Over the past few months, I have been reading almost exclusively novels written by Arab writers or about the Arab World. Nevertheless, I have decided to take a short break and read the new novel from one of my favorite authors, Nuriddin Farah, entitled Knots. All of his novels take place in his native Somalia, and while Somalia is not per se an Arab nation (though some people consider it to be so), it is a Muslim country and has many Arab influences.
While reading a particular passage today, I was reminded of something that I have witnessed in Naguib Mahfouz’ works as well as in other Arab novelists — the effect produced in the minds of young men by women covered by veils, masks or full-body coverings as dedictated by the norms of the societies in which they live. In Mahfouz’s works, for example, you can see the incredible and almost debilitating desire felt by young men when glimpsing a woman’s ankle or even a collar bone.
In the following passage from Knots, the main character, Cambara, reflects on how strange it is for her to return to Somalia after so many years and find women camoflaging themselves underneath veils and full-body covers, and how such disguises actually increase desire
Cambara empathizes with her friend’s sentiment, remembering how she has resorted to putting on the veil not only because it would draw attention away [from] the unwanted attention of armed youths but also because the idea of camoflaging oneself has its built-in attraction. She can’t remember where she has read or heard that Islam makes sex so exciting: all the veiling, all the hiding, all the seeking and searching for a momentary peek of that which is concealed; the gaze of the covered woman coy; her behavior come-hither coquettish. That you are discouraged from meeting a woman alone in a room unless she is your spouse or sister–these things, while some people may think of them as impediments, reify the idea of sex, turning it into something hard to get and therefore worth pursuing.
This quote also reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago (although I can’t remember with whom) about why certain societies segregate men and women. The person, I believe a woman, was telling me about the difference between the way temptation and desire are viewed in chauvisinistic societies around the world. She gave the examples of Latin America and the Muslim world. According to her, in Latin America women are considered sexually agressive, and therefore women are not trusted to be left alone with men. If a woman is left alone with a man, she will inevitably pounce on him. On the other hand, in the Muslim world men are the culprits who upon viewing women can barely control their desires. Thus, women must be covered up to avoid the man’s temptation. Otherwise, the man cannot be held responsible for what he may do if desire gets the best of him.
Of course, in both societies when a woman has finally been tempted or has tempted, the woman is always the one chastised and blamed, and never the man. Go figure.