Friday, October 20, 2006

Modesty & lust

I got caught up in a discussion on a Muslim blog, Austrolabe on veiling women. It didn’t get very far. I see the veil as a form of oppression primarily directed by male religious crazies who can’t handle their sex drives. Those on this blog see it as a free fashion choice by women who ‘seek to be closer to Allah’ and who wish to not be ogled by men.

The commentators deny my premise that Islam is systematically prejudiced against women with the veil being a particular instance of this oppression. This denial seems to me simply contrived blindness. Flogging supposedly lascivious females, unequal rights for women under the law, lower education opportunities for women, genital mutilation and honour killings may be a consequence of culture and psychology but an awful lot of this horrific activity occurs, by some coincidence, in Muslim countries. To me this is undeniable and a major reason that cultures in the West, while open to Buddhism and other non-traditional Western faiths, are more closed to Islam.

But one commentator cited an article, promoting wearing a veil as a release from the tyranny of having to wear excessively sexualized fashion, which interested me. Quote:

One common view is that by wearing a veil, a woman reclaims her beauty as her own, rather than surrender to the prying eyes of men seeking sexual pleasure.

In this context, the veil is not an oppressive tool of fundamentalist Islam but something that liberates women from body fascism and fashion fundamentalism.

As society gets ever more sex-saturated and the pressure increases on young women to follow the latest trends and constantly look groomed and sexy, pockets of defiance will grow in the most unlikely places.
I am not sure I agree with this. Women can dress modestly and attractively without being subject to the tyranny of fashion and without inviting excessively prying eyes. But, more to the point, I don’t think there is that much wrong in accepting that both men and women are sexual beings for whom physical attractions are a dominant theme. Society does not fall apart in accepting this.

I suppose too - and this is probably my age-prejudices revealling themselves - I find the fashions worn by young Australian females unattractive and non-sexy even though a lot of flesh is often on display. Partly this is a consequence of the increased weight of young women that makes their fashion choices look like attempts to stuff an overinflated beachball in a sock. Vast cleavage displays, bouncing bra-less boobs under cheap teashirts and bum cracks - that make me think of hydro-electric power possibilities as solutions to climate change issues - and which detract from the real beauty of a female rear end, are major complaints.

Of course I am no movie star myself. But having given up on the task of winning beauty contests years ago and having had beach sand kicked in my face by the school bully I don’t care. Age has the single virtuous effect of making us ‘wrinkled and white’ males (as one of my Muslim co-commentators remarked) effectively invisible to lust-seeking females. Thank god for that! I don’t need to wear a veil and baggy duds to prevent that pair of boobs sitting in front of me in the bus from exploiting me sexually.


Anonymous said...

I read your amusing debate on that site. You know there is debate in the Muslim world on the issue of the niqab (veil as opposed to covering just hair.) The debate is extensive and pervasive, just read Arab language blogs and forums. There is also very rich feminist scholarship that I'm trying to familiarize myself with.

I just got of the phone with a Muslim professor specializing in gender issues in the Arab world. She and I discussed the old Arabic saying "Al akraboun awla bel ma'rouf" mentioned by another feminist Muslim academic on a certain blog.

In this context the saying implies "why don't you indulge in your rescue fantasies at elsewhere" :-)

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your interpretation of why Western countries are less open to Muslims -- there are lots of very sexist religious societies, and people don't seem to worry too much about that (I don't see people complaining about the Mormons, some of the more extreme Catholic groups etc.).

I think it has more to do with people's observations from countries where these groups have hit the bottom of the social scale, and hence people are often falsely correlating all the problems that being poor has with religious values (cf. the attitude in the US vs. the UK).


1) I think that all of the anecedotes about France are missing the point. I haven't seen any data, but my impression is that the Muslims there are, overall, less religious than those in places like Australia (and I have worked there a fair bit). I suspect the reason for this is that they are far greater in number, and hence don't feel obliged to be cultural sterotypes (nor culturally stereotyped), as seems to be the case with many small communities (or perhaps the larger communities allow cultural values to shift more quickly).

2) I think that whilst oppresive clothing restrictions are problematic, it isn't restricted to Muslims, and perhaps it is more symptomatic of other problems than being a great problem in itself. I live in the biggest Jewish neighborhood in Melbourne, and I notice that the orthodox males wear extremely heavy black clothing in summer, yet no one would even think of mentioning this, despite its oppressive nature.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the first link yet Harry, but I have to agree with Conrad that oppressive religious garb isn't just restricted to Muslims. One has to ask why Muslim dress codes are singled out for so much criticism then, and quite often the criticism comes from people who haven't shown much interest in speaking out against other manifestations of gender inequality.

Personally, I don't have any problem at all with the hijab, but I find the burqa disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Harry and Rabee,
good work there on Austrolabe, I think you had the better arguments. I fully agree with Rabee's view:

'I think that the main issue here is that fine women ought to be free to wear whatever they want...But if a woman wearing Niqab expects to get a job teaching six year old kids, then parents should also be free to refuse that. You see a very good argument can be made that kids simply can’t learn when the teacher’s face is covered...'

The same applies to other types of people - fat, smokers etc - emplyers should be free to take their specific characteristics into account. Unfortunately, this is seen by many as discrimination these days.

Anonymous said...

what ridiculous piffle Harry.

honour killings can be found in parts of India too (and I mean the non Muslim parts). female genital mutilation is more of an attribute ot primitive patriarchal societies. same with lower educational opportunities for women.

yes, there happens to be considerable overlap with Muslim societies. wonder why? correlation is not causation. perhaps you might want to look at the fact that more developed societies adopted christianity first. Islam was a relatively young religion which arose among nomadic tribes that before its occurence didn't even consider themselves as a people and there are still problems of excessive consanguinity amongst some of these groups that hinder nationbuilding .

as for the hijab, Anwar Ibrahim's wife wears one and she is a doctor and a major political figure, certainly has more cachet than Janette Howard.


hc said...

Rabee, I think the oppression of women is a human rights issue at least as important as many others that you and I focus on. You must be consistent and apply the same types of standards to Muslims as you would to George Bush.

Conrad, both the Mormans and the Catholic Church have been subject to ongoing criticism for their views on women. But I agree thatr particular groups of Muslims in Australians, cause problems because they are uneducated and poor. Their views on women have also come under sustained attack -from me among others.

Lucy, I think you are wrong - the other forms of oppression are attacked. That the Catholic Church seeks to intrude into areas of birth control within families, denies condoms to those at risk of contracting aids etc etc has been widely condemned.

I don't mind the hijab but watching burka and niqab-covered women trotting along 5 spaces behind their menfolk gives me a pain.

Jason, Strong words that peter out in terms of impact in their follow up. I stick 100% with my claim that Islamic societies are tough on women. Your contrary claim is that mainly primitive morons adopt Islam which should therefore be exempted from blame when its supporters seek to oppress half the human race. That is 'ridiculous piffle' to use your unpleasant and uninformative phrase.

It amazes me how liberal-minded people such as yourself will try to find a way of excusing appalling behavior by non-European groups. Its a bias-induced blindspot.

Anonymous said...

George Bush is one individual Harry, he's a criminal.

Muslims are a diverse heterogeneous body of humanity that comprise 1.3 billion people. Or do they all look the same to you?

hc said...

Rabee, No they don't look the same. I can tell the men from the women and even the women in burkas you can classify into small, medium and large blue-potato-sacks that walk. But that's the intention right - wizened old religious bigots - saving men from the temptations of the flesh and putting all the 'blame' on women.

No, I don't think George Bush is a criminal at all.

derrida derider said...

Female genital mutiliation has zero to do with religion, Harry - it's not mentioned in Koran or hadith and it's practised by both Christians and animists across the horn of Africa (BTW, why doesn't male genital mutiliation attract the same obloquy?).
Same with honour killings - did you ever have a look at traditional Sicilian ways?

To the extent that historically all organised religions were used to keep people without power in their place (ie underneath those with power), it's a fair cop to blame Islam for women's extreme subjection in these societies. But it aint very long ago you would have said exactly the same of Christianity - and sometimes still can. It's just that the old men in Rome and the repressed homosexual zealots don't have as much power these days.

And yeah, blaming peoople for actions carried out by completely different people in completely different cultures on the grounds that they share a religion should be called what it is - bigotry.