"Women are a lot more than their bodies, you know... Our bodies are from Allah too...
There are parts of the world, like Tibet, where nudity is accepted naturally, and not as an indicator of improper sexual display.
The women listened, fascinated, their eyes lighting up at the dawning realisation of other ways of thinking, yet wondering at my audacity. Most of the men laughed at me. Just sometimes, there were one or two who nodded quietly but remained silent."
This is an extract from my book Living With Arabs. It was written after 8 years in Jordan, 6 of them in a community of southern Bedouin. The responses reveal attitudes which are much more widespread. One of the expressions for a daughter or young woman in Arabic is il-ma'roosa, she who must be protected; an apparently reasonable and natural desire. Who, though, is she to be protected from? It seems illogical, to identify a potential victim and, at the same time, to make that person entirely responsible for deterring that threat or, even, the idea of a threat.
Many Moslem men believe that, if they have a lustful thought, they will not go to paradise. The result is that women are made to feel that their bodies are unclean or even dangerous. The hair is a major concern. The rules concerning who may have sight of a women's hair are strictly laid down. All the girls and women wear their hair long, in order to be more beautiful when uncovered. The hair must therefore be tied back in order to fit neatly under the hejab. Girls are taught in their Religious Instruction lessons at school, that the hair must be gathered low into the nape of the neck. No attention must be drawn to it.
My neighbour was doing some hand-washing one day when her youngest son, then aged five, entered the kitchen, saw that she had pushed her sleeves above her elbows and said,
"You are dirty," meaning that her behaviour was immodest. 'Modesty' has such a reasonable ring, hasn't it? Someone of my generation often wishes that some young women looked less like pole-dancers.
What of the women themselves? Once a society has decided the criteria of a good woman, most women will want to meet those standards and there are always women who will police the others to ensure that they toe the party line. Received wisdom from the ancients holds that female libido is less strong than the male. Given that, why do some societies [NOT the community in which I lived nor, indeed in the whole of Jordan] practice FGM, even in some cases, excising the clitoris?
There have to be some absolutes which transcend religious dogma or cultural preference. Anything which seeks to suppress female energy, or to deny the equality of the genders has got to be wrong. As long as there is apparent authority for distrusting women, their human rights will be suppressed. There is a body of writing called the hadith. These are the writings of men close to the Prophet Mohammed and report what he said:
Narrated 'Imran bin Husain: The Prophet said, "I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women." Hadith – Sahih Bukhari 4:464.