The Personalist Project

Some years back I found myself in a lively online debate at a website dedicated to hedonistic feminine sexuality. One of my interlocutors said something about how Christian and Muslim sexual morality are basically the same. "They both boil down to no sex outside of marriage." I was genuinely taken aback. To me, the two moral visions are so radically opposed that I could hardly imagine that they might look the same to outsiders. But I could feel her sincerity. She wasn't being gratuitously provocative; she genuinely didn't perceive the difference.

I've learned since that many Christians don't really see it either. That is to say, they have a view of sexual morality that is, in many respects, closer to the Islamic approach than to the fullness of Christian truth.

This topic deserves a much fuller and more rigorous treatment. Maybe someday I'll get to it. But meanwhile, with the horrible headlines about ISIS's "theology of rape" coming on top of the countless stories of child brides, honor killings, and female genital mutilation in the Muslim world, it seems timely to at least get the conversation started.

Here is my short list of essential differences between the Islamic and Christian views of women and women's sexuality. 

1. In the Christian vision, a woman's sexuality belongs to her; she is in charge of it. In Islamic sexuality, it belongs to the men in her life—first her father and brothers, then her husband. 

When a Christian woman gets married, she bestows herself on her husband, who in turn bestows himself on her, while in Islam, ownership of the woman is transferred to her husband in a transaction between men.

2. In Christianity, there is perfect equality and complementarity between men and women. In Islam, women are subordinate to men.

3. In Islam, sexual morality is reducible to blind obedience to the law (i.e. what Allah prohibits or allows); it's governed by fear and shame. Christian morality is transparent to reason and governed by love.

The great and emotionally grueling Iranian film, A Separation, has a compelling illustration of this feature of Islam. A man whose wife is leaving him hires a pious married woman to care for his father, who has Alzheimers disease. At one point during the day, the father wets himself. The woman caring for him panics. She can't clean him, because then she would see him naked. She is petrified of committing a sin. She has to call an imam to get permission, and even then, she's terrified. It's the opposite of the freedom and responsibility that characterize mature Christian morality.

4. In the Islamic view, the purpose of modesty in women is to prevent male arousal; hence, the more coverage, the better. If a man is aroused, the woman is at fault. In Christianity, modesty is about drawing attention to a woman's personal dignity. Her sexual values aren't concealed, but duly integrated with her subjectivity. Men are responsible for themselves.

I know I've left out lots, but maybe I've said enough to shed some light on the pathologies of the Muslim world, and the problem of Christian circles tending in the same direction.

Comments (3)

Rhett Segall

#1, Aug 18, 2015 10:43am

Katie, I think you have delineated the Christian and Muslim view of women very clearly. Your interlocutor is very representative of the mindset that sees Catholicism as robbing humanity of the “juice of life”, as one person put it.

What I find so hard to comprehend is that people of good will can be so value blind. Yet, don’t we find that value blindness ubiquitous in the Old Testament?   Consider Abraham and Hagar, the daughters of Lot, the execution of the ban by Moses, Joshua, et al, purportedly as God’s will! As Jesus said “There will come an hour when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God” (Jn. 16:2)!

Rhett Segall

#2, Aug 18, 2015 5:29pm

Astonishingly, there are “Western” women who choose the Muslim mode of dress. There was a major debate on these pages specifically on the burqa. I wonder if such women do so because of a deep disgust with the profanation of sex in “Western” society.

Besides the film Separation, which I agree is marvelous, I would recommend the novels of Khaled Hosseni. They bring the reader into the heart of the contemporary Muslim struggle vis a vis sexuality.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Aug 19, 2015 9:09am

Thanks for that recommendation, Rhett. I will definitely be looking those up. 

As for value-blindness, it's another consequence of the fall in Eden. Sometimes I see salvation history as a great, gradual illumination of the truth about person that had been lost there.

I'm sure you're right that one reason Islam appeals is that the west seems to have abandoned all moral norms and values. All the boundaries are gone. It's out of control.

But maybe another reason is that women have a natural (post-Eden) tendency toward slavishness, just as men have a tendency toward domination. It's easier to do as you're told than to be responsible for yourself.

Another is that many women have been abused. For them, the veil might feel like protection.

Another is (alas) that many Christians are wretchedly controlling. To many women, the alternative isn't between freedom and control, but control and out-of-control. Freedom they've never seen and can hardly imagine.

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