Are chastity belts liberating?

chastity belt

Hard on the heels of the Katie Roiphe contretemps, the feminist world is being roiled by another conflict. Two prominent feminists are arguing over the meaning of the Islamic practice of veiling women. As Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon explains:

[Naomi Wolf] recounts … the time she spent with women in “typical Muslim households.” She observes, “It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling — toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.” …

Then, Wolf turns to the inevitable comparison with Western styles of dress. Many of the Muslim women she spoke with said that revealing get-ups cause men to stare at and objectify them. Wearing a headscarf or chador, however, leads people to “relate to me as an individual, not an object,” they told her…

Feminist Phyllis Chesler vehemently disagrees:

Chesler is horrified by Wolf’s argument and doesn’t pull any punches in a blog response titled “The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice?” …

She goes on to contend that “most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families” and asks whether Wolf is so “thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects.” …

I’m with Chesler on this one. Wolf’s argument is touching in its naivite, absurd in its reasoning, and vile in its implications, implications that Wolf fails to understand. The burqua is just the Islamic iteration of the solution to a very serious problem. Other iterations include female genital mutilation and chastity belts. The serious problem? Cuckolding, of course.

In animals where fathers have a substantial role in raising young (that includes humans), the possibility always exists that the father will exert himself on behalf of offspring that are not his own. That is an evolutionary dead end, and many animal behaviors have evolved to prevent cuckolding. Human beings have taken it further by creating cultural methods of prohibiting cuckolding.

Men want to be absolutely certain that the children borne to their wives are their children, and they will go to extraordinary lengths to do so. Hence the emphasis in all cultures on virginity for women and absolute sexual fidelity among married women with no analogue for men in either case. The punishment for deviation is fierce, ranging from shunning, to stoning, to death. Since men are typically stronger, they have been able to enforce their will on this point.

Cultural constraints are not nearly enough, and men have taken steps physical steps to ensure female sexual continence. These physical steps include chastity belts, precluding sexual intercourse, and female genital mutilation, making intercourse painful and destroying the possibility of female orgasm. Physical efforts to ensure female sexual continence extend to hiding women so that they cannot be the objects of male desire. They may be literally hidden, as in harems, or figuratively hidden behind garments meant to rob them of any sexual allure.

In the most fundamental sense, the burqa is an instrument for controlling female sexuality. In this, it is no different from a chastity belt or a clitoridectomy. It exists for one and only purpose: to ensure that men are not cuckolded.

Wolf’s naivite on this point is stunning. The burqa, chador, etc. have nothing to do with preventing objectification of women. They exist precisely because women are viewed only as objects, objects owned by men. The burqa, the chasity belt and clitoridectomy are all ways in which men keep their property off limits to other men, nothing more.

Yes, in countries like the US or those of Western Europe, women can adopt the burqa as their own choice, just as they are free to don chastity belts if they choose. That, however, does not change the purpose of the burqa, nor does it change the fact that most women who wear it, like the women who wore chastity belts, and the women who endure clitoridectomy, are forced to do so.

The burqa is an instrument of sexual control. Women may don it willingly, and they have every right to do so. However, no one should be so foolish as to pretend it is a sign of liberation.