I've always wondered why I liked Lady Macbeth so much, and I think it's because of this whole thing:
"...Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,"
Unsex me here! Maybe it was the baby feminist within me as I read Macbeth in high school (I feel like 10th grade), but I just loved that line...of course, she's talking about, you know, preparing herself for murder, but, you know...
Unsex me here...way to go, Shakespeare!
That's what I thought about as I read an interview with Shaykh Suhaib Webb on Altmuslimah last week or so:
One thing is to go back to the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) – his community was a very human community. Women would come to him and ask questions, and the religious outlook towards men and women was not sexualized by the Prophet (peace be upon him). What we’ve done is reinforce medieval religious constructs, which impart this strange, sexual way of looking at each other. I think we have to be very careful about who speaks to our youth about sensitive sexual topics, and we have to reinforce the idea of being the servants of God and human beings before being sex objects. Desexualizing women, in particular, is also very important...
When we look at women as only a potential fitna, or a potential iman destroyer, it becomes very problematic, and we often send the wrong message to Muslim women. - Shaykh Suhaib Webb, "Muslims Need to Start Branching Out into Social Services," Altmuslimah.com
Desexualizing women? Hmm, that's interesting. Interesting and oh so called for.
Of course, Muslims are not the only ones that do this. I know of few cultures that have not oversexualized women in one way or the other. We can certainly see it in the West, where it has been normalized in the last century that women wear less clothing than men. It's not the clothing that's the issue, ultimately. I would argue that such oversexualization was minimal if existent even in cultures where men and women wore loin-cloths, women with their breasts exposed as compared to here unnamed Muslim societies where a woman in hijab can be expected to be verbally assaulted with lewd comments if she walks down the street. Umm, cough. It's the attitudes that go along with the clothing that determine the oversexualization...
...and so many of us Muslims, yes, are guilty of this. I remember once a brother stating that he was annoyed by even being in the presence of "sisters," saying that hearing their high-pitched speech and laughter tempted him and made him only think of marriage when around them. And by marriage, of course he means sex...
And herein lies the danger. Not only are potential interactions with fellow Muslims undermined with these attitudes, but marriage is falsely equated with sex...there is sex in marriage, yes, but marriage is so much more than that. And I feel like attitudes like, "I hear giggling Muslim women and all I think about is marriage," is a terrible reduction of this very important institution in our religion.
Oversexualization is a mug.
This is certainly not the case with all Muslims...but I think enough of us are like this that yes, as the good Shaykh stated, we need to do something about it in our communities. It is absolutely ridiculous that a Muslim man can be around non-Muslim women who, while running or in the summer, are outside with much of their bodies bared, and then when it comes to the modest sister in his own MSA, avoid her because of thoughts of "marriage." How utterly unproductive and paradoxical.
This is definitely the topic for youth discussions, as Shaykh Webb called for. However, I would recall the tactics in the Taleef Collective and also stress the importance of getting to the Muslims at the margins as well. The Muslims who will likely not show up for MSA meetings or go to the mosque actually are not nominal Muslims only as some may be led to believe. They identify as Muslims but they're in transition, they're trying to find their place, perhaps wanting to be embraced but don't know where to fit in. Getting to these young people (and when I say young people, I include the 15-24 demographic) and talking about these very relevant issues in their religion is essential...
There are some events that are segregated according to level of practice, but I don't think such discussions should be. So many Muslims I know have been hesitant to participate in, for example, my undergraduate MSA because of their wariness of the gender separation. For an MSA that impacts the optimum number of Muslim students, I think we need to reach out at those at the fringes...as one who lived at the fringe and so much desired to be "in," but never quite made it.
But the desexualization of women...that's a toughie. A lot goes into that and it has to do with the attitudes of both genders. I don't believe in the "I could be naked before you and you shouldn't look," school, and I don't ascribe to the "men cannot control themselves" school, either. Puh-leese. Certain things may make it hard for you, but you can surely control yourself. As a woman, I can't say what goes through your head, but knowing men (maybe too much about their sex lives), being friends with men, I know that men are capable of controlling themselves, yes, even if a naked woman is before them, so Muslim men should definitely be able to control themselves before a clothed Muslim woman.
Too much of the onus of morality is placed on females and then, placed on pieces of cloth. We are followers of the religion of people who think. Clothing, yes, is a part of modesty but modesty is so much more than that. And we are also followers of the religion of the middle path, yet too many of us stray from the middle path in favor of the easier to determine, more extreme path. And I think that's why women are oversexualized. No sex before marriage? Oh, that's easy...find ways to avoid women, having to look at them, having to cross their paths.
The middle path is hard, but this is the path Allah (swt) has meant for us. We are humans, and we stray from this path, but what we need to realize is that straying is legitimate straying in either direction. We may be more comfortable on the right than the left, but the real balance of our faith, because it is a balancing act for sure, is staying on that middle path...
Sex neutralizing women and encouraging balanced, modest gender relations is just one of the ways that we Muslims can be more moderate, and it will benefit all of us and those around us as well.