Modesty Discourse, Women, and Bodily Entitlement

Dear fellow Muslims,

I am TIRED. Tired, tired, tired. Actually, sick and tired, of the modesty discourse within our Muslim communities. Like, very effing tired of it. It is dehumanizing, it is objectifying, and it is dangerous for women. And I need to rant.

But before I move on, I want to clarify two points.

First, that I am speaking of modesty discourses, or the messages surrounding modesty that are commonly promoted and believed in Muslim communities, and not women’s individuals choices to dress modestly. Women choose to dress modestly for a variety of reasons, including spiritual, personal, etc. This is not about them.

Second, the arguments I raise here are not in the least new. In fact, what I speak of is what many feminists in Canada, the US, etc. speak about today. None of this is specific to the Muslim community. All I am saying is that the misogyny and patriarchal oppression we see in mainstream Canadian and other Western societies is the same we see in Muslim communities, just expressed in different ways. Body policing, body shaming, and control of women’s bodies are universal phenomenon, as is the assumption that women are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and behaviours. (Skim through any feminist blog and you will read countless examples.) And why wouldn’t Muslims be the same as others. We ALL live in patriarchal societies. All societies (with the exception of some small tribal societies here and there) oppress and objectify women. So non-Muslims need not get all high and mighty about this.

Alright, now on to my rant.

What is modesty for Muslims? Who defines it? Why is it valued so much?

All Muslim women know how MASSIVE an emphasis is placed on Muslim women’s clothing within Muslim communities. There have been khutbahs (delivered by men) about it, books written (by men) about it, pamphlets distributed (by men) on the topic, lectures delivered (by men…and parents) to women on how important it is for a Muslim woman to cover herself, hide her feminine curves. Nay, how it is her ISLAMIC DUTY to cover her body.

And it’s not only to cover our bodies, but lower our voices, diminish our perfumes, wear soundless (or quiet) jewellery, etc. In other words, we must do anything we can to make sure men do not notice us and are not turned on by us. Because, you know, men get erections at the site of a woman’s stray hair, from a whiff of a woman’s perfume, or from the clanking of a woman’s bangles. Must be hard to live like that…..poor things (sorry for the blunt words but that’s basically what we’re talking about, no?).

But who decided THIS was modesty? There is no doubt that modesty is an important aspect of Islam. But as Muslims we are supposed to be modest in all aspects of our lives, not just our clothes. We are not supposed to show off our money, our knowledge, our abilities, etc. We are always supposed to be humble and treat everyone equally. That is why we value modesty, in general – it is meant to create egalitarianism. It is meant to ensure that we are not making others feel inferior to us in any way.

Yet, the general modesty discourse in Muslim communities is almost exclusively in reference to women’s bodies and clothing. It is almost always about how much skin a woman shows and about enticing/distracting men. After all, when was the last time Muslim community leaders policed men wearing Movado watches, Gucci shoes, or Armani suits? When was the last time Muslim men were told not to show off their wealth by driving to Eid prayer in their BMWs and Mercedes? Or when was the last time an Uncle at the mosque went around telling all the doctors not to congregate together with their noses up in the air, or all the engineers to not talk down to the mechanics and restaurant servers? Those are surely very immodest acts,  acts that are sure to fuel inequality and make others feel inferior (unlike women showing some skin), yet men are NEVER policed for them.

We know that men have defined the modern incarnation of modesty. Men, interpreting Islamic texts, have defined everything for us, including what it means to be modest. Men who live in a patriarchal society have a vested interest in controlling and oppressing women. An agenda, if you will. The men who have interpreted the Islamic texts have all done so from a patriarchal perch. Their agenda (to make sure their power over women is not diminished) must be taken into account when we critically examine how they defined modesty for us.

And critically examine it we must because it is harmful to women.

The modern discourse of modesty means a woman covered from head to toe. It is rigidly defined and it is tied intimately to sexuality. A “moral” Muslim woman, we are told, will cover herself in a particular way. A “good” Muslim woman will not show her curves or her skin (most of it at least). Because an uncovered Muslim woman is too sexually enticing to men. (What about the menz???) At best she will distract him from his duties. At worst she will “make” him rape her. Therefore, those who are not covered (in very rigid ways) are to be reminded of their unIslamic behaviour (I’ve gotten a few of those lectures myself). They are to be enlightened of their Islamic duty (we’re told it’s to God, but I think it’s to men) to cover and how they are causing erections in men all over the place (sorry, again, but how else can I say it?). And if they continue to remain uncovered then they are choosing to be sexually immoral and purposely going against Islam. Therefore, they are not to be respected.

A few years ago when Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, posed nude-ish for Indian FHM magazine, many Pakistanis online were outraged (not all, just many). And not because she appeared to be catering to the objectifying (and exoticizing) male gaze (a criticism I can get behind). They blamed her (as many do with other Pakistani models and actresses who show some skin) for the moral downfall of Pakistan. Not the mass corruption in the government and judiciary, not the killing of Ahmadi Muslims, not the celebration of murderers, not the high levels of violence against women. No, women showing skin is the moral downfall of the country. It appeared that Veena Malik deserved less respect than the men who are literally destroying the country.

Veena-Malik

Veena Malik

We all know what happens when a woman is seen as unworthy of respect (which is pretty much the norm in any patriarchal society). She is seen as an object, dehumanized. The vast majority of women have experienced the resulting sexual harassment/abuse. Catcalling, whistling, lewd comments, touching on the subway, sexual harassment at work, etc. The list is very long. (I encourage readers to check out #firstharassed on Twitter. Countless stories of girls and women being sexually harassed and assaulted, but I give a trigger warning.) Regardless of modesty discourses, women’s bodies are seen as public property (because we’re things, not people) to which men are entitled – entitled to comment on, entitled to touch, entitled to violate. Patriarchy teaches us that. Add to that a religious modesty discourse and the stakes are raised higher. Women’s bodies now become a moral playground for men. A woman’s body is not only read as public property to which men are entitled, but also a religious statement for which men can criticize and judge her. They can justify their entitlement through self-righteous religious judgement.

“Hey, she’s not dressed “modestly”, which means she’s not religious, which means she’ll sleep with me, which means she’s slutty, which means I can make comments on her body and she’ll like it.”

What I’m saying is that the most common modesty discourse we see flowing through Muslim communities all around the world, allows men to religiously justify their policing and sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Even without religion patriarchy allows men this control. We don’t need men’s misogynistic interpretations of Islam entrenching that oppression further. Instead of using religion strengthen an oppressive discourse, we should use religion to fight it, resist the objectification of women, and eliminate men’s sense of entitlement to our bodies.

On Consent and Coercion

The following is written by someone who would like to remain anonymous. Thank you for sharing. 

The pressure to get married can be intense. I come from a culture in which early 20s is the ideal time to get married. I rarely felt any pressure to get married at that time, however, as I was focused on my education. But when I got to my late 20s, and went away to graduate school, that pressure formed over me like a dark, anxiety-producing cloud. A cloud that kept reminding me of how I was getting older, how I needed to settle down soon, of how marriage was an important part of being a Muslim.

Before this time in my life I had only dated on guy. Secretly. Despite that I knew nothing of how to date. I was never given any talks about how to deal with men in dating situations. I had been given plenty of talks about how I was not allowed to date, a rule I followed for most of my life. But I was never taught how to negotiate a romantic (or potentially romantic) encounter. I really wish I had.

In my anxious search for a husband I spent hours meeting Muslim men online. I was very naive. I had had few interactions with Muslim men outside my family and had these strange assumptions that all Muslim men would be respectful. Many were. But many weren’t. Many were right out vulgar or sleazy. But I guess that’s what online anonymity brings out in men, and not just Muslim men.

Most of my encounters with Muslim men remained online. But there were a few I met in person, some of whom I wished had never come into my life.

The first man I met in person was a bit older but a devout Muslim. Apparently he had spent his younger life sleeping around, drinking, etc. Basically doing all those things we’re told not to do. Therefore, at this point in his life he appeared to be making amends with God, in the way he thought he was supposed to (or perhaps told to). We had spent months talking through email and phone calls. He seemed quite nice. He even seemed quite nice in person, for the first little while. But then, it became clear, that he was a sexually coercive person.

“But I thought you said he was a devout Muslim”, you might say. In his head, he was. But his one weakness, he told me, was that he couldn’t control his sexual urges. He said he was working on it, and wanted my help. But over the course of the time we dated, he coerced me into having sex with him. Multiple times I made it clear I didn’t want to, but each time he got his way. I thought that if I didn’t he wouldn’t want to marry me. And because I was getting older I would lose my chance of getting married. I thought that if I didn’t let him have his way, I would be alone forever. But I didn’t realize how I was hurting myself with this way of thinking until years later. So much so that even after I broke things off with him I had a similar encounter with another Muslim man a year or so later, where my fear of not finding a husband allowed me to once again be coerced into a sexual act. Luckily, I only saw that man once.

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After these two encounters I felt immense shame. How could I have let myself get coerced like that? It seemed my desperation to get married, created by the pressures around me, allowed me to think that my acquiescence would nab me a husband. At that time I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t want such a man as my husband. I just needed to get married.

I am happily married now to a wonderful Muslim man. And in my search for a husband I did meet other good Muslim men. But I so, so, so wish I had been taught about issues of sexual coercion and consent when I was younger.  I so wish I had been warned of the men, including Muslim men (because we’re warned lots about non-Muslim men), who would try to sweet talk me into getting their way. I wish someone had warned me of the men, once again including Muslim men, who would exploit my insecurities to get their way.

Today, I refuse to feel the shame and guilt I used to feel. I am very comfortable placing the blame on those men who knew exactly what they were doing and exactly how much they were hurting me, and most likely other women as well. I feel anger toward them, but am perfectly comfortable with that anger because I know it is justified. They deserve my hate and my anger.

It should go without saying but sex should always be consensual. In my mind, that’s more important than who we have sex with. Our communities need to begin having conversations around consent and coercion and stop spending so much energy on who we have sex with. I really wish I had learned more about consent and coercion when I was younger.

My Eighth Summer

This conversation is too important not to have so I’m sharing this brave post. For too long such issues have been brushed under the rug in our communities but we need to talk about it. Thank you to the brilliant and brave author.

Cross-posted from Muslim Sistah.

(Note: Trigger warning)

Once upon a time, we were all children. I’m sure that for the most part, we look back to our childhoods with great fondness. I too was once eight years old. There are many times when I re-experience a set of events that happened overseas during the summer of my eighth year. I am not fond of these memories but couldn’t make sense of why until a year and a half ago.

I knew before this point that the memories were definitely not positive. I have very strong emotions tied to what I can recall of what happened to me. My body becomes very tense and I want to curl up into a ball and protect myself – to create a cocoon or layer of armour around me. Stress and anxiety levels start to rise, and I become incredibly agitated.
And when I’m asked to keep a family member in my prayers, who died a year after giving me these memories, I flinch and can feel my jaw tighten as a result of hearing his name. There used to be a picture of him in my parent’s house and to this day, I still cannot look at it. I feel angry and disgusted at these reminders of him. I was nine years old when I learned that he had passed away and rather than feel upset, I felt relieved because I knew he could no longer hurt me.
Yet I didn’t know why until recently.
It was only when I started to work in the area of child sexual abuse education that things started to click. Even then, it took me a while to reconcile what I was learning with my own experiences. I was well aware that so much of what I had been experiencing up until that point – the emotions, tension, stress, strong selective memories around an event that I would label as “traumatic”, and feeling triggered – finally made sense. But I continued to struggle with what had happened to me and was terrified to label it as sexual abuse.
But it was.
Upon coming to this realization, I sat down with my now ex-husband and attempted to tell him what had happened to me. I had to tell him. He was my husband and he had to know what I was going through – I needed his support and needed him to be there for me. There were times in our marriage when he would trigger me and as much as I tried to stop this from happening, my brain wouldn’t let me. The only way this would stop is if we worked together to figure out ways in which I could control or calm down the triggering, with the help of a counsellor I had started to see.
But there wasn’t any support or understanding from his end. The first words out of his mouth, somewhat frustratingly, were “but you were eight years old, can’t you get over it?”
In my desperation for him to understand how trauma impacts the brain and body, I tried to explain why I was dealing with this, in between bouts of tears at his lack of compassion. I had expected him to act as my protector, to empathize with me, and to say that he would do whatever it would take for us to get through this. I expected him to feel anger at the man who had exerted this control and trauma on an eight-year old girl. That this trauma I hadn’t chosen to be inflicted upon me wasn’t my own battle to fight. But in his eyes, it was. And he didn’t understand why it had taken me so long to “tell him” this news.
That he wished he had known about this before he had married me.
While my ex-husband and I faced many issues that eventually led to our divorce, it was difficult not to blame myself and my trauma as being the “final nail in the coffin.” I carried a lot of guilt for our divorce, blaming myself for us having to go down this path. I was already carrying the burden of financially supporting us, in addition to the demands of work, family, household management, etc…and now this? Our second year of marriage, before we separated, was the year that I had the most difficulty dealing with the understanding of what my trauma was. It didn’t at all help that I was running child sexual abuse education sessions, which essentially re-triggered my own experiences multiple times during the week. I was mentally exhausted at the range of emotions I would feel and the number of breakdowns I’d have at home after work. My ex-husband was not around that much, so he didn’t see this happening. I didn’t have any support – I disclosed my sexual abuse to a couple of close friends (not my family), but I knew that I needed professional help. I eventually reached out for help and started to see a counsellor last Ramadan. I’ve heard many people wonder why those who have been sexually abused sometimes “take so long” to disclose and understand what had happened to them. While I find this thought insensitive, I would hope that it stems from ignorance around sexual abuse. Speaking generally, people need to understand that there are many different forms of sexual abuse. It’s not solely about rape, which is what people’s minds tend to go to when they hear “sexual abuse.” Most children who are sexually abused will not know it’s sexual abuse until they are educated about it, and this may depend on what they remember, the duration of the abuse, and what else was happening in their life around the same time. And given that 85% of those who sexually abuse children are someone the child knows, this adds to the confusion already surrounding the situation. He/she wouldn’t hurt me, I’m family and they love me.  This holds true in the schools I run programming in and explains the spike in disclosures we receive from children after our educational sessions. Also, as I’ve experienced myself, the brain has an amazing capacity to act in a way that facilitates the survival of the individual, and this can be done by blocking access to specific memories around events that cause distress. I only remember certain things around what happened to me that summer and nothing else, and my counsellor has told me that I may never fully remember what happened, which I am completely fine with. I don’t know how many more times I was sexually abused that summer, but my mom telling me that my uncle enjoyed spending time with me makes me sick to my stomach. My brain has memories but so does my body – hence the automatic kicking in of tension, anger, clenched fists, feelings of stress, tight jaw muscles, etc. I’ve tried using a cognitive approach to prevent this from happening, but with minimal results. I’ve now turned to EMDR therapy, which has great outcomes in terms of healing from childhood trauma, which I’ll blog about at a later time. I’ve also started to become aware of some of my coping and self-soothing strategies. I struggle with personal space, especially if I’m in public and around men I don’t know. When I’m standing in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store, and there’s a man behind me standing too close, I tense up. I’ve had to turn around and ask the person to please take a step back. The same happens when I’m on a crowded subway when traveling or anywhere else that gives the feeling of being confined or too close in proximity to men. I am also incredibly sensitive to getting unwanted attention from men, especially when I perceive it to be aggressive or violating of my personal space in any way. So when a man came up to me while grocery shopping two weeks ago, called me “exotic” and said he’d like to take me out for coffee, it took a millisecond to become triggered, anxious and angry. I wanted to abandon my shopping cart and run out of the store. It took me the rest of the evening to calm myself down and feel safe again. I try to avoid riding the elevator in my apartment building alone with another man and when I’ve had to, I have my keys in one hand and my phone in another, pretending to look busy so I can avoid conversation. This may all sound extreme, but it’s my current coping mechanism to feel safe. The brain does not differentiate between types of threatening situations when you have an overactive amygala. Which I do. I’ve been blessed with a handful of male friends (i.e. defined by those I can speak to more about than solely work), whom I also work with as colleagues. Trust has obviously been developed through a working relationship, so there’s no discomfort during interactions. But the thought of “getting to know someone” for the sake of marriage isn’t something I’m comfortable with at this point in time. I know that I have issues around safety and trust, and these will have to be reconciled before I can even think about that. I’m sure there will be people who read this and wonder if I’m making things up about being sexually abused (Note: The false reporting rate for sexual abuse is around 1%-2%, which is the lowest of all crimes). Or they’re confused about why it took me so long to know what “happened” to me and to finally get support. And both of these thoughts are OK and again, most likely stems from ignorance on this topic. The reason why I am sharing all of this is because I know that there are many girls, boys, men and women who may be reading this and they too have been sexually abused. Both within the mainstream community, but also within the Muslim one too. I’m currently working with a couple of families to get their daughters support for the sexual abuse they’ve endured. I met with a family last week and for the first time, I disclosed that I too had been sexually abused. I explained that I know how their daughter is feeling, that I am so thankful for them being such supportive parents, and that they’re doing the right thing by getting her the support she needs. I spoke about their daughter’s need to process what happened and to learn healthy coping strategies. And that the sexual abuse was not her fault, and it was definitely not theirs.
Seeing the difference this made with the family leads me to believe that I’ve been put through this trial for a reason. I don’t think Allah puts anyone through anything without a very strong and valid reason, although it may take us a while to understand what this is. For me, it took approximately 24 years. But I finally know where the passion and conviction comes from when I speak about sexual abuse: it’s directly from my own experiences. I know what it’s like to live with shame for so many years and what it does to you. I know what it’s like to feel anger, anxiety, and stress after being triggered, yet not being able to stop it. I know what it’s like to play certain memories over and over again in your head, with certain parts blank, so you’re never able to know the full extent of your trauma. I know what it’s like to have difficulty trusting people, even though their intentions may be pure, because there’s too much risk involved.
I get it.
To deal with the truth of having been sexually abused has been incredibly challenging, on top of going through divorce and supporting my mom with hers – but I have hope. Both my faith in Allah and giving purpose to my experiences are the two things that keep me going. I can’t take away what happened to me, but I trust that I will reconcile with it and will heal inshallah. Allah has given me platforms to use my experiences as a means to educate others about sexual abuse, especially within our communities. I do not take “no” as an answer from anyone when I propose that initiatives be undertaken to educate children, youth and parents. And Alhamdulillah, while it has taken a lot of patience, great strides have been made.
Giving up is not something I’ve ever done. And I never will. On a personal level, I’m starting to get the support I need and inshallah, it’s going to help me heal from this. Twenty-four years is a long time to carry the burden of trauma on your shoulders. I know for certain that there are others even within my own social circle who have been sexually abused – whether they are aware of it or not. I don’t mean to be restrictive to the Muslim community since sexual abuse knows no boundaries, but there’s such a stigma that I imagine many Muslim survivors are not getting the support they need. And everyone deserves to heal.
If you’re reading this and need support or you know someone who has been sexually abused, there is support available. If you’re local to Calgary, contact Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse for information and to set up free counselling. They have a team of dedicated and educated counsellors available and a 24-hour crisis line. If you’re not local to Calgary but located within Canada, the Kids Help Phone has a 24-hour number for support and they also offer online support via a chat feature on their website. They take calls for kids and youth up to the age of 22. Naseeha, a Muslim support line, also has counsellors available, but their call lines are only open for a limited amount of time each day. For more specific resources in your area around sexual abuse, search for and contact your local agency. Every major Canadian city, and I am sure the same holds true in the United States, has such agencies and crisis line. For information about sexual abuse and violence, please visit the HEART Women and Girls website. They offer a virtual peer support program for girls and women who have been sexually abused, and these individuals have been trained in this area. There are also blogs written by women who share their experience of being sexually abused, as well as many other resources. If you need more information, you can contact me via HEART under the “Who We Are” tab. I’d be happy to try and help out in any way that I can. I plan to continue blogging about this topic, both around my own healing process and also for educational purposes. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This statistic holds true for our Muslim communities. And the only way we can support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable is if we start talking about this without any shame or guilt. I’ve started the conversation. Now let’s see where we can take it.
You can read the original post here.