By Kristina Friedlander
originally published in barakabirth.com
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
As Muslims we’re encouraged to have the right amount of shyness, or haya. Haya is a desirable trait, but a quick search will reveal that haya is frequently translated as “shame.” Shame is a fraught term, associated with dishonor and disgrace, of doing something wrong. When thinking about bodies, modesty, and haya, 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 or feel guilty 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.
With few exceptions, we humans wear clothing. But the parts of our bodies that we cover vary from culture to culture and even within cultures. As Muslim women and men, we cover (to varying degrees) parts of our bodies but we also cover private spaces within the home and even spaces of increasing privacy as one moves through the home, such as bedrooms. We also think of covering as pertaining 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, as in giving charity anonymously. Spouses are referred to as ‘garments’ in the Qur’an, covering one another, providing a sense of mutual comfort and safety.
But does Islam mandate that we cover our bodies because our bodies are themselves a material source of shame? To what extent does the religious tradition deviate from cultural understandings of the body as shameful, especially women’s bodies? How do notions of purity and impurity with regard to what comes out of bodies influence perceptions of the places where they exit? How do certain deeply-rooted 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)? And how do Muslims’ cultural lenses teach men and women that their bodies are shameful or disgusting?
Our bodies are not “bad.” We are absolutely meant to celebrate our bodies in the spaces that we define as comfortable, private, and safe, and Islamic mores encourage spouses to mutually enjoy one another’s bodies. I suggest that covering our bodies is not about shame, but rather serves a way that we set and protect our boundaries in public spaces. By covering my body—which in my case includes my arms, legs, and hair—I set boundaries that are informed by what I feel comfortable and safe with but also by my understanding of religious law as it applies directly to me. For me, modesty is the embodied practice of deciding which parts of my body and which behaviors are meant for public spaces and which for private, decisions which draw on my faith, and has nothing to do with any part of me being bad or shameful. In fact, I prefer to go with Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s translation of haya as the earnest desire to do what is right.
A major challenge today, and not just for Muslim women but for all women, is to explore, question, and challenge discourses that promote our bodies as inherently shameful or dirty. This isn’t just a philosophical or even a feminist project but a human rights necessity; in so many places around the world (including the United States) bodily shame is an impediment to women’s access of health care resources. It can also be a major obstacle to a healthy and satisfying sex life, as Nadiah Mohajir pointed out in a recent blog post on vaginismus.
For Muslims, having a clear understanding of the vocabulary which is used to describe bodies and how we should feel about our 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 what it means to have a body and of our 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.
Krystina Friedlander is a professional childbirth doula and works at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also serves on the Health Committee at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. She regularly blogs at http://barakabirth.com/