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Wolf, Chesler Weigh In on the Hijab — and Each Other

By Elana Sztokman

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Naomi Wolf — the feminist Jewish author of the bestselling landmark book, “The Beauty Myth,” which brazenly exposes how the multi-billion dollar beauty industry manipulates women’s entire sense of self — is gorgeous. For two decades now, the brilliant and outspoken Wolf has decried cosmetics, plastic-surgery and hair removal businesses while appearing, let’s just say, well made-up.

She’s a bit of an enigma that way – lipstick feminism decrying lipstick. I suppose all writers really do write about our own lives, whether or not we have fully escaped those societal traps we wish to unveil. Or maybe Wolf simply reminds us to look past the packaging and focus on the message. The New York Observer is now reporting that she is “going back to her roots” and has just gotten a book deal to write a cultural history of the vagina.

In any case, Wolf’s paradoxical stance has recently gotten her into some trouble. In this essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, Wolf extols the sexual virtues of the hijab, using rhetoric with strong echoes of Orthodox Judaism:

Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home….

In the context of marital intimacy, Victoria’s Secret, elegant fashion and skin care lotions abounded. The bridal videos that I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom, suggested that sensuality was not alien to Muslim women. Rather, pleasure and sexuality, both male and female, should not be displayed promiscuously - and possibly destructively - for all to see.

Many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze.

I wonder how many women read this with envy, resolving to take on the sharia [Islamic legal] equivalent of tznius in order to improve their sex lives.

Hardly surprising, many feminists reading Wolf were not impressed. In particular, Phyllis Chesler, another outspoken author who more decisively identifies with Jewish feminism, blasted Wolf in her blog:

Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.

Is Wolfe thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects? Has she forgotten the tragic, fiery deaths of those schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia who, in trying to flee their burning schoolhouse, were improperly veiled and who were beaten back by the all-powerful Saudi Morality Police?

I find myself nodding in agreement with Chesler. The rhetoric claiming that strict man-made regulations on women’s body cover are beautiful – whether in Islam, Judaism, or any other patriarchal system – is completely disingenuous when women have no choice or control over their own bodies and lives.

Frankly, it’s a sham. Like Plato’s proverbial “Happy Slave,” covered women may find ways to reclaim their own sensuality, but it doesn’t change the fact of their lived oppression.

Daniel Greenfield published an excellent article in the Canada Free Press, in which he does an even better job that Chesler at debunking Wolf’s arguments.

The burka, the chador, the hijab or any of the other covering garments are assigned to Muslim women to “protect” them from men, and to protect men from them. …All of a woman is “a zone of shame” and obscene. Even the sound of her voice is a form of “nakedness” or “lewdness.”

Again, to Orthodox Jews, this language is way too familiar.

That said, the fact that the subject of Muslim women’s body became a drama between two high-profile Jewish feminists is troubling.

A blogger named Daisy writes, “so two well-known Jewish feminists dueling over the hijab have been given ample coverage… during Ramadan? Oh dear God. (Pardon expression.)”

It doesn’t help that Chesler takes a harsh anti-Islamic stance in much of her writing. No wonder some feminist Muslim women may be turned off by the whole discussion. Natalia Antanova writes “if I was [sic] a Muslim woman watching all of this, I’d probably feel as though I was in a room full of people who were telling me to be quiet when the adults are talking.”

So, ahem, here I am, another Jewish feminist, weighing in.

At the risk of sounding like a complete hypocrite I would like to say that non-Muslim feminist women – and men – should be writing and talking about this. For one thing, it’s important for feminists across cultures to not only try and understand what other women go through, but also to lend support to their struggles (See, for example, Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s post on pants). More than that, I think the whole topic sheds light on what religious women go through all the time, and our commonalities fortify our efforts.

Saidah Mohsen-Byadsi, founder of the Muslim Feminist organization “Nissa wa Aafaq” [Women and Horizons], who happens to be my former student and is now a colleague, I believe agrees.

We have had many conversations comparing the struggles of religious feminists. We’ve talked about the importance of women’s learning and ownership of texts, and of the challenges of rejecting accepted “modesty” conventions. When she told me that she is the only woman in her family who doesn’t cover her hair, I nearly fell over – and I knew I found a kindred spirit, that in our common language we would find a way to challenge systems of oppression.

Religious feminists have a lot in common, and we need to be able to support one another’s struggles without objectifying or romanticizing the other. I do, deeply and truly believe that women can and should change the world. But first we have to listen to each other.

Elana Maryles Sztokman is a writer, researcher, educator and activist originally from New York, currently living in Modi’in, Israel. She holds a doctorate in education from Hebrew University and blogs at For Serious Jewish Women

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Rivkah Moriah Mon. Sep 14, 2009

Elana, you are a profound thinker and an excellent writer. Thank you for another gem.

I believe that customs have to be regarded within a cultural context. I can't even consider hijab, burqa and niqab outside of the context of honor [sic] killings, genital mutilation, public chaperoning, etc. As for Victoria's Secret, it's no proof of healthy, private, sexuality, for a man who wants sexual pleasure wants, well, sexual pleasure, and a woman can learn to provide this even if she has undergone excision. Similarly, I can't consider denier (thickness) of tights outside of the context of social ostracism, the punishment of preference in the Jewish world. Ostracism is less violent than, say, murder, and so for some women there is still a choice, but ostracism can be experienced as a kind of psychic murder and should therefore be considered very seriously.

In either (and every) case, a distinction must necessarily be made between decisions based on choice and self-knowledge and those based on fear and repression. Ultimately, most of what we wear is a function of habit, but has the habit (no pun intended) been acquired through comfort and familiarity, of through fleeing independent thought? This is a necessary question to ask, for it is the difference between freedom and oppression, no matter what the garment chosen in the end is.

An interesting barometer in this whole debate is that society – every society to which I have been even minimally exposed – is most intolerant of the woman who dresses "modestly" one day and "revealingly" another day.

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