Islam and Feminism: Through the lens of modesty


Islam and Feminism: Through the lens of modesty


Amongst the many topics “trending” in the Muslim community today is the relationship between Islam and feminism. The camps are many, with blistering debate from all sides. While Zara Faris argues that the two are incompatible at an ideological level i.e. “Islamic feminism” is an oxymoron, others, such as Shelina Janmohamed, have argued that the issue is with mainstream “white” feminism – it ignores the struggles of women of colour and faith by patronising them.  Still others argue that feminism and Islam are compatible and can work together to alleviate oppression against women in many parts of the world (islamandfeminism.org).

[pullquote]Female beauty has been used in advertising to peddle merchandise, turning women’s bodies into tools for making money; after all “sex sells”.[/pullquote]The aim of this article is not to reject wholesale the work of feminists, especially those who acknowledge the diversity that exists amongst women in terms of culture and faith (see intersectional feminism), but to examine one of the central issues that feminists have with Islamic ideology: the concept of modesty. This is often manifested in mainstream feminism’s rejection of the head scarf or the face veil as oppressive to women, and is often rebutted by a defence of Muslim women’s right to wear what they want without being policed by others.

However, this defence panders to liberal and individualist ideology from which feminism stems and ignores the central issue, which is that feminism rejects the value of modesty itself as repressive. So whilst a person is free to do what they want under liberalism, it still advocates for certain lifestyles and behaviours. This is the underlying tension between Islamic ideology and secular ideology; whereas Islam advocates for social cohesion and the duty of the individual to God and society, liberalism advocates for the interests of the individual over that of society i.e. individualism. This does not mean, however, that Muslims cannot live in a secular society, as Islam emphasises the civil duty of a Muslim to abide by the laws of the land in which they live.

Coming back to the central theme of modesty, what is the inherent issue that feminism has with this concept? When modesty is translated as dressing in a way that does not attract sexual attention, feminists argue, first, that sexual openness between genders is not an issue of morality, and, second, that it should not be a woman’s responsibility to dress in a certain way to avoid sexual attention. From an Islamic perspective, sexual openness is damaging to the fabric of a community, which is built upon the family unit.

Sexual relations are sacred and confined to the institution of marriage because sex is an intimate act that has much greater implications on one’s psychology and well-being. Furthermore, sexual relations do not operate in a vacuum. In a society where a woman’s worth is judged by her attractiveness to a man, sexual openness only encourages “lad culture” and the degradation of women. Hence, Islam does have a code of sexual ethics that regulates inter-gender relations in order to develop a culture of respect and dignity between human beings.

As for the unfairness of mandating modest dress on women, even secular nations have different standards for men and women. For example, a woman cannot expose her chest in a public place while a man can. Hence, one cannot argue that mandatory covering is unfair on the basis of double standards. More crucial is the point that covering up actually takes away the power of the male gaze and does not allow men to manipulate women’s bodies based on their desires.

Female beauty has been used in advertising to peddle merchandise, turning women’s bodies into tools for making money; after all “sex sells”. Thus limiting one’s beauty to the private sphere is a rejection of this form of harassment and manipulation.

Furthermore, modesty in Islam is part and parcel of the philosophy of being a Muslim. It is to eschew vanity and ostentation in all areas of one’s life, including dress. Hence, modesty is essential to both men and women in Islam, although it may manifest in different ways. The Qur’an gives the social responsibility of modesty to men first:

“Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do. And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests…” (24:30-31)

In the above verse, “reduce some of their vision” is often translated as “lower their gaze”, which can be interpreted in a very literal sense i.e not to look at the opposite gender at all. However, scholars have explained that it is in reality a command not to stare at each other with lust or in a flirtatious manner, thus placing the onus on the man not to sexually objectify women before commanding women to be modest. One failing of religious communities is the selective application of the notion of modesty to women only, while it can be seen that, Islamically, men are equally responsible for their own behaviour. Men acting in inappropriate ways are given the excuse of “youthful folly” or “boys will be boys”, while women are instantly shunned or shamed for similar behaviour. This is not of the akhlaq or Islamic etiquette that has been prescribed by God.

[pullquote]Modesty is a key value within Islam, and cannot be separated from its teachings.[/pullquote]Another feminist argument is that Islam objectifies women by comparing them to flowers and pearls, as objects of beauty. This sort of analogy is often used by rape apologists to blame the victim. For example, in the recent documentary “India’s Daughter” about the gang rape of medical student Jyoti Singh, one of the defence lawyers argued that, “A female is just like a flower…if you put that flower in a gutter, it is spoilt; if you put that flower in a temple, it will be worshipped”.  However, the first part of the statement must be separated from the second part, which is an assumed logical conclusion according to the lawyer.

Nowhere in Islam has it been said that a woman who does not dress modestly deserves to be raped, or that it is a natural consequence of her being dressed that way. The analogy to pearls and flowers in Islam is not a devaluation of women to mere beautiful objects; rather it is a statement of their intrinsic spiritual beauty and value in God’s eyes. Thus, any sort of victim blaming or shaming in rape is not an Islamic attitude, but a cultural attitude that can still be seen in some religious communities.

Modesty is a key value within Islam, and cannot be separated from its teachings. I have deliberately avoided using the word hijab for modesty, because it has become synonymous with the headscarf, and the head scarf has become much more about our identity as Muslim women rather than the value of modesty. Hijab is a philosophy of life that applies to both men and women, and without this understanding, the headscarf remains an accessory to complement an outfit, rather than an expression of modesty and devotion to God. When it is attacked as oppressive by secular feminists, we cannot just defend it as a matter of Muslim identity or a violation of civil liberties, but as a manifestation of this core value of Islam: modesty.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Funny that those not wearing the hijab / headscarf are the first to jump to interpret its social symbolism and inherent meaning. Any rational empiricist would frown upon such instances of ‘freedom entitlement’ (sense of entitlement that stems from thinking one’s self freer, more liberal than others). To such people, it doesn’t matter that many Muslims PREFER to practice modesty. This conditioning to interpret every phenomenon through the prism of one’s history, culture and traditions is the real oppression. It’s ‘thought’ oppression.

  • I would agree with the feminists stance that hijab and Islamic modesty is repressive. Hijab represses a female’s entitlement to show her hair which is not even sexual and Islamic modesty represses a female’s need to be comfortable, encourages burden on her to not draw sexual attention and encourages the ideal qualities of purity and innocence which are objectifying as well. It also encourages Muslim men to not accept women’s bodies and not acknowledge that women are sexual beings as well.

  • Sexual openness is not corrosive to family structure. Many societies in the past had great sexual openness such as ancient Greece or French Polynesia yet still managed to have very strong family structure. Sex is also not an intimate act for everyone as many people who indulge in it do it for pleasure and fun driven by hormones especially during their teenage years. This applies for both females and males. Sexism, lack of gender cohesion and apathy encourages lad culture not sexual openness. Lad culture is also lower in men who have close female friends as well. So gender cohesion is very important. I would even argue that gender segregation encourages sexism as well. I also like to note that even in a sexual openness society not everyone will partake in sex as many would still value things like relationships and intimacy more important. So we have to understand the diversity of these behaviors and nature of individuals and not think that the idea of sexual openness will drive the entire society into an orgy.

    • Yes Ancient Greek times it may have been more sexually open from heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual to
      even orgies. But, that was all mostly practiced by men and it was known that during such times society was very patriachal. Family life was strong to some extent. Women were meant to be married at a young age when they reach puberty to men much older. Further, young boys before they reached puberty were considered the best to engage in homosexual relationships with older men. It was seen as attractive if there was a very young boy and an much older man together, when the boys grow hair it wasent seen as attractive thus, dismissed usually (body image preference brings ideal types and expectations). Also there was slaves who were mainly ‘exoctic’ looking, the name slaves and roles what comes with that you must know what it entials. Therefore it does not prove sexual openness brings any form of gender acceptance and equality. Look at the ancient greek art and literature it proves it itself.

      If gender segregation brings sexism would you say people who attend all boys schools or boarding/private schools are sexist? Surely you cannot pinpoint a major amount of male populations who grow up in gender segregation schools being sexist based on that argument.

      Sexual openness can blur lines (as from past example) between what can or cannot happen between people. If your fully open about something with no boundaries how will you know when to stop? As with everything we do in society we must do things moderately that is the key word here. As the Quran says “And thus We have made you a moderate Ummah (nation)..” [Quran]. Further there is am aspect in Islam called Wasatiyyah meaning moderation Islam.

      Therefore, I will have to disagree with your argument. One key and great thing is to be a feminist should be about understanding there is no absolute, definite way of being a true feminist. In being a ‘true feminist’ you must allow women to be what they want to be and practice their gender the way they like and if that includes ecompassing religion as part of their gender identity then be it. We must not confirm gender equality for one person over another. Gender inequality is not a single lens and so the answer to gender equality should not be also.