Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society

BEYOND THE VEIL
  • Book Title:
 Beyond The Veil
  • Book Author:
Fatema Mernissi
  • Total Pages
197
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BEYOND THE VEIL – Book Sample

New Introduction: Why Does the Veil Scare Europe? Introduction: Roots of the Modern Situation

Part One

The Traditional Muslim View of Women and Their Place in the Social Order

  1. The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality
  2. Regulation of Female Sexuality in the Muslim Social Order
  3. Sex and Marriage Before Islam

Part Two

Anomic Effects of Modernization on Male–Female Dynamics

  • The Modern Situation: Moroccan Data
  • Sexual Anomie As Revealed by the Data
  • Husband and Wife
  • The Mother-in-Law
  • The Meaning of Spatial Boundaries
  • The Economic Basis of Sexual Anomie in Morocco 162 Conclusion: Women’s Liberation in Muslim Countries

Notes Index

Why Does the Veil Scare Europe?

The Female Body as the Sacred Community Link that Defies Consumerism

What is the event, unimaginable thirty years ago, that is worth mentioning in my new introduction to the reprint of Beyond the Veil, my Ph.D dissertation published in 1975?

 I quietly introduced this question in my seemingly aimless conversations with my old friend and colleague, Kamal, during one of our long weekend walks on the enchanting beaches of Casablanca. Kamal always complains that I use our beach walks to force him to think hard instead of relaxing.

 And he was right again, because after our conversation, I realised that the unimaginable event thirty years ago was that the veil has become a fixation of our twenty-first-century, secular, Western man.

To use France as an example, one of the obsessions of Mr Sarkozy, the president of France, and his cabinet ministers, who repeat constantly that their government’s job is to defend laicité (preventing religion from invading public space) is to debate the Muslim veil question.

 But there is a contradiction in this, in that by debating the veil one is immersing oneself in the essence of what religion is about: the need to control narcissistic, pleasure-focused, sexual individualism. So, by insisting on debating the veil non-stop, Mr Sarkozy and his government have introduced religion into the public space that they were supposed to protect. How else can we explain this schizophrenic contradiction?

I would like to suggest that the sudden and obsessive twenty-first-century debates among European heads of state, governments and parliaments about the veil in fact reveal a compulsive need to deal with the unconscious fear of demographic extinction. Since ‘pleasure has been promoted to the rank of a new god in the Old Continent’1, people worry that Europeans no longer care about reproducing themselves. The demographic fear of being invaded by Muslims – invoked for instance by those who advance the ‘Eurabia’ scenario – does not make sense, given the tiny size of this community in the overall European population, except as a projection of their fear of self-inflicted annihilation implied by the constant marketing of narcissistic pleasure.2

In his book Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, Robert Muchembled asked on page 5, ‘what is pleasure and what purpose does it serve?’, and concluded on page 257 that the market’s narcissistic focus on self-gratification forces people to swallow Viagra instead of thinking about reproducing themselves:

Never have the people of the West been so powerfully oriented and determined by their group as at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Individualism appears to triumph, but individuals are doomed by the laws of the economic market and the tyranny of the orgasm to become athletes in personal success, constantly required to demonstrate to others that they can do even better.3

We therefore need to go back to focusing on why the Muslim veil was introduced in the seventh century. The Purpose of the Seventh-Century Muslim Veil: Narcissistic Individualism Destroys Community Building

As I explained in the first part of my book, The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality, quoting Imam Bukhari, in pre-Islamic Mecca, indiscriminate group sex was practiced by many, and women offered themselves in the streets to attractive men (wahabat nafsaha), including the prophet himself, who was particularly handsome: ‘A woman came to the prophet and said, “I offer myself to you.”’4

 His long, polite silence revealed his total lack of interest, which is why Islam limited women’s right to initiate any kind of marriage contract by bringing in a wali (guardian) from her family.

Matriarchy was the rule for the powerless tribes unable to defend their women and most children had no identifiable genetic father, thus belonging to the mother’s tribe. Islam stopped narcissistic, pleasure-focused individualism, to focus instead on reproduction by limiting the female body to one single partner to give him a chance to become a father.

Handsome men were forced to veil their beauty under a protective, mask-like, heavy turban (al-muta’amimun) to avoid being pursued by women in Mecca, explained Habib al-Baghdadi in a section entitled ‘The Men who had to Use Turbans as Veils for Fear of Being Attacked by Women because of their Beauty!’5 The word for turban (amama) means ‘what you cover your head with … a piece of material you put around the head once or many times.’6

And al-Baghdadi proceeded to name the handsome men who resorted to transforming their turban into a burqu, literally a face-mask just like the one President Sarkozy is trying to ban in his freedom-nurturing, secular republic.7

The Prophet defined this pre-Islamic period as Jahiliya (which literally means ‘barbarism’), where unbridled, narcissistic, sexual consumerism ruled and where women reduced men to anonymous sexual commodities and denied them the right to fatherhood.

Only militarily powerful, aristocratic tribes such as the Quraish, the tribe of the Prophet, could afford to bring both men and women to control their desire (hawa) by developing their reason (‘aql), in order to focus on reproduction and practice the patriarchal marriage that Islam imposed as the norm. Din, the Arabic word for religion, means both to calculate (hissab) and to subjugate one’s soul (nafs), and to make it accountable (hasabaha).8

The genius of Islam is that it acknowledges that men are the weak partners who cannot resist women’s charms, explained Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya in his thirteenth-century book, Garden of Lovers. Meditating on the Koran verse, ‘He [God] created the human being weak’9, he interpreted it as meaning that it is the man who is fragile because ‘if he looks at women he can’t restrain himself’. No wonder that many centuries later in 1994, the modern Arab scholar, Dr Mohamed Hassan Abdallah, who has written one of the best books on love, quoted our Imam and added that ‘it is clear that the male lacks self-sufficiency and needs the woman.’10

 I can’t stop smiling when I notice that Dr Abdallah’s books are among those constantly sold on the street by the doors of the Rabat mosques. This reassures me because I defended the same theory in this very book when I claimed that ‘the hazali’s interpretation of the Koran, casts the woman as the hunter and the man as the passive victim.’11 ng

I could not imagine thirty years ago was the emergence of sexually aggressive Muslim women, who flag the veil as a symbol of the need to control desire, in the Digital Islam Galaxy.

The First Veil Law in the East was that of Hammurabi’s in 1790 BC

The Eastern males’ obsession with the veiling of women’s bodies – as a way to put a certain limit on the unbridled desire to consume in general, and sex in particular – did not start with Islam. Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon, a city not far from modern Baghdad from 1796 to 1750 BC, imposed the veil for aristocratic women and forbade prostitutes from using it in his famous code.

Dated to 1790 BC, the Hammurabi Code regulates sexual consumerism by dividing the female population into consumable commodities and inaccessible goods: ‘Neither wives of seigniors nor widows nor Assyrian women who go out on the street may have their heads uncovered. The daughters of a seignor … must veil themselves … when they go out on the street alone …

A sacred prostitute whom a man married must veil herself on the street, but one whom a man did not marry must have her head uncovered on the street; she must not veil herself. A harlot must not veil herself, her head must be uncovered … He who has seen a harlot veil must arrest her …’13

Hammurabi’s veil law stemmed from the fact that gods were disputing power in the sky with goddesses such as ‘Gracious Ishtar, who rules the universe … mighty Ishtar … who opens the wombs of women.’14 This meant that in 1790 BC, unbridled consumerism of unveiled women’s bodies went together with matriarchy. Only women knew who the real father of the child in their wombs was.

 Men could only guess. Apparently this did not change in the East for centuries, since the Prophet Muhammad had to fight the same problem. But Islam’s strategy was that of an amazingly foresighted, visionary prophet, who dreamt of a universal community centuries before digital globalization: All women, regardless of sex and race, were to be considered as wonderful gifts because their wombs were moon-connected.15

 Muhammad imposed the lunar calendar on conquered Mecca because it forced Muslims to dismiss spatial frontiers, ethnic castes and class hierarchies as utterly irrelevant, and to focus on the moon-connected and womb-nurtured universal origin.

Islam’s Veil Invites the Sexes to Collaborate: Only if Women Put a Limit on Sexual Pleasure Can the Father’s Identity be Ascertained

In seventh-century, pre-Islamic Mecca, just as in Hammurabi’s Babylon, only aristocratic men like those in the Prophet’s own tribe of Quarish and their clan had the right to patriarchal marriage, where the woman limited herself to one husband. And only they retained the privilege to circle around the temple while wearing their clothes and forced outsiders ‘to circumambulate nude’ (yatufuna ‘urat)16.

Not only were outsiders of both sexes forced to walk around naked in Mecca before the Muslim veil, but the very nakedness of women implied that indiscriminate group sex excluded body privacy, which is the basis of civilized, individual, human dignity: ‘They all circumambulated the house naked.

As for women, they laid aside all their clothes except a wide open drape they used when marching around the house. A woman from the Arab tribes, who was circumambulating, thus said: “Today some or all of it can be seen, but what can be seen I do not allow to be consumed”. This was their custom until Allah sent the Prophet Muhammad, prayer be upon him and peace.’17

Often, women were prevented from having any piece of cloth when walking around the sacred shrine: ‘When a woman went round naked she would put one hand behind and the other in front’18, all while repeating that what was visible was not to be consumed.

As Imam Bukhari explained in his Sahih and which I quote in my book, group sex marriages, where the woman could entertain relations either with a group of less than ten men or consume a limitless number of partners, degraded men to animal-like anonymity.19

Fatherhood, which implied that the woman limited her sexual desire to consuming only her husband’s body was a rare privilege, since children belonged to the mother’s tribe in general.20

Seventh-century Islam, summarizes Ahmed Amin in his brilliant book, The Dawn of Islam (Fajr al Islam), put an end to Jahiliya – the idol-worshipping, emotionally-chaotic, pre-Islamic time where ‘consuming pleasures had no limits’ – to a new era where ‘consumerism has to be restrained’ and where ‘individual freedom has to be limited by a series of constraints’.21

Unlike Hammurabi, the Muslim Prophet generalized the aristocratic privilege of wearing clothes around the temple, which until then had been the privilege of the rich: ‘This state of affairs lasted until God sent Muhammad’.

And He revealed to him the new laws the Koran verse stated clearly: ‘Sons of Adam, wear your clothes at every mosque and eat and drink and be not prodigal, for He loves not approve of excessive spending. Say who has forbidden the clothes that God has brought forth for His servants and the good things which He had provided?’22

 The women’s veil has therefore to be considered in its historical context, where the aristocrats forced strangers to go nude.

If the right to walk around the temple fully clothed granted the right of all individuals to body privacy, the woman’s he quasi-sacred duty to control the desire to consume sexual pleasures (hawa) in order to build an invisible universal community that needs no physical police to maintain its survival.

If everyone is constantly aware of the duty to fight desire, identified as the big jihad (al jihad al akbar), there is no need for a clergy nor for a state police to weave together strangers in a secure community. All you need is to raise your eyes to the sky to focus on the moon-cycle, wherever you are geographically located, to remind yourself that all humans come from a mother’s womb attuned to this planet.23 Digital technology magnified this cosmic dimension of the umma, the universal community, which now dwarfs the territorial basis of the secular European states and identifies their consumerism as a dangerous irrational barbarism.

Conclusion: Islam as a Religion (Din) Invites the Individual to Nurture his Community by Controlling his Desire

Another event unimaginable three decades ago is the upsurge of Muslim women, veiled or not, as sexually aggressive, strategic players in our twenty-first-century ‘Islam Digital Galaxy’, starting with their unexpected invasion of the 500 Pan-Arab satellite channels wherein Arab male princes invested their oil wealth, hoping to maximize their own power.

The anxiety-ridden issues debated in what I call our twenty-first-century ‘Islam Digital Galaxy’ – the satellite, information- connected umma (Muslim community) – include topics such as ‘cyber infidelity’.

‘According to a recent study conducted by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center, about 40 percent of the country’s internet users admit to having had at least one “deceitful” cyber relationship.’24 Of course, many experts trace the staggering increase of the divorce rate in Egypt, where ‘an Egyptian couple files for divorce every six minutes, with a third of marriages breaking up in the first year,’ to this ‘cyber-infidelity’.25

And male Imams are no longer the only authority figures to issue fatwas, a word which means to seek knowledge by asking authorities. Female psychologists and sexologists have emerged as attractive alternative sources of information for Arab youth.

‘One of a handful of Egyptian sex therapists, [Heba] Qutb has become a household name from her constant appearances on satellite television’, explains Egyptian magazine journalist Manal el-Jesri, who was impressed by the marketing dimension of the veil when a woman decided to use it as a seduction tool in her advertising strategy.26

 Not only does Dr Qutb manage to excite her talk show viewers by insisting as a veiled woman on a ‘frank discussions of sex and a woman’s right to sexual pleasure’, but she also makes sure to advertise her private clinic on her website: ‘Her clinical schedule is booked three months in advance, and she has recently spoken at conferences in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.’27

The striking thing about Dr Qutb’s marketing strategy is that it consists of three combined components: the veil, sex talk and digital media. Not only does she make sure to wear a veil when anchoring her show on the satellite channel, she also arms herself with a laptop to emphasize her mastery of digital technology: ‘For example, one bride-to-be got some mixed up idea of what to expect from sex. She came to me and I opened my laptop and was pointing out the female sex organs to her.’28

A surprising thing is that the veiled women the European Parliaments are talking about are supposed to be weak victims, who have nothing in common with the aggressively independent, Muslim women who have invaded Islam’s digital galaxy.

 Take the brilliant Ms Michèle Alliot-Marie – the French Minister of Justice who was born in 1946 when her country was emerging from the chaos of World War II, and who managed to be ‘the first woman to lead a major French political party’ and the first to hold the position of Minister of Defence. I was surprised to hear her declare to the press in the spring of 2010 that the motivation behind the law forbidding the burqa was that ‘dans notre esprit, les femmes sont plutôt victims.’29

Yet, this vision of the veiled women as victims is constantly being challenged: ‘The Justice Minister brought a bill banning face-covering veils to the Cabinet Wednesday. Muslim women wearing veils took the unusual step of protesting the measure by holding a news conference.’30

Evidently, there is a clashing vision of femininity since the Muslim women wearing the veil decided to rush to the media to protest, which means that they are not as weak as the French Minister thinks.

Similarly, one reason why clients flock to Dr Heba Qutb’s private practice, where the sign on the door announces that she is a ‘Sex Therapist and Marriage Counselor’, is that she hosts her show, ‘The Big Talk’, on the Egyptian satellite channel, Al Mehwar, elegantly veiled.31 Every Saturday night she appears as ‘a pleasant Muslim woman, smiling with conspiratorial charm’.32

This is why there is a need for all of us, Easterners and Westerners, to come together to probe more deeply these clashing visions of femininity about the women behind the veil.

 It is worth mentioning, if only to put the French banning of the veil in perspective, that the ‘Muslim population, estimated at more than 5 million, is the largest in Western Europe’, and that ‘according to an Interior Ministry estimate, the veil issue concerns fewer than 2,000 women in a country of 64 million inhabitants.’33 In addition, many of the 2,000 women who choose to hide their faces behind a burqa are not Muslim migrants but daughters of 100 percent French parents.

I really think that it is time for Europe to shower prizes on the women who decide to agitate in favor of the veil in their countries, because they are forcing that country’s citizens to reflect on the real meaning of freedom and consumerism: is a person who is constantly bombarded g independent individual? In fact, this is the question that we must all tackle together, Easterners and Westerners, because, as the American

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