Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
— Epictetus c. 55 – 135 CE
Those of you who are parents know that with regard to your young children or teenagers you must choose your battles carefully, sometimes with considerable forethought. For example, how many parents have found yourself in the discussion (or defense) of what can and cannot be watched on television and why? Perhaps another “boundary” not to be crossed is alcohol consumption, or expensive impulse purchases. As responsible parents we set these rules ultimately because our young innocent souls are simply too immature, too inexperienced to fully understand the size of responsibility that goes with crossing these bridges into yet unknown lands. However, almost all of us know too that if we carry these “boundaries” to the extreme, i.e. so rigid they become oppressive, this too can back-fire. Why? Because it is human nature — human curiosity if anything — that causes our want to understand. From a very young age we all want to understand the world around us, even when it unexpectantly causes us harm. We simply must know. If not immediately, soon. If we are not eventually free to learn things on our own, in our own exciting ways or painful ways, then we quickly recognize that we are NOT truly free. And that goes against every fiber in our bodies.
At some point, we as parents and our society decide at what age people are responsible enough to make decisions on their own. I will go out on a limb and say that somewhere between the ages of 21 and 25 years, a man or woman is mature enough to find their own way through life. Many would say that 18-years of age is enough; I will not argue that too much. But ask 80% of the U.S. adult population, “what age is it proper to teach our children about love, sex, conception, and parental responsibility” and there will be debate; in some cases heated debate.
Throughout the United States and all over the world there are varying degrees of how, what, and when to teach sexuality. This will be the subject of this post: Hyper-social anxiety over sexuality and when is it going way too far? Like many controversial topics, there are extremes — typically way to the left (ultra liberal) and way to the right (ultra conservative), and then various points in between where dead-center is “moderate”.
Following is an article from The Washington Post, written May 2011 by reporter and editor Steven Levingston. As one reads the article, I can’t help but realize that this type of hyper-social anxiety is not limited to extreme Islam. Many denominations of Christianity, and various sects of Judaism also have hyper-sensitized religious laws regarding women and sexuality.
Islamic Extremists’ Obsession with Women’s Bodies
In his new book, “On the State of Egypt” (Vintage; paperback, $15), popular Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany doesn’t mince words when going after Islamic extremists for their treatment of women. In an essay titled, “Why Are Religious Fanatics Obsessed with Women’s Bodies?” Aswany decries an incident in Somalia in which extremists arrested a woman and whipped her in public for wearing a bra. To the fanatics, wearing a bra is un-Islamic and a form of fraud and deception. Why? Because wearing a bra presents a false image of a woman’s breasts.
An apt comparison, Aswany says, is an accusation of fraud against a merchant for concealing defects in his goods or for making false claims about their quality in order to make a sale.
“The idea here,” Aswany writes, “is that a woman who accentuates her breasts by using a bra gives a false impression of the goods (her body), which is seen as fraud and deception by the buyer (the man) who might buy (marry) her for her ample breasts and later discover that they were ample because of the bra and not by nature.” Not the least of the disconcerting aspects of this case, Aswany says, is how the extremists found the grounds to arrest the woman when she was fully covered.
Although Aswany is little known in the United States, he is a best selling writer in Egypt. His 2002 novel “The Yacoubian Building” depicting life in an apartment complex in Cairo was a hot seller for five years. It was adapted into a film and television series, and was followed by another best seller called “Chicago,” the city where Aswany studied dentistry. He is both a dentist and a novelist, and his books have been translated into 25 languages.
Aswany also is longtime proponent of democracy and was a critic of the authoritarian regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. His latest book, a compilation of previously published essays, is full of his thoughts on the Egyptian presidency and its succession, social justice, free speech, state repression and women’s rights. The titles of the pieces suggest the author’s uncompromising stance: “Who Is Killing the Poor in Egypt?” “Piety in Front of the Camera,” “Does Rigging Elections Count as a Major Sin?”
In the essay on fanatics’ obsession with women’s bodies, Aswany asserts that Egypt is not immune, pointing out that extremists require women to wear not only the niqab but also gloves to ensure no passions are aroused if a man and woman happen to shake hands.
Aswany outlines four reasons for the extremists’ obsession. First, among Islamic fanatics, women exist only as bodies and instruments, that is, for men’s pleasure or temptation and for producing children. In fairness, he notes that the commodification of women’s bodies also occurs in the West in porn and prostitution markets.
Second, in the extremist view, women are “the source of temptation and the prime cause of sin,” Aswany writes. Though men and women commit sin together, it is the woman who is held primarily responsible.
Third, religious fanatics insist on strictly requiring women to cover their bodies which, Aswany contends, allows them to focus their attention on women and their bodies rather than on the facts of despotism, corruption and religious hypocrisy.
Fourth, Aswany condemns fanatical religious ideology that, he says, assumes “humans are a group of wild beasts completely incapable of controlling their instincts.” A little will-power and ethics will go a long way, he points out.
Finally, Aswany is saddened by the way extremists tarnish the reputation of Islam on matters relating to women. “Anyone who reads the history of Islam fairly,” he writes, “has to be impressed by the high status it accords to women, because from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until the fall of Andalusia, Muslim women mixed with men, were educated, worked and traded, fought, and had financial responsibilities separate from their fathers or husbands. They had the right to choose the husband they loved and the right to divorce if they wanted. Western civilization gave women these rights many centuries after Islam.” In other words, fanatics have perverted the original teachings of Islam.
There is much truth to the popular adage: A sure way to motivate someone to do something is to tell them they can’t do it. Granted, there are certain choices and certain behaviors that ought not be done — we as parents and a society teach and enforce these “don’ts” because they truly cause a level of suffering. However, if one becomes too rigidly oppressive with non-violent “don’ts” (e.g. telling a lie or dressing to draw provocative attention), 7-9 times out of 10 the ‘forbidden act of protection’ back-fires. This is in part due to the extreme counter-actions taken to prevent it, which often can be just as destructive. Human nature is naturally curious of experiences unknown, especially as teenagers.
Does any ideology or organization own exclusive rights to healthy sexuality?
One might assume the answer to that question is a simple “No”. Astonishingly, as Levingston’s article and author Alaa Al Aswany point out above, sadly the answer is “Yes”, many groups claim exclusive rights to healthy sexuality, and even all truth and matters of any faith. Despite that every single person on this planet, and every single soul, and every single path to maturity and responsibility is different, even vastly different, they still adamantly hold to their claims of exclusive keys to worldly godly truths. Extremists of any religious kind teach — and/or enforce if need be — that sexual exploration is and should be condemned, except within the strict guidelines of a holy marriage. In the meantime and while you are unmarried, a rigid agenda of sexual abstinence (in some cases, abstinence in thought also) or pre-programmed classroom-esq teaching must be strictly followed, as if it is DNA programming. Any form of individuality, or time-sensitive maturing that all humans have are ignored or labeled ungodly. This type of extremism too often is more harmful and dysfunction-ridden than the other extreme of reckless sexual abandon! By hyper-sensitizing that which you — or a religious doctrine — condone or forbid, in essence heightens the risks trying to be avoided. It unnecessarily inflates the perceived or unproven consequences. A cookie-cutter social law does not teach valuable responsibility, discipline, or mastery of a gift or personal quality to be perfected.
Every single human being on this planet is an individual with individual unique gifts and qualities…some of which must be explored to be perfected. Perfection (or close to it) cannot be attained when all or most of the necessary tools and experiences are forbidden. And more obvious is that even in a “holy” marriage, exquisite sexuality cannot be learned by only two people with horse-blinders on their entire married lives! This absurd mentality is perhaps the greatest cause to the “seven-year itch“. We humans are naturally, biologically, neurologically, driven to do more, see more, be more, and do it all with purpose! Oppressive extremes, in time kill the unique human spirit to LIVE and live intensely, again with purpose.
At least one truth to be found here is that if one learns only how to be critical of a beautiful art form, an immensely health-inducing activity, then only problems are perpetually nurtured. If an artist does not have the freedom to perfect her/his art, the expression of it, and ownership of it, then s/he will create nothing of lasting value to her/himself or those who share it.
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