The “Freed” Virgin: A Comparison between Western and Islamic Women
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel, and planned on reading her other book, The Caged Virgin. Well, I’ve finally read The Caged Virgin and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t quite as engaging as her autobiography and I feel as though she could have done some deeper analysis. Or perhaps her book just left me asking more questions, which very well may have been its point. Another possibility is that her essays contained in The Caged Virgin are aimed at Danish people and politicians and Muslim people and immigrants who were already more aware of the issues she was addressing than I am.
Anyway, her discussion of the role of women in Islamic societies was a thought-provoking one. As I read it, I found myself comparing and contrasting the roles of women in Islamic societies to those of women in the West. I should probably say right now that in my own discussion, I plan to focus primarily on the oppression of Western women that is still sadly present in our society. However, in doing so, I in no way mean to take away from the suffering and hardship that women in Islamic societies face. I also in no way mean to ditract from the suffering that Hirsi Ali herself has overcome. I encourage you to visit her website’s foundation here and learn more about her cause.
Have I sufficiently ensured that I won’t offend anyone I don’t want to offend? Good! Here we go, then. In her discussion of women in Islamic societies, Hirsi Ali emphasizes the extreme measures taken to repress women. Some of the most obvious signs of this repression are countries in which it is madatory that women wear headscarves or even hijabs and jilbabs. There has even been some debate about this issue in the Western world when France outlawed hijabs worn in public. One of the less visible but certainly more serious measures is the “circumcision” of women. (I say “circumcision” because the procedure really isn’t comparible to a male circumcision. The process involves cutting off a girl’s clitoris and scraping away her labia and then sewing them shut. Essentially, as I understand the procedure, the girl is left with no outer genitalia and painkillers are not administered.) The health problems that these procedures can cause are numerous and sometimes life-threatening, especially in third-world countries where adequate medical care may not be readily available and when it is, it is expensive. (I feel I should point out here that there is nothing in Islam that commands female “circumcision.” The procedure dates back to cultural traditions that were in place long before Islam reached Africa. However, the religion and the tradition were woven together so that now religious ideas are used to justify the practice. This does not need to continue, and Muslims can continue to pratice their religion in a way that does not justify female genital mutilation, but for this to happen, as Hirsi Ali says, Muslims will need to look at the values that their religion idealizes, like charity and compassion, and then examine how Islam is sometimes practiced in reality.)
So, why should Islamic societies go to such extremes to ensure that women are covered and sewn shut? Well, part of the answer lies in how these societies view female sexuality. I was shocked when I read passages in Infidel in which Hirsi Ali recounts what she was told as a child about her sexuality and femininity. In extremist Islamic societies, a woman is told that even the slightest eye contact with a man can make him mad with desire. The merest suggestion of her skin can drive him into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. Teachers even went so far as to tell Hirsi Ali that if women were uncovered, society would not be able to function because men wouldn’t be able to think about anything but sex.
Obviously, this view is very different from the Western view of women and their sexuality. The biggest difference that I noticed is that Western men are expected to get over themselves and have some self-control. But therer’s another difference that’s a bit more subtle. As I was reading Hirsi Ali’s account of how female sexuality and desirablity was taught to her, I was surprised that women were taught that they were desirable to begin with! Now, this is not the kind of desirablity that women should be taught that they have. It’s terrifying to think that men are justified in leering at you as you walk down the street. It’s horrifying to feel that it is your fault if you are raped because men have no self-control at all. Such a view, I would imagine, could make women feel as though their bodies are dangerous to them and to the whole of society. Add this to the fact that women’s bodies must always be covered, and I’m sure that women feel as though there is something inherently wrong with their bodies and their sexuality.
But how does this compare to the view of Western women’s sexuality and feminimity? Well, as I said, one of the differences that I noticed was that women were told that they were desirable. I don’t think that Western women get quite this same message. We are also told that our bodies are wrong, but in a completely different kind of way. In fact, we are given the opposite message–we are told that our bodies are completely undesirable. Or rather, they are only desirable if they conform to the image that is presented to us as beautiful, and even the models who present this image to us don’t live up to it, because creating this image involves computer editing. Instead of being told that we are wanted, Western women are told that we are disgusting. Large women and tall women feel as though they appear too intimidating and unfeminine. Smaller women feel as though their breasts are not large enough or their bodies are too boyish. Girls with large breasts feel freakish. The majority of women in the Western world are dissatisfied with their bodies.
No, this is not as drastically serious as female mutliation, although its effects may be similiar. One of the reasons that female “circumcisions” are performed is to cut off a girl’s desire for sex. Telling a woman that she is physically unattractive seems to do the same thing. Based on statistics that I’ve read, women who feel physically unattractive do not have a very strong sex drive. Feeling that they are ugly makes women inhibited and self-conscious when they are having sex. It keeps them from enjoying sex. It makes them feel as though sex is something that another person is graciously bestowing upon them, so they shouldn’t enjoy it and they shouldn’t ask for anything during it.
Granted, one could point out here that feeling ugly is vastly different from female genital mutliation, which makes intercourse unbearably painful for many women. As I said before, I’m not trying to detract from the suffering that these women experience. I’m just trying to use then as a counterpoint to the oppression that Western women face, which might not be as severe but is still present.
Though Western women are certainly more liberated than women in other cultures, this standard of beauty that Western culture forces upon women still keeps them repressed. It acts much like a hijab in the sense that it inhibits women’s expression of their sexuality. It keeps them from seeing themselves as sexual beings, because no matter how they actually look, they are taught that they are physically unattractive and undesirable. This way of thinking can even repress women’s sex drives. Essentially, this view creates a buffer between women and the rest of the world. It keeps them from fully experiencing their sexuality and, if we give any value to women’s personal accounts, it even prevents them from living life as fully as they could. (“I’ll take dancing classes after I lose thirty pounds.” “I need to lose weight before the wedding!” “I should be grateful that my boyfriend is willing to stay with someone who looks like me.”)
This view also places a buffer between women and men, much like the extremist Muslim dictum that women must not socialized with men outside their family. This keeps men and women from interacting with each other, so when they marry, they simply don’t know how to communicate with each other. Western standards of beauty that inhibit women’s sexuality also function in a similiar way. Not only do they make women less sexually demanding and confident but they also prevent women and men from communicating with each other as well as they could. Consider this scenario: A nice, decent man is in love with a wonderful woman and he thinks that she is beautiful. He tells her this, but she does not believe him because she cannot imagine how anyone can see her about beautiful because she does not live up to Western standards of beauty. This causes her to doubt him and his feelings for her and makes her insecure in their relationship. This also makes the man feel hurt because she is, in a way, rejecting him and his feelings for her.
To put it another way: I once had a conversation with a male friend about how men are insecure that their penises are not big enough to satisfy their girlfriends. No matter how many times I told him, “But most women really don’t care!” he didn’t believe me. The conversation continued, and somehow ended up being about how most women are insecure that they are not thin enough to satisfy their boyfriends. No matter how many times he told me, “Guys really don’t care!” I didn’t believe him. Obviously, there’s a connection there–both sexes are insecure that a certain physical characteristic will not please their partners, even though their partners claim that they are not interested in judging that physical characteristic. I feel like this issue could be a potential springboard for women and men to start a dialogue about physical attractiveness in our culture and what women and men really find attractive in partners, but as far as I can tell, such a dialogue has not happened yet. (In a relevant tangent: such a dialogue would probably involve a discussion of what our society presents as physically attractive and necessary in order to attract a partner. This could then be contrasted with what men and women actually find attractive in a partner. They could then examine why society’s presentation of attractiveness is so different from what real people actually find attractive. They could then deconstruct society’s view of what is attractive and find ways to tear down the stereotypes of what men and women want in a partner. Then those stereotypes could be replaced with views of what is attractive that are more representative, and hopefully broader and more inclusive, view of what men and women actually find attractive.) Until such a dialogue does occur, communication between men and women will be frustrated and inhibited by our society’s standards of beauty.
So, does the Westernn standard of beauty act as a sort of hijab to cloak women’s sexuality and their empowerment? Yes. It represses women’s sexuality and confidence and it creates a communication barrier between men and women. Is this repression of women as serious as the repression practiced in extremist Muslim countries? No, but it is spreading to these places. Women all over the world, even in the third world, are being presented with the Western image of beauty, and they want to resemble it. (For instance, women in Iran will smash their noses in order to make them look smaller.) This is certainly a form of colonialism, but it is also a form of sexism. These images are not empowering women. If anything, they are making them less empowered. Instead of freeing them from the confines that their societies place upon them and their sexuality and their agency, these images are burdening them even more. There is too much repression of women in the world, and while Western women may be more liberated than other women, the ways in which Western women are still repressed are spreading all over the world.
Instead of contributing to the repression of women, the West (and the whole world, really) needs to build women’s confidence and sense of agency. Perhaps these ideas, and not ideas about body image, will spread and allow women to think critically about their societies and religions and reshape them in ways that empower women. If women can rethink their roles in society and religion in such a way as to emphasize the virtues of these societies and institutions (such as the empahsis on compassion within Islam) and do away with the things that contradict those virtues (such as female genital mutliation, not granting women a choice to wear a hijab or not) then the society and the religion will be strengthened as well as the position of women.