If it were not for God’s beautiful veiling, if it were not for God covering you beautifully, no deed you do would be worthy of acceptance.
Hikam 131 of Ibn Ata’illah
I’m working on a piece on Islam and sexuality education for a magazine and so many things are coming up: questions about gender, the sexual rights of each partner, pleasure, safety, cultural constructions of gendered privilege, so many things that I want to explore. I’m also thinking about the different ways we conceive of modesty, shame, and haya, an Arabic term for ‘shyness.’
One aspect of this that I am slowly unpacking is the question of why certain things are good to cover. This applies literally to bodies, where parts of men’s and women’s bodies are covered by clothing, as well as to private spaces within the home and even spaces of increasing privacy as one moves through the home, such as bedrooms. It also applies metaphorically to deeds–we hope that our bad deeds will remain covered, and consider it laudable when one Muslim ‘covers’ the bad deeds of another by not talking about them. It also applies to good deeds, like giving charity anonymously. Spouses are referred to as ‘garments’ in the Qur’an, covering one another, providing a sense of mutual comfort and safety.
When thinking about bodies, what becomes problematic for me is the notion that our bodies should be covered because they are shameful. Shame, to me, has more to do with humiliation and judgment than, for example, embarrassment. We are embarrassed when we have done something wrong or bad–however defined–but we are ashamed when we judge that what we have done makes us wrong or bad, or is a reflection of our wrongness or badness. Of course, the idea of women’s bodies as bad, dirty, or shameful is deeply rooted in Western culture even today (and it’s pervasive: I heard a doctor give a lecture recently where he said “we know how dirty vaginas are”). In Muslim cultures, to varying degrees, this view is shared and perpetuated.
But are bodies “bad” or “dirty” in Islam itself? That is, to what extent does the religious tradition deviate from cultural understandings? Do we cover parts of our body because those parts are “bad”, and it therefore “shameful” to expose them? How do notions of purity and impurity with regard to what comes out of bodies influence perceptions of the places where they exit? For Muslims living in the West, how do certain western discourses of the shamefulness of women’s bodies influence our understandings in ways that are actually contradictory to our faith tradition (though perhaps not cultural traditions)?
My understanding is that bodies are not “bad,” and that we are absolutely meant to celebrate our bodies, and for spouses to mutually enjoy one another’s bodies. Covering is not about shame, but more about safety, where by safety I mean the protection of our personal space and establishment of our boundaries, where boundaries separate the privacy of our bodies (and therefore permit the sharing of bodies with those who, like garments, create and maintain feelings of safety and comfort) from becoming part of shared public spaces, which are governed by different sets of rules and understandings. Modesty is the embodied practice, the expressed habitus of circumscribing which behaviors are meant for public spaces and which for private.
As Muslims we’re encouraged to have the right amount of shyness, or haya. Haya is a desirable trait, what Dr. Umar calls the earnest desire to do what is right, and then recognizing and feeling remorse when we have not done the right thing. Haya is also frequently translated as “shame.” But does it mean the same thing?
I think a major challenge today, and not just for Muslim women but for all women, is to explore, question, and challenge discourses that promote their bodies as inherently shameful or dirty. Having a clear understanding of the vocabulary which is used to describe bodies–and especially where Arabic terms and their English translations carry different implications–is a critical component of this process. A deeper exploration of Islamic conceptions of sexuality, including ideas of pleasure and ideas of emotional safety, are so important. Men need to be involved in this process as well, questioning their own assumptions and exploring what marriage, partnership, emotional safety, and pleasure mean to them. Thankfully, we have a great deal of material within the Islamic text and tradition itself to stimulate discussion and to question our cultural understandings of shame, as long as we can overcome the cultural beliefs that these discussions are in themselves shameful.