No, thank you, Naomi Wolf

This is a response to hijab.com’s article, ‘Thank you, Naomi Wolf.

When I started reading about Feminism (in order to get acquainted with the ‘canon’ before I can establish myself as a feminist), I bought Naomi Wolf’s ‘Promiscuities‘. As I was into sex-positivism at the time, the title even sounded like the right kind book to read. But I couldn’t even get past half the book. And here’s why: I couldn’t relate to the sort of sexual awakening experienced by Wolf; a white middle-class woman born in the 1960′s – the age of the (Western) sexual revolution. Though ‘Promiscuities’ was intended to normalise female sexuality and shatter its misconceptions, Wolf’s personal experiences as a teenager was too much self-importance and cultural incompatibility for me to handle, so I ditched the book.

Now Naomi Wolf has written a piece about sexuality that thrives among Muslim women in more conservative societies. Reading with trepidation, my prejudices were founded: I still don’t think she gets it. But before I tear her to pieces, she is right about sexual expression being different in different cultures, and that Western women often overlook their own oppressions that exist around them at home i.e. diets, anti-ageing procedures, and ahem, high-heeled shoes:

… 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.

Sexuality is (and should be) normal in any society, in public or in the privacy of one’s home. But sexuality does not necessarily have to be channled towards marriage. If in marriage exists the only way Muslim women can express sexuality, then there is big trouble. Predictably, it makes sex outside marriage unacceptable, and we know by now the sort of repurcussions women, and not men, face for not being virgins.

Wolf then talks about the liberation women feel from wearing the chador. I have no beef about women who choose to wear the hijab, niqab, chador, whatever. But it is not a free choice when there is intense social pressure to wear one. Wolf describes the experience of wearing it herself:

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.

Erm. Crimes of orientalism and exoticism committed by Wolf aside, the sense of ‘freeness’ comes from averting the unwanted gaze of men who are not used to the sight of uncovered women. I know, I experienced this myself when I was studying in rural Perak, in Northwest Malaysia. Wearing a headscarf can easily change anyone’s perspective – adds a “Do not touch” element, but not so much in Egypt it seems.

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.

Wrong-o. Pakistan once rated highest in the world in number of users who searched up the internet for “Sex”, and sexual abuse is also rampant there. Such instances do not differ much elsewhere in more conservative Muslim societies. Suffice to say, repressed sexuality can bring on aberrant sexuality. I hope I’m not the only one who think Naomi Wolf’s article is quite shallow. She should have written with greater insight when given the valuable opportunity to explore the sexual lives of Muslim women. But perhaps I’m just being overly critical.

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11 thoughts on “No, thank you, Naomi Wolf

  1. Pingback: Friday Links — September 5, 2008 « Muslimah Media Watch

  2. FANTASTIC. Thank you for FINALLY expressing this very little expressed view…people either try so hard to condemn Islam as oppressing women, or try so hard to be pc and talk about how modesty is really feminism, that they ignore the basic aspect of how this unbelievable repression rebounds back on the very modest women themselves….and as an unveiled woman who lives in an almost totally veiled country (Egypt) I am sick to death of having to pay the price for these women’s modesty – especially since I know so many of them did not choose it.

  3. I totally understand what it’s like being unveiled myself. What’s worse is sometimes during my shabbiest (and very unsexy, believe me) days I’m still perceived as obscenely dressed compared to the ‘muhajababes’ who show more ‘shape’ than I do.

  4. i read that article, too…got here from Muslimah Media Watch. Bells started going off for me when Wolf described the sexuality of the sensuous Muslim women at home…I felt that this wasn’t a novel idea, but just played into the trope of the sex kitten harem girl behind the veil theme that is old news…like you I think she still doesn’t get it.

    also the shalwar qameez in Morocco thing…barf! For so many reasons. In addition to what you mention, if I were in Morocco I would definately stare at a goofy white lady wearing South Asian clothes in North Africa. I can’t believe she felt she got less looks for that.

    thirdly, I am a Muslim woman and I wear a head scarf and show only my face, hands, and feet…like so many other women. And I have my reasons for choosing to cover, like we all do. But the women who Wolf interviewed were repeating Islamo-pamphlet sound bytes about hijab liberating us from sexual harassment or the cult of beauty. Firstly, as a covered woman who has travelled a lot in Muslim majority countries, I STILL get sexually harassed…I currently live in a Muslim country and face harassment on a regular basis. And covered women still have issues with weight, with meeting standards of beauty, with aging, etc. Some men who wrote books on the virtues of being covered told us that we don’t…but we DO! I think we are just brainwashed to say that we don’t, but all around us we still face pressures to look attractive even though we are covered.

    I dunno. I hated this stupid article.

  5. Luckyfatima, I feel your pain. I had the shalwaar kameez buzzing in my head too; I was quite sure Wolf was mistaken. The odd thing is, Moroccans are generally laid back about dress so she didn’t have to play dress up on the streets. It’s her Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome acting up.

  6. Pingback: hijab.com » Blog Archive » the unified theory of hijab

  7. Pingback: What to Wear, OH What to Wear « Rational Riposte

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