On modesty—
—and power

Two perspectives

 

Are you wrong
about the Hijab?

by Schujj

This is an opinion piece. I am very open to opinions, I like to listen and digest. But occasionally they can feel a little too “everywhere”. Some, based on experience, others on fact. However, many are based upon downright misconception.

In my view, Western society sees religion as oppressive and archaic because religion does not “move on”. I respect this opinion, but feel uncomfortable when it is projected as superior. When this happens, I immediately ask exactly how these opinions are formed. Is it from first-hand knowledge, perhaps a fleeting voluntary position at Amnesty International, or “knowledge” collected sitting in one’s armchair?

Western assertions that hijab is solely for women, or just about a headscarf, are extremely common and wrong. Translated, hijab literally means veil or cover. This simplified translation should not be taken literally because, in the context of Islam, it is more than just ‘covering up’. Wearing the headscarf is only one element of hijab; the larger picture is one of modesty, which applies to both men and women. Therefore hijab is for us all.

In 2007, I decided I wanted to wear a headscarf. I decided I would wear it because my husband was just about to embark on his journey for Hajj. I wore it in the hope it would bring me closer to him, that he would be happy with me for doing so. I thought wrapping myself up like a jewel would make me more desirable to him.  I wanted to “wear” hijab, but completely misunderstood its true meaning. I had no real knowledge, I misread and misjudged: I failed to realise that his path was for him, as mine would be mine, each alone.

During my own journey I learned that, contrary to popular belief, hijab does not mean head cover. I do not claim to be an Islamic scholar but I do know hijab is much more than a piece of cloth. It is part of a much larger picture: the picture of modesty.

Modesty in Islam is for both men and women. In Islam, a woman’s beauty is her own and should not be a spectacle for others; she is in charge of it. Equally, men have a responsibility not to objectify women to satisfy their own desires: “believing men should lower their gaze and be modest” (Qur'an 24:30). In Islam, the body is something that should never be objectified. The heart and soul of a person should do the talking. I was wrong in thinking it would make me more desirable; that my husband would be happy with me for wearing my hijab, that responsibility for my modesty was shared.

Modesty is a way of life for Muslims. For example, a woman who chooses to wear the niqaab is enhancing her inward and outward modesty; it is a process of heightening her own spirituality, her own interpretation of modesty. Conducting oneself modestly goes far beyond some fabric; it is about reservation in character, speech, behaviour and occasionally, in emotion. It is about humility. 

Often, these same assertions are used by liberal feminists to secure solidarity in attacks on those “horrid, oppressive men who force their women to cover up”. Coining such camaraderie does not take account of the very obvious inequalities between women: women of the West and East are not the same. By demonising Muslim men, those feminists have no idea they are demonising Muslim women at the same time, in the same breath. By claiming their right to speak up and defend Muslim women they are doing exactly what they accuse Muslim men of.

Western liberal feminists are adopting and applying a language of Orientalism (an assumption that Eastern culture is always inferior, less civilised, even dangerous). On this side of the hemisphere, liberation lies in the celebration of the human form, removing layers rather than “hiding behind them”. Modesty poses a threat to traditional feminist sensibilities. In the West, female modesty is as oppressive as being told to “be nice”, adopting “typical feminine traits”. Looking at the concept of modesty from a Western gaze, modesty is read as an attempt to shackle Muslim women.

Ironically the objectification of women is pivotal in both discourses, East and West.

When opining about the oppression of Muslim women, culture and environment is never considered. Culture and faith are separate: people can follow the same religion, but their interpretation of their faith be different, affected by culture.

Assumptions made about a faith without appreciating the impact of culture, in my opinion, adds fuel to the fire. And calling out an aspect of faith, without having knowledge, insight, understanding or context, can only ever align you with the Boris Johnsons and Polly Toynbees of the world. Being vice-president of Humanists UK – as Toynbee is – does not make an assertion that the burqa “dehumanises” women correct.

Muslim women do not need the likes of Toynbee to rush in and save them. They do not need you to be shocked on their behalf. I include myself in this. They do not need you to brand our religion as restrictive. They do not need you to perpetuate a narrative of vulnerability and weakness.

This position, regardless of the lefty feminist credentials of the author, is Orientalist to its very core. 

Muslim women, especially those who choose to wear the headscarf and niqaab will always be a topic of conversation. I’ve lost count of the times I have wanted to scream in the face of imperialism, clenching my fists and gritting my teeth at the sound of “these poor, poor women, covering up all that beautiful hair, their beautiful face! It must be so difficult for them...” This, coupled with postcolonial exoticism, would have made a younger me defensive and angry. But now? Now I am able to handle these assertions much better. A small part of me feels very sorry for these songbirds. A much larger part of me is bored to death of their white saviour melody. 

So, my open, honest and raw opinion? 

I will challenge your opinions whatever they are based upon until you sit with my sisters in both headscarf and niqaab; until you ask them and inform yourself. In the meantime, please continue in your quest to assume all women want the same thing. Your quest is removing respect for choice. Why? Because no one lens will ever fit us all. 

Orientalism:

“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism

Female pleasure is the true marker of equality

by Lisa Williams

You’re probably familiar with the Madeleine Albright quote: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” It’s been requoted and misused time and time again, and I’m going to requote and misuse it again now: “There’s a special place in heaven for women who buy each other vibrators.”

I like her quote, but I like my version even better. My good friend Caroline bought me my first vibrator when we were 20: it’s a reminder that these buzzing mounds of silicone are about as feminist an object as you can get.

There are plenty of must-have items for the wellbeing of women - safe birthing equipment and contraception - but it’s the nice-to-haves which truly signal equality. And what item other than a sex toy exists solely to give women pleasure?

I run a podcast called the Hotbed, which looks at sex, relationships and pop culture, and we often return to the topic of women deprioritising their own pleasure. We find it bizarre that a woman is expected to be a nurturing mother, kickass at her career, have a beautiful home and a banging body, and yet no one cares about the last time she came.

And we should care. The health benefits are bounteous (better sleep, better bladder, better brain, better heart), orgasms feel damn good, and – if they happen during partnered sex – lead to better bonding, and fewer arguments over whose turn it is to hang out the washing.

But they don’t happen very often for us: the latest survey on the topic found that 91 per cent of men had an orgasm during their last sexual encounter, compared with 64 per cent of women. This fact led me to set up the Hotbed Collective, along with TV presenter Cherry Healey and Selfish Mother editor Anniki Sommerville. We gave ourselves the task of making the world better, one orgasm at a time.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment around the topic, and if I told you that I was loud-and-proud about the project in front of my mother-in-law, I’d be lying. We have had to do a lot of it on a shoestring or fund it out of our own pockets because, when sponsors hear the word “sex”, they run for the hills. Our aim is to open up debate and dialogue around the topic, and to give women the education and encouragement they need to explore their own bodies in a climate which discourages them from doing so.

It makes us angry that we are told by magazines and Instagram influencers that we should be spending thousands on spa breaks, beauty treatments and detox plans to make us look and feel better, and yet it’s still taboo for women to talk about masturbation (same effect, for free). It makes us angry that women’s bodies are sexualised and airbrushed to sell products, and yet most women (and even more men) can’t recognise a diagram of the full clitoris. And it makes us incandescent that the sexual history of a woman can sometimes be dragged up in a rape case, somehow insinuating that she “asked for it”, and yet a man’s sexual history is always something to be celebrated.

Ah, it’s happened again: I start out talking about something fun and very quickly it becomes serious. Because, for me, women’s pleasure and our denial of it, goes to the heart of many issues which affect us: sex education, body image, capitalism, patriarchy.

Allowing ourselves to climax is the true marker of how we value ourselves, and of how others value us. If you need more encouragement, find us on Instagram (@thehotbedcollective) for tips, or buy yourself a vibrator. And, while you’re there, buy one for your friend too.

The Hotbed Collective sent us two tips for achieving orgasm:

1. Look up a diagram of the clitoris: it's often about ten cms in length in total, and what you can see is the tip of the iceberg. It extends to near the vagina and into the inner lips, so stimulate these areas while masturbating as well as the hood. 

2. Vary the speed and pressure with which you use your hands or a vibrator, until you find a rhythm you enjoy.

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