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Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality

Naomi Wolf

A woman swathed in black to her ankles, wearing a headscarf or a full
chador, walks down a European or North American street, surrounded by
other women in halter tops, miniskirts and short shorts. She passes
under immense billboards on which other women swoon in sexual ecstasy,
cavort in lingerie or simply stretch out languorously, almost fully
naked. Could this image be any more iconic of the discomfort the West
has with the social mores of Islam, and vice versa?

Ideological battles are often waged with women's bodies as their
emblems, and
Western Islamophobia is no exception. When France banned
headscarves in schools, it used the hijab as a proxy for Western
values in general, including the appropriate status of women. When
Americans were being prepared for the invasion of
Afghanistan , the
Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women;
when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that
women had taken off their scarves.

But 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.

Outside the walls of the typical Muslim households that I visited in
Morocco , Jordan , and Egypt , all was demureness and propriety. But
inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as
women anywhere in the world.

At home, in the context of marital intimacy,
Victoria 's Secret,
elegant fashion and skin care lotions abounded. The bridal videos that
I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part
of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for
her bridegroom, suggested that sensuality was not alien to Muslim
women. Rather, pleasure and sexuality, both male and female, should
not be displayed promiscuously - and possibly destructively - for all
to see.

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated
by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated
from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely
sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: "When I
wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always
measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which
are hard to live up to - and even harder as you get older, not to
mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I
wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not
an object; I feel respected." This may not be expressed in a
traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognisably
Western feminist set of feelings.

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.

Nor are Muslim women alone. The Western Christian tradition portrays
all sexuality, even married sexuality, as sinful. Islam and Judaism
never had that same kind of mind-body split. So, in both cultures,
sexuality channeled into marriage and family life is seen as a source
of great blessing, sanctioned by God.

This may explain why both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women not only
describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and
covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in
their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept
private and directed in ways seen as sacred - and when one's husband
isn't seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long - one
can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador
comes off in the the home.

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.

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.

Naomi Wolf is the author, most recently, of The End Of America: Letter
Of Warning To A Young Patriot and the upcoming Give Me Liberty : How To
Become An American Revolutionary, and is co-founder of the American
Freedom Campaign, a
US democracy movement.

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