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Beyond the Veil: The Intersection of Sensuality, Culturally Appropriate & Women's Rights

Since Lubna Hussein went to court and Hillary Clinton to Africa, I’ve published most of the discussion about international women’s rights issues in that channel. The news is that Lubna will be back in Sudan court on Monday, Sept. 7, 2009.

The mandate that Muslim women wear culturally-appropriate clothing is once again center stage.

Salon comments on the burqa culture wars that are percolating around the desire of some Muslim women to don the veil. This topic is discussed in detail here at Anne of Carversville.

Saudi woman in traditional Abaya on Jeddah Corniche; via Flickr’s Lucie’s PhotographyI know well the writing of both Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler. Passions are running high and these two know how to tango.

Naomi opened the week with an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality. Wolf’s point is that some Arab women do not find burqas and all the forms of full-coverage dress confining or dehumanizing as perceived by Westeners.

Our commentators, especially Pixie who writes the blog I Love Hishma agree with Wolf. Pixie is always clear, as well, that Islam does not mandate burqas, niqab and specific dress codes for women. The need for modesty, of course, is mandated.

In my own experiences in Morocco, also over late-night espresso discussions in New York with two close girlfriends married to Arab men, and in my long friendship with Tunisian-born Monette Moati, owner of a chic Parisian lingerie boutique Sabbia Rosa, I know that this view of private sensuality among some Arab women is very strong.

Yemen - Women of Sanaa; via Flickr’s Lcie’s PhotographyNaomi’s words mirror their embrace of this private mysterious Muslim sexuality, but there’s another side to the argument.

Phyllis Chesler responded to Wolf’s article with The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice, chiding Wolf for advocating an elitist vision of burqa-wearing women who lead sexy private lives.

Then Chessler goes for the kill: Being veiled and obedient does not save a Muslim girl or woman from being incested, battered, stalked, gang-raped, or maritally raped nor does it stop her husband from taking multiple wives and girlfriends or from frequenting brothels. A fully “covered” girl-child, anywhere between the ages of 10-15, may still be forced into an arranged marriage, perhaps with her first cousin, perhaps with a man old enough to be her grandfather, and she is not allowed to leave him, not even if he beats her black and blue every single day.

Goodness knows that I’m neither a Conservative Republican nor a Phyllis Chesler fan.

Pink susset at floating mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; via Lucie’s PhotographyWithout taking sides — because I do believe that life involves a great deal of grey-matter — and I’m also bloodied and bruised, defending my concern for Lubna Hussein this weekend, I have the same concerns as Chesler about Naomi’s article.

In my own experiences in Marrakesh, I saw how the very architecture of the Medina emphasized the public/private mystery of sensuality. I admit that it intoxicated me.

It’s also true that the women in Morocco in Marrakech wore colorful clothing, and I don’t believe their faces were covered. The women were out and about, chatting and very visible. Yes the women congregated together, but I don’t remember that they fled for cover in the presence of men.

The scene was more like this one:

I visited Morocco years ago with a photography group. We drove from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains and back again. It was an amazing trip as my eyes were opened to a way of life and a landscape I had not seen before. It was the kind of trip where total strangers invited me into their home for tea and others threw mud at me. I learned to listen to the hairs on the back of my neck, to celebrate kindness and brush off the mud. via Flickr’s Amy’s SketchbookI didn’t leave Marrakesh with a pit in my stomach regarding the lives of the women who lived there. Nor did I make it my business to investigate the details of their lives. I was on vacation.

Bottom line in the Naomi Wolf/Phyllis Chesler debate, my own comparatively luxurious life knows the gorgeous Muslim sensuality discussed by Wolf. Similarly, Orthodox Jewish women DO profess to have some very hot sex with their husbands, stating that “denial” drives passion.

Statistically though, considering the overall status of women wearing full-coverage clothing, Chesler’s argument cannot be ignored.

My own struggle with the burqa topic is that it’s now focused on women in ‘free’ countries choosing to wear it for reasons that they really don’t have to justify, and the reality that the vast numbers of women who wear burqas or full-coverage clothing have no choice in the matter.

I do believe that Wolf’s argument could have been written differently, without making clothing the focus.

Perhaps I’ll try to write a piece that takes the subject out of clothes that conceal and into a more cerebral discussion of sensuality in the Middle East — in luxury households.

Even then, Phylis Chesler can challenge me that the picture is a spoiled-woman’s or educated woman’s mirage, alive in some countries. Nor am I confident that I can mount a strong defense.

In fairness to Naomi Wolf, she does write: 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.

Rashaida girl Eritrea, in the danakil desert, Africa; via Flickr’s Eric LafforgueI do understand the argument Naomi’s try to make, but the vast majority of Muslim women aren’t allowed free choice in clothing or most other aspects of their daily lives.

Also, I believe that Naomi rejects the purchase of just about any product that enhances our physical looks. She’s very concerned (correctly so) that women are only pawns of Madison Avenue and women remain fundamentally insecure about themselves, because of the pressure to be beautiful.

Yet, I enjoy putting on a little lipstick.

Does this make me brainwashed? A tool of the establishment? I’ve made peace with this subject and lipstick wins. But in a few days, I’ll also publish photos of me with no makeup, because I’ve been using Easeamine for over a month. Only a courageous woman does that in America!!!

Back to Muslim sexuality, which is where the discussion began. Theories will be tested again on Monday, when Lubna Ahmed Hussein returns to court in Khartoum. All of our prayers are with her and the women of Sudan.  Anne


Reader Comments (7)

Hi, Anne!

A good piece on your part!

Nothing is as sexually boring than a nudist beach. We know this.

Clothing brings attention to that which it conceals.

The sensuality, as you met, can be regarded as sexuality-on-overdrive, precisely because sex has been FORCIBLY mystified.

Furthermore, concealment does NOT mean that the MALES will behave rspectfully towards the women; rather, they will grab any opportunity they get (or perceive), to have a glimpse, or make an allusion to the concealed, forbidden body.

I am sure you noticed some appalling behaviour among Arab males.

Forcible clothing degrades women into sensual creatures and stunts males' development into balanced adults (due to sex-deprivation)

Thus, whatever Naomi talked about, can be regarded as one of the SYMPTOMS of the disease, rather than the healthy core somewhat marred by a variety of abuses.

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterarild

Brilliant comment, Arild. I appreciate any further readings you could suggest here, or to me only in my comment box on the masthead. This is a very complex topic, as I know you understand. Thank you so much for contributing. You've given me courage to plow on with this subject. Anne

September 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterAnne

Hi, Anne!

I was encouraged by your response to re-post something I wrote somewhere else.
Just some random, thoughts, really, some not tangent to to this website, so therefore omitted:

1. Cultural arbitrariness of clothing

This is trivially true, both in the type and amount of clothing. But arbitrariness on its own does not constitute "oppression".

2. Indicator of oppressiveness of particular clothing habits:
A good indicator of possible oppressiveness of clothing habits, is the average "distance" between PUBLIC clothing habits and fully PRIVATE clothing habits.
In one's own private space, secluded and shielded from the gaze and judgments of others, the only type of oppression that still might linger is self-oppression (that term is NOT self-contradictory, as I will aim to show).
On basis of that, we may look at a few relevant points:
a) Customary clothing of genitals, is that "oppressive"?
i) IF it were so, we would expect that once wholly on our own, we would with great relief shed our clothes and bask in our naked glory, that had to be concealed from the censorious eyes of our oppressive, surrounding society. Also, we would privately feel a twinge of envy for those primitive, NON-oppressive societies where public nakedness was a matter of course, non-oppressive precisely because they can, without censure, display their nakedness in full public view.

But, the vast majority of us do NOT shed our clothes, even when we are completely by ourselves, and I have yet to meet anyone who regards the customs of nude tribes with other than indifference, mild amusement, or quizzicality. Never envy.

ii) Presence of self-oppression?
Is, perhaps, our custom of wearing clothing fully in private the result of an interiorized oppression of our true being, that even in our solitude, we do not dare to take our clothes off?

IF that had been true, we would expect that the very thought of shedding our clothes in private caused us acute embarassment and feelings of shame.
This seem to have been the case in certain body-negationist milieux within the Church, where the body ITSELF was considered sinful, and nakedness the very worst fact about it.
Yet, such attitudes are extremely rare today, and if we were to ask others (or ourselves) as to why we remain clothed in private, the genuine reason would be that we want to.
That that reason is genuine, is quite simply gauged by the fact that we do not consider the idea of walking about naked in our privacy as something dangerous or shameful, and on occasion, we do so, without feeling the slightest guilty about it.

Clothing in private is just one habit in our repertoire, that we prefer, nakedness is another, that we do not abhor, but finds little reason to indulge ourselves in. If we had lived in another, equally non-oppressive culture, the relative commonalities of clothed-in-private (by us common) vs. naked-in-private (by us uncommon) might well have been reversed.
iii) Clothing of genitals in public: An act of oppression?
From the above, it would be absurd to affirm this, since in our entirely private life, we are comfortable with wearing clothes. That the "reasons" for remaining clothed can be said to multiply once we move into the public sphere, we are not necessarily thereby suddenly becoming oppressed, precisely because we feel free and comfortable in clothing to begin with.
b) Average distance beetween public and private clothing.
In the West, the clothing we choose to wear at the kitchen-table, or in the sofa watching television and in other such private settings will most often be the same clothes as the one we sit in a cafe at, at the bus stop or at work, or strolling about in.

This is NOT the case with clothings like the hijab, niqab or burka.
These are PUBLIC garments that women are all too glad to shed once they are on their own, or within that circle of intimates in which her private clothes are permissible to be shown.

That is to say, the average DISTANCE between public and private clothing is much greater in the Islamic world than in the Western, meaning that the role the censorious gaze of the Other plays in determining how/why we choose our appearance can be seen to be all the more potent (and, therefore, readily more oppressive)

3) Concerning public/private clothing split, reasons for shedding of "outer garments":
In the West, we also, of course, has the concept of outer garments, but these are rarely worn due to consideration of modesty.
Others abound, for example the desire not to get your inner clothes stained, to keep them dry, or we wear more clothes outside than inside in order to keep warm. None of these reasons can be regarded as oppressive.

4. Motives for particular public clothing: Self-expression vs. self-effacement
In the West, why, in general, do we pick out some particular clothing?
There are numerous reasons for this, but a particular class of motives concerns the capacity of clothing to express our personality and our mood that day. Furthermore, insofar as there IS a difference in our public and private clothing, we choose to "upgrade" ourselves when we get out among others:
We shed the dirty pants we like to wear, and take on a clean one instead, women use a bra to uphold their sagging breasts (something they don't bother with in private), a fat person chooses some loose-fitting nice gown, rather than the T-shirt under which the rolls of fat peek out in private, and so on.

That is, we MAXIMIZE our appearance, in order to seem attractive and self-confident towards the others we are about to meet. We display our individuality and declare our self-worth for the whole world to see, and approve of.

Facial covering in particular, however, is the complete opposite of this. Here, the individual woman is SUBMERGED in the category/collectivity of "Woman", something that is to be tolerated, but not to be appreciated for her own distinctive individuality.

Our biology is so geared at reading facial expressions, our face is the most individualized part of us, that to cover this up is to limit our attitude towards the world to the emotional range of fear, mistrust, hostility or disdain.

These attitudes are of course something we may cultivate WITHOUT facial covering (not the least by means of facial expressions!), but benevolence, trust, self-confidence, indifference and so on will be the more common range of attitudes displayed by means of Western modes of clothing.

Thus, facial covering is de-individualizing, and for that very reason, de-humanizing, both the one covering herself up, and those around her.

5. Forms of social reprisal of divergent clothing habits.
This point is so trivial (but not unimportant!!), that it doesn't merit much comment:
The manners in which a western society treats those who diverge in public clothing&appearance are so mild and unoppressive in comparison with those faced in the islamic world, that it would quite simply be perverse to put these forms of pressure as of equal, "oppressive" status.

September 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterarild

Hee's another woman recounting her experiences of Marocco.
They are rather different than Naomi Wolf's:

September 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterarild

Arild, thanks so much for your efforts. I've been chasing Lubna all day. I'll digest your thoughts on Tues. since Lubna will be front and center tomorrow. We have a good relationship with many Muslim women. Obviously we will ask them, too, but do you have any knowledge of how they would respond to your thinking?

If you've read much of my writing, my own focus has been less on the clothes (coming out of VS, of course I follow fashion and what clothes mean to women) but more the acknowledged physicality of the woman and how that interfaces with her self-identity.

Must run back to Lubna. Thanks again. Anne

September 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterAnne

I'm glad to have visited your blog and good to know you! I find it interesting and informative.

September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWomens Clothing

Karen, hi. I missed your comment earlier in the week. You may enjoy this article as well, one I just wrote:

If Only We Could Have Lubna Hussein, Dr. Catherine Lim & My Dear Pixie for Tea

September 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterAnne

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