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Feminism colluding with religion to manage men's sexual desire


Hanna Yusuf On a recent overseas trip I spent a night at a beach resort frequented by Saudi Arabians. Families frolicked in the swimming pool, cooling themselves off in the 36-degree heat and suffocating humidity.

The men and children were dressed in swimming costumes, their fleshy bodies on full display. The women sat on benches beneath pitch-black burkas – a colour guaranteed to attract and retain heat; the only part of them that could be discerned was their eyes, expressionless in the absence of a supporting facial structure.

It was a disturbing sight in the context of all that sand and sun and happy, smiling, splashing bodies. What sort of husband takes his family to a beach resort and commits his wife to a uniform of such discomfort and exclusion, I wondered?

What kind of man exposes his own body to the watching world, yet doesn’t question his wife’s segregation from it? Were there any strict Muslim men here who had worn the burka themselves for any length of time in an effort to understand the sort of purgatory their religion was imposing on their wives? And if a wife was to be cocooned within a burka so as not to tempt the men around her, surely her husband should be similarly quarantined from temptation, from all those western women lounging around in bikinis? A beach resort couldn’t possibly be the place for them.  

This acceptance among many Muslim men and women of restrictive Islamic clothing is a conundrum that was raised again recently when The Guardian published a video in which British student Hanna Yusuf (pictured) declared her hijab to be not an instrument of oppression but rather a feminist statement. 'In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion?' Yusuf enquired.

The statement is logically flawed, since reducing a woman to her sexual allure is precisely what the hijab does: it fetishises her hair and holds her responsible for obscuring it – a practice that has the very effect of objectifying it, though it lies beneath a piece of cloth.

Yusuf doesn’t explain why women’s hair is so obscene in the first place, why it would drive men wild if left uncovered, and why men’s hair doesn’t have the same effect on women. She doesn’t clarify how it is that Muslim men living in western countries aren’t driven into a lustful frenzy each day by the hordes of uncovered women roaming the streets. And she fails to address a burning question that any woman calling herself a feminist should pose: why is it that while Muslim women cover up, it's less common for husbands to abide by any dress code that might make them less obvious or attractive to women? Could it just be that Islam – like so many other ideologies – regards men as sexual creatures and women as physically inert?

Feminists the world over already reject the hyper-sexualisation of women and girls in western media – and they do so without the aid of headscarves. They recognise that the gross exploitation of women’s bodies is not solved by hiding them, but by putting a stop to that exploitation. And they understand that especially in extremes – naked or covered, exhibitionist or modest – women’s status as sex objects is reinforced and their accountability cemented. It doesn’t matter whether they undergo surgery to attain the type of bodies men apparently prefer, wear short skirts that might 'provoke' rape, or conceal themselves so as to 'dampen' male desire: it is women who are held responsible for the regulation of men’s sexual impulses.

For many Muslim women living in tolerant democracies, the choice to wear Islamic clothing is exactly that – a choice, and one to which they are entitled. But even when viewed within a western paradigm, away from the broader global context in which Muslim women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia and girls are sold as sex slaves in Syria and genitally mutilated in Africa and the Middle East (and even, sometimes, in western countries), Yusuf’s claim to feminism is naïve and troubling. When anything from pole dancing to hijab-wearing is described as a feminist act, it is done so by women who are wilfully twisting the ideology in order to justify their efforts to attract or appease men.

Feminists should resist such an incursion with strong rebuttals by identifying Yusuf’s dress code for what it is: a religious tradition devised by men and applied to women, much like the sheitels worn by Orthodox Jews, the contraception that’s still largely discouraged among Catholics – of whom women, especially those in developing countries, bear the physical burden, the polygamous marriages into which Mormon women are sometimes still co-opted.

Choice, when it colludes with religion to force women to manage men’s sexual desire, cannot be ascribed to a movement whose very purpose is the attainment of gender equality. If Yusuf wants to make a truly radical feminist choice, she should lobby for the transformation of her faith into one in which men and women are judged equally on the manner of their dress and the supposed sinfulness of their flesh.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer who tweets @zizzyballord.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Islam, feminism, ideology, dress, burqa



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Existing comments

I couldn't agree more! On my first day in Morocco last year, in Casablanca, a family came into breakfast – dad in shorts and t-shirt, daughter in light summer dress ... it was pretty warm already, even at breakfast time. Then there was mum – totally invisible, not the tiniest bit of human being in sight, large, very glasses covering her eyes, gloves covering her hands, dress scraping the floor so if there was a flick of fabric her feet and ankles would still be covered. And she ate breakfast like that!! With gloved hands, she ate, amongst other things, sticky French pastries, shuffling food into her mouth under her veil. She didn't drink. There was absolutely nothing dignified in it. All I can say is, they must have been very well off – she would have to go through many pairs of gloves per day! But really, and more importantly, her husband was saying to her: “I'm your husband and I love you [presumably!], but I'm not going to control myself when any other women are around so they all had better cover up. And because all men are like me, you had better cover up too.” Mysogyny to the core. That said, I have no quarrel with how Muslim women dress “except”, if they live in Australia, they should not cover their faces. In Muslim countries there are certain cultural norms “westerners” are expected to abide by. I see no reason why the reverse should not be true. And I must admit, it amuses me to see “modestly” dressed young Muslim women with their headscarves – wearing the same spray-on jeans as their “western” counterparts. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder?

Margaret | 02 July 2015  

There has surely to be a happy middle ground between extremes even in a feminist optic: feminism also needs the restraint of basic modesty

Father John George | 03 July 2015  

I noticed that the email blurb for the article is not accurate: Feminism colluding with religion to manage men's sexual desire ...Still, I guess it sparked my curiosity enough to read the article. I agree that all kinds of activities and traditions are falsely described as feminist acts. Germaine Greer wrote an interesting book called "Sex and Destiny" which I read many years ago. She explains how traditions, such as veiling, create environments in which male sexuality is culturally-magnified for the purposes of virility and, ergo, fertility and patriarchy. As the article points out, male sexuality isn't really so all-powerful that men will be driven to a frenzy by the sight of female hair, but cultures who pretend that it is enhance the mystique of the male. To my (possibly simplistic mind), patriarchy and patriarchal religions are a genetic throwback to the primate and the need for an alpha-male. I believe it's in our DNA. Interesting, the image of half-naked men and children frolicking...the image, itself, is very simian. Maybe it's time we all challenged the anachronistic grey-back.

Philomena | 03 July 2015  

All I can say is "Hear! Hear!"

Janice Dudley | 03 July 2015  

stunning! And spot on :)

nimmi | 03 July 2015  

Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms. George Eliot

AO | 03 July 2015  

Thank you for such a logical, well expressed article.

Jane | 03 July 2015  

Just as well the Catholic Church has done away with those habits and veils. What, some orders haven't?

Ross | 03 July 2015  

This is one of many areas where the left has lost their nerve. The left should be pushing us away from these strange and outdated cultural practices. This is what they used to do. They would demand that we not place strictures on women and that women should be able to be free and open. The head scarve hides a woman's identity, belittles her and reduces her to a featureless non-person. The left won't oppose this because I suspect they have some fantasy about western oppression, the means any cultural practice, no matter how ridiculous is bizarre is ok as long as it is not a western one.

Michael | 03 July 2015  

I am appalled by this article. The author clearly has no knowledge of Islam, nor respect for the free choices made daily by millions of Muslim women. It is not 'men' who 'impose' veiling in Islam, but the revelation of Almighty God, in Muslim belief. No man has the right in Islam to impose veiling on women; like prayer (also an obligation in Islam), veiling only has religious merit in Islam if freely decided upon by the women who do it.

The author accords no agency to Muslim women whatsoever. Muslim women decide to veil, and no one in Australia has the right to force them either to veil or unveil.

Nor has anyone (especially a non-Muslim) the right to 'reform'
a Divinely revealed religion — although the Federal Government has been attempting to do just this for almost a decade and a half.

I wonder whether 'Catherine Marshall' is not really a pen-name for Tony Abbott? Certainly, this prejudicial piece stands in sharp contrast to Father Andrew Hamilton's sensitive and well researched pieces on related subjects.

Paul White | 03 July 2015  

I find that people who were taught by, or remember, Catholic nuns in the sixties wearing full length black dresses, bibs, veils and wimples are not confronted by, or object to, Muslim women wearing burkas. While I realize the comparison is not exactly the same, we should not forget that nuns wore outfits that restricted their movements and their comfort in hot weather. Importantly, the nuns, like the Muslim women, made a choice based on their religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds. Whether or not we agree with this way of dressing, the important thing, I believe, is to respect the women involved. It is also pertinent to remember that Catholic nuns dressed that way for centuries and that change, when it eventually came, was gradual and evolved over decades.

Ellen | 03 July 2015  

Well said Paul ( am hoping my equally appalled comment overnight at the same article was not actually rejected by ES as 'disrespectful') Just as men do not have the right to order women to wear the veil, so called feminists do not have the right to order (either directly or indirectly) that women do not wear it. My respect goes to all feminists who affirm that they will not be lectured.Not now.Not ever.And certainly not by another woman.

margaret | 03 July 2015  

Paul, yes no-one should force anyone to do anything. But people have the right to say something is ridiculous if they have good reason for thinking so. Head scarves are ridiculous and not in accordance with the western principles that I think are valuable and positive. And you are dead wrong when you say that no-one has "(especially a non-Muslim) the right to 'reform' a Divinely revealed religion". Western principles of freedom of thought and expression give me every right to help you reform your religion by telling you exactly what I think of it. If you think just because you believe in Allah and the principles of Islam, you can tell me not to criticise your religion, you are truly a dangerous person.

Michael | 03 July 2015  

One of the things that have made western countries strong and pleasant places to live in, is that I can criticise anything I think is bad, ridiculous, stupid or for any other reason. That way, people are encouraged to examine their own ideas in ways that they would not otherwise have thought of. Then, if the are now fully informed and their RATIONAL mind tells them to either retain or abandon their ideas, they are fully FREE and ABLE to do so. If we are not free to speak our minds we are more likely to believe things that are bad for us or bad for society. Paul, I have every right to criticise Islam. That is my right as a member of a free western society. In fact, I am better able to criticise Islam than the faithful Muslims, because I have an external perspective. I am absolutely outraged that you think I cannot criticise Islam because I am not Muslim. Part of the reason that Christianity was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages was because of the non-faithful pointed to the hypocrisy and absurdity of much of their principles.

Michael | 03 July 2015  

Paul's suggestion that Muslim women have as much agency and freedom of action as fully westernised women is naive. Full agency and freedom of choice is fostered by the family, the culture and the education system. People need to be taught how to think and to be open to the idea that they might be wrong. The majority of Muslim women have been told by their family and their Imams to follow whatever interpretation of Islam has been dictated to them. They are not told to question and think. Only to accept religious authority.

Michael | 03 July 2015  

Paul, when I see a 5 year old girl with her face and / or head covered with a scarf because she happens to be born to Muslim parents, she must have full agency right? As I would define it, that is child abuse.

Michael | 03 July 2015  

"It is not 'men' who 'impose' veiling in Islam, but the revelation of Almighty God". Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world, and when I lived there, I was able to go to the swimming pool with the girls and guys from work - they were in their early twenties. When I went back ten years later, one of the girls, now in her 30s was wearing the full religious garb and I asked her why. She said that it was difficult being unmarried at her age and men said nasty things to her, like, that she must be not a virgin because no man would marry her, maybe she was a prostitute etc. And the only way out of that was to be seen as super-observant and wear the outfit etc. So I don't assume that all women wearing the outfit are doing it because of Almighty God.

Russell | 03 July 2015  

Great article. I know that people want to defend Muslim women's choice to veil and cover their hair. However you cannot ignore the source of this practice. Veiling and total covering is NOT in the Qur'an. Modesty, yes - but not the total covering. You have to have visited or lived in a country where the veil is compulsory to understand that this process physically 'erases' women, not something that the Qur'an does since it addresses male and female believers equally and explicitly. I feel badly that the headline of the article is so sensationalist - the piece is great. Don't give these oppressive patriarchies a 'pass' with cultural relativism. They crossed the line long ago and we have to stand up and say enough.

KHC | 03 July 2015  

?? Catherine infers a religious principle which doesn't exist and then casually assigns it to the pictured hijab wearer. The reason "Yusuf doesn’t explain why women’s hair is so obscene" is probably because she doesn't hold that view. And the bizarre lamenting over why men are not subject to precisely equal dress standards belies a barely credible ignorance of physical gender characteristics and the psychosexual reality that it is overwhelmingly men who are stimulated by visual images. The porn industry is a thriving testament to this. In fact in the Quran it is men who are addressed FIRST before women - "Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do."(24:31). Followed by women: "And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms".(24:32)

"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are" - Anais Nin

Rashid.M | 04 July 2015  

What happened to women's dress when the taliban took control of Afghanistan, or following the Iranian revolution? Were not women forced to wear 'Islamic dress'?

Russell | 04 July 2015  

I must beg to differ Catherine Marshall. I think the very last thing middle eastern feminists need to hear is what white western women think of their dress, along side what men think of what they wear it is entirely contrary to allowing these women to choose for themselves their mode of dress. middle eastern feminists have been divided on the issue of whether to veil or unveil since 1920s. I think it an issue for them to sort out not their caucasian sisters. Many feminists have been raging at those first Turkish feminists who returned from American Womens Liberation conferences and unveiled demanding this the progressive western way. They saw this as just the start of western capitalist paternalistic empiricism being forced on their culture.Current feminists argue that veiling/covering in their culture allows !)Women to be educated and participate in classes, 20 women to be able to stand beside men in any field in the workforce. They state until ALL women are able to freely be involved in education they will happily wear their veil and when all women in their societies and cultures can be freely educated THEN and only then will they decide whether they wish to continue veiling because then it will be their TRUE choice…not the choice of men from the middle eastern nor men from the west not white feminists. Their choice.

Christina Coombe | 05 July 2015  

The comments about the British woman are patronising and typical of western opinion. In my experience of meeting a few young muslim women in Melbourne, the wearing of the hijab and head scarves is a fashion statement rather than a feminist statement. Also, in my travel experiences in places such as Egypt and Jordan and the international airports in Singapore and Dubai, I have seen very few women wearing the burqa and they have mostly been in 5 star hotels, which makes me think that most of these women are married to wealthy tyrannical men who treat their wives as chattels and slaves. In the streets of Cairo in Egypt most of the younger women do not wear head scarves and middle age women wear colourful head scarves which do not cover their face. I also saw a number of fashion shops with displays of very colourful head scarves. The real issue for women around the world, including places such as Australia and America, is the dominance of masculine philosophy and discrimination against women. In Australia this masculine dominant philosophy is manifested in a culture of domestic violence and the continued discrimination against women for senior management positions.

Mark Doyle | 05 July 2015  

Spot on: no matter what is the justification, it is patriarchal male cruelty to women. As a man, I do not understand how some women agrees and even defends it.

Barbaros Oner | 22 July 2015  

I usually find value in nearly all of Eureka Street's articles but this one is so poorly researched that it really should not have been published. Saudi women do not wear burqas. The black cloak worn in Saudi is an abaya, the headscarf a hijab and face veil a niqab. Marshall fails to understand that men in Saudi must also dress modestly. Most men dress in all white and women in all black. Devout men wear their thobes (white gown) short (ankle length) as Mohammed did not believe that clothing should be dragged through the sand. To suggest that Saudi women or men wear this clothing to appease one another is totally off the mark. This clothing is for the public and not what is worn amongst family. At quick trip to any mall in Saudi demonstrates that Saudi women wear what is fashionable within their class, generation and/or tribe from the long colourful tribal dresses to upmarket high street fashion under their abayas. It is patently clear to me that Marshall has never set foot in Saudi nor has she studied the rudiments of post-colonial feminism but instead is basing her entire analysis on the mores of white middle-class Western feminism. This would be like suggesting that all Catholic women are oppressed and have no possibility for self-determination because the Pope is a man. P

Edwina | 25 July 2015  

[quote] In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion? [/quote] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1897150.Thinking_with_Concepts

donald cameron | 01 August 2015  

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