A  Different View of Islam

by K. Simms

In examining the world, one will come to an understanding that there are differences that exist between the people of the world. These differences could be based on things that are of minimal importance to something of significance. Without taking the initiative to find out were and how these difference came about, you while be left limited to other people's perspective or what others want you to think. Taking a closer look at Islam and the women of Islam, one could gain a better understanding of what it means to be Muslim. Currently, speaking to a person who was born and is still living in Islamic society, their view of Islam as a religion and culture is the opposite of someone living in the Western Hemisphere, in particular the United States. Take for instance, someone who was born and grew up in the United States would most likely say that Islamic women are extremely suppressed in Islamic societies. An individual who was born in an Islamic society would argue that the Muslim Faith does not practice the suppression of women.

In gaining on understanding of the people of Islam, it is of importance to understand the religion of Islam. “Islam, which means, submission to God was founded in the seventh century in Arabia (currently Saudi Arabia) by the Prophet Muhammad.” (Gordan &gordan). Muhammad is considered to be the greatest prophet of God and is highly praised by people of the Muslim faith. Psychologically, Islam promotes the idea of self-empowerment. Followers are to pray at least three times daily at specific times, which are before sunrise, just before the sun begins to fall and at sunset. The Quran is the sacred book of Islam. It consists of a series of more than a hundred chapters, or surahs, outlining and recommending behavior for men and women in all aspects of life. People of the Muslim faith firmly believe that the words of the surahs are the personal words of Allah (God) and where given to the prophet Muhammed by Gabriel, another of Allah’s prophet.

“Islam today is expanding without missionaries.” (Fetima). Both women and men who were born of another religious background have converted to the Islamic faith and many today are considering to undergo this religious metamorphosis. They see no problem in adapting this traditional religion and some even go as far as to undertake the manner in which Middle Eastern Islamic men and women dress. As described by Fetima, “it is a compass in a universe of ever expanding horizons, a guide for navigating terrestrial space and to prepare you to jump into unknown territories.” Islam is the predominate religion of the Middle East and “is the third principal religion in Africa.” (Gordan & gordan). If one should embark on a mission to study the “classical religious literature” (Fetima) of Islam, this individual will find out that Islam possesses the remarkable ability of equipping “its members to see the entire universe as their playground.” This is a characteristic unlike any other religion of the world today. “Only if we understand this, will we understand why youths by the millions are claiming it as their unshakable referent and making themselves at home everywhere around the globe, in unfamiliar as well as familiar surroundings, without having to know the language or the culture.” (Fetima).

From an Islamic perspective, looking at the role of an Islamic woman today, these individuals would “regard Middle Eastern Muslim women as no more oppressed than non-Muslim women and which, even in key respects, see them as less oppressed than non-Muslim women, and those groups which regard oppression as real.”(Ayse) Some would argue that oppression is extrinsic to Islam. Islam do not cater to the oppression of women. This idea of Muslim women being oppressed arises from both indigenous Arabian patriarchy and foreign propaganda which is diffused around the globe, in an attempt to discredit the Islamic faith and its followers. Muslim societies today, upon which the basic morality of Islamic revivalism relies, are very much the opposite of western perception. “Accordingly, the role of women vis-à-vis Islamic revivalism, was construed as being what is described as the “keeper of Islam”.(Asye). Most would proclaim that the Islamic movement is to ensure women are seen as both the “bearers of culture and the repository of traditions.” (Asye). They are looked at as the preservers of the “Muslim identity in the face of the impact of non-Muslim, namely western, intrusions which at many moments turned out to be rather rude forms of both cultural and administrative colonization.” “Women were conceived as the actual organizers of the inner spaces of life, in every sense of the term, and should be carefully protected against any dangers from the outside non-Islamic world.” Moreover, it’s a renowned thought in Islamic societies, “that an Islamic home and family constitute the most important sites of the Islamic community and are the most important resorts of an Islamic life against the unwanted interventions of the infidel or, in other words against the “Westoxification” of social life in general.” (Asye). The family is perceived as a social cell in need of protection and preservation from social ills, and women are the protectors and doctors who cure these unwanted illnesses. Therefore, without the existence of “voluntary participation of women in both cleansing and keeping (Islamic societies) away from external contamination,” the Islamic revivalism movement would turn out to be a total failure. The image of an Islamic woman today, should reflect one of “nationalism, third worldism, anti-westernism and self-determinism.” (Asye).

“The peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam.”(149, Ahmed). It is nearly impossible to purchase a book on Islam, written by an author originating from the west, without having a portion of the book that speak of the “unjust and debilitating” conditions women of the Muslim faith had undergone throughout the history of Islam and currently. Some well known authors stemming from Islamic countries have also written in this profound manner. Most of the Islamic authors had experienced living in an Islamic family and country some originating from the continent of Africa while others stem from Middle Eastern countries. It is not uncommon to read in these books “that Islam is innately and immutably oppressive to women. That the veil and segregation epitomized that oppression , and that these customs were the fundamental reasons for the general and comprehensive backwardness of Islamic societies.” (1 kahf).

To thoroughly understand the emergence of these negative perceptions that people of the West had formulated, and past on from one generations to the next, about people of the Muslim faith and culture, we must take several steps backward “prior to the seventh century when Western ideas about Islam derived from the tales of travelers and crusaders, augmented by the deductions of clerics from their readings of poorly understood Arabic texts.”(149 Ahmed). Male travelers at this particular period had very limited access or opportunity to speak with women and the explanation and interpretations they brought back to the west, was from a male’s point of view on whatever subject they had discussed. “At the same time these travelers often garbled and misconstrued the specific content and meaning of the customs described.” (Ahmed 149). As time continued to move forward, the west perception of women in Islam derived from these unilateral sources.

Certainly, women of the Islam have played a limiting role in most aspects of life, however, (not to defend this matter) such a practice have existed, historically and globally, in every country. In the United States some years ago, we had the feminist movement which liberated women from the kitchen, yet, women today are still crying about the covert practice of suppression. There are constant demands for equal opportunity in promotion at the office, equality in salary with men, which no one regard to be as problematic as the Islamic women situation. Covert suppression is as problematic and maybe even more so than the one in Islam where such practices are overtly carried out. I would rather have a disease that shows itself openly on the surface of my skin than to have one inside my internal organs where it could manifest tenfold without detection. The United States is considered the “leader” of the modern world and therefore as a mother to her children should set an example. Could this heightened attention in Islam be something political?

In analyzing the Muslim faith and female sexuality, it must first be stated that, “Islam has a more sophisticated theory of the instincts, more akin to the Freudian concept of the libido. It views the raw instincts as energy. The energy of instincts is pure in the sense that it has no connotation of good or bad.” (Beyond Veil p27).“Therefore, in the Muslim order, it is not necessary for the individual to eradicate his instincts or to control them for the sake of control itself, but he or she must use them according to the demands of religious law.” (BV p27) When an individual interprets the Quran she or he must be mindful not to misinterpret Muhammad statements by stating that he forbad certain human activities. Instead, Muhammed did not want them to be completely eradicated, or the power from which they result to remain altogether unused. He wanted those powers to be employed as much as possible for the right aims. “Every intention should thus eventually become the right one and the direction of all human activities one and the same.” (Beyond veilp27). In essence, sexual desires used in an appropriate way, could be of benefit to the Muslim order. Sexual desires that are used inappropriately or suppressed could lead to the destruction of that very order. “He wants the desire to be used for permissible purposes to serve the public interests, so that man becomes an active servant of God who willingly obeys the divine commands.” (Beyond veil p28). Therefore, when looking at the Islamic view of sex and sexual practices, one must keep Muhammed’s view of sex being used as a benefit to individual and the Islamic faith.

Some would argue that a woman living under the religious belief of the Muslim faith today is living an antagonistic lifestyle. This lifestyle is created by her sexual desires and that of the Islamic social order which are contradictory to each other. Socially, there are “external precautionary safeguards such as avoidance rules” (BVp30)which forbids her to express herself sexually, while hormonally, her sexual desires have escalated to climactic proportion. In customary Islamic culture, the hymen of a woman should be intact, proving that the bride is innocence and also guaranteeing the legitimacy of heirs. If a woman was found out not be a virgin on the wedding night this brings shame to both her and her family as well. Islamic laws prescribe the manner in which a woman is to behave and these laws forbid women to engage in premarital sex. It is thought that a woman should “preserve premarital chastity by secluding (herself if not yet marry) or her girls (if already marry by) providing them with duennas or other such external devices as veiling, seclusion in harems or constant surveillance” (BVp148). “Marriage is looked upon as a virtuous deed so much that if a woman observes a non-obligatory fast, or busies herself in worship or recitation of the Quran with a view to evading the lawful desire of her husband, she commits a sin.” (Suhkri). Many would say that “ignorance, suppression, fear and all sorts of limitations exaggerate the role of sex in the life of girls and women” Nailap158) living in an Islamic society.

Exploring this same issue of women’s sexuality and religion within the United States, upon close examination, many will agree that the conditions and views are quite similar. Many citizens who consider themselves religious find that in real life they make sexual decisions in ways that conflict with the teachings of their church or synagogue. Also, quite similar to the Islamic religion, “in the Catholic world, the subordination of women to the hegemonic group of priest guarantees them a certain margin of autonomy in relation to the family, father and husband.”(Disciples of F p80). The Catholic view on sex is that “sexual activity in marriage is good as long as it has the potential for reproduction.” (H.S p665) All other forms of sexual behavior is considered sinful and are condemned. This Catholic view on sex was made public in 1976 when the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics which declared, “In the present period, the corruption of morals has increased, and one of the most serious indications of this corruption is the unbridled exaltation of sex.” The declaration also stated that, “Chastity (either virginity or celibacy) is virtuous not only because it avoids sin but also because it attains a higher spiritual good.” (H.S p665). Clearly, there exist a tug of war between traditional teachings and contemporary cultural attitudes which affects people in many different ways. Some devoted members of the church experience great guilt as a result of their sexual behavior. While writing her novel Sex and God, Sara Mitland stated that “one of the central questions of the novel was whether it would be possible for a woman to remain within the institutional framework of the Christian church if she tried to break away out of the tight ball, to escape from the repression of sexuality.” (Sex & God125).

Adding to the suppressive cultural outlook on female sexuality, there are those women who had experience the practice of female clitoridectomy. When hearing of the practice of circumcision, the average person living in the United States would automatically perceive the idea of a male infant getting the skin over the orifice of his penis removed. Very few are aware that such a practice could be done to a female. “The practice of circumcising girls is still a common procedure in a number of Arab countries such as Egypt, the Sudan, Yeman and some of the Gulf states.”(Nawal p33). The belief behind the idea of circumcision is that “by removing parts of girls’ external genital organs, sexual desire is minimized.” (Nawalp33). Therefore, as a young girl reaches “the ‘dangerous age’ of puberty” this is done to protect her virginity and her honor. Has mentioned before, a woman being a virgin and having an intact hymen on her wedding night is extremely important and due to this firm belief by some traditional societies, (with the exception of urban parts) female circumcision is still on issue today. As described by Nawal EL Saadawi in her book ‘The Hidden Face of Eve’. On the scene appears the daya or local midwife. Two women members of the family grasp the child’s thighs on either side and pull them apart to expose the external genital organs and to prevent her from struggling-like trussing a chicken before it is slain. A sharp razor in the hand of the daya cuts off the clitoris.” (Nawalp33). What are the psychological effects of sustaining such an act. Can living in a society where her sexual feelings are suppressed eventually lead to an inability to view herself as someone beautiful.

The psychological effect that these women sustain from living in a sexually suppressed society and not experiencing sexual pleasures for what could be a lifetime, varies in degree. There are those women who become frigid. Others “may not even know that they are supposed to enjoy sex in marriage, because they are often brought up to think of sex purely as one of their duties to their husband. (Nawal p156). These women begin to think that they are fortunate when their husbands provide them with the necessities of life. Sexual frustration can begin to heighten and “sooner or later unfulfilled sexual desires take their toll on women in the form of migraine headaches, nervousness, and other ailments for which tranquilizers are so indiscriminately prescribed. (naila p156) For some women who had their clitoris removed through the vicious act, as described earlier, the psychological effects could last a lifetime. There are those women who chose to suppress this unwanted memory due to the shameful emotions they experience when discussing this particular occurrence. After gradually building up a sense of mutual confidence and understanding, other women would profess their recollection of feeling sexually stimulated when they themselves or some other person played with their intact clitoris. “Parents who suppress their adolescent’s natural sexual impulses and her sense of independence in order to keep her a marriageable virgin and expect her to blossom sexually on her wedding night are unrealistic. Not everyone is sleeping beauty. (Naila p155).
In looking at the matter of being sexually suppressed, can there be any positive aspects in remaining sexually inactive or being celibate. In the U.S. there are a number of people who choose to remain celibate, however, the idea of being sexually inactive in the U.S. is openly thought of differently. “Celibacy raises eyebrows because it is an act of rebellion against the sacred cow of sexual consumerism.” (Sally p1). In her book Women, Passion and Celibacy, Sally Cine mentioned her experience of being introduced by her friend at a hospital consultant’s party where numerous doctors and other health practitioner were present. Upon entering the room and having her friend announced that she was writing a book on being celibate, the noisy room suddenly became “shocked silence.” (sally p3). “Most books on the subject of sex suggest that a woman’s failure to tone up her genitals regularly will lead her into an advanced state of sickness or offer her early warning signals of the onset of madness.”(Sally p1). Being sexually uninvolved and making it know publicly could have this sent to the back of the bus in this age of sexual exploration. The idea that within the celibate spirit is the gift of sexuality seem incomprehensive to most people.

Unlike the Islamic societies were sexuality is suppressed, religious and cultural beliefs are considered to be the reasons for women not being sexually active, living in the United States there exist a number of reasons for being celibate or what “is today assumed to be in the nature of a disease.”(sally p3) There are those who chose to place sexual activity on the bottom of their list of priorities in an attempt to find sexuality outside of the physical act of intercourse. Some may see themselves as sexually immature and would rather wait until the feel emotionally and physically capable to make the big plunge into the twenty first century’s idea of being sexually active. As mentioned by a twenty two year old woman, “I made a deliberate choice in my life that fits my psychological needs.”(H.P Masters, Johnson, Kolodny).The spread of the AIDS epidemic is a contributing factor in people choosing celibacy. Similar to the situation of a Islamic woman, some women within the United States might be restricted from the idea of sex due to religious principles. Why are these women not considered to be sexually suppressed as Islamic women are. What difference exist between an Islamic women being celibate and an American woman being celibate.

Apart from this idea of clitoretomy, which in my opinion could be debilitating both sexually and most importantly psychologically, the brief introduction above into the religious world of Catholics and Christians in America is quite similar in standardize expected of Islamic followers. Sex is tolerated within a marriage and is considered sinful outside of marriage. Islam, however, have placed the mandatory rule of virginity until marriage which is the prime target for western criticism. In western society it is a known religious notion which everyone is aware of, but is disregarded by everyone, that sex is not to be practice until marriage. Some people have a strong belief in this known notion and have held on to their virginity until marriage. The basketball player AC Green publicly announced that he is a virgin and was waiting for marriage, when he was close to the age of forty. Preserving one’s virginity for such a lengthy period is silently honored but openly criticized in the U.S because most people cannot avoid sex until marriage. Why do we criticize a society that regulates the practice of virginity until marriage. This seem to be the Godly thing to do.
In the present generation, the topic of the veil has become a focus of attention for many writers, both popular and academic. As stated in the book Conformity and Conflict, the veil is “often viewed by Westerners (including those who are not writers) as a symbol of female restriction and inequality and that of the slavery of one portion of humanity.” (C & C p253). These writers have prescribed the abolishment of the veil with the continual modernization of the Middle East. In their perspective “its return in Iran and in a number of Arab countries is a sure sign of retrogression.” (conformity and conflict P254). On the contrary, as in most countries, there are some things that serve as key symbols to each country and “the veil worn by women in the Middle East” serve as such a symbol.

The Quran verse that sanctions this barrier between the two opposite sexes states, “Prophet enjoin your wives, your daughters and the wives of true believers to draw their garments close round them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not molested. Allah is forgiving and merciful.” (C&C p255). A British explorer by the name of Sir Richard Burton is quoted as saying, the veil is “the most coquettish article of women’s attire… it conceals coarse skins, fleshy noses, wide mouths and vanishing chins, whilst it sets off to best advantage what in these lands is most lustrous and liquid-the eye.”(C&C p254). Within his statement, Sir Robert Burton is commenting on only one of the numerous reasons for the veil in the Middle East, the seductiveness. This might be the only reason people of the West and those of Islam would agree on. The multitude of other reasons would create great controversy.

First and foremost, “the veil has become a statement of difference between the Middle East and the Western world.” (C&C 255). Islamic Women have now opted to wear the veil to differentiate themselves from women of the West. The Washington Post reported that the wife of a Saudi Arabian ambassador said, “If I wanted to take it all off [the abbayah and veil], I would have long ago.” (C&C p256). For another population of women who have continued to wear the veil, it signaled a style that was generally admired, and it was a luxury women of the poorer class could not afford. Most of the women who wears the veil find delight and honor in wearing it and accept it willingly. They consider themselves very religious and by wearing the veil, they are making the statement, as Muhammed’s followers did in the past, that they are of a religious faith. In wearing the veil, they are also demanding the respect of others, nonverbally. The use of the veil is also used to distinguish between private and public sectors in society. While the veil is worn whenever a woman leaves the privacy of her home, it may be removed when immediate family is present. “Family life is hidden away from strangers; behind blank walls may lie courtyards and gardens, refuges from the heat, cold, and bustle of the outside world, the world of nonkin that is not to be trusted.” (C&C p257).

For must women who are currently residing in the United States, the idea of wearing clothing that conceal their external beauty, in particular their facial features, is one that sounds ludicrous and repulsive. They could never in their sometimes curious and exploring imagination, visualize themselves wearing such an article of clothing. The thought of such an event seem reflective of the past, prior to the feminist movement which instilled the recognition of women on a global scale. From raging curiosity, I questioned several American women an their opinion of the veil, some having direct experience and knowledge of the Muslim religion and culture, while others knowledge were based on what they acquired from the commercial media and hearsay. One program I can clearly recall showed a woman being publicly beaten for unveiling herself. The question I presented to them was, would you consider wearing a veil? One woman who once had the experience of dating an African Muslim stated, “It is a restriction. Why should I wear a veil because my husband says so.” This opinion seemed to be the dominate thought of most of the woman I asked the question. The word confinement seem to linger at the tip of their tongues. Another woman who lived for several months with a partner who was Muslim stated, “I do not understand the significance of the veil, therefore I would not wear it.” She believed that if you don’t under the religion and the reason behind wearing a veil, one should not indulge in such a practice. These women seem to have established preconceived ideas about the veil, without thought thorough research. There was one individual however that possessed somewhat of a different perspective, my professor. Speaking to my European American professor, who has great knowledge on Islamic culture and religion through extensive studies, actual visits to Egypt, and many experiences wearing a veil, her opinion was that, it was fine wearing the veil when she was in Egypt, however her lifestyle in American restricts her from such seemingly pleasurable practice. Another classmate proclaimed she has a veil and have wore it, however, she could not wear a veil on a daily basis. She also profess that her boyfriend find the veil as a sexual stimulus, which brings us to the question of, is the veil seductive?

Looking at question of if the veil is seductive, it is of importance to take a look in human sexuality and what makes a woman appeal to a man. By saying human sexuality, one may come to a conclusion that this is purely the act of sexual intercourse, which is an understatement many individuals have made. Emotion is a significant portion of human sexuality. What better way to find emotional love or to separate the physical love from emotional love than through the idea of the unknown. “We cannot possibly understand sexuality if we ignore the reasons that lead people to engage in sex.”. Human sexuality incorporates both the psychological and social aspects. We must take into account the growth of both the mental and emotional thoughts the two individuals in a relationship experience for each other. Certainly, human sexuality consists of more than one category. These feelings and thoughts consist of much more than the physical act of sex. It is the growth of emotional bonding that drives them closer to each other in understanding each others thoughts without someone expressing their thoughts verbally. The veil is the ideal method to eliminating physical attraction and finding emotional togetherness.

Most of the women I questioned had little knowledge about of the cultural significance of the veil. The opinions are based on what is prescribed by others and have now become their own. Information about the Middle East and other countries where the veil is prevalent are obtained through one source. The media. The media is the best way to control the thought process of people who only rely solely on it for information. Without these individuals going on their own to obtain more information, their thoughts while remain the same.

Reflecting back to my mid-teenage years, I can recall once meeting the niece of a close friend who for the first time in my minimal life experience, spoke to me and my best friend about the Muslim faith. At that time, being a youth and inconsiderate of others perspective of religion and lifestyle, I listened to her, however, I ignored everything she said to me that day. Her words came in through my left ear and proceeded directly to my right ear, where they made an exist. This being my first introduction to the faith of Islam was hampered by my ignorance and I was left still illiterate about the Islamic faith and the people who practice it.

As I grew up, my knowledge of Islam progressed from being very naïve to seeing, (quite frequently) young black males dressed in black suits and a bow-tie on the corners of major intersections within the black community, I resided in, selling newspapers as I can recall them stating, “My brother, read about what the white man don’t want you to know.” I then began hearing of Malcolm X who educated himself while he was incarcerated and emerged from behind the prison cell a member of the Muslin faith (as I was unaware of the varies Muslim groups) making strong and explicit statements such as “We didn’t land on Plymouth rock, Plymouth rock landed on us.” Simultaneously, the name Louis Farrakhan was made a part of my vocabulary. My knowledge remained very limited, however, because I was unaware of the numerous Islamic countries in the Middle East.

From these exposures and numerous others, as I grew older, I became curious about the Islamic faith and its followers. I made several preconceived judgments about the Muslim faith which after the initiation of my writing workshop 2 class, some of my thoughts were proven correct and others were incorrect. There was one thing in particular that had always stimulated my senses and a strong, uninhibited curiosity evolved whenever I saw a women of the Islamic faith. The idea of the Veil. From my research I have gained tremendous knowledge about this article of clothing and also discovered that finding a book that speaks of Islam in a positive manner can be a tiresome job.

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