Naomi Wolf’s Feminism Disappears Behind The Veil

Chador art workWell, I think Naomi Wolf has lost it.

I was less than impressed with her endlessly-repeated article about porn which relied heavily on assumptions about what men think. And I was also puzzled by her fascination with the idea that Jewish Orthodox modesty was “so hot.”

Now she’s taken that concept and run with it, declaring that Muslim women are far freer in the expression of their sexuality while covered head-to-toe in a chador than we stupid Western chicks.

A few quotes:

This may explain why both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women not only describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred – and when one’s husband isn’t seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long – one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the the home.

Among healthy young men in the West, who grow up on pornography and sexual imagery on every street corner, reduced libido is a growing epidemic, so it is easy to imagine the power that sexuality can carry in a more modest culture. And it is worth understanding the positive experiences that women – and men – can have in cultures where sexuality is more conservatively directed.


When you choose your own miniskirt and halter top – in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue – it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

I’ve got more than a few problems with what’s being said here. It’s hard to know where to start.

I should begin by saying that I am philosophically opposed to Islam. I’m an athiest, for a start, so that means I’m not keen on any kind of religion or the ridiculous rules they impose on people.


Support independent, ethically made, award-winning porn. Bright Desire features all of my erotic films and writing. A membership to Bright Desire gets you access to every movie I've ever made and lets me keep making female friendly porn!
Click here to find out more.

I’m also opposed to the sexism and entrenched discrimination that exists within the Muslim religion and within societies that are primarily Islamic. I’ve read the Koran and it (like the Bible) has numerous edicts that explicitly deny women their human rights. As a feminist, I cannot support that.

I reject the Islamic stance on sexuality and male-female relations – the very thing that Naomi Wolf is defending. This view of the world sees all men as sexual predators and all women as sexual prizes. It essentially defines individuals according to preconceived ideas about how men and women will interact if they are allowed to mingle freely with each other. In Islam, all men are rapists, and all women are victims (sounds a bit like Andrea Dworkin, now I think about it.)

Women must be protected, hence the veil, hence the curtailment of their freedom, because their virginity and sexual useability are the only thing considered valuable by Islam. Men, meanwhile, cannot be trusted to control their lustful, animal instincts. Even the sight of a woman’s ankle will incite a man to rape.

But, of course, if he does rape, it’s not really his fault. And the woman will need four witnesses in a court to prove otherwise, according to the Koran. And her testimony is only worth half that of a man’s.

When this is the sort of attitude that lies behind the idea of “the veil”, I find it very difficult to feel sympathetic towards it. And yet that’s exactly what Naomi Wolf is asking us to do. She’s suggesting that this kind of philosophical opposition is just “Western misunderstanding”.

She talks about choice, saying that some Muslim and Jewish women who choose to cover up feel that they are treated more as individuals and less as sexual objects by others. Note, by the way, that she really is only talking about some women, but she writes as if ALL of them feel that way.

It’s certainly an interesting idea and I can respect their choice to live according to their own beliefs. At the same time I think they’re buying into a world view that still defines them according to sex. I mean, think about it. You walk around covered up from head to toe and wearing a head scarf, you’re essentially saying that every man you meet is only interested in your body. And you’re signifying your belief that you can only be taken seriously if your skin isn’t showing.

I don’t know about you, but I like to think that men aren’t quite that bestial.

And I think that Naomi’s defence of choice is problematic in this context, simply because the vast majority of Muslim women in the world aren’t given the option. Wearing the veil is either written into law or it’s considered the cultural norm, to the point that those who don’t cover up are harassed, abused or worse.

And let’s think about those little girls who are also made to wear the veil and denied the freedoms that their brothers enjoy. Where’s the choice or the sexual freedom there?

The whole concept of “modesty” might be a little more acceptable if it were applied to both sexes and if individuals were freely allowed to make that choice, but the fact is that it’s only women who are required to hide their bodies and hair. It’s the women who get the rough end of the stick. Why defend that as a feminist virtue?

I take umbrage at the idea that a hidden sexuality is somehow better than one that is freely expressed. I think it all depends upon your point of view. You get good and bad marriages within Islam and within the Western world. If a relationship is happy and successful it doesn’t really matter what you wear, I suspect. And if either partner develops feelings of jealousy because the other is looking (looking) at the opposite sex, I would say that it’s not the clothes that are the problem.

I also reject the idea that Western women are “forced” to wear skimpy clothing or to be overtly sexual. This assertion is part of that whole “raunch culture” moral panic which interprets autonomous female sexuality as merely an expression of victimhood (i.e. women only pole dance or watch porn to impress the guys, they never make that decision just to please themselves). Yes, you can argue that fashion and popular culture are fairly determined to dress women up like Barbie dolls, but that doesn’t mean we have to actually do it.

And yes, there are men out there who are determined to treat all women like sex objects. But why should their opinions impact upon how I live my life? Why should I restrict my own movements or change my dress because of what they think or say? Fuck them, is the correct answer here.

I’m a Western woman. Most days, I wear clothing that is decidedly unsexy, mainly because I find it comfortable – and I don’t give a damn about what other people think of me. I don’t bother with makeup or high heels and I don’t spend hours doing my hair. I just wear clothes and go out, very much in the same way that men do.

You could argue that I too am treated as an individual rather than as a sex object because I’m wearing my sensible shoes, trousers and unfashionable top. I do understand what those Muslim women are saying about not having to adhere to a certain expectation of “femininity”.

But I don’t feel that my choice of clothing magically enhances my sex life and I certainly don’t think I’m somehow morally superior to those who may be wearing less clothing, for whatever reason.

And when it’s summer, I myself will be wearing less clothing, again because it’s comfortable (even if Naomi says that I’m actually brazenly walking around “half naked”). And I have a major problem with anybody or any religion that tells me I’m a “whore” or not truly free because I might wear a halter top in hot weather. I have a choice and I take responsibility for myself. That’s the whole point of feminism, right?

Naomi’s assertion that Western men are suffering from reduced libido is not based on any research or statistics that I’m aware of. I think her whole argument relies on vague anecdotes and – dare I say it – her own yearnings for the old-fashioned notions of noble marriage as described in romance novels.

If Naomi is genuinely concerned about women’s freedom and sexuality, she needs to go back to addressing attitudes and societal expectations about how women should look and behave and how men should treat women. And she needs to take a more critical view of religion and its role in how women are treated around the world.

Those women who are able to choose the chador or the veil are welcome to it. It’s their life. Just as I reserve the right to wear what I want and to hold my own beliefs. But I will not accept the assertion that their choice and their life is somehow more feminist or free than mine. I think that covering up and hiding sexuality merely gives in to (and feeds) existing sexism, rather than fighting it.

Pic is from this blog page, from an exhibition by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan (more here)

3 Replies to “Naomi Wolf’s Feminism Disappears Behind The Veil”

  1. Crikey, it seems Wolf is happy to continue sliding down the slippery slope she’s on. 😐

    Thanks for the great critiques of her writings on this matter – i’ve written my own critique on that NYMag essay, which i should polish up for addition to the Pleasure Activism Australia site . . . .

  2. I liked her work in the End of America. I think your are right here though – she is drawing a very long bow. But then I am one of those bestial men. I think my wife looks sexy no matter what she is wearing 🙂

Comments are closed.