Ikhwanweb :: The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website

Sun1221 2014

Last update13:55 PM GMT

Back to Homepage
Font Size : 12 point 14 point 16 point 18 point
:: Opinions > Other Opinions
Naomi Wolf takes on the hijab
Naomi Wolf takes on the hijab
Feminist sees freedom in keeping sexuality vibrant but channeled within marital relationship.
Feminist Naomi Wolf is currently being excoriated by Western critics for a piece she wrote in support of the hijab. In a Sydney Morning Herald article entitled “Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality,”
Sunday, October 18,2009 22:10
by Uzma Mariam Ahmed Middle East Online

Until the Western world stops obsessing about the clothing choices of Muslim women, we need to continue explaining the social and religious reasons for the hijab. The fact that a noted American feminist like Naomi Wolf wrote an article on the issue is highly encouraging. Now let us hope that many more will follow in her footsteps, and include the nuances of these issues so that the arguments can be truly persuasive to a highly skeptical Western audience.

Feminist Naomi Wolf is currently being excoriated by Western critics for a piece she wrote in support of the hijab. In a Sydney Morning Herald article entitled “Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality,” Wolf muses over the true meaning of female liberation. In it, she promoted the Islamic view that that there is freedom in keeping sexuality vibrant but channeled within the marital relationship, and that the Islamic headscarf, “hijab,” is actually liberating for many women. She recounted her travels to Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, and her enlightening conversations with women in those countries.

Wolf’s article is a welcome relief from the critiques of hijab that are more common in mainstream media, and contains thoughtful analysis that underscores her feminist views. It is also highly encouraging that a noted American feminist, who can reach such a large audience, has attempted to address hijab in an open and unbiased manner. Hopefully her attempt will serve as an example for many more Western thinkers.

Unfortunately, Wolf has left some holes in her arguments and analyses, leaving her article open to criticism. And indeed, Wolf is being harshly criticized for the piece, particularly from those in the far-right who routinely attack anyone promoting a moderate or reasonable view of Islam or Muslims. It is certainly difficult to do justice to complex issues, especially when presenting a perspective contrary to the widespread distortion of Islam in the media. Muslim women choose to cover themselves in various ways for many different reasons, related to their religion, culture, family, or profession. In writing about this topic for a Western audience, there should be no analytical short-cuts or generalities. Wolf’s article, while thoughtful and even courageous, would have been strengthened by points that acknowledged and rebutted the expected counter-arguments of critics.

Wolf’s article is open for attack from the very beginning, when she gives examples of how women’s bodies have become the lightning rods of Western Islamophobia. She notes that when France banned headscarves in schools, it used the hijab as a proxy for Western values, including the appropriate status of women. This statement is undercut by the fact that France did not specifically ban the hijab. Rather, it forbade all “conspicuous” signs of religious expression, and in fact the ban impacted Jewish and Sikh boys and men as well. The issue in France is more complex than simply French Islamophobia, and not the clearest example to support Wolf’s argument.

Further damaging to Wolf’s argument is her statement that “[w]hen Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women . . .” In fact, the Taliban were not simply “denying cosmetics and hair colour” to women, but denying them basic and fundamental rights. Fox and CNN news channels ran steady coverage of the Taliban whipping women in the streets, publicly executing them in sports arenas, burning down women’s schools, and banning them from working and seeking proper medical care. By short-shrifting these issues, Wolf loses credibility, though her overall point may be valid.

Wolf gets back on-track when she shares her new understanding of Muslim sexuality:

“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.”

Unfortunately, even this insightful revelation becomes lessened by subsequent paragraphs, which reveal that some of the Muslim women who wear hijab in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco do so primarily to avoid being harassed in public. They describe the safety and liberation from men’s stares that they feel when covering with hijab or chador, as compared to the sexualization they feel when in public in “Western clothes.” However, this over-simplification creates a false dichotomy between “Islamic” and “Western” clothing, which are not mutually exclusive. “Islamic” clothing can be any clothing that is modest and not form-fitting; a lot of “Western” clothing is modest. Wolf could have addressed the fact that culturally-appropriate clothing draws less attention in Muslim countries, and that may be why the women interviewed feel safer when covering with hijab. In addition, men may have been more likely to stare or objectify a woman in “Western” clothes because he is unlikely to relate to her as an individual and respect her than if she is dressed in Islamic clothes. Wolf’s arguments would have been strengthened by addressing and rebutting these potentialities.

Wolf also noted her personal experience wearing “Islamic” clothing as evidence that it is more liberating than “Western” clothing:

“I experienced [the feeling of liberation] 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.”

While it is commendable that Wolf attempted this experiment, the reader is left with doubt about the real reason she felt calm and serene. Was it because she blended in as a result of her culturally appropriate clothing? Was it because the Moroccans in the bazaar treated her with greater respect because she was respecting their traditions and values?

The final weakness in Wolf’s article came at the end, when she compared the prevalence of pornography and sexual imagery in Islamic cultures with Western countries. She assumes that these images of sex outside of marriage are less prevalent in Islamic cultures, which is not true. While it may be that Iran and Pakistan do not have billboards of Victoria’s Secret models on the highways, they are not necessarily sheltered from these sexual images. While there may not be overt sex acts in movies and televisions, and women on the streets may be veiled or dressed modestly, a huge number of Muslims in highly conservative countries view pornography on the Internet. For instance, among the top ten countries running Google searches of the word “sex” are Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Bollywood movies are widely viewed by Muslims in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and these contain many images that are as racy as any that are seen on American MTV. This indicates that Wolf’s observations that sexuality is fully covered is overly simplistic. Wolf’s argument would have been stronger if she had noted the growing prevalence of this deviant behavior in Muslim countries, and said something about why her conclusions are still valid, despite these problems.

Until the Western world stops obsessing about the clothing choices of Muslim women, we need to continue explaining the social and religious reasons for the hijab. The fact that a noted American feminist like Naomi Wolf wrote an article on the issue is highly encouraging. Now let us hope that many more will follow in her footsteps, and include the nuances of these issues so that the arguments can be truly persuasive to a highly skeptical Western audience.

Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Contributing Writer for AltMuslimah.com, where this article appeared.

tags: Hijab / Muslim women / Islamophobia / Middle East
Posted in Other Opinions  
Add Comment Send to Friend Print
u miss it.. lady lad
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. dun think much about what stranger\\\'s thought. they do not know much about Islam. dun comment them.
Wednesday, May 5,2010 02:04
Related Articles
Geert Wilders Wants to Tax Women who Wear Hijab
Why I wear a Hijab ?
The Hijabi Monologues
Israeli interrogators force Palestinian female detainee to remove her Hijab
The multiple shades of the hijab
~Youth Views~ To wear or not to wear the hijab
Muslim Americans speak out in the ‘Hijabi Monologues’
Egyptian media mogul defends hijab comment
Terrorist Campaign Against Hijab