Analyzing Muslim teachings on modesty

Among the issues that I am trying to untangle at the moment is things that I was taught (or more often, absorbed from my environment) about the body and sexuality as a conservative Muslim.

Both conservative Muslims and the wider society’s “mainstream” media often treat certain Muslim ideas about the body and sexuality, particularly when these relate to women, as distinctive or even unique symbols of Islamic identity. One of the results of this approach is that it can make it more difficult to critically analyze such ideas, partly because so many other complex and politically charged issues are dragged in along with them.

But conservative Muslims are far from being the only religious groups in North America that expend a good deal of energy worrying about how girls and women “should” dress and behave. When I was a conservative Muslim, I was aware of this, and saw it as evidence that such concerns are “natural” to every human being with a sound, uncorrupted “primordial nature” (fitra), and that they are part of the “original,” divinely given teaching of every one of God’s prophets. In other words, that such attitudes to women’s bodies are both inescapable and religiously central.

Now, I look back, and realize that these ideas and attitudes weren’t simply “natural,” “divinely-given” notions that just fell from the sky, nor were they simply or directly appropriated by converts such as myself as a result of our innate orientation towards “the truth.” Nor for that matter are they necessarily inescapable. We came to Islam with our own issues. We were raised in a patriarchal society in which women were neither legally nor socially equal, despite the slogans we sometimes heard. We became Muslim having already learned certain things about how our bodies are often viewed, by other girls and women, as well as by men. Muslim notions about these issues added further layers of complexity, that will take some undoing.

Sierra has posted some thought-provoking articles about teachings on modesty and sexuality in some Patriarchal Christian groups, as well as a bunch of links to others. Looking back, I would say that the claims made by some Muslims that wearing hijab (and adopting the “modest” behavior that is supposed to go with it) is “empowering” is an oversimplification at best. There was a lot more involved in such “choices” (to use another overused buzzword when discussing hijab). Part of the problem is that in the communities I was involved in, words like “empowering” and “choice” were mainly used because they sounded rational and enlightened and modern, not because they were particularly descriptive.

In the next few posts, I will examine questions of motivation and results a bit more closely.

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  1. #1 by Sierra on June 7, 2012 - 3:07 am

    Thanks for linking me! I love your work and can’t wait to read your next few posts. I’ve been thinking about the hijab lately as I’ve seen a lot of parallel arguments between Muslim and Apostolic women about the “empowering” effect of covering up.

  2. #2 by Saliha on June 7, 2012 - 3:54 am

    I have 3 posts in various stages that I’ve started just over the last week two are about hijab. It’s certainly on my mind. I started wearing hijab before I understood it to be an obligation and I think that’s had a very large impact on how I view it, that and I am rather naturally inclined toward clothing that covers because I like the way flowy, swooshy clothing feels against my skin. But I have a daughter who is rapidly approaching the age at which people in my (former?) community believe it is obligatory for girls to cover and she does not share my preferences. I’ve made it very clear to her that this is her choice alone and I will stand and defend her no matter what she chooses. The relief on her face nearly brought me to tears.

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