Friday, December 14, 2007

On Modesty...

So last night I was at Barnes and Noble not studying wireless communications. I wanted to read, and the most interesting book I picked up was this: A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit.

In fact, I read the first half of it while I was there and really really enjoyed the author's perspective. She is a Jewish woman who was raised in Wisconsin and as she explains early on in the book, was exempt from sex education classes in elementary and middle school. As she grew up, she found herself with a different sort of moral compass with regard to modesty--and which was most obvious in college, with regard to sex.

The book was written less than 10 years ago when the author was (I think) in her early twenties. Not much has changed since then. It's interesting from a lot of perspectives--you can probably find it in the 'Women's Studies' section of the bookstore or library, and it deals with a number of issues facing women today. And it's not turning out prudish minor versions of Ms. Manners, either. In fact, to me it was more about respect for women without degrading femininity.

Sometimes the world seems so crazy, with feminism attacking femininity, castrating masculinity and trying to produce a society devoid of gender distinction. A world, for example, where one society says that another is oppressing women by... calling them women! You see, recently I've explained to a couple different people that Islam actually does not oppress women, and acknowledging differences actually can improve cooperation, understanding, and foster happiness between men and women while the opposite... seems to have a more disastrous effect.

The author explores (through the portions of the book I can best remember) how women are taught to appreciate casual sex even though their natural reaction inclined them to feel degraded by it. How unfulfilling they found hooking-up with men, expectations to put out, with little emotional incentive to do so. She wrote about how the way men acted 200, 100, even 50 years ago towards women. Things certainly weren't "equal" with a man being strongly discouraged from visiting or talking to a woman he didn't know. If he wanted to meet her, he was supposed to go through a friend or relative. Acknowledgement on the street was not appropriate unless the woman initiated it!

Suffice to say, even though the author is not Muslim and hardly mentions Islam at all (I think I read "chador" once) as Islam was hardly in the minds of anyone 4 years before 9/11, what she talks about is very intriguing as a Muslimah living in America. And I think it should be for anyone who thinks that women in modest conservative societies are necessarily oppressed.

It's really an excellent read (though I admit I've only read half... can't wait to read the rest!) and so far I recommend it to anyone, to everyone. For women who are modest to appreciate their choices. And for those who aren't to reflect on their own (possible) dissatisfaction with life today.

I have more I want to write on this topic as well, but alas--I'm out of time. More to come inshaaAllah! (Though don't hesitate to comment!)


Maya said...

It is a good book, Shalit has published a second work recently as well.

Amy said...

Yes indeed: Girls Gone Mild. She has a blog for it even. A really interesting perspective, I think. Makes me think about modesty a new way, too.

Modern Muslimah said...

I'll see if I can find it at my local Borders. It sounds like an interesting read. Amy, the one issue that I have with your post is the way you describe feminism. There are different forms of feminism and not all (in fact most) aren't about attacking femininity and castrating masculinity or even producing a society devoid of gender distinction. In fact, just about every feminist I've met actually wants to engage with men because they believe that the only way to stop the oppression of women is to engage with men and find out the causes. As far as femininity is concerned, most of the feminists I've met are "feminine". They wear feminine clothes, wear makeup, etc.

I don't agree with everything that feminists do. For instance, I don't take issue with promoting modesty and I don't take issue with encouraging girls to wait (if I did, I'd be ignoring the Qur'an). I just think that often feminists get a bad rep that isn't deserved.

Amy said...

Salaam Faith,

It is an interesting read.

There are different forms of feminism and not all (in fact most) aren't about attacking femininity and castrating masculinity or even producing a society devoid of gender distinction.

There are different forms of feminism I guess, but I think where I run in to trouble is in using this word in the english language and properly articulating the meaning which I wish to convey. Feminism has branched in many ways, some good, some bad. In this post in particular I was describing a side of feminism viewed from the perspective of Wendy Shalit who authored the book. Nothing more than that, I think.

Thanks for your comment, I was interested in what you might have to say. Womens' studies isn't a major interest of mine, though I think it might be wise for me to take such an interest, especially for my study of Islam to better understand and discuss the brilliance of Islam when it comes to these matters.

Modern Muslimah said...

I have to admit that Wendy Shalit isn't a favorite of feminists in general. If you go to feminist blogs and do a search of her name, you won't find many kind things about her. I have to be honest and say that I think she does oversimplify feminism. I went to her blogs. I wonder if she understands feminism or if she ever took a women's studies course or gender studies course while in college.

She challenges girls to have respect for their bodies through modesty. That's great. I guess what bugs me about her views is that she doesn't challenge men or women to challenge their notions about women. I'm not saying that girls should go out have free love but I think she plays into the whole "virgin/whore" dichotomy that actually serves patriarchy. Men never have to deal with this issue. Men should be modest too.

Also, some of the issues that she deals with I don't think feminists would actually disagree with. For instance, her post on birth control and men not helping out with it. I don't know of any feminist that would say "Hey, of course I don't want you to pay for my bc because I'm independent." They would want men to take some responsibility for it. Just my two cents.