Thursday, July 24, 2008

Modesty is in the Eye of the Writer

Last week, I critiqued the first of two articles on modesty written by Anam Majeed. Today I’ll look at the second piece – Islam, Modesty, and Sex in the West – Part II.

This time, Majeed begins with a GQ interview with fashion designer Miuccia Prada in which she critiques the show Sex and the City. Prada states that SATC is not a show women should be emulating, as it leads to unhappiness. She feels that women today try too hard. They dress too sexy. When they are unhappy, they wear fewer clothes. According to Prada, women have less dignity today than do men.

With women, the more unhappy they are, the more undressed they are. This is true. Dignity’s another very important part of this. Sex and the City is the opposite of dignity. You have to have dignity for your body-this is with men and women. You need to have dignity towards how you are, how you dress, how you behave. Very important. Men are always much more dignified than most women.

Although Prada does make some interesting points, this last line made me upset. Why would Majeed choose to use a quote, which depicts women as inferior? This statement doesn't even strike me as remotely true. But this is my analysis of part of Prada's quote. Majeed begins her analysis by assuming that Prada equates more clothing with dignity. In fact, according to Majeed, Prada is saying that "more clothes means more dignity." This is not what Prada said. She did speak about the importance of dignity and she did say that clothing is one way to express dignity, but not that more clothing equaled more dignity. This seemed to be the way Majeed wanted to interpret Prada's words. If this were the case, then this would mean that those women who are covered from head to toe are more dignified than those who wear jeans and a sweater, who in turn are more dignified than those women who wear short skirts and t-shirts. Majeed then writes

...she speaks not only of apparel, but also of how this ties into one’s behaviour and resulting inner happiness. How delightfully Islamic of her, but I still wouldn’t wait with bated breath for the release of Prada branded burquas...

Prada did not say that clothing ties in with behaviour and inner happiness, but rather dignity. Yes, this is in Islam, but it is also in Western thought. Dignity is a virtue in the West as well. Then why the cringe-inducing burqa comment? Why is that the Islamic clothing that came to mind? I suppose that, according to Majeed, the burqa would be the most dignified of apparel.

Majeed does accurately point out that Prada seems to be praising modesty. And this is something to appreciate, especially for many Muslim women who do value modest dress. But again, the same question as last week comes up. What is modesty? What does Majeed mean when she says modest? Last week I concluded, from various statements, that by modesty Majeed was referring to hijab and/or niqaab. Add burqa to that this week. This conclusion was further confirmed in this piece.

However, to continue, Majeed points out that many in the West may be against modesty (an extreme assertion, as I stated last week) because of modesty's negative connotations in Judeo-Christian tradition. This, in an attempt to show that Islamic modesty and feminism are not at odds. Good idea, because too many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, believe that Islam and feminism are incompatible. But to present Islamic modesty as a "solution to the ills facing women today" might be simplifying the "ills facing women today." I doubt modesty would solve the problem of violence against women.

Majeed feels that today, when feminists fight the patriarchy of the Judeo-Christian traditions, they confuse Islam to be of a similar nature. Therefore, she feels that feminists need not fight Islamic patriarchy as that patriarchy does not exist. Majeed's main argument appears to be that Islam treats women very well, it is not patriarchal, and thus requiring women to dress modestly should not have such negative connotations as it has within the Judeo-Christian traditions, which have been patriarchal. However, many may disagree. Although many Muslims do believe that Islam, as it was meant to be followed, does promote equality and egalitarianism, they find today that Islam is used to justify subjugation of women and thus a very patriarchal system. Majeed did recognize this, but blamed culture for such oppressions. (Though she does state at one point that the "particular patriarchal system that the feminist movement sought to overthrow does not quite exist in the Islamic world." What?! Yes it does!)

Such blame ignores the fact that religion, and religion alone, is often used and abused as the justification for various oppressions of women (ie. the Hudood Ordinance of Pakistan, which resulted in the horrendous treatment of so many women). Majeed paints an overly idealistic picture.

Specifically, Majeed gives the example of gender roles, first stating that "[t]here are spheres within Islam which men and women may dominate unequally, but always to a net equity, to a balanced social harmony" but then says that "[m]ales and females can coexist and thrive in their overlapping spheres without the encumbrance of a traditionally Western categorization of gender roles. These narrow interpretations that the feminist movement fought to eradicate have no source in Islam." First, she seems to be saying that there are gender roles in Islam (equal but different) but then states narrow gender roles do not exist in Islam. Perhaps she needs to clarify her first statement. What does she mean?

To demonstrate the compatibility of Islamic modesty with feminism, Majeed speaks of the hijab, the "primary value" of which "is not in opposition, but as it stands as an article of faith in obedience to the modesty enjoined upon believing women by God." Or so certain interpretations state. This statement confirms that Majeed is thinking of hijab, at least, when thinking of modesty. No hijab means no modesty. How else would one explain this statement:

It is only now, in our present times, when the idea of modesty has sadly become intertwined with abuse, oppression, and the subjugation of women..
This statement only makes sense if one is thinking of the hijab, niqab, or burqa. These items have indeed been given such negative connotations. Not modesty itself.

Once again, Majeed's very narrow definition of modesty weakened her argument. She tried to reconcile feminism with Islam, something more of us need to do to eliminate misconceptions. She also accurately portrays the acceptability of sex and sexuality in Islam within marriage. Yet, her overall argument was not convincing. If only Majeed had been clear and stated that it was not modesty in general she was speaking of, but rather a very specific form of it.