One of the biggest things that stood out to me in this film was the emphasis on appearance, especially when Mami Rio got botox as she wanted to appear more as a woman to her husband. Although much of [love and] sexuality comes from attraction and appearance, physically altering one’s face for the pleasure or desire of another, whether it be continuous with one’s identity or not, seems unfulfilling; she seems to be “caught in the middle” – while she identifies as a woman, or as a man with the soul of a woman, she is comfortable in her body, but her circumstances do not allow for this comfort in ambiguity. Perhaps, though, this ambiguity comes from cultural/societal understandings of binaries. Perhaps she is not ambiguous to herself, she simply seems ambiguous in a male-female centered context.
The concept of “protecting one’s genitals” as applicable to both males and females is complex – is there a difference in the meaning of “protection” when it is examined for one gender versus the other? Chastity is of course the “ideal” for “both” sexes, and, contrarily, lechery is seen as undesirable and sacrilegious, but what are the implications of chastity for men for men versus for women?
From my modern Western understandings of the separation between men and women when it comes to sex, I immediately draw the conclusion that women must protect their bodies and genitals from the hungry eyes of men, and thus are expected to dress in a way that benefits them in this manner. Alternatively, when it comes to men, I interpret the “protection” to mean protection from lechery – they should not engage in or permit acts that may induce any sense of arousal in themselves.
This is controversial – should women have to take responsibility for the actions of hungry-eyed men in order to protect themselves?
Wadud defines tawhid as “the operating principle of equilibrium and harmony” (28), and as the foundation of Islam itself. This refers to the “‘unitcity’ of Allah” (28), which results in the balance between the physical and metaphysical, and the equality in being a creature under a common creator. In her discussion of gender, Wadud introduces the integral concept of tawhid – oneness – as grounds for the ultimate argument for gender equality. There is, however, an obvious “duality” – a recognition of of gender as a binary. This seems counterintuitive, contradictory to the “oneness.” It is not – the “oneness” is a movement to unite a preconceived understanding of duality in the world, as Wadud explains that “in the Qur’an, all shay’ (things) are part of a system of dualism, divisible and necessarily contingent” (29). Rather than oneness being the starting point, duality seems to be the starting point, and the oneness explains the interdependence of dichotomies. This is not to say that everything is not inherently
“one,” nor that everything is not inherently “two;” perhaps humans have contrived a duality out of the true “oneness,” and the concept of tawhid is meant to help reassume and understand the original equality and unity.
In this world of dichotomies and unity, is there space for a “gender spectrum?” I believe there may be; while there are the obvious polar “men” and “women,” and “manly” traits and “womanly” traits – the dichotomy, per se, – the oneness’ representation of the interdependency and necessity of both men and women perhaps points to necessary space for any possible combinations of “man” and “woman” in individuals.
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).
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.
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.
I was struck by Mubarak’s declaration that she believes there is a limit to the rights of (specifically) women in her community, according to doctrinal Islamic texts. Namely, these rights include that to pray alongside men in the mosque, and that to act as an Imam and lead the community in prayer. Her reasoning also includes her own insistence on “cherishing” her modesty, and her followed disinterest in “rubbing up” against men during prayer.
Some questions that arise after reading this:
Does acknowledging the sexuality of women (and men), by separating prayer space and not letting them lead prayer, minimize them to sexual objects, or, contrarily respect them by accepting and embracing the ever presence of human sexuality?
Considering the latter, does this place sexuality in opposition to the divine, holy, and spiritual? Should sexuality be considered base and vulgar in comparison to the holy?
Again, considering the latter, perhaps it is due to the separation of physicality vs. spirituality, the body vs. the soul. But if this is the case, it places the physicality that prayer in Islam entails in an interesting position; is the bowing an attempt to use the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual? And does this then place the physical in a holier sphere? If so, does this contradict the attempt to separate the physical from the spiritual?
Or, is sexuality something more than just “physical,” devilish in some way?
On another hand completely, is the separation wholly due to sexuality?
Which leads to some questions I feel more comfortable answering, for better or for worse:
If not, are women and men simply placed “on different levels?” Should they be? If not sexuality, what is the criteria for separation, and is one then inherently higher than the other? (Disclaimer: I do not believe so.)
The term “empowerment” is generally used in a positive light by those striving to lift themselves, others, or specific groups of people, up, in any number of contexts – especially within activist groups, and quite often referring to women and feminism. This is a complicated term, as it employs the term “power,” and implies that power is the object of the movement or encouragement; lust for power historically often determines the the “evilness” of characters, and usually, at least in idealistic tales, leads to the greedy character’s ultimate demise (Take, for example, the biblical builders of the “Tower of Babel,” the murderous kings and royals in Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, and Voldemort in the Harry Potter series). But power is faithfully present, it motivates many seemingly benign human actions on a daily basis, and puppeteers the movements of societies. So, we may conclude that it is important to “empower” those who are lacking, to raise them up; to grant them with power so they are equipped to meet the others with power on equal ground.
But what is the limit to empowerment – is there one? Does it reach a point at which we cannot, or, perhaps more interestingly, should not, continue raising, leveling? Is there a greater reason that certain power dynamics have played out the way they have throughout history (take the complex male-female dynamic – I use this term intentionally, as it refers to conventional expected gender roles, which likely do not allow all women to embody their identities women)? Is there a point at which “empowerment” crosses over to the realm of power alone, and breeds detrimental infatuation with gaining power? And if this is not the issue the limit aims to deal with, why have a limit?
Hadia Mubarak sees a limit and advocates for it, and her doing so struck me as I read: she explains, “If I am going to empower women in my community by pointing to textual, religious evidence of rights that Islam has given us, then I must abide by the limitations of those rights” (Mubarak). She may not have come up with this limit, but she endorses the idea that 1) there is a limit and 2) this is it; she does not believe a woman should lead a prayer service, or that women and men should pray alongside one another.
Amina Wadud clearly takes another stance; she does not let that traditional limitation prevent her from grasping the power she feels she is entitled to, not only due to her own feelings on empowerment, but because of her Qur’anic and historical interpretations as well. Wadud was the first woman to lead a prayer – her interpretations did not set the same limit that Mubarak’s did. This breeds the question, are there literal and unmistakable interpretations of the Qur’an and history that set clear limits on women’s power, or does reading it with a prior disposition determine what it means, if there are limits, and what they are?
There are those who leap, perhaps too far, into the world of change and reform, and don’t leave time for others to catch up; they end up as the outlier, and progress is stunted. And there are those who walk slowly into the world of change, waiting for others to catch up, or even simply walking with the others as they become ready; the change is slow and painstaking, and it is easier for people who disagree to lag behind and perhaps pull others back with them, as they don’t seem too far removed relative to the time it takes for the “activists” to move, and thus the space is short and easy to cover. Asra Nomani is one who leaps. And the members and elders of the “most progressive mosque in the country,” in Southern California, walk slowly, and rest along the way. Neither of these methods of inciting progress are wholly effective. (Though perhaps it is not the goal of the mosque in California to incite progress, they definitely stand for a more equal or progressive practice of Islam.) Nomani’s leap, though it’s intent may seem second-nature to me, is evidently quite drastic within many Muslim communities, and her actions leave likely lasting negative impressions of both her and her mission; instead of respectfully experiencing and embracing the holy space that the elders and members of the mosque have shaped for themselves and their community, she imposes herself in their sacred space during prayer time, proceeds to disobey the wishes of the elders and members and thus spark an argument, and does not engage in respectful or understanding discussions of their intentions, beliefs, and desires, and her own. Sometimes we may need an idealist to leap, to stand for the ideals that other believers-in-change are perhaps rightfully afraid to stand up for. But a (for lack of a better term) “radical” idealist, who does not stop to think about what the “ideals” mean in different places, cultures, and communities, and cannot communicate respectfully in an attempt to better intra-communal understandings, is counterproductive, and creates a bad name for “progress” in general.
There is a common thread, through many world religions, of two poles – one, typically referred to as conservative in one form or another, believes in accepting holy scriptures literally, and implementing them into law, and the other views religion as a general guide for how to live life that changes with humanity and the times, and uses the most basic principles as laws to determine the sub-laws that govern their lives. This is the source of many intra-faith divisions and fissures, as Precious Rasheeda Muhammad points to in her discussions of her experiences of Islam in America. The community she grew up in upheld Islam as a way to live; she was taught that Islam stood for tolerance, equality, humility, and justice, and encouraged human connection. Her understanding was that Islam is a universal religion – not a missionary religion, but simply universally applicable to humanity – and that her purpose was to “[uplift] humanity with the dignity, understanding, and universality of Islam” (40).
Perhaps one of the most controversial debates in Islam is that surrounding covering, or veiling, and this was one Muhammad encountered negatively as she entered the larger American Muslim community. She recognizes, respects, and upholds the Islamic value of modesty. Though the value of modesty is widely interpreted to refer specifically to veiling in a specific way among Muslims, Muhammad takes the value as a baseline to determine how she presents herself to the world, but does not always veil – she, alongside other women she grew up with, sometimes “chose to be modest without hijab” (44). Along the same core beliefs, though, she does not believe that the hijab is oppressive – when she does wear the hijab, she does so to “stand out unmistakably as a Muslim” (45), and because it provides her with “feelings of serenity, security, and elation” (40); she notes that these feelings come from not only the action of wearing it, but also from her active choice to wear it. Her encounters with some who were more “literalist” discredited and disregarded her interpretation; she explains that she “often heard Muslim women say that a Muslim woman who does not cover has nothing to say about Islam to her” (44), as though the veiling is what determines “true” faith.
Muhammad’s faith seems to be more humanity and community-based, and she is able to connect with diverse communities of humans, as she takes the universal values that Islam stands for and employs them. While it is not for me to say, it seems that purely text-based faith breeds hostility, and disregard for those who do not believe in upholding the same literal meanings of the text. This is, of course, not the intention, and I do not mean to criminalize those whose deeply rooted understandings are literal. I think it comes down to the purpose of religion, and thus further, the purpose of human existence. But I think, in accordance with pondering the purpose of human existence, it is important to recognize the basic human connection that comes with human existence, and leads to the values of community, tolerance, equity, and justice.
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.
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.