The classic mainstream media encourages diets, while trivializing thinness with retouched photos of celebrities who are already thin. These images at least partly meet the fantasies of Western men, showing women getting younger and thinner, and increasingly close to the body of a young girl.
Meanwhile, the West perceives the Islamic world as a separate place where violence against women is intensified and secular, a late and barbaric world concerning progress of democracy and gender equality. This post is not about issues related to history and geopolitical contexts in the Islamic world; rather, the point here is to highlight the gap in perceptions of and by the Other. It consists of a cultural gap that distorts reality and thereby causes a wrong image about some aspects of women’s condition in the Muslim world. This cultural gap has been the subject of Le Harem et l’Occident (2001), a book by Fatema Mernissi.
This does not compare the two types of society and what would be the best, but instead highlights some specific elements of women’s condition according to the context and looking at how individual choices of resistance and mass submission may be present in both contexts.
Misunderstandings about the freedom of women
Originally, the word “harem” means “forbidden.” But for Western men, it represents a kind of orgiastic place where unhindered men succeed in a miracle by enjoying a multitude of women they enslaved. This false image of the harem was developed by European artists during the early modern period; in revenge, Muslim artists did not hide the fact that this is a place of confinement and that women who lived in the harem were aware of being oppressed.
Another misunderstanding which followed the French Revolution was the confusion between the free emancipated woman and the sexually liberated woman, a confusion feared by feminists. It is not that they were puritan; this is not the point. The issue was that the struggle for freedom and equality for women was obscured by this confusion. Nowadays, a number of films and TV shows perpetuate this confusion with the stereotyped female triptych: the girl becoming woman, the mother or the woman about to become a mother, and the woman who does not want a child (for example, see Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss).
There is emptiness in classic women’s media. It protects the young girl from the sexual act, but a few years later, the young woman will be thrown in arena of a media that glorifies sexual liberalization as a gained freedom. But this is only an illusion, since it is in line with an additional submissiveness of woman by patriarchy and not an universal and equal sexual freedom. In several western countries, women have gained essential rights such as reproductive rights, working, and voting, thanks to fierce and vigilant struggle. But the situation still needs improvements. After all, “Western men have engineered a prodigious amount of fetish-like,” Mernissi writes in her book. What would the powerful industries of fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery, and pornography be without the oppression set up by the sexist norm of size M, or even S? “The size M is a stranglehold as suppressive as the thickest veil,” Mernissi says.
What if, behind the appearances of gained liberties, new easements were imposed on us? What if a new, voluntary submissiveness had been imposed on us that is even more pernicious, insomuch as it takes the face of free and conscious choice?
Submissiveness by privation, veiling by choice
In her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf says that “cultural fixation on female thinness is not the expression of the obsession with female beauty, but the obsession with female obedience. The diet is the most powerful political sedative that ever existed in the history of women; a population that remains calm in her madness is necessarily docile.” Indeed, prolonged and periodic caloric restriction results in a distinctive personality whose traits are passivity, anxiety, and emotionality.
As globalization exports the western model throughout the world, young women among immigrant populations from Muslim parts of the world that now live in the West and refuse the western female model. By choice — not pressure or coercion — they decide to wear the Islamic veil (hijab), whereas their mothers and grandmothers don’t. Recently, when I questioned some of these young women about this, another reason besides the desire for a return to their roots appeared directly connected to this cultural gender gap.
These young women make this choice because they “can’t do otherwise to affirm [their] difference and earn respect from men.” The veil becomes a protection: “with the hijab I’m inaccessible, my neighbors and my colleagues stopped lacking respect and making advances to me. Now they see me as a woman they cannot have unless they marry me and then adopt my religion. ”
If the veil is worn by a woman by choice, there is nothing to criticize — it’s her choice. Wearing the hijab after careful consideration may appear radical, but it can even be an act of resistance. If a diet is started for medical reasons and/or by deliberate choice and not in a suffering and uncontrolled situation, then there is no act of submission to a society which, behind ‘tinsel and glitter’ style, attempts to immure women into silence.