My religious background is almost comic. I was baptized (at a very late age) into the Greek Orthodox faith. Usually, this happens a year after birth, but my parents procrastinated a very long time and I ended up looking like a naked hippie dangling from the priest’s arms, with my long, blond(e), luxurious hair—some people mistook me for a girl—because tradition forbade them from cutting it before the Holy Spirit could enter me. I suppose you could call that my first experience with public nudity, except everyone was in their Sunday best, and I was just wearing olive oil and holy water. Now my mother and a host of other church attendees have albums containing child porn, if you consider any nude pic of a child pornographic. I was later submitted to Lakeside Christian Baptist School, since my parents didn’t understand the differences between Protestant and Orthodox denominations. It was here I was taught the evils of not wearing appropriate attire, being forced into a uniform of white button shirts, navy blue slacks, and ties on Wednesdays, because, you know, that’s what Jesus would have worn if they had had a Macy’s in Nazareth. All this prudishness got confusing when we were forced to get naked, underwear and all, for showers after PE. Again, the Baptist dress code mystified me. If water is falling and you’re holding a bar of soap, there’s no shame in thirty 3rd-grade penises jiggling all about a concrete room. Show up late for school without your tie? GOD FORBID!
Now, here’s where my story starts to sound fictional. After being hammered with the inerrant, but perpetually paradoxical Christian doctrine all my life, I went and married a Muslim girl. I went from growing up on the Greek islands over summer, where nobody wore a bikini top and half the people wore even less, to a beach where you would be hard pressed to find a single girl in a bathing suit. Years ago, I followed the Moroccan coast looking for a free-spirited female daring enough to bare her thighs, and on the return trip I saw just one girl. My wife in a two-piece.
The benefit of my diverse upbringing is in experiencing so many different ways people live and think, and while I am much closer to atheist on the spectrum of belief, I will say that, based solely on who I’ve met, Muslims are the nicest group of people. And yet, I always have to be careful with what I say and do when I visit my wife’s homeland, and more than once have gotten stern looks for behaving the wrong way, like the time I had a Starbucks during the holy month of Ramadan. In Morocco, you are constantly reminded of proper etiquette, which makes for an uber-polite society, yet one that feels less free than I am comfortable with. Once, I was given the shame eye, a Moroccan gesture, for browsing women’s underwear, a far cry from what I am used to on the Greek isles, where shops sell dildos out in the open.
Every major religion uses shame to some degree, but feelings of shame can destroy a person internally, if The Scarlet Letter is any indication, or turn citizens into slaves, if we go by The Handmaid’s Tale. There might be instances where shame is beneficial, to deter people from raping, stealing, or killing, but I doubt anyone capable of such actions would be swayed by shame anyway. In most cases, shame is used as a tool to control people. Prominent atheists say “religion is a prison of belief,” and if that is the case, then shame makes up the bars of that prison. There is no better proof of this claim than in Islam.
While not my first time in a Muslim country, visiting Morocco during the holy month of Ramadan was a real eye-opener. Morocco is the most liberal of Islamic nations, but while you may see girls in shorts walking the streets, they are greatly outnumbered by women wearing the hijab, a scarf for covering the hair. More alarming still was seeing women in burqas, a loose garment that covers everything but the eyes. The burqa was a common enough sight that my daughter and I played a game of burqa bingo.
The worst display of sexism I saw was in the northern city of Tangier, which is so close to Europe you can see Spain across the water. Dozens of boys frequented beaches and parks, kicking soccer balls around and jumping from piers, without a single girl among them. The boys, of course, being male, were all in American-style bathing suits. Where I did see girls, usually in the streets shopping, you would be lucky to spot a knee or a shoulder. Having grown up around nude beaches, the sight of so many featureless, fully covered human beings was disturbing to me.
Even women who volunteer to wear the burqa do so under societal and familial pressure, because they know they will be shamed by their fathers, brothers, or friends. If this were not the case, where are the women in the West choosing to play Halloween 365 days a year? Now if a devout Muslim honestly chooses to dress up like a ghost, it is not my place to criticize, but when 99% of the female population is missing from places where you would otherwise find them, that isn’t choice, it is oppression. Much of this oppression is not religious, however, but cultural in nature. Morocco does not criminalize women for exposing their hair, as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan does. But as it stands, the Koran is pretty clear on the issue of modestly, and exposing the genitals is simply out of the question. Even men are forbidden from seeing one another’s parts in the shower. But it’s the women who are especially charged with protecting their “beauty,” lest they go around tempting males into sin. While these rules might have seemed sensible in a nomadic desert culture hundreds of years ago, in our modern world, they simply do not apply. I often find my eye wandering over to the faces under those scarfs, specifically because they are covered, and would stand out in America.
None of this shaming may seem particularly egregious, until you consider the most extreme consequences of such beliefs. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, a woman can be jailed for being raped. Yes, you read that correctly. Even in Dubai, the Vegas of the Middle East, a Norwegian tourist was arrested after she was raped. Why? Because no man can possibly commit such an act unless he is tempted, and men, once they see an exposed thigh, will lose their minds and turn into rapists, naturally. Which makes me wonder why I’ve never seen anyone getting raped on the dozens of nude beaches and resorts I’ve visited, or why I never once felt compelled to rape anyone, even when I was alone in a room with an attractive, completely naked girl.
Men capable of sexual violence will commit sexual violence. But while rape is common in all cultures, only in Islamic countries do women take the blame for it. This is what results from shaming women into hiding their bodies, and teaching people, male and female, that the body is an object of temptation, and parts of ourselves are better off hidden.
The Bible’s stance on nudity is vague and inconsistent, which is why you can find many naturist Christians in Europe and America. Pro-naturist passages in the Bible include the story of Adam and Eve, who only realize their nakedness after they sin, and who dress themselves out of shame. The prophet Isiah was commanded by God to preach naked for three years. John the Baptist lived naked in the woods, and Baptized his flock in the nude, including Jesus. There is also the story of Bathsheba, who was seen from his balcony by King David, bathing out in the open. The Biblical story does not condemn her nakedness, nor draw attention to the fact that she is visible from the outdoors. Instead, David is admonished for lusting after a married woman. Conversely, there is the story of Noah, who was found drunk and naked in his tent by his son, Ham. Ham told his two brothers about his father, and Noah cursed him, but whether Noah’s nakedness was considered sinful, or just shameful, the Bible does not make clear.
Following the Renaissance Age, most Catholic cathedrals feature nudity, the most famous example of which is the Sistine Chapel. And, as Pope John Paul II declared, “The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendor and its beauty … Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness … Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person … The human body is not in itself shameful … Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person.” Catholic attitudes toward nudity, more than in other Christian denominations, has had a noticeable affect on culture. In Catholic Brazil, the carnival festival draws nearly 5 million attendees annually, and features nude or nearly nude performers.
This got me to thinking, if only there was a surah (the Koranic version of a Bible verse) dealing with burqas and hijabs, Muslim women throughout the world might be free from the mental prison of shame, free to dress how they wish, without ever getting blamed for rape. While I do not presume to add to or alter the Koran in any way (being a writer myself, I have no right to edit another person’s work), I do think something along these lines would be helpful to Muslim women and the feminist movement in Arab countries. I call it the missing surah.