Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality

A woman swathed in black to her ankles, wearing a headscarf or a full chador, walks down a European or North American street, surrounded by other women in halter tops, miniskirts and short shorts. She passes under immense billboards on which other women swoon in sexual ecstasy, cavort in lingerie or simply stretch out languorously, almost fully naked. Could this image be any more iconic of the discomfort the West has with the social mores of Islam, and vice versa?

Ideological battles are often waged with women’s bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception. When France banned headscarves in schools, it used the hijab as a proxy for Western values in general, including the appropriate status of women. When Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women; when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that women had taken off their scarves.

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

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

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

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

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

I experienced it myself. I put on a shalwar kameez and a headscarf in Morocco for a trip to the bazaar. Yes, some of the warmth I encountered was probably from the novelty of seeing a Westerner so clothed; but, as I moved about the market – the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me – I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free.

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

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

Among healthy young men in the West, who grow up on pornography and sexual imagery on every street corner, reduced libido is a growing epidemic, so it is easy to imagine the power that sexuality can carry in a more modest culture. And it is worth understanding the positive experiences that women – and men – can have in cultures where sexuality is more conservatively directed.

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

Naomi Wolf is the author, most recently, of The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot and the upcoming Give Me Liberty: How To Become An American Revolutionary, and is co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign, a US democracy movement.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality

  1. If women chose to wear the Chador of their own free will, then I have no issue.If they are expected to wear it by their husbands, brothers, rest of the family or law then I see a problem.

  2. Agreed, if women choose to wear it because they feel secure then I think it is best to allow them to do so, we may be living in a society where women are relatively safer – but there are countries where women have a lot of problems from men in the streets.I myself am not an advocate of the Niqab/Chador for women living in Sri Lanka, I dont see how the system necessitates it – but they can choose to wear or not to wear.For all those none muslims reading this, Niqab/Chador is NOT a compulsary part of the female muslims's attire.

  3. where's the picture from?reminds me of my timeless picture of the Afghani woman with the green eyes…

  4. Dee

    St. Fallen- Natgeo mag had a recent issue with the same woman after years of taliban rule, in the same pose. Stunning.Auf – i like this post. i also think the west has interpreted many of the customs unfairly. but like JP, a woman should have the right to say no if she wanted to. I stopped thinking veiled women were opressed only when I made friends at work who were veiled. Just need that situation to stop lookign thru a rose tinted view.

  5. Very insightful article! I like the fact that the writer dared to investigate matter before shaping her opinion.

  6. @Dee – yeah I've seen it.

  7. @St fallen :http://www.flickr.com/photos/ranoush/2109491320/I have linked it in my post.@Dee : totally agreed, like I have said – The veil should be worn only if the woman feels like she needs it, it shouldnt be enforced on her.. If a woman feels insecure in a barbaric society (sadly they still exist), then no one will need to force her, she will ahev to wear it or face the consequence from uncultured men on the streets..Yes it shouldnt be enforced, and the woman should decide if she needs it or not, and the west does give it a very bad picture.might interest you -http://qudaamah.blogspot.com/2008/11/male-oppression-control-hijab.html@Periwhatever : cheers bud!

  8. Very perceptive.Here in Emirates, we get to witness the best of both worlds; to each individual his/her own. But faith or no faith, a moral compass is the conscience bestowed on everyone.

  9. "Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze."I totally agree with this sense of liberation, and I chose to wear it without any family pressure too!

  10. @JP : cheers for the link, it raises many questions, answers of some which negate the answers of the other, what question in particular are you referring to ?@Shaahima : Agreed.@Indyana :great to hear from you again, and to hear of your experience – its interesting that what the west criticizes most is Islam's treatment of women, when ironically as a percentage the bulk of new muslim reverts from the west are women!btw,I didnt know you wore the veil, Hijab yes, didnt know you wore a veil 🙂

  11. The question I referred to was that faced by the Headmistress of the school – does one allow the Hijab/Chador to be worn – I would agree with the headmistress in allowing it. The consequences that she faced from that I would not know how to answer or deal with.

  12. Yeah good point – The headmistress was right in allowing it, Muslim thought must also be less blindly rigid like it can sometimes be.. Ample flexibility can be exercised withing the Islamic framework, but sometimes muslims out of ignorance get it wrong – like for example some muslim women insisting on seeing a female gynecologist.

  13. Yo

    Thank you so much for this article : )I am Arab, and although I do not personally wear a headscarf, I understand the reasoning behind the choice to wear it.Thank you so much for helping to educate the Western world!

  14. The subjugation of women in the Islamic culture is without question. Any and all women who choose to participate in this horrible mind set are accomplices to this crime. You may try to justify your complicity by stating the "necessity" to conform within your society. Until women from all over the world join together to stop the subjugation and repression of all women then we have no hope of overcoming this horrible unjustice.

  15. Yo – Thanks, appreciate it.Anon – As a practice I don't respond to anon comments, by simple virtue of the fact that I don’t respect the opinion of someone who is too insecure to take responsibility for his/her comments.I chose to respond to your comment since you speak of pertinent issues and you seem to make a judgement perceived to be "fair" on your part.I do confess that Muslim women are subjugated in many countries, pakistan,afghanistan,india and even Saudi Arabia, not to mention many other countries as well.But the fact that these women are subjugated is not because of Islam and is not an "Islamic" practice. There is a very thin line between culture and Islamic law in these countries and cultural practices seem to morph what the Islamic framework suggests. In all these countries where you say Muslim women are subjugated, you may or may not be surprised to know that non Muslim women too are subjugated by non Muslim men and women are second class citizens.That is evidence enough that culture seems to have the upper hand in these societies and illiteracy and lack of access to education makes men and women oblivious to understanding law and culture in broader depth.You may also be surprised to know that, of the thousands of western citizens who convert to Islam annually, more than fifty percent are women! The west is a relatively liberal educated society sans cultural inhibitions, and that makes women in the west who feel over consumed and exhausted by male chauvinism see a more robust religious framework which gives equal rights to men and women within a just religious framework.Women in the west were given the right to vote only in the last century, they were deprived of university education and were languishing at home whilst the males in the family were given the best of education. Whereas Muslim women have been contributing to science, culture and the arts long before western women could dream of achieving such things.There have been a number of Muslim rulers who were women! Moghul India had a string of Muslim queens who took their armies to battle when the need arose! Watch a few historic movies, like "the Duchess" for example, might give you a semblance of an idea of what subjugation of women really means.

  16. Yo – Thanks, appreciate it.Anon – As a practice I don't respond to anon comments, by simple virtue of the fact that I don’t respect the opinion of someone who is too insecure to take responsibility for his/her comments.I chose to respond to your comment since you speak of pertinent issues and you seem to make a judgement perceived to be "fair" on your part.I do confess that Muslim women are subjugated in many countries, pakistan,afghanistan,india and even Saudi Arabia, not to mention many other countries as well.But the fact that these women are subjugated is not because of Islam and is not an "Islamic" practice. There is a very thin line between culture and Islamic law in these countries and cultural practices seem to morph what the Islamic framework suggests. In all these countries where you say Muslim women are subjugated, you may or may not be surprised to know that non Muslim women too are subjugated by non Muslim men and women are second class citizens.That is evidence enough that culture seems to have the upper hand in these societies and illiteracy and lack of access to education makes men and women oblivious to understanding law and culture in broader depth.You may also be surprised to know that, of the thousands of western citizens who convert to Islam annually, more than fifty percent are women! The west is a relatively liberal educated society sans cultural inhibitions, and that makes women in the west who feel over consumed and exhausted by male chauvinism see a more robust religious framework which gives equal rights to men and women within a just religious framework.Women in the west were given the right to vote only in the last century, they were deprived of university education and were languishing at home whilst the males in the family were given the best of education. Whereas Muslim women have been contributing to science, culture and the arts long before western women could dream of achieving such things.There have been a number of Muslim rulers who were women! Moghul India had a string of Muslim queens who took their armies to battle when the need arose! Watch a few historic movies, like "the Duchess" for example, might give you a semblance of an idea of what subjugation of women really means.

  17. I imagine one would find far more women who opt to dress modestly (and so Idlamically) than one would think….

  18. Beautifully put, great that you have reported it and cheer to the author for how nicely she investigated the matter.I have asked many Muslim women (and men) about hijab/chador, and I got the same answers this writer had.Although it's absolutely right that a woman must be entitled to choose how to dress, I think we (Westerners) should stop judging and misinterpreting a culture we fail to understand. Just because we don't like wearing the hijab (which is not even entirely true, as often fashion shows use it as a feminine accessory), it doesn't mean that Muslim women don't like it either. They belong to a different culture and we need to accept that.Finally, I don't think the whole "women in the ME" issue is really about women's rights, as much as about seeking the popular support they need to invade other countries. They couldn't put the issue: "We want to invade, divide and sell the country to big corporations, would you go fight and die for it?" So they put it in a nicer way: "Women are repressed, we need to export democracy and give them their freedom."The issue of human rights is very sensitive, and too often used to sell war. Sadly, we all know that the situation in Iraq is worse than it was with Saddam, for both women and men.

  19. Really nice and impressive blog i found today.

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