Saturday, April 7, 2012

Thoughts on choices and freedom in the Kindgom

I recently read this piece from Blue Abaya

I recommend reading her post, but I've also included a summary here as I read and understood her remarks. To clarify, Blue Abaya identifies herself as a Finnish woman married to a Saudi man and living in Riyadh. She has lived all over the world, according to her blog. So I think she has an interesting perspective about wearing the abaya and its purpose.

Blue Abaya makes the following argument:
1) Western women have the right to uncover--dress as they please. She asserts that western clothing is often driven by the need to flaunt skin and is encouraged by men so women can be ogled. She brings up the point that Western women are driven by unreasonable expectations of beauty and go far by means of dieting, botox, and plastic surgery to achieve impossible beauty standards. She sees our current western styles and unhealthy obsession with appearance as another means for men to control women. Finally, she points out that current western cultural standards persist in making women out to be sex objects.

For the most part, I think Blue Abaya has some good points here. As a Mormon woman, I believe and practice the principle of modesty. I do think that the current trends in Western society pushing to achieve an impossible body ideal are unhealthy and destructive. 

2) Then Blue Abaya's argument moves to how Muslim women who choose to cover in the western world are treated. She makes some good points about how their value is diminished in western society, particularly those who veil their faces entirely. She points to the ban in France against veiling. (To be fair, France has also made some restrictions on other religions--the ban isn't strictly against Muslims.)

Again, good points here. For me, seeing a women completely covered in an abaya and face veil is disconcerting. I feel like she has the ultimate privacy barrier and thus is totally inaccessible. As a woman in Saudi Arabia this frustrates me as I feel like I can't make a connection with other women here. 

3) I'm quoting Blue Abaya's final paragraph in its entirety.
"That way a woman shifts the focus from her body to herself as a thinking, feeling person. This is the wisdom behind the Islamic dress code for women. By no means is it oppressing, I would rather say LIBERATING from the pressures women face about their bodies being under constant scrutiny.
Take care and cherish your body, because it is beautiful no matter its size and shape. You dont need to display it to the whole world to get acceptance..Not every woman looks like Claudia Shiffer, so Islamic dress code makes women more equal and decreases envy and jealousy."

I see where she is going with this, but I don't completely agree. Sure, you remove a level of pressure off women to achieve a certain beauty ideal when dress is not the focus. However, considering the fashions I see at the malls, I question if women in Saudi Arabia are really free from this type of pressure. Sure they are covered by the abaya in public. If the clothing displayed in the malls is ANY indication, they aren't dressing more modestly than western women. To me, what is worn underneath is more indicative of what they are really feeling about beauty and its ideals.

Should women cherish their bodies and not damage them in an effort to achieve impossible ideals? Absolutely. But that can be done just as well without wearing a tent.

Some additional thoughts and these are my thoughts--not those of Blue Abaya.

Do I have a problem with a woman who geniunely believes and follows the Islamic dress code? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I find her devotion and geniune belief in her religion refreshing and admirable. However, it is remarkably difficult to ascertain (for Westerners) whether Muslim women are donning the abaya and veils because they are geniunely religious or do so out of fear from the muttawa or out of family rules dictated by the male authority in their homes.

Likewise, it is difficult to see how wearing the abaya is not oppressive when you see Muslim men wearing western clothing without reprucussions. It doesn't feel equal to me and that bothers me.

Saudi Arabia has decided to enforce their codes upon all people in their country. As a guest in their country, I accept those restrictions and do my best to abide by them. I don't necessarily like them as I would have chosen to dress modestly and appropriately in any case. I feel uncomfortable by this element of coercion from the government and the muttawa.

Likewise, France has taken a stand, not just against Muslims, but other religions as well, in enforcing a certain code. If you can say that Saudi Arabia has the right to enforce this code, then the same courtesy ought to be extended to France.

I'm not saying either country is right in this. If you are going to praise one, you can't condemn the other.

I do think that countries, including Saudi Arabia, ought to respect the rights of religious people to demonstrate their faith in visual ways--so long as those ways do not infringe upon the rights of the majority in the society. Likewise, I expect (yes, I know this idealized) immigrants and expats to demonstrate respect for the prevailing customs and cultural rules of the country in which they reside. This means that westerns ought to dress more modestly in Muslim countries. Likewise, Muslims ought to respect that western countries are uncomfortable with total veiling of women's faces.


  1. This situation kind of reminds me of the one here regarding should a company be required to provide birth control (or other medical stuff) to its employees, even if they don't believe in the practice (e.g. should the Church be required to pay for birth control for its employees, etc.).

  2. I don't think a government should force a religious insitution to cover birth control for its employees if that is against their doctrine, unless said religious institution accepts any federal funds. In my book, if you are getting money from the government, you have to play by their rules.

    From what I understand, the Catholic church has a pretty solid position against birth control. That's fine--it's their right to do so. I can see where they would object to being forced to offer birth control as part of insurance plans for employees. On the other hand, I lived in a heavily Catholic area in New York and I'm pretty certain that most of the Catholics I knew--while mostly faithful, pretty much ignored the doctrine of no birth control and used it anyway.

    I think it is different in the LDS church. I don't want the government to force our church to do something on that scale. BUT, the current statements about family size being up to the couple and the Lord seem pretty clear to me. In that case, I think it is an unreasonable thing for birth control coverage to be denied to LDS church employees. I get why the insurance company wouldn't want to cover vasectomies or tying tubes, but covering birth control pills is different in my book and no couple should have to present a medical excuse for justification for family planning--since that is to be a private decision.

    However, there are over-the-counter birth control products. I guess if LDS church employees feel strongly about it, they should just suck it up and fork over the money for the over-the-counter stuff.