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The Hijāb at Cross-Purposes: Conflicting Models of the Erotic in Popular Islamic Advice Literature

Issue: Vol 5 No. 1 (2009)

Journal: Comparative Islamic Studies

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Islamic Studies

DOI: 10.1558/cis.v5i1.131


An examination of popular advice literature geared toward Muslims living in the West, such as the type commonly available in U.S. mosques and at online Islamic bookstores, indicates that there exist at least two potentially conflicting narratives regarding the ḥijāb (the veil or headcovering) as a pious practice. The first narrative presents female sexuality as a natural and positive force, as long as it is properly channeled. The ḥijāb, in this narrative, is not meant to categorically repress women’s erotic nature, but is a pragmatic social practice meant to avoid eroticism in the public sphere, where it would be a source of temptation and disorder. Often corresponding to this narrative is a notion of (female) sexuality as constant, and an ideology that deemphasizes gender differences. A second narrative presents erotic desire and fulfillment as a marker of attachment to the world and an assertion of the ego-self (nafs), and therefore negative, even in the context of marriage. In this view, the ḥijāb is an ascetic practice, a means by which a woman may discipline her self and develop a greater spiritual-moral faculty. This narrative, in many instances, considers sexuality to be malleable, and also tends to be paired with an emphasis on sexual difference. This paper seeks to tease out the conflicting models of the erotic that emerge in this genre of writing. It further suggests that deviations from a text’s core narrative and appeal to the opposing narrative betrays a lack of commitment to either a particular narrative of veiling or a particular model of eroticism. Rather, such deviations suggest an instrumental use of these narratives and models in favor of the predetermined conclusion, which is the injunction to veil, and to which end both models of eroticism and both narratives of veiling are bent. A final objective is to show, by drawing on ethnographic research, that the conflicting models of eroticism found in popular advice literature are mirrored in the thinking of the contemporary Western Muslim women who are the intended readers of this literature, and to reflect upon the possible consequences of this theoretical conflict upon Western Muslim readership.

Author: Hina Azam

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