The Veil and Male Asceticism — Book Review Essay
Heath, Jennifer, Ed. (2008) The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
A woman’s body is a public entity. It is like a pebble dropped into a pool. A woman’s presence creates waves that radiate. Everyone who sees her – females as well as males –reacts to her physicality. This unavoidable reaction to a woman’s physical presence creates a philosophical and social issue that defines the character of an entire society. It is not a question of controlling the woman’s sexual feelings. She will be what she is and feel what she feels. The question is how much impact can we, the collective of males, allow that sensuality that she naturally radiates to have on males she comes in contact with? This is not the woman’s choice. A woman may have some choice in how she publicly presents herself, but the reaction of men to a woman’s body is not under the control of the woman. Of course, the reaction will vary depending on the man. One’s feelings in this matter are closely related to the degree of closeness and intimacy with a woman that a man finds tolerable as well as his constitutional sensitivity to erotic arousal. But it is the aggregate of men who decide how much of a woman’s body they will allow themselves to be exposed to, and then limitations are imposed upon all women in their public dress or undress to which they must then adapt.
Jennifer Heath compiled a very nice anthology of fairly short articles including two cartoons by twenty-one different female authors exploring the widely varied meanings of the veil as experienced by women from a broad range of cultures and religious perspectives.1 It is well illustrated with drawings and photographs that are very helpful. It is predominantly a contemporary treatment, although there are two historical pieces: one by Laurene Lafontaine, Out of the Cloister, and the cartoon, Nubo: The Wedding Veil, by Sarah Bell. The historical background that I am incorporating here came from external sources. I was rather dismayed at Heath’s recapitulation on the last two pages of the book following over three hundred pages of excellent, informative discussion, where she seems to dismiss the significance of her own book and importance of the veil as a cultural and political symbol.
Considering the real problems facing women, ideological battles about the veil are tragic wastes of time.
What a woman chooses to wear on her head should be trivial to anyone other than that woman herself.
[The veil] belongs only to the wearer. (Heath, p. 320-321)
As I pondered how she could make such a colossal error after the all of the rich discussion that preceded it, I realized that the strength of the book was also its deficiency. The strength of the book is the compilation of the perspectives of women who have experienced and lived with the veil in a wide variety of cultural contexts and how they have adapted to it and incorporated it into their feminine identity. The deficiency created by excluding the perspectives of males results in missing the connection between the social practice of veiling women and the ascendance of male asceticism as a cultural and moral ideal. This is what inspired me to write this review. The social practice of veiling women is always associated with a prevailing moral ideal of male asceticism. And asceticism in males always results in a devaluation of women. These two points are crucial to understanding this matter. Devaluation of women often masquerades as an elevation in the estimation of female virginity. But idealizing female virginity is an insult to women. It posits an immature condition as more desirable than the fully developed sexuality of an adult woman and seeks to exclude women from full participation in the activity of life, and in particular from physical relations with males. Idealizing virginity is not for the benefit of women, but rather supports male asceticism and sexual renunciation.
Regardless of how individual women subjectively experience the veil, whether as oppressive, restrictive, protective, or liberating, the need for the veil, the social imperative for the veil, comes ultimately from men, particularly from ascetic men who are not well disposed toward women, who hold women in low esteem, and who particularly despise women’s sexuality and see it a threat that must be suppressed and controlled. This is a point not developed in Heath’s anthology. Heath’s anthology is, for the most part, perspectives of contemporary women who have adapted to the veil and in turn have adapted the veil to their own purposes. It does not delve into the psychological need for the veil as experienced by males and thus the book is largely about the adaptation of women to the veil rather than contending with the male psychological needs that are the origin and sustenance of it. Heath’s authors stress the communicative function of the veil, the many different meanings it can carry in different cultural contexts, the ambiguity of the veil, how the veil selectively conceals and selectively reveals. Veiling is an intricate practice that can be adapted to many different purposes. It has subtlety and sophistication. Some western women, such as Pamela Taylor and Eve Grubin, choose the veil as an “unambiguous rejection of the objectification of women by men” (Taylor, in Heath, p. 120), or because it “allows us to experience our internal richness.” (Grubin, in Heath, p. 187) Taylor found, however, that wearing the hijab in the United States resulted in the “bitter irony of having swapped one form of objectification for another” (Taylor, in Heath, p. 121) She found herself perceived as a proponent of militant, political Islam. Women cannot escape being imprecisely perceived (objectified) regardless of how they clothe or unclothe their bodies. The cartoon Nubo: The Wedding Veil by Sarah Bell is an instructive cross cultural synopsis of folklore of the veil in relation to weddings. She reminds us that through most of history weddings have been a deal between men and the bridal veil served to insure that the groom would not back out before the deal was final. There is a story in the Bible where Jacob was tricked by a bridal veil into marrying the older sister of the woman he wanted. (Genesis 29)
Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed in her article, Dress Codes and Modes: How Islamic is the Veil?, frames the issue aptly:
The question at stake is whose honor is being protected: that of the woman beneath the clothes, her father’s, her husband’s, her family’s, her community’s, or her state’s? (Shaheed, in Heath, p. 298)
This question displays a realization that the veil is not and cannot be just about the woman’s self expression. Its implications go all the way to the level of state political governance. In Arabic, the term hijab simply means ‘barrier.’ (Shaheed, in Heath, p. 295) The philosophical question posed by the veil is whether there should be a barrier between the bodies of women and the eyes of men. It is very simple, but the myriad answers to it structure relations between men and women in every human society. It is not simply the personal choice of the woman. A woman cannot choose between walking down a public street stark naked or covered up in a burqa according to her whim. She will never have such a choice. The idea that it is, or should be, simply the woman’s choice is naïve and totally unrealistic. A woman who ventures into a public space is seen and reacted to by everyone and how she presents herself sets an example for other women. Her personal choice, and the degree to which she has one, will ultimately fall within parameters defined and enforced by men.
Tolstoy expressed the underlying sentiment very well in his story The Kreutzer Sonata.
I used formerly to feel uncomfortable and uneasy when I saw a lady dressed up for a ball, but now I am simply frightened, and plainly see her as something dangerous and illicit. I want to call a policeman and ask for protection from the peril, and demand that the dangerous object be removed and put away. (Tolstoy, p. 179)
It is this inner need, the fear called forth by the public visibility of the alluring female, that the ascetic male translates into a social imperative for suppression. The mere sight of a woman’s face or body in a public place is an unacceptable provocation. P.E. Falk, an ultraconservative Jewish rabbi, sees threats and contamination in nearly every exposure to the female body
Seeing is a form of contact, and contaminates. . . Every person is detrimentally affected by what he sees, even if it is of no interest to him. (Falk, p. 125)
Ascetics despise the body and regard it as evil. They spend their lives renouncing physical pleasure and sensuality. Women are particularly despised because their beauty and allure is seen as a wayward enticement. A dichotomy is often posed between the “spiritual” and the physical, with the “spiritual,” being the superior and more desired condition. The body, and sexuality in particular, are inevitably denigrated. Kirtanananda Bhaktipada, a leader in the Hare Krishna movement and an advocate of celibacy, articulated the foundation in his Joy of No Sex:
‘You are not that body,’ yogis have taught their students from time immemorial. ‘You are Brahman, pure spirit soul – eternal, full of knowledge and bliss.’ This is our identity, and on this platform we can begin to relish the joy of no sex. Thus to get rid of the Myth of the Need for Sex, we must understand ‘I am not this body.’ This is the beginning. (Bhaktipada, p. 19)
“You know, what is vilest about it,” Tolstoy rails, “is that in theory love is something ideal and exalted, but in practice it is something abominable, swinish, which it is horrid and shameful to remember” (Tolstoy, p. 187)
“If the aim of humanity is goodness, righteousness, love – call it what you will – if this is what the prophets have always said, that all mankind should be united together in love, that the spears should be beaten into pruning hooks and so forth, what is it that hinders the attainment of this aim? The passions hinder it. Of all the passions, the strongest, cruelest, and most stubborn in the sex passion, physical love; and therefore if the passions are destroyed, including the strongest of them – physical love – the prophecies will be fulfilled, mankind will be brought into a unity, the aim of human existence will be attained, and there will be nothing further to live for. As long as mankind exists the ideal is before it, and of course not the rabbits’ and pigs’ ideal of breeding as fast as possible, nor that of monkeys and Parisians – to enjoy sex passion in the most refined manner, but the ideal of goodness attained by continence and purity.” (Tolstoy, p. 183)
This is the ascetic repudiation of sensuality excellently expressed. It is the foundation of asceticism: a philosophical rejection of the body and a psychological rejection of one’s personal identity bound to the body. The ascetic sees the problem not only in terms of controlling himself, that is, in modulating his own inner response to stimuli from the external world, but conscious of his own weakness and corruptibility he is compelled to impose controls on his and everyone’s environment for the sake of defending his de-sensualized existence. The narcissism of the ascetic based as it is on such an unnatural and unattainable ideal of de-sensualization is vulnerable in the extreme to near constant assault from the allure of female bodies. Because the conditions that give rise to ascetic sentiments are present at all times and places, as we will see later on, asceticism and the hostility toward women reflected in the insistence on keeping their faces and bodies covered will always be a possibility in human societies. But it need not attain credibility as a model for us all and despising the body and sensuality need not be held in elevated esteem or confused with “virtue,” or “nobility.” The idea that love is essentially “spiritual” and elevated and “noble” poisons relations between men and women. Repudiating the physically pleasurable, sensual connection to women is to end up despising them. If you like women, you have to like their bodies and you have to enjoy the public display of women’s bodies that allows for shared enjoyment, both aesthetically and lustfully.
Jeffrey Masson sees asceticism as an intrapsychic defense, a way of warding off threatening or inacceptable impulses to prevent their intrusion into consciousness and precipitating action.
The ascetic exists because he is tempted. And not once, but over and over. The only role of women in ascetic literature is as degraded objects, inspirers of lust and the horror of lust. I need hardly labor this point, so evident is it in all the literature. This phobic avoidance of women bespeaks an unusually intense desire for contact. (Masson, p. 616)
However, the demands of lust are so strong and so insistent that mere psychic defense is not enough for the ascetic; he inevitably demands support of the entire society in the form of laws and institutions to aid him in his beleaguered struggle. This is the threat that asceticism poses to whole of humanity. It is not just a private manifestation of mental illness. Asceticism, on its own, is very difficult to sustain; it requires considerable social support or withdrawal into hermitage. Ascetics, driven by intense anxiety, set about aggressively enlisting any available support in order to impose their conception of social order upon everyone. Ascetics are not simply harmless, curious anomalies. They are malignant and their attempts to present themselves as morally superior must always be challenged and discredited. Asceticism, expressed as the need to keep the allure of women out of sight and out of mind is the equivalent of misogyny.
In May of 1922, at age 22, Heinrich Himmler recorded in his youthful diary a telling incident.
On Friday night he notes having seen a girl of three jump about naked before going to bed. His reaction was, ‘I do not believe this to be right at the age of three when one should be teaching a child modesty.’ . . . On the next day Himmler talks with the young wife of a doctor and tells her that he has never courted a girl. She teases him and calls him a eunuch. Himmler goes on to speculate that there are two sorts of people. On is ‘the melancholic, stern, among which I include myself,’ austere types who eventually succumb to sin if they do not get engaged or married early enough, ‘since the animal in man is too powerful in us.’ (Lowenberg, p. 630)
In Himmler’s case the ascetic defenses formed in adolescence succeeded insofar as he did not go through a self destructive period of sensual indulgence in the mode of Tolstoy or Augustine. But the anxiety and the sense of vulnerability in the face of sensual temptation is the same, and the resulting impulse to suppress the sensuality of others is also the same. It can be seen in ascetic males going back to ancient times. Tertullian, in On the Veiling of Virgins, from roughly 200 C.E., tells us,
So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven: that, when standing in the presence of God, at whose bar it stands accused of driving the angels from their (native) confines, it may blush before the other angels as well; and may repress that former evil liberty of its head,'(a liberty) now to be exhibited not even before human eyes. (Chapter 7)
Hippolytus, around 215 C.E. in his Apostolic Tradition writes:
All the women should cover their heads with a pallium [a liturgical headpiece], and not simply with a piece of linen, which is not a proper veil. 18:5
These were all based upon an admonition of Paul in 1 Corinthians, which is rather confusing and ambiguous. On the one hand he says,
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. I Corinthians 11:5-6
But on the other hand,
But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. I Corinthians 11:13
Paul talks as if women should be covered [veiled?] on the one hand, but on the other hand, he says that the woman’s long hair can serve as an adequate covering. Paul’s apparent inability to make up his mind about this has resulted in the lack of a hard, clear, definitive position on this issue within the Christian scriptures and has thus given to Christian churches a flexibility that many conservative ascetics still object to. There are ascetics within Christianity who still today would assert an ultraconservative interpretation of these passages and impose a full repression on the female body.
Referring to this passage in I Corinthians, Robert Sungenis (2004) comments,
The question for today’s modern church and culture is: does this Scriptural mandate apply to us? The answer commonly given today is: ‘No, women are not required to wear head coverings. That is an antiquated practice of the past, and today’s church has officially declared that women are no longer bound to it.’ The truth is, the church has never abrogated the practice of head coverings; rather, the practice has fallen into disuse purely from cultural pressures. In a word, these cultural pressures have had a most damaging effect in deteriorating our whole society, and one of the more dramatic changes is the role of women. They have gone from wifely roles to business executives, from deacon’s wives to veritable priests; from factory workers to fighting soldiers; from wives in submission to equal rights advocates; from child-bearers to child killers. (Sungenis, p. 1)
The covering of women’s bodies in public also signifies the domination and subjugation of women to male authority:
Being covered is a mark of subjection and authority. It induces the woman to be humble and preserve her virtue, for the virtue and honor of the governed is to dwell in obedience. John Chrysostom c.400 CE Homilies on I Corinthians, 26,5
Laurene Lafontaine wrote a very interesting, informative contribution to Heath’s anthology on the history of dress for cloistered Catholic nuns from Tertullian (c. 200 C.E.) to the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, (1962-1965) and the reactions beyond (Out of the Cloister). After a long era between the Council of Trent in 1563 and the Code of Canon Law of 1917 where cloistered women wore distinctive and diverse dress, the veil was revived and women were required to sit separately from men and women were forbidden from preaching within their own congregations.
Once again, the requirement of the veil by papal fiat served to remind women, religious and lay, of the Church’s theological position regarding women as inferior and subordinate. (Lafontaine, p.81)
Uta Ranke-Heinemann had been a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Essen, Germany, but lost her position and was excommunicated in 1987 after declaring the virgin birth to be a theological position rather than a biological fact. Ranke-Heinemann points out in her book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, the pre-Christian origins of asceticism and celibacy in the Christian Church tracing it to Stoic and particularly to Gnostic traditions that held a deeply pessimistic outlook on life itself, not only on sexuality (Chapter 1). Her book catalogs a long litany of hostility toward women from Catholic theologians and clerics going back to ancient times based fundamentally on the notion that women are inherently unclean. In particular, the veiling of women was a direct extension of the idea that the mere sight of a woman was a lure to sin.
Clement of Alexandria writes: With women ‘the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.’ (Paedagogus II, 33, 2) . . . Women should be completely veiled, except when they are in the house. Veiling their faces assures that they will lure no one into sin. (Paedagogus III, 79, 4) (Ranke-Heinemann, p. 127-128)
Miles (1989) in her study of the meaning of female nakedness in Christian thought found that this repugnance toward women extended to the point where women were understood to “become male” if they were to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Chapter 2)
Christian authors imply, by their repeated warnings to women on the topic of their dress and comportment, that it is largely a woman’s responsibility to avoid producing desire in men. (Miles, p. 72)
The practice of veiling women goes back thousands of years, long before Christianity and Islam. It is referred to in the Old Testament and has been found in many ancient societies all around the world. Judith Berman, based on a review of several hundred figural representations from the Upper Paleolithic period (40,000 – 10,000 years ago) concluded that Upper Paleolithic women very likely styled their hair. (Berman, p. 292) The Venus of Brassempouy, found in southwestern France, is a 25,000 year old carving of a female face from mammoth ivory. She seems to be wearing some sort of head covering, or perhaps has her hair configured in braids. If you think about the origins of veiling women both historically and psychologically, you are quickly led to thinking about the origins and impetus for clothing the human body.
In the Bible the origin of clothing is related to a dawning awareness of shame. (Genesis 3) This is probably not accurate. The Bible story correctly notes that people are not naturally ashamed of their bodies. “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” (Genesis 3:11) However, the shame in being unclothed probably appeared after the status associated with being clothed in certain ways had been established. Shame is a learned affect. Young children are not ashamed of their bodies and have to be taught this important lesson. Shame is a feeling of loss of esteem in the eyes of others. One has to be aware of the expectations of others and share an internalized value system related to those expectations in order to feel shame. This is a rather complex psychological and cultural construction that would develop and evolve over time in response to the acquired meanings of being covered. Clothing and the social significance of being clothed most likely came first, then the sense of shame in being unclothed. It was likely related to an increasing stratification of human societies after the development of agriculture about 8000 to 10,000 years ago.
People in hunting and gathering societies in warm climates, who have not been exposed to outside cultures where clothing is worn, wear little or nothing. (Gilligan, pp. 26-29) Ian Gilligan very effectively argues that the earliest human clothing was for thermal protection against cold. Humans have very limited biological defense against cold and therefore must have developed some means of protecting their bodies to maintain their temperatures against the cold weather which was known to exist in areas of early human habitation. I won’t repeat Gilligan’s rather complex arguments, which also depend, interestingly, on genetic analyses of human body lice, but here I will just summarize his results.
Considered collectively, the genetic studies on human lice favor an early date for
the loss of body hair cover, probably by around three million years ago, and a
comparatively late date for the time when humans first adopted clothing that has
continued in use up to the present. It would appear that Homo has been thermally “naked” from the outset and would at times have required the use of clothes as a behavioral adaptation to cold exposure in circumstances when environmental conditions exposed that thermal vulnerability. However, it was not until after the last interglacial, around 90–100,000 years ago, that clothing came into more-or-less continuous use among at least some modern human groups. (Gilligan, p. 32)
This does not exclude psychological and cultural accompaniments, for it is very likely that as soon as humans began putting clothes on their bodies, they began to overlay them with meanings beyond mere utility. It is clear that from very early times, adornment, or the lack thereof, became a communicative device among modern humans. Jewelry, for example, goes back at least 70,000 to 100,000 years. (Gillgian, p. 56) Robinson (1988), arguing against utility as the original motive for enhancing the body with clothes uses ample illustrations to show how clothing and adornment is used as much to enhance the display of the body and draw attention to it as to conceal it. It is very likely that adornment of the body, pre-existed clothing. The evidence for this is the fact that people who wear no clothes at all adorn their bodies with paint, tattoos and a variety of scarring techniques, often to draw attention to their sexual attributes (Robinson, 1988). It can be seen that clothing and a sense of modesty are clearly to be distinguished both in their origins and in their relationship to covering the human body. The point is that while veiling women, understood as compulsory head covering or face covering or full body covering, is associated with male asceticism, clothing of the body per se is not. The Bible story is incorrect in linking the origin of clothing with a sense of shame in the body. Both females and males bond their personal identity to being dressed a certain way, but clothing and adornment of the body existed for perhaps many thousands of years before it was overlaid with a sense of shame in being naked.
Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed, in her article, Dress Codes and Modes, referred to earlier, presents a nice discussion of the complex language embodied in clothing and its relation to social identity as well as politics.
For our family, veiling was tied to our identity as a religious minority in India and symbolized familial honor but was never viewed as a religious injunction or a requirement of Islam.
Every person with a Muslim heritage has a different experience, precisely because what we wear – including the veil – depends on our specific culture(s), the historical moment, and prevailing conceptions of female modesty and sexuality. (Shaheed, in Heath, p. 293)
Dress codes and styles for women have changed over time within our own society, so it should not be hard for western readers to comprehend the varied trends in dress for women in Muslim countries. Women seem to adapt to whatever clothing regimen is maintained in their societies and they internalize these conventions and adapt their identity as women to those conventions. Barbara Goldman Carrel in her article, Shattered Vessels that Contain Divine Sparks studied Hasidic Jewish women in New York City and found that a sense of modesty becomes part of female identity and that the smallest details of clothing acquire meaning and significance that identifies a woman as part of a particular community or group and which also serves to differentiate her from a surrounding society with which she does not wish to be identified. If the demands of modesty are not overly strict and oppressive, women will adopt and support them as part of healthy feminine identity. However, if the rules become too strict and oppressive, women tend to chafe and may rebel. Consider the example of the Amish, who have imbued clothing with meaning and significance down to the smallest details, from Jana Hawley’s article, The Amish Veil: Symbol of Separation and Community.
Some Amish communities require that Amish women use straight pins to close their dresses while other Amish communities use snaps for dress closures. When I lived in Jamesport a young girl was visiting from an Amish community in Indiana where snaps were used to close the dresses. In Jamesport, straight pins were used. Concern from the elders immediately was raised because young Jamesport girls were seen trying to ‘get by’ sewing snaps into their dresses. A special meeting was held and the girl from Indiana was told that if she did not remove all the snaps from her dresses and start using straight pins like the other girls in Jamesport, she would have to return to Indiana. . . While she was in Jamesport, the Indiana girl removed the snaps from her dresses, but she stayed on only a few months because she decided Jamestown was too strict. (Hawley, in Heath p. 94)
Some women see advantage in the veil’s protection.
As a physical barrier, the veil denies men their usual privilege of discerning whomever they desire. By default, women are in command. The female scrutinizes the male. Her gaze from behind the anonymity of her face veil or niqab is a kind of surveillance that casts her in the dominant position. (Masood, in Heath p. 226)
I would rejoin to Masood that her sense of being in command amounts to a sense of safety from the intrusive interest of males. It does give her some refuge from sexual interest expressed toward her, but she is not free to discard her veil at will. She is not free to express sexual interest in men as she feels inclined. Her anonymity does not change the negative estimation of her body held by the male culture that dictates she must don the veil. It does not change the esteem of her sexuality, which is regarded as a social threat that must necessarily be kept under wraps. Any sexual adventure she does engage in must be done in utmost secrecy under pain of severe punishment. Masood relates an incident herself that makes this quite plain.
In the Jordanian capital of Amman, I once saw a woman in full niqab, a thick black veil covering her entire face with a six-inch open strip around the eyes. She wore black from head to toe. But there was something odd about her, as she stood alone on a street corner, teetering on stilettos. After a while, a car drove by, screeched its tires, and stopped. A man got out yelling profanities at the woman who was apparently his sister. She yelled back in defiance, protesting loudly as he clutched her wrist and dragged her toward the waiting car. She refused to get inside and her voice climbed decibels, occasionally breaking midsentence from hoarseness. There was a strange disconnect between the fury coming out of her mouth and her black-cloaked obscurity. Suddenly she whipped out a cell phone from somewhere under her voluminous garments and furiously punched the numbers with a black gloved finger. She spoke through it through her face veil, which fluttered with the movement of her hidden lips.
The brother went ballistic. He grabbed his sister’s hand, yanked away the mobile and smashed it with his feet. Then he tightened his grip twisting her hand behind her back. The girl howled and kicked him in the shins with her spiky heels. He smacked her head and tried to push her to the ground. As their fighting continued another car approached. A sleek white Mercedes with tinted windows. The passenger door opened and a tall, gray-haired man in a double breasted suit stepped out and gestured to the woman with a curt angling of his head.
She was squatting on her haunches, a whimpering black huddle with teary eyes. The well-dressed stranger helped her up and led the still crying woman into the backseat of his car. Then he went up to the disgruntled brother, who was pummeling his fists on the car’s roof. A lengthy speech followed. The older man took a wad of bills from his wallet, slipped them into the brother’s front shirt pocket, and patted his cheek in a there, there kind of way.
The brother laughed sarcastically and hurled one final insult at his sister waiting inside the car. The one word I made out was sharmuta, the Arabic word for whore. (Masood, p. 221-222)
This incident clearly shows who has the real power over women behind veils.
Just because my veil blocks your senses, doesn’t mean it blocks mine. The veil is no blindfold. I see out; you are the one whose vision is obstructed. My senses are alive and have a field wherein to play, away from where your eye can penetrate. My sex is alive – what on earth makes people think that women who veil do not take pleasure in eros? Veiling – with us – has nothing to do with asceticism and self-denial. My sense of beauty is alive. I comb out my hair and put on the rouge and the silk, among friends, in a woman’s culture curtained off from you, an outsider. Is that why you find the veil frustrating from your male-identified viewpoint, you who are used to women putting out for your gaze? Because its aesthetic is the opposite of strut, is that the reason why you take it as such an affront? (Kahf, in Heath, p. 29-30)
No, the reason the veil is an affront has nothing to do with your rejection of my interest in seeing your body. The affront does not come from you or your choice. The affront comes from the imperative that compels you and all other women to don the veil. That imperative does not originate with you or even with the aggregate of women who join you in wearing it. It originates with a coterie of men who would attempt to deprive all men of a sensual connection to nearly all women. The veil in its many degrees makes a woman the private property of the men on her side of the veil. This can be benevolent and protective of the woman, or it can be tyrannical and utterly cruel. But the woman is officially closed off from public availability, that is, availability for any man who encounters her to contemplate her as an object of lust. Veiling women is an outward manifestation of a religious moral outlook presided over and enforced by clerics and their adherents who wish to restrict all desire, both male and female, to a very narrow channel. It is one thing for a woman to make a personal choice to veil herself as an expression of her spirituality and her adoption of a religious moral code. It is quite another for an entire society of women to be required to veil themselves under pain of legal sanction and physical intimidation. Gazing at women with enjoyment and desire reflects a need for connection to women on the part of males. The rabbi (P.E. Falk) is right. Looking is a form of contact. But rather than contaminate, it represents a positive valuation of women and pleasure in the sensual connection to them. It includes women in the public space of society. Insisting that women remain covered except in their own homes is indeed a repudiation and an affront to that need. But it is not only a repudiation of the male desire for connection to women, it is a devaluation of women themselves. It says that indifference to women is preferable to sensual connection in the pleasure of beholding. Ideally women should be ignored most of the time. Our desire for them and our enjoyment of them should not intrude into daily life any more than can be helped. They should not be seen or heard any more than is absolutely necessary. Life should be austere and taking pleasure in women should be kept to a minimum. Veiling should not be the free choice of individual women, and women’s choice is not the origin of the veil. The veil becomes a social and political imperative imposed and enforced by men for reasons that have to do with male psychology rather than out of consideration for the private space of women. A hostile woman, or a woman who experiences discomfort or aversion to the sexual interest of males, may make good use of the veil to shut out their intrusive gazes and longing. But it is not out of respect for her privacy that the veil becomes a universal requirement. It is males who make these rules for their own self regulation.
Nowhere can this be better seen than in Saudi Arabia where the hostility toward women and the exposure of their bodies is blatant and openly expressed on the public streets. Sherifa Zuhur in her article, From Veil to Veil, relates several incidents of vicious harassment by the religious police on public streets for small infractions of the ultra-strict dress code for women – which seems to require considerable organized effort to sustain. It is clearly not about protecting women. Women are the persecuted, and their visible presence is nearly criminal.
J.D. Salinger, who was influenced by Buddhist and Hindu teachings from India, embraced an ideal of asceticism that proved disastrous for his wife and family. According to his wife “we did not make love very often, the body was evil.” (Salinger, p. 91) His daughter, Margaret Salinger, described reading a passage from the autobiography of her father’s Yogi. In it the Yogi details the complaints of his wife and his neglect of her and his family. Salinger comments, “I have to say that reading this, forty years after my parents’ engagement was like reading the obituary of our family before we even became one” (Salinger, p. 88) Margaret Salinger’s memoir is a touching, beautifully written illustration of the devastation asceticism wreaks upon women when played out in a marriage or in the upbringing of a daughter.
Behind every good, enlightened man, Christ figure, Teddy, or Seymour in my father’s writing, there’s a damnation or a demonization of womanhood and a sacrifice of childhood. (Salinger, p. 424)
However, she shows remarkable insight into the childhood origins of these misogynistic attitudes, and this anecdote linking antagonism toward women to the earliest interactions with the mother was the only such early developmental illustration I could find despite considerable searching.
I mentioned earlier that, as a child, Seymour [the character in Salinger’s story, Seymour: An Introduction] threw a rock at a little girl who was sitting in the sunshine, inflicting serious injury, opening up her forehead and requiring stitches. In the story, everyone in the family understood that it was ‘because she looked so beautiful’ sitting there in the sunshine. I don’t understand it, but to the Glass family and their author [her father, J.D.] it was an almost religious act and made perfect sense. The only way I have of approaching some feel for this is something I learned from my son. We went through a period during the terrible twos where he’d hug me and be really close, and then all of a sudden he’d throw something at me or hit me. It was so weird; he’d only misbehave like that when things were really lovey-dovey, not when he was mad about something. We figured out that at times it (Mommy and me) became too intense for him and that he felt engulfed, in danger of being swamped by me and his feelings for me. He still got put in time-out for doing it, but I could then help him with it by backing off a bit, and encouraging him to use his words, and also by having his dad take over more of the parenting stuff for a while, until he’d regained his equilibrium. It makes me think of my aunt saying, ‘It was always Sonny (J.D.) and Mother, Mother and Sonny. Daddy never got the recognition he deserved.’ All I know is that a man who is too close to his mother, who can’t separate properly, is as much of a danger sign as one who hates his mother and can’t get close to women. It’s a tricky thing to getting those boundaries right.” (Salinger, p. 86n)
Indeed this boundary issue remains a lifelong contention in every man’s life and impacts every relationship with a woman. Its parameters are set in the earliest interactions between a baby boy and his mother. These early interactions, underlined and reinforced through years of growing up, shape the boy’s basic temperament and his unconscious expectations and attitudes toward women. This separation and boundary issue is closely related to the phenomenon known as masochism. Masochism might be defined as finding advantage in suffering, or in making a virtue of deprivation. It is a spectrum that is found in nearly all human relationships to some degree with the most extreme form being religious asceticism. Masochism in a certain measure is normal and probably necessary for civilized living, although the term is not usually invoked until it progresses far down the spectrum toward self-destructiveness. It has presented difficulties for psychoanalytic theory from the beginning (Menaker, pp. 156-159). In the psychoanalytic literature, whenever masochism is a pronounced trend in a person’s character it always seems to be related to a mother who was unable to respond to her child with warmth and understanding (Panken, 1973, esp. Chapter 4; Menaker, Chapter 18; Berliner, 1958; Novick and Novick, 1987).
The conflict between the infantile need for being loved and the experience of suffering at the hands of the loved object is the basic and most clearly causal pattern in the cases I have seen. (Berliner, p. 346)
There are cases in which a parent has been outrageously cruel to the child. In other cases milder forms of rejection occurred, including traumatic events in weaning or toilet training, discipline against masturbation, absence of the mother, appearance of a sibling, demanding or overauthoritarian attitudes or oedipal defenses on the part of a parent, and many other forms of deprivation . . . (Berliner, p. 346)
We suggest that the first layer of masochism must be sought in early infancy, in the child’s adaptation to a situation where safety resides only in a painful relationship with the mother. (Novick and Novick, p. 243)
These are mothers who, for a variety of reasons, cannot pay attention to their children’s needs. (Novick and Novick, p. 242)
The atmosphere in such households seems to have been emotionally barren, punitive, rejecting, and sometimes hostile. Masochism as the quality of being self-despising and self-denying, is an attempt through identification to hold on to a loved one who is essentially cold, critical, and rejecting (Menaker, pp. 163, 188f). The best description of this that I could find did not come from the psychological literature, but from a story by Franz Kafka called A Little Woman. It is a short story that appeared in a small collection called A Hunger Artist. Kafka does not present the woman he describes as his mother or the mother of the Hunger Artist featured in the following story, but for my purposes that does not matter. I am treating her as a paradigm, an archetype that represents to a greater or lesser degree the early experience of males who later become ascetics and who harbor a deep antipathy toward women. Kafka describes her thus.
This little woman, then, is very ill-pleased with me, she always finds something objectionable in me, I am always doing the wrong thing to her, I annoy her at every step; if a life could be cut into the smallest of small pieces and every scrap of it could be separately assessed, every scrap of my life would be an offense to her. I have often wondered why I am such an offense to her; it may be that everything about me outrages her sense of beauty, her feeling for justice, her habits, her traditions, her hopes, there are such completely incompatible natures, but why does that upset her so much? There is no connection between us that could force her to suffer because of me. All she has to do is regard me as an utter stranger, which I am, and which I do not object to being, indeed I should welcome it, she only needs to forget my existence, which I have never thrust upon her attention, nor ever would, and obviously her torments would be at an end. I am not thinking of myself, I am quite leaving out of account the fact that I find her attitude of course rather trying, leaving it out of account because I recognize that my discomfort is nothing to the suffering she endures. All the same I am well aware that hers is no affectionate suffering; she is not concerned to make any real improvement in me, besides whatever she finds objectionable in me is not of a nature to hinder my development. Yet she does not care about my development either, she cares only for her personal interest in the matter, which is to revenge herself for the torments I cause her now and to prevent any torments that threaten her from me in the future. I have already tried once to indicate the best way of putting a stop to this perpetual resentment of hers, but my very attempt wrought her up to such a pitch of fury that I shall never repeat it. (Kafka, p. 235-236)
Were such a woman to be the mother of a young boy, and were this narrative to reflect that young boy’s experience, it would not be hard to understand why he would come to make a virtue of renunciation and maintain a lifelong mistrust and aversion to women. The fact that this story appears in front of a story about a man who starves himself to death in front of a live audience is not a coincidence. A man who insists on hiding women behind veils is himself hiding from the extreme anxiety and pain that the physical allure of women call forth from his original experience of rejection and hopeless longing.
At the outset I said that a woman’s body is a public entity. The veil recognizes this, but seeks to privatize it. Jennifer Heath’s anthology is an excellent overview of how women adapt to this circumstance and the many meanings it carries in a broad range of backgrounds and societies. Brief, well written, focused articles each make a unique contribution to an interesting mosaic. The writers do not call the veil into question, they seem to treat is as a given, and they do not explore the origins and perpetuation of the practice of veiling women in the needs of ascetic males from all faiths, and how misogyny and asceticism, which result in the compulsion to hide the bodies of women and renounce the sensual connection to them, begin in the earliest interactions between a baby boy and his mother. The psychological origins in deficient early maternal care in some men imply that male asceticism, and thus the impulse to veil women as a social imperative, will always be a possibility in human societies. It has a very long history going back at least as far as civilization. However, its credibility as a social ideal is in decline. The long era of the ascetic male being the determiner of the values governing human relations is ending and the character of civilized living is changing. Religions whose moral outlook is founded on asceticism and sexual renunciation will have to change or find themselves increasingly marginal and irrelevant. The connection between men and women is fundamentally physical and sensual. Women, as well as men, are better off when women are conceived of as a shared resource rather than as private property and the connection between men and women is seen as fundamentally sensual and erotic and felt in every visual encounter.
1. By “veil” I mean a head covering, which could be a scarf, hijab, purdah, niqab, abaya, burqa, or any of a wide range of female head coverings that may or may not cover the face, or part of the face, or the rest of the body.
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