal teachings that point to this. Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, in Marriage and Morals in Islam, mentions that the prophet himself said “‘prayer has been made the apple of my eyes, and my pleasure is in women’” (18), which may suggest the tempting and alluring nature of women. Valerie Hoffman elaborates upon this notion, pointing to the doctrinal description of women as “‘awra,” which relates to vulnerability, and asserting that this is “because of their desirability, because their exposure to view is similar to leaving one’s home defenseless and vulnerable to attack” (48).

 

III. Modern Reasons for Modesty and Covering

Certainly, many Muslims today would argue that their use of veiling, and even perhaps the some of the Islamic intention behind the encouragement of veiling, is completely alien from the historical and doctrinal reasons provided by Nel, Rizvi, and Hoffman. In her contribution to the book Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak, “To Be Young, Gifted, Black, American, Muslim, and Woman,” Precious Rasheeda Muhammad explains that as she grew up in a progressive community of African Americans, “a culture of modesty in dress, actions, and speech, as opposed to just head coverings” (44), was impressed upon her. But she notes that her community did not neglect covering; quite the contrary, she describes that

when women did cover, the styles and colors were beautifully represented. [They] even celebrated modesty in songs like Covered All Over that elevated women who choose to cover as ‘dressed in God’s love,’ … which [she] believe[s]…made young girls want to comply because of the way it was presented, and they felt they had a choice in the matter (44).

Later in her life, she “consciously choose to wear hijab… because [she] wanted to stand out unmistakably as a Muslim [, as] Islam teaches that Muslims should distinguish themselves in dress and should be able to be identified as Muslims”(45); this unabashed statement of identity is another reason many Muslim women who live in non-majority Muslim countries may choose to wear hijab. Further, Muhammad explains that, aside from any possible logical explanation, “hijab, as a conscious choice, gives [her] great feelings of serenity, security, and elation that being bullied into doing it could never deliver” (45).

A more complex pro-veil sentiment – in this case, a developed argument – comes from Katherine Bullock, a convert who used to hold liberal feminist views; having come to an understanding through immersive and thorough research, she serves as a connector between the western world and the world of covering Muslims. Her book, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes, analyzes veiling “contextually” – contrary to the viewpoints of so-called “liberal feminists,” she looks at the concept of veiling in a non-western, and thus appropriate, context. Bullock “shuts down” certain western perspectives; she classifies Orientalism as objectifying, explains the misconceptions about the veil propagated by colonialism, and reframes the dichotomy of Muslim males and females as “different but equal,” in that they are complementary to one another, instead of the liberal perception of male-female relations as “superior-inferior.” She strives to be non-judgemental to the voice of “the ‘Other’” (XVI), and draws conclusions about veiling other than the western conclusion; her thesis is that veiling, contrary to liberal feminist arguments and western pop culture, is not inherently oppressive to women. Her overarching arguments include that veiling

“Does not smother femininity; 2. Brings to mind the ‘different but equal’ school of thought, but does not posit essentialized male-female difference; 3. Is linked to a view that does not limit women to the home, but [does not] consider the role of stay-at-home-mother and homemaker oppressive; 4. Is linked to a view of morality that is oppressive only if one considers the prohibition of sexual relations outside marriage wrong; 5. Is part of Islamic law [but] ought to be implemented in a very wise and women-friendly manner, and 6. Can and should be treated separately from other issues of women’s rights in Islam” (xxxiii).

She uses interviews with both covering and non-covering Muslim women in Toronto as a large part of her discussion; many of them resonate with the sentiments that veiling leads them to be less sexualized and thus more respected in the eyes of the men they interact with, which in turn leads to a more cohesive and efficient society, that veiling protects them from unwanted advances, and that veiling is a symbol of identity, “‘determination, strength, courage, [and] dedication to [their] religion Islam”(44). They feel that they are doing something for God, and that the hijab is freeing as it removes their “sex-appeal” and lets them focus on “inner peace and greater self-respect” (72) rather than physical beauty and fashion. These explanations nod to the potentially over-sexualizing origins of veiling, in that they confirm that sexuality is seen as so inherently human that daily precautions must be taken to prevent unholy or unwanted actions, that women are always only sexual unless they diminish their sexuality by covering, and that men are always vulnerable to arousal, and lustful – but they add layers of meaning.

Aside from personal, spiritual, and purely religious reasons for covering, National Public Radio covered a study that analyzed a psychological approach to the effects of veiling on body image. It revealed that in Britain, Muslim women who choose to veil, “at least some of the time, had more positive views of their bodies on average”(Doucleff). In our modern consumerist society so hyperfocused on contrived outer-beauty, women and impressionable girls who cover may not be “as influenced by media messages about beauty standards” (Doucleff), and covering “can be very liberating …[as] it allows them — and others around them — to focus on their minds, not their bodies”(Doucleff).

Leslie A. Hahner and Scott J. Vards offer a broader look into modesty culture, expanding beyond the boundaries of Islam, in their article “Modesty and Feminisms: Conversations on Aesthetics and Resistance” from the journal Feminist Forations. They offer the common definition of the modesty movement “as a collective of girls and young women who reject the ‘do-me’ attitude of the present and insist that dressing demurely and cultivating the virtues of modesty will exert more control over selfhood and sexuality” (25). In this case, modesty is seen as a as a vehicle for the reclamation of one’s self, and as a deterrent to societally-inflicted hypersexualization. One member of the movement explains that “such dress reminds wearers that ‘we don’t need to impress men with our bodies to get things’”(26), and a Facebook page advocating for the movement explains that ‘“Modesty is the decision to reclaim our bodies and tell this society that we do not need to sell ourselves to one another just to feel worthy’”(26).

IV. Arguments Against the Necessity of Veiling

In her book Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, Amina Wadud, a Muslim convert whose self-proclaimed duty is to gain rights for women in Islam through reinterpretation of the Qur’an, blatantly states, “If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised” (219). While she herself covers part-time, views modesty in dress as a critical virtue mandated by the Qur’an (219), and surely respects the personal reasons other Muslim women choose to cover, she argues that “it is certainly not the penultimate denotation of modesty” (219), so she does “not ascribe to it any religious significance or moral value per se” (219), and that over the past several decades, the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance both within and without Muslim communities” (219). She adds that the veil carries with it “the allure and exoticism of the invisible beauty” (222), and concludes that “it is just as easy to be reduced to [her] sexuality while wearing the hijab as when not wearing it” (223).

V. Conclusion

So, do the origins of religious modesty matter in the modern day when choosing to veil? Do they propagate patriarchal ideals?

It cannot be denied that patriarchal notions and values are interwoven in the reasons women have veiled throughout history to present times, if “the patriarchy” itself is not the clear origin alone. But women have found agency and comfort in their practices of veiling, and even psychological backing for their reasons to veil. The original patriarchal motivations can be said to be a dandelion, and though the motivations of many women may have once been a seed on the tuft, they took to the wind on their own, grounded themselves, and flowered into their own “beings,” propagating self-love, sisterhood, and respect.

Works Cited

Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2010.

Doucleff, Michaeleen. “Covering Up With The Hijab May Aid Women’s Body Image.” NPR, NPR, 15 Sept. 2014.

“Five Pillars of Islam In Relation With Spiritual And Physical Health Of A Muslim.” Quran Reading, 19 Dec. 2014, www.quranreading.com/blog/five-pillars-islam-health-muslim/.

Górnicka, Barbara. Nakedness, Shame, and Embarrassment: a Long-Term Sociological Perspective. Springer, 2016.

Hahner, Leslie A., and Scott J. Varda. “Modesty and Feminisms: Conversations on Aesthetics and Resistance.” Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 22–42., doi:10.1353/ff.2012.0029.

Hoffman, Valerie J. “Islamic Perspectives on the Human Body: Legal, Social and Spiritual Considerations.” Embodiment, Morality, and Medicine, edited by Lisa Sowle. Cahill and Margaret A. Farley, Springer, 2011, pp. 37–55.

Kugle, Scott al-Haqq. “Sexuality and Diversity.” Edited by Tynan Power, Muslims for Progressive Values, Muslims for Progressive Values, 2010, www.mpvusa.org/sexuality-diversity/.

Nel, Philip. “The Sexual Politics of the Head : The Legal History of the Veil.” Acta Academica, vol. 2002, no. Sup-2, 2002, pp. 39–62.

Rizvi, Sayyid Muhammad. Marriage and Morals in Islam. 2nd ed., Islamic Education & Information Centre, 1994.

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oneworld, 2008.

 

Source Review #2 – Philip Nel’s work “The Sexual Politics of the Head : The Legal History of the Veil”

Philip Nel’s article “The Sexual Politics of the Head : The Legal History of the Veil” is a peer-reviewed, scholarly article, from the online journal Acta Academia, which publishes scholarly work in the field of humanities. This specific study is one of Middle-Eastern history and law, and is likely meant for the general educated public. Nel specifically aims to present the origins of veiling, and to “critically expose their continuities and discontinuities (or incongruities) with contemporary cultural issues” (40). He does this through his research of  the contexts of “laws pertaining to the veiling of women [in the] “ancient Near East” (40), by using translated texts of ancient Assyrian laws, depictions of people from the time and their use (or non-use) of veils to cover, doctrinal sources such as the Qur’an and the Torah, and research from other scholars.

Nel first introduces the purpose of his studies, and subsequently provides context for his final argument; he speaks of “the social and legal position of women in the ancient Near East and the patriarchal system” (41), and “the veil and sexual politics,” and concludes that the veil is a direct product of the patriarchy’s firm hold on women. He explains that veiling was not mentioned in written law for a long time, and that there is evidence of women in ancient Mesopotamia practicing varying degrees of veiling, or even not covering at all. In fact, “it is abundantly clear from the legal provisions that the rights of women were universally protected in all ancient Near Eastern societies [, though] the protection afforded was dictated from the male vantage point and in actual fact served to protect male interests” (43). A part of the reason veiling came about in legal issues was due to the exploitation of women’s sexuality, once their “sexuality and reproductive potential became economic commodities in the newly founded patriarchal class system” (45-46). However, the first laws requiring veiling (as well as requiring certain women not to veil,) can be found in historical evidence from Assyria, and in this case, the veiling was required for certain higher-class women, to mark them as the property of the men who “owned” them, and thus protect them against illegal “injury.” This would hold the men who injured them accountable against their “owners.” Conversely, if women such as prostitutes veiled, harsh punishments befell them.

Nel’s arguments are not for nor against veiling itself, but he rather focuses on the reasons for adherence to the practice of veiling in historical and cultural contexts, and concludes that the original reasons are “neither natural nor innocent” (60), as they stem from the “need” for men to “control” women.

However, Nel notes that though these laws may be a part of the origin of veiling, some of the reasons many Muslim women veil today are contrary to these misogynistic and objectifying origins. He mentions that some women veil so as to align themselves with their culture, religion, and heritage, and to unite in resistance to Western globalization, and that a major purpose of veiling for Muslim women is to portray themselves as…not seductive” (46). Evidently, his elaboration on the modern reasoning for veiling is lacking, leaving it difficult for one who is uneducated in the practice of veiling for Muslim women to accept this choice as completely non-patriarchal in practice.

Further, Nel does not portray the fullness of the history of veiling, as he does not expand on the adoption of veiling by Islam. While he touches on the mentions of veiling in the Qur’an, he does not explain the reasons Islam adopted this practice, and the implications of it for the religion and for Muslim women. While perhaps prophetic and Qur’anic Islam was a product of its time, and thus veiling found its way into its identity, Muhammad was calling for certain reform, so the condemnation of veiling could have been a part of this reform. Whether it was so ingrained in the culture that this was inconceivable, or it was genuinely in line with the ideology of Islam, Nel does not suggest either way. This hinders his argument, as he is attempting to analyze the history of veiling so as to view its contemporary usage with more context, and certainly, Muslims today would argue that the use of veiling today, and even perhaps as viewed by Muhammad, is completely alien from the historical reasons for covering that Nel provides.

Overall, however, Nel’s attention to the history of women veiling, paired with my other sources from Muslim women themselves, will help inform my discussion; one thing I will address is whether the patriarchal origins of veiling promote the patriarchy when choosing to veil today – I am interested in whether veiling is inherently anti-woman and anti-equity because of its origins and implications.

Nel, Philip. “The Sexual Politics of the Head : The Legal History of the Veil.” Acta Academica, vol. 2002, no. Sup-2, 2002, pp. 39–62.

 

 

Source Review #1 – Katherine Bullock’s work Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes

Katherine Bullock’s work Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes is published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought, and is likely intended for the general literate public. The work was inspired by from Bullock’s PhD focus on women and veiling. During her studies, Bullock converted to Islam and began to participate in veiling, and the negative, judgemental reactions of those around her sparked in her a determination to thoroughly and immersively study the concept of veiling within Islam. She places her work in the category of “contextual approaches” to veiling in Islam – contrary to the viewpoints of so-called “liberal feminists,” she looks at the concept of veiling in a non-western, and thus appropriate, context. This context strives to be non-judgemental to the voice of “the ‘Other’” (XVI), and draws conclusions about veiling other than the western conclusion – her thesis is that veiling, contrary to liberal feminist arguments and western pop culture, is not inherently oppressive to women. Sub-arguments include that veiling

1. Does not smother femininity; 2. Brings to mind the ‘different but equal’ school of thought, but does not posit essentialized male-female difference; 3. Is linked to a view that does not limit women to the home, but [does not] consider the role of stay-at-home-mother and homemaker oppressive; 4. Is linked to a view of morality that is oppressive only if one considers the prohibition of sexual relations outside marriage wrong; 5. Is part of Islamic law [but] ought to be implemented in a very wise and women-friendly manner, and 6. Can and should be treated separately from other issues of women’s rights in Islam (xxxiii).

To be successful in her arguments, Bullock combines sources from the mainstream, the scholarly, and the doctrinal to ultimately delegitimize western feminist arguments that equate veiling with oppression – this is important, as only using one source or area of source material can limit the scope of accuracy or relevance of the argument. She addresses veiling as it relates to religion, history, tradition,  social ideals and situations, sexuality, modesty, and the body itself, and she also addresses the social effects of veiling, which will help my discussion as it correlates with many of my questions regarding human sexuality, and modesty as a product of religion and human reality. She responds to and disputes the works of so-called liberal feminists such as Fatima Mernissi, articles and books about veiling written by non-covering women, and builds her argument using doctrinal texts (the Qur’an and Sunnah), the firsthand accounts and perspectives of Muslim women living in Toronto, Canada, and other books and articles from a range of perspectives addressing Islam, women, feminism, or veiling, or any combination of these topics. Her use of sources that both support and do not support her thesis furthers her arguments, as when she argues logically against those that do not support it, she thus renders them nearly irrelevant to her specific thesis. She also has the upper-hand in that she almost immediately reveals that she is a convert who used to hold liberal feminist views; having come to an understanding through immersive and thorough research, she serves as a connector between the western world and the world of covering Muslims.

Bullock “shuts down” certain western perspectives; she classifies Orientalism as objectifying, explains the misconceptions about the veil propagated by colonialism, and reframes the dichotomy of Muslim males and females as “different but equal,” in that they are complementary to one another, instead of the liberal perception of male-female relations as “superior-inferior.” She uses interviews with both covering and non-covering Muslim women in Toronto as a large part of her discussion, and uses their experiences to back up her argument. For example, many of them resonate with the sentiments that veiling leads them to be less sexualized and thus more respected in the eyes of the men they interact with, which in turn leads to a more cohesive and efficient society, that veiling protects them from unwanted advances, and that veiling is a symbol of identity, “‘determination, strength, courage, [and] dedication to [their] religion Islam”(44). They feel that they are doing something for God, and that the hijab is freeing as it removes their “sex-appeal” and lets them focus on “inner peace and greater self-respect” (72) rather than physical beauty and fashion.

Many of her arguments are based on the experiences of Muslim women, covering or non-covering, but while Bullock uses those that support her argument to build it, the ones that do not support her argument display a range of views, but she ignores them in her final argument, or dismisses them respectfully as coming from women who are products of their environments (that are not supportive of full immersion in Islam.) In the first chapter’s discussion of veiling, she points out that many of them, even if they are non-covering, have expressed that they believe that veiling is ideal, even if that is not a belief that governs their own choices and ideals. She seems to completely reject any liberal or western feminist context, and while this may be appropriate for the argument she is trying to make, this total rejection and thus occasional neglect to fully form arguments against specific western feminist determinations may render her thesis at least less capable of convincing liberal feminists of the validity of her argument.

Bullock’s work both confirms and denies my hypotheses about the nature of veiling and sexuality in Islam – it reveals the absolute distinction between males and females – note the “gender binary” – as well as that the purpose of the veil at least partially has to do with sex and human sexuality. It confirms that sexuality is seen as so inherently human that daily precautions must be taken to prevent unholy or unwanted actions – that women are always only sexual unless they diminish their sexuality by covering, and that men are always vulnerable to arousal, and lustful. However, it partially invalidates the potential argument that veiling is irrelevant and inappropriate or unnecessary in present times based on its patriarchal origins, as it has benefits for the individual and society that extends past its origins (even if some of these benefits are based in patriarchal ideals). It adds insight to the societal reactions to individuals veiling, the impact of veiling on men’s treatment of women, and the feelings of women on veiling, be them positive or negative, or a mixture of both.

Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2010.

Annotated Bibliography

Abou-Rizk, Zeina, and Rail Geneviève. “‘Judging a Body by Its Cover’: Young Lebanese-Canadian Women’s Discursive Constructions of the ‘Healthy’ Body and ‘Health’ Practices.” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 150–164.

This article from the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, deals with health, weight, and beauty ideals in the eyes of Arabic women. It is important to note that this is not about Muslim women, though it does include some specific mentions of Arabic-Muslim cultures. I feel this will lend a modern perspective about bodily ideals that spans across the world, and will compare and contrast perspectives of Muslim women with non-Muslim women, which is an important distinction, as my discussion is about body and sexuality in Islam specifically.

Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil : Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2010.

This book is a “contextual approach” to veiling in Islam – the author looks at the concept of veiling in a non-western context. The thesis is that veiling is not inherently oppressive to women, and the author combines sources from the mainstream, the scholarly, and the doctrinal to ultimately delegitimize western feminist arguments that equate veiling with oppression. The article addresses veiling as it relates to religion, history, tradition,  social ideals and situations, sexuality, modesty, and the body itself, and it also addresses the social effects of veiling. These are all relevant to my discussion, as they correlate with many of my questions regarding human sexuality, and and modesty.

Eltahawy, Mona. “Sex Talk for Muslim Women.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 May 2016.

This op-ed from the New York Times discusses the importance of normalizing discussions about sex among Muslim women. Eltahawy speaks of the detrimental effects of silencing and societally repressing the inherent sexuality of women; she pushes for a world and media in which women of religions that do not condone premarital sex can be free in their sexuality without fear of hatred from God, fulfill their sexual desires and needs, and ultimately have agency in how they deal with their own bodies. She does not claim to be a religious expert or member of the “clergy,” but simply advocates for women to gain comfort within their right to choose what to do with their bodies, including having sex. This will be helpful to my discussion, as it is quite a liberal opinion – it can even be grouped among views held by western feminists – but it comes from a Muslim woman; it is an alternative view about sex liberation coming from the firsthand experience of a woman who remained a virgin until she was 29 years old, realized she would not likely be finding a spouse in the near future, and decided to have sex.

Gressgård Randi. “The Veiled Muslim, the Anorexic and the Transsexual.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 2006, pp. 325–341.

This article deals with gender, womanhood, and the gender hierarchy, using the examples of a “veiled Muslim,” an anorexic woman, and a transsexual woman. These three archetypes almost inherently have to do with the concept of body, so the argument of the article can lend to my discussion of body and womanhood. In addition, through its focus on veiling and the archetype of the veiled Muslim, it can also perhaps lend to my discussions of modesty and religion in relation to gender and body.

Li, Cha, et al. “Motives for Exercise in Undergraduate Muslim Women and Men in Oman and Pakistan Compared to the United States.” Sex Roles : A Journal of Research, vol. 72, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 68–84., doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0435-z.

Similar to the article from the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, this article deals with modern health, weight, and beauty ideals. In this case, however, it focuses on Muslim men and women, and specifically on motives for exercise, which have to do with the complicated notion of “body.” Additionally, it compares young Muslims in the U.S. to those in Pakistan and Oman, an Arab land. This will provide comparative modern perspectives about bodily ideals between women and men, as well as between different cultures Muslim people are a part of, which can lend to a more all-encompassing discussion of body and sexuality in Islam.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa, editor. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Macmillan Reference USA, 4 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.

The Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender is, as its title suggests, an extensive collection of definitions and comprehensive explanations of terms, historical people and things, and concepts or constructs that influence, define, or have anything to do with sex and gender. It provides multiple perspectives of any number of things relevant to women, sexuality and body in Islam, which could help me to understand, define, and successfully explain certain things that may come up in my discussion. Some entries that could possibly help me are “Islam,” “Clothing,” “Abstinence,” “Baha’i Faith,” “Body, Depictions and Metaphors,” “Body Image,” “Theories of Body,” “Creation Stories,” “Demography,” “Fashion System,” “Folklore,” “Fundamentalism,” “Female Genitals,” “Hair,” “Honor and Shame,” “Libido,” “Masturbation,” “Patriarchy,” “Pleasure,” “Prayer,” “Privacy,” “Sex Manuals, Islam,” “Sex Roles,” “Sexuality,” “Public and Private Space,” “Symbolism,” and “Veiling.”

Medina, Jameelah. “Body Politicking and the Phenomenon of `Passing’.” Feminism & Psychology, vol. 21, no. 1, 2011, pp. 138–143.

This article from the journal Feminism and Psychology approaches body politics and the concept of perceived “otherness” through lenses such as feminism and religion. It’s discussion of the body includes notions of gender in relation to the body, and the author deals with Christianity and Islam in relation to one another in this approach, which perhaps will help to make more distinct the Islamic experience in terms of body politics – though it must be noted it deals with a single Muslim woman as an example. I think the combined focus on body, gender, and religion, will be useful to my discussion, as it shows how bodily expression of religion and gender impacts public perceptions of individuals, and this could perhaps lead to a conclusion one way or another on the potential psychological, individual, or societal effects of this kind of expression.

Opayemi, R. “Gender, Self Esteem, Religiosity and Premarital Sex among Young Adults.” Gender and Behaviour, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, doi:10.4314/gab.v9i1.67454.

This article is based on a survey study of Nigerian university students, and discusses the interconnectedness of the issues of premarital sex, religiosity, gender, and self-esteem. I am primarily interested in the findings that have to do with the impact of religiosity on premarital sex, though it is crucial to note that it does not have to do specifically with Islam as a religion. It could still be useful as an example of the relationship religion and sex have in general, as these kinds of examples can potentially be used comparatively in the context of my discussion.

Smith, B. J. and Woodward, M. (2016), Magico‐spiritual power, female sexuality and ritual sex in Muslim Java: Unveiling the kesekten of magical women. Aust J Anthropol, 27: 317-332.

In this article from The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Central and East Javanese Muslim societies are the grounds for the analysis of spiritual “magic” in Islam and the ritual practices that follow it, in the context of – specifically female – sexuality. The article, which focuses on sexual norms not based in Sharia, shows how women, female spiritual figures, and sexuality can represent and embody “magical power” in Islam. I expect this analysis will cover the nature and role of the bodies of women in the core of Islam, and the integral nature of sexuality in Islam itself, which is what I am primarily interested in discussing. The fact that it focuses on a very specific group of people, and especially that this group of people deviates from norms of Sharia,  is important to my discussion as well – it shows that not all Muslim societies are the same in their understandings and implementations of Islam, and provides an alternative perspective and understanding.

Zakaria, Rafia. “Sex and the Muslim Feminist.” The New Republic, The New Republic, 13 Nov. 2015.

In this op-ed from an online magazine, Rafia Zakaria expresses her disappointment in how sex-positive feminism has taken shape. She notes the works of several historical feminists, such as Kate Millet, arguing that sex is historically and currently too ingrained in the patriarchy for the complete sexual liberation of women – that women embracing certain “risqué” sexual acts and presentations are simply propagating the work of the patriarchy and capitalism, and that these acts or presentations simply further normalize the degradation of women. She argues that the western focus on sexual liberation has detrimental results for some women, and that equality and intersectionality must be addressed first – that freedom does not only imply some twisted view of sexual freedom. This is the opinion of a Muslim feminist who perhaps supports sexual liberation, but is sure to first examine the meanings and implications of sexual liberation for women everywhere, as well as the context in which the “liberation” is taking place. She focuses mainly on sex, and not so much on modesty or veiling, which is helpful – though it may be lacking a “layer” of understanding Muslim feminism, it provides an alternative viewpoint about sexual practice itself.

Sex, Body, and Modesty in Islam: Sources (Not full Annotated Bibliography)

  • Smith, B. J. and Woodward, M. (2016), Magico‐spiritual power, female sexuality and ritual sex in Muslim Java: Unveiling the kesekten of magical women. Aust J Anthropol, 27: 317-332.
  • Desai, Sonalde, and Gheda Temsah. “Muslim and Hindu Women’s Public and Private Behaviors: Gender, Family, and Communalized Politics in India.” Demography, vol. 51, no. 6, 2014, pp. 2307–2332.
  • Malti-Douglas, Fedwa, editor. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 4 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
    • http://link.galegroup.com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/apps/pub/9780028661155/GVRL?u=mul_coll&sid=GVRL. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.
    • Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
  • Abou-Rizk, Zeina, and Rail Geneviève. “‘Judging a Body by Its Cover’: Young Lebanese-Canadian Women’s Discursive Constructions of the ‘Healthy’ Body and ‘Health’ Practices.” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 150–164.

Research Paper Intentions: Women’s Bodies and Modesty in Islam

With slogans like “pussy power,” events and protests like the “Slut Walk,” and movements like “Free the Nipple,” it is clear that a large aspect of modern feminism surrounds embracing the bodies of women and women’s sexuality (though it must be noted that the “pussy power” slogan may be well-intentioned but in reality, counterproductive, as not all women have vaginas, or “pussies,” and not all people with vaginas are women – this is a stance I will take for granted in my argument). It is also important to some of the most progressive and informed modern feminists that women are able to choose what they want for their bodies, including the opposite of bearing them – for example, veiling them, as many religious women choose to do. I will focus primarily on women who choose modesty, and not on the women who are forced to veil themselves for fear of violence against them and legal issues. But do the origins of religious modesty matter in the modern day when choosing to veil, and does the value of modesty itself stem from the patriarchy? Alternatively, is embracing the sexuality of women also a product of a patriarchal society? Further, when women choose to cover themselves, are there positive or negative societal, personal, and psychological effects, such as bodily shame or discomfort in one’s own skin, versus having respect for the body as holy and and only to be shared with important, trusted people, and God? And along this same vein, how does the veiling of women impact how men see women? Finally, how does Islam view the primal instincts of sexuality in issues such as premarital sex, and does this have any effect on how Muslim women view their own bodies and operate in society?

The Implications of Feminism on Human Understanding of Divine Language

First, a disclaimer: I must clarify the assumptions and definitions I will be using for the purposes of my argument in this paper. I refer to “feminism” simply for convenience, in the most simple form I can fathom: the notion that women have the same inalienable rights as men (and, ideally, the active support of this notion). I do not mean to invoke any connotations that may come along with the word – though I understand that this word is heavily loaded in different ways for different individuals and groups of people, I am referring to this simple definition only, and do not wish to offend anyone on the basis of a load that may be carried. Secondly, I will assume that the axioms of Islam are truth – specifically, that the Qur’an is of divine origin. My argument is based on the acceptance of generally understood notions of right and wrong, good and evil. I will also assume that women are humans, and should thus be included in Islamic ideals such as peace.

 

Feminism as a formal, at least partially formed concept, has only appeared in widespread human consciousness relatively recently. Nevertheless, the presence of actions of empowerment among women – women retaliating to some degree against oppression, or demonstrating their potential as humans despite the treatment of them as only capable within the boundaries of prescribed femininity  – has existed perhaps as long as there has been some form of patriarchal oppression. In the Old Testament itself, we see the daughters of Zelophehad protest and emerge successful, championed by the divine, in arguing for their right to inherit their late father’s assets, seeing that he had no sons. Obviously, for there to be retaliation amongst women, there has to be patriarchal oppression first, which I will take as a given aspect of societies throughout most of – if not all of – the history relevant to my studies. This history, of course, includes the time (and, in turn, location) of the Prophet Muhammad – the time of the emergence of the religion of Islam. The 7th century in the Middle East is certainly no exception to this patriarchally ruled history. As Amina Wadud notes in her book Inside the Gender Jihad,  these “patriarchal norms of seventh-century Arabia left its mark upon the nature of the Qur’anic articulation” (Wadud 22). Patriarchal ideals crept their way into the holy scriptures, as the language and understanding of humanity in that place and time were patriarchally ruled; perhaps the words and intentions of the divine got “lost in translation” as they were made to be understood by humans with limited language and provincial understandings. Further, even if the language itself is “correct” – even if the translation is flawless – human interpretation of the text may be flawed. Wadud contends that “textual meaning is neither fixed nor static” (Wadud 22); humans with provincial understandings can only interpret text within those understandings. This led to the continual oppression of women, as religious texts purportedly “back up” this treatment. As Zainah Anwar puts it in her contribution to the book On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, “for too long, men have defined what it means to be a woman, dictated how to be a woman, and used religion to confine us to this socially constructed inferiority” (Anwar 233). In turn, this treatment became linked with Islam itself in shared communal understandings – women who stand up to this treatment, or claim rights beyond the ones they are given by the men in power, can be accused as being anti-Islamic. And as Anwar points out, “rejecting religion is not an option for most Muslim women” (Anwar 333). In response to this vicious cycle, and additionally, as a way to become more pious and involved in understanding Islam,  different groups of women have studied sacred and historical foundational texts, and have interpreted them through non-patriarchal lenses. Amina Wadud believes that this exploration of alternative interpretations is critical: due to the nature of divine text as conditional, she asserts that we must employ and accept “human agency as a critical resource for establishing and maintaining dynamism between a linguistically articulated text, of divine origin, addressed at a fixed time while simultaneously intending to provide eternal guidance” (Wadud 23). With this employment, as humankind grows and evolves, and as the scriptures have been able to reach more and more people, different interpretations have revealed the existence of and potential for equality-based ideals behind and within the translated divine language.

This is all to say that (contrary to the arguments of some Muslims deeply engrossed in the idea that the “correct” way to be a practicing Muslim is to accept that the original and more widely accepted patriarchal language and interpretations are foundational and unerring,) to be a pious Muslim, perhaps one need not subscribe to the anti-feminist implications of certain interpreted scriptural commands or determinations, or those of certain Islamic cultural practices.

In fact, perhaps some of these anti-feminist and oppressive interpretations can be categorized as anti-Islam. Drawing from Islamic practices and her interpretations of holy scriptures, Amina Wadud claims that “nurturing and compassion are ultimate determining characteristics of ‘Islam’”(Wadud 16). In fact, the root of the word “Islam” itself means “peace;” peace is perhaps the most fundamental value of Islam. And, perhaps, the attainment of peace can be achieved through “submission [to God’s will],” as the definition of “Islam” suggests. Wadud holds that Islam is a guide for understanding and carrying out God’s will, as “often tension arises between the divine will and human agency, so Islam is the voluntary choice of surrender” (24). She argues that sexist and oppressive ideals and practices that claim to originate from Islam are not the will of God, but the will of humans themselves; “Muslims either choose engaged surrender to Allah’s will or justify deviation from it by selective inclusions and omissions within the broad possibilities for naming ‘Islam’”(Wadud 21).

While historical and more organized and formal recent acts of empowerment among Muslims certainly serve the purpose of retaliating against the hyperactive oppression present in many Muslim communities, they do more than this. Recognizing the humanity of women and condemning oppressive practices through reinterpretation actually lends more truth to the purported foundational ideals of Islam, including peace, care, compassion, nurturing, and human responsibility.

Works Cited

Nouraie-Simone, Fereshteh. On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2005.

 

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oneworld, 2008.

 

Rough Draft: The Implications of Feminism on Human Understanding of Divine Language

First, a disclaimer: I must clarify the assumptions and definitions I will be using for the purposes of my argument in this paper. I refer to “feminism” simply for convenience, in the most simple form I can fathom: the notion that women have the same inalienable rights as men (and, ideally, the active support of this notion). I do not mean to invoke any connotations that may come along with the word – though I understand that this word is heavily loaded in different ways for different individuals and groups of people, I am referring to this simple definition only, and do not wish to offend anyone on the basis of a load that may be carried. Secondly, I will assume that the axioms of Islam are truth, and specifically, that the Qur’an is of divine origin. My argument is based on the acceptance of generally understood notions of right and wrong, good and evil. I will also assume that women are humans, and should thus be included in Islamic ideals such as peace.

 

Feminism as a formal, at least partially formed concept, has only appeared in widespread human consciousness relatively recently. Nevertheless, the presence of actions of empowerment among women – women retaliating to some degree against oppression, or demonstrating their potential as humans despite the treatment of them as only capable within the boundaries of prescribed femininity  – has existed perhaps as long as there has been some form of patriarchal oppression. In the Old Testament itself, we see the daughters of Zelophehad protest and emerge successful, championed by the divine, in arguing for their right to inherit their late father’s assets, seeing that he had no sons. Obviously, for there to be retaliation amongst women, there has to be patriarchal oppression first, which I will take as a given aspect of societies throughout most of – if not all of – the history relevant to my studies. This history, of course, includes the time (and, in turn, location) of the Prophet Muhammad – the time of the emergence of the religion of Islam. The 7th century in the Middle East is certainly no exception to this patriarchally ruled history. As Amina Wadud notes in her book Inside the Gender Jihad,  these “patriarchal norms of seventh-century Arabia left its mark upon the nature of the Qur’anic articulation” (Wadud 22). Patriarchal ideals crept their way into the holy scriptures, as the language and understanding of humanity in that place and time were patriarchally ruled; perhaps the words and intentions of the divine got “lost in translation” as they were made to be understood by humans with limited language and provincial understandings. Further, even if the language itself is “correct” – even if the translation is flawless – human interpretation of the text may be flawed. Wadud contends that “textual meaning is neither fixed nor static” (Wadud 22); humans with provincial understandings can only interpret text within those understandings. Due to the nature of divine text as conditional, Wadud asserts that it is critical to employ and accept “human agency as a critical resource for establishing and maintaining dynamism between a linguistically articulated text, of divine origin, addressed at a fixed time while simultaneously intending to provide eternal guidance” (Wadud 23). With this employment, as humankind grows and evolves, and as the scriptures have been able to reach more and more people, different interpretations have revealed the existence of and potential for equality-based ideals behind and within the translated divine language.

This is all to say that (contrary to the arguments of some Muslims deeply engrossed in the idea that the “correct” way to be a practicing Muslim is to accept that the original and more widely accepted patriarchal language and interpretations are foundational and unerring,) to be a pious Muslim, perhaps one need not subscribe to the anti-feminist implications of certain scriptural commands or determinations, or those of certain Islamic cultural practices.

Drawing from Islamic practices and her interpretations of holy scriptures, Amina Wadud claims that “nurturing and compassion are ultimate determining characteristics of ‘Islam’”(Wadud 16). In fact, the root of the word “Islam” itself means “peace;” peace is perhaps the most fundamental value of Islam, and, perhaps, the attainment of peace can be achieved through “submission [to God’s will],” as the definition of “Islam” suggests. Wadud holds that Islam is a guide for understanding and carrying out God’s will, as “often tension arises between the divine will and human agency, so Islam is the voluntary choice of surrender” (24). She argues that sexist and oppressive ideals and practices that claim to originate from Islam are not the will of God, but the will of humans themselves; “Muslims either choose engaged surrender to Allah’s will or justify deviation from it by selective inclusions and omissions within the broad possibilities for naming ‘Islam’”(Wadud 21).

Perhaps, while historical and more organized and formal recent acts of empowerment among Muslims certainly serve the purpose of retaliating against the hyperactive oppression present in many Muslim communities, it does more than this: through reinterpretation, it lends more truth to the purported foundational ideals of Islam, including peace, care, compassion, nurturing, and human responsibility.  

1/16/18 – First Class Freewrite

I have been interested in women and gender studies for quite some time, though my involvement hasn’t gone so far past general expressions of feminism. While I would not like to consider myself a “white feminist,” and rather an “intersectional feminist,” and I try to stand for and defend intersectional feminist ideals, I feel that my limited knowledge about women around the world hinders me from being the best activist I can be. Being informed is one of the most crucial aspects of being an activist – to stand for something and defend something it is important to “know” it through and through. When I saw this class was being offered, it intrigued me – I thought it would be a good first step in becoming more informed. I would like to talk about and further develop my thoughts on the female body in terms of modesty and oppression versus expression, and the human body as something shameful versus holy versus “raw” and “human,” and anything else that will come up.