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How Beauty and Sexuality Are Conflated in Muslim Arab-American Culture

The present scholarship of sexuality in Muslim Arab-American (MAA) culture is minimal and even more is the conversation of sexuality. I want to reintroduce this discussion with a focus on beauty, as I believe beauty is a major contributor to how we currently define and express our sexuality. For this reason, I redact my previous statement on categorizing sex as obsolete. We are aware of its existence, but it has never been acknowledged in our development of defining sexuality.  I argue beauty has been made as a proxy for sex and sexuality in MAA culture because it is a governing force that is familiar and accessible. By conflating these terms the actual meaning of sexuality is misinterpreted and the discourse surrounding sexuality is not developed. MAA culture displaced sexuality for beauty and has idealized compulsory heterosexuality to an extent it created a sub-division I call a blank sexual identity. 

The purpose of this article is to provide the framework necessary to evaluate our current understanding of sexuality in MAA culture. I’ve attempted to do so in Dear Arab Sisters: Our Current Understanding of Sex Limits Us, but I have failed to do so on three attempts. The first is writing in a manner that does not differentiate MAA culture from Arab and Arab-American culture. It is important I recognize the three as separate entities to truly capture the organic experience of MAA females. The second is not acknowledging the influence of Islamic beliefs on cultural ideals. I refrained from including Islamic sentiments to prevent the conflation between religion and culture. However, this conflation was already present and by isolating religion from my analysis, I declared religion and culture to be mutually exclusive. It is crucial I emphasize the partnership between religion and culture to accurately depict how the standards of beauty and sexuality are represented today. The third is narrowing my discourse to the experiences of MAA females to the extent the scholarship I provided did not translate with MAA males. To begin the conversation I eagerly want, I must articulate the matter into terms that draw upon the MAA male perspective. By introducing sexuality under this analysis, I created a one-sided conversation that neglected the influencing forces between MAA females and Muslim MAA males. The defining characteristics of both genders are coupled into an agreement based on relativity. 

Before I begin my analysis, I am modifying my discussion to include the MAA male perspective, but I am still emphasizing the experiences of MAA females. And please note my use of “females” instead of woman or girl and “males” instead of man or boy. I have decided to not specify my demographic to a focused age group, because I believe what we developed in our childhood provided the framework of how we assess beauty and sexuality as adults.

To provide an accurate representation of beauty and sexuality in MAA culture I conducted interviews to capture the experiences of MAA. The questions asked are the following: 

  1. What traits are considered beautiful in MAA culture?
  2. What is the first term that comes to mind when you think of beauty?
  3. What beauty features do you think MAA men (or MAA women) like?
  4. In regard to the previous response, does this influence how you physically present yourself?
  5. What is your response to the phrase “there is beauty in modesty and simplicity”?
  6. What is your morning (or make-up) routine? What facial features do you want to highlight?
  7. When you go to the beach what do you wear? Is this different from what you would wear at a family gathering?
  8. How is virginity and beauty seen in MAA culture?
  9. Are you a virgin?
  10.  If you are a virgin, why? And do you pride yourself on your innocence?
  11. What are the first 5 terms that come to mind when you think of sexuality?
  12. What age did you learn about sex? And have your parents ever talked to you about sex?
  13. How does MAA culture define sexuality?
  14. How do you express your sexuality?
  15. How do you expect the MAA community to react to your sexual history? If you are comfortable, please share your sexual history.
  16. When you have a night out with friends, what do you wear? What body features do you want to highlight? Does this make you feel beautiful?

I will be referencing the questions by their indicated numbers in the succeeding analysis directly or mentioning them indirectly. The questions administered are intended to uncover the subliminal internalizations and opinions about sexuality and beauty. I interviewed seven participants to which one was male. This of course was not to my design and more so on the refusal to participate in this study. It is a limitation to my initiative in including the MAA male perspective, but nonetheless addresses a privilege that grants MAA males the ability to move in and out of such conversations. 

In effort to define beauty in MAA culture and American culture, I will focus on beauty pageants because they offer an organized platform of accepted standards. Miss Muslimah USA allows Muslim women to reorganize the political climate that has been perpetuated against Muslims through the presentation of their brightest. The contestants have the opportunity to break down stigmas and showcase their accepted individuality, intellect, and initiative. The pageant is built on five categories: the abayah, the burkini, “a modest special occasion dress (dresses that are too tight could lead to disqualification) and talent” (Aghajanian 10). The abayah is a loose fitted traditional dress marked with stitched patterns and the burkini is a whole-body swimsuit. Miss Muslimah USA has pinned modesty as the pinnacle of beauty. In Islam, modesty is a responsibility to be carried by both men and women. Men must “restrain their sight(s) and to preserve their private parts” (Quran 24:30), the same way women are to “draw their head coverings over their bosoms and not display their adornment” (Quran 24:31) except to a selected few. Miss Muslimah USA has chosen to produce a beauty pageant backed with religious roots. However, beauty pageants are agents of cultural standards. To say fitted clothing is a reason for disqualification is reasonable under an Islamic aspect, but how does this translate culturally? This restriction culturally acknowledges the sexualization of the female body and subliminally reinforces patriarchal notions of when and how a woman should present her body. Thus, this shared expectation is pressed upon the female gender.

When researching “modesty in the Quran” articles titled “Verses about Hijab in the Holy Qur’an” and “Dress Code for Women based on Quran” appeared even though my request did not specify which gender. This shows the subliminal association between modesty and women. Modesty is being weaponized in the production of the ideal MAA female. This is not the case for American beauty pageants, particularly Miss America. Miss America was created in 1921 to present white women’s beauty. The participants are judged on four categories: talent, evening wear, interview, and physical fitness. However, this is a modification from the 2017 categories: swimsuit, evening wear, onstage question, and talent. The swimsuit competition was removed to buffer the backlash of released emails between Miss America organizers that described participants in a crude manner. It was not to “no longer judge [the] candidates on their outward physical appearance”, but to use the #MeToo movement to revive their image to be progressive and relevant. But removing a segment of the pageant does not remove the infrastructure that perpetuates the “mindless-boob-girlie symbol” (Women’s Liberation 80). The image of an ideal American beauty continues to exist — the tall, slim, thin waist, wide hips, blonde-haired, blue eyes image that continues to circulate through the media. American women are expected to be “sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy” (Women’s Liberation 81). These expectations do not operate in an all or nothing framework, instead there is a specific balance between each ideal that satisfies the American ideology of how a woman should exist under a patriarchal regime. The MAA’s perception of beauty is a hybrid between Western and Eastern ideals. There is no defining line on how much is represented as Western or Eastern because this is individualized for each person. Beauty is a gradient of individual preferences that have been cultivated by these ideals.

The MAA’s perception of beauty is a hybrid between Western and Eastern ideals. There is no defining line on how much is represented as Western or Eastern because this is individualized for each person. Beauty is a gradient of individual preferences that have been cultivated by these ideals.

The contextualization of beauty in MAA culture and American culture represents beauty as inherent qualities as well as physical attributes. And it is important to recognize that today’s vision of beauty has modernized to be relatable and inclusive. But this does not undermine or dilute the previous undertakings of beauty. Under this aspect, beauty is confidence; it is “responsibility [especially] when a person can take care of their children and raise them right” (Anonymous, male, 21); and “how genuine a person is” (Anonymous, female, 20). The second statement provides insight on how beauty is related to femininity. Let’s examine the quote in its entirety: 

A female is beautiful if she is simply kind, loving, and caring. […] A person that takes care of their bodies and tries their best to stay healthy shows beauty. […] Responsibility is seen as beautiful, especially a person that can take care of their children and raise them right. (Anonymous, male, 21)

The previous statement is directed toward a female even though question (1) offered no emphasis of a gendered response. Not only does this highlight the one-sided utilization of beauty to the female gender, it introduces beauty in terms of physique and femininity. Femininity “is devoted to women as domestic beings, dedicated to home […] and family” (Banet-Weiser 71). Under this definition of femininity is motherhood and it has been identified as a beauty trait. This is important because it exemplifies beauty outside of the individual and into a collection of behaviors that regulate how women express themselves on all planes. All of the responses I received on question (1) were directed toward women. This does not undermine the presence of a dialogue on what constitutes as beautiful in MAA culture, but instead shows this dialogue is pressed upon the female gender.

The purpose of questions (2) and (11) allowed me to identify the implicit internalizations of beauty and sexuality by asking this question 5 times as rapid fire. For beauty, eyes, skin, hair, body, and smile were commonly picked. And for sexuality body, beauty, sex, media, and clothing were commonly picked. This builds upon our introduction of beauty as physique, but now we are going to extend it to beauty as sexuality. According to WHO, sexuality is “sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction. [It is] experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practice, roles and relationships” (“Defining Sexual Health”). So yes, beauty can operate as a conduit for sexuality, but based on the responses received to question (13), sexuality is reduced to sex, a double-standard and/ or to exist primarily as heterosexuality. This deficiency is compensated for by beauty and we have established beauty in MAA culture is executed as modesty. When you represent beauty as modesty and couple it with sexuality the product is virginity and virginity in MAA culture is influenced by its religious attachments. The Quran states, “and do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse. Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way” (17:32). However, this standard is one-sided as it is pushed upon females and is a sentiment to their individual and collective honor. The purity of a girl culturally represents if she is a “good girl or not” (Anonymous, female, 21). The terminology used good girl, or the flip side bad girl, are terms used when regulating a child’s behavior. They are used to create boundaries for children and deciding on what is considered good or bad is left to the child’s caregiver. If a female becomes sexually active outside of marriage and loses her virginity, she is a bad girl and by extension this is the fault of her caregivers. A female’s virginity is not her own and is a representation of her family and her upbringing. And the typical MAA family is a mirror to the hegemonic family that is headed by a patriarchal figure, to which the cultural ideals of a patriarchal society are the constructing influence behind virginity. Under this framework, there exists a sexual dichotomy between MAA males and females: the sexually active male and the sexually passive female. This is not to be generalized to all MAA males, but there is a collective that controls the sexual narrative and a collective that is complicit to it. Regardless of their standing, all heterosexual MAA males benefit from this. They are granted a blanket of invisibility to satisfy their sexual desires without backhand comments labeling them as whores, sluts, sharmootas (prostitute), and bint al shadas (daughter of the streets). Their reputation is not attached to their sexual history and this is privilege. This sexual dichotomy is emphasized by other “patriarchal disciplinary tactics” (Deliovsky 51) such as Mutah. It is an Islamic practice that is not exclusive to males but is utilized by them the most. Mutah is a temporary marriage that allows both parties to engage in sexual intercourse or other intimate behaviors for a specified time under the condition of an agreed dowry. There are formal laws put in place to ensure the legitimacy of the practice. But it is being misused as a testament to dating and the religious sentiments are being lost to cultural ego. 

A beautiful girl is a modest girl with untouched virginity certifying the authenticity of a respectable marriage. But virginity is a double standard cultivated to its current value by repressive forces. Its existence is physically attached to female genitalia that is not present in males. Virginity cannot be generalized to both sexes because it is represented as the hymen. The hymen is a thin piece of tissue that surrounds the vaginal opening. It is susceptible to breaking inadvertently through extensive physical activity. But this is not how it is digested in MAA culture. Instead, the only means the hymen can break is through sexual intercourse. This proves “it is a tool of masculine culture” (Deliovsky 51) used to sublimate MAA females’ initiative. Unless otherwise stated the sexual history of a female is unknown. However, in an attempt to uncover whether a female is a virgin or not, her life will be analyzed in comparison to a promiscuous female. The places and people with whom she interacts with will be drawn in for questioning. Curious mothers, interested boys, or strict fathers will engage in some form of locker room talk to determine her innocence. Her decisions are no longer her own but are considerations for others and her life is curated to present an ideal image. Thus, virginity is “a form of ‘currency,’ it is a representative token that can be used as social capital to spend [or] exchange” (AMCULT498/WGS 434). This exchange operates within the heteronormative agenda and is a public transaction.

The contextualization of beauty in MAA culture and American culture represents beauty as inherent qualities as well as physical attributes. And it is important to recognize that today’s vision of beauty has modernized to be relatable and inclusive.

The conflation between beauty and sexuality is damaging to the MAA female. It is ambiguous and difficult to navigate because there is a “cultural emphasis on public modesty as a physical standard” (Amani, 2020 as cited in “3eib”). We have discussed the overarching representative of beauty is modesty in MAA culture, but there are other trademarks of beauty that conflict with this. These trademarks are not identifiable in MAA culture because there is no acknowledgement of sexual desires absent of marriage. I would like to publicly announce both males and females have sexual inclinations that they want to act on. The blanket of invisibility granted to MAA males gives them initiative and not females. This allows them to create and govern a sexual narrative that satisfies their sexual desires outside of culture and religion. Beauty is manipulated to be sexual performance and MAA females are confronted to define beauty as promiscuity or modesty. This decision comes into play when the concepts of status and appearance become constructing influences in developing the framework of surface level societal paradigms such as popularity. This awareness starts to become visible between the ages of 9-18 and remains so after its inception. Of course, this range is variable, but it is the individualized range for my set of interviewees. The implications of those that identify beauty as modesty and those that identify it as promiscuity respectively creates two models that govern the MAA female. Under the first model, is a strict set of ideals that lead to the internalization of innocence. This innocence, this virginity, is a prized possession we are all aware of. There is pride in this innocence because it is a testament of beauty. This is problematic when we draw upon the good girl/ bad girl dichotomy introduced previously. In a conversation of the current view of MAA females a friend of mine states, “all these girls in the community do this and it’s fine but I don’t do that”. It’s the latter statement that troubles me. But I don’t do that. This subliminally reinforces the good girl/ bad girl ideology and positions MAA females in a hierarchy that prizes modesty. The second model is ambiguous and unorganized. There is no defining generalization that can demonstrate this category because like I stated prior sexual inclinations exist solely within marriage in MAA culture. MAA females that utilize promiscuity in their development of beauty do so on the basis of “How does it feel to be so desired? مَاشُعُورُكِ وَأَنْتِ مَرْغُوبة لِهَذّا الحَدِّ” (Bahbah, “3eib”). To be desired. This highlights an existing partnership in which one is desiring, and another is receiving the desire. The second model functions as so. Feeling desirable is to feel beautiful and oh, how nice it is to feel beautiful. This creates an exchange that “subordinates’ women not because of the fact of exchange, but because the [mode] of exchange instituted, and the values attached” (Mohanty 69) to this mode. To keep this flow of admiration constant, the receiver will modify their wants to the needs of the desirer. Or if the desiring is unsatisfying, it will remain as is due to the familiar comfort and attention given. This is a brief introduction to this particular exchange, more needs to be addressed on the matter in future scholarships. 

Beauty is manipulated to be sexual performance and MAA females are confronted to define beauty as promiscuity or modesty. This decision comes into play when the concepts of status and appearance become constructing influences in developing the framework of surface level societal paradigms such as popularity.

I have discussed the ways in which the conflation between beauty and sexuality created a restrictive force imposed upon MAA females. However, this is not always the case, and this is evident through the analysis of Sarah Bahbah. Bahbah is a Palestinian Christian artist who uses her work to defy stereotypes against Arab women by breaking taboos and celebrating the liberation of transparency and desire. In her new series 3eib, Bahbah challenges the current dialogue in regard to sexuality, modesty, and beauty as an Arab woman living in the diaspora. Nonetheless her work is transmittable and applicable to the lives of MAA females. The English equivalent of “3eib” is inappropriate, but it is used as a means to exert shame. Bahbah reclaims this word by ridiculing the situations that permit its usage. She utilizes it as a source of agency and thus gives both Arab women and MAA women a means to achieve liberation. In “Bring me knafeh and sex. أَحْضِرْ لِي قِطْعَةً مِنَ الكْنَافَة وَطَبَقاً مِن الجِنْسَ”, Bahbah challenges the sexual passivity placed upon Arab women and MAA women. She creates a sensual landscape with wine and an orgasm. Bahbah’s hand grabbing her hair, eyes closed, mouth in a soft “o”, legs wide open with only a necklace and blanket comforting her naked body are statements of agency, statements of her being unapologetically herself. However, in “I’m sorry to my mother and Allah for the things I have done tomorrow. أَسْتَغْفِرُ الله وَأَعْتَذِرُ لِأْمِّي عَلَى مَا حَدَتَ بِِِِالغَدِ” (Bahbah, “3eib”) she highlights an internalized aftertaste of self-consciousness and guilt. Essentially a lingering thought to an action her mother can’t comply with and a reflex of old burdens. It begs the question, to what point will this progress? And how destabilizing is this to liberation?

We’ve discussed beauty in MAA culture is one-side and utilized to describe the female gender; however, this can extend to heterosexual females. The sentiments of sexuality function on the basis of reproduction and the hegemonic nuclear family, a sexual gradient exists but it is not acknowledged in MAA culture. In order for beauty to retain its governing power, compulsory heterosexuality is necessary. It is “presumed as a ‘sexual preference’ of ‘most women’” (Rich 178), in which women are “innately sexually oriented toward men” (Rich 178). The models detailed above would not be materialized as so if not for this phenomenon. The framework emphasizes universal ideologies that positions sexual primacy to males, which is problematic at best because “‘girls learn that the locus of sexual power is male” (Barry, 1980 as cited in Rich 189). The second model described previously exemplifies compulsory heterosexuality, whereas the first model adheres to a subsection of compulsory heterosexuality I argue to be a blank sexual identity. In my previous analysis, I defined a blank sexual identity to be “contingent on the experiences of other people and their relationships with sexuality or the behavior they emit because of it” (Hazime, “Dear Arab Sisters”). Folding in modesty stagnates this identity and prohibits sexual exploration.

The current analysis focuses on the instrumental installation of beauty in MAA ideologies. The socialization of modesty and applications of beauty clearly portray the exchange of sexuality with beauty as well as the perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality. I urge everyone just as I did before to engage in these conversations and challenge the standards that are unnecessarily integrated into our individual choices. I must confess, I was hesitant on asking the interview questions I did despite my openness with this topic. The questions I wrote required a level of vulnerability that I was afraid I couldn’t comfort. But in order to confront this hesitation and dissolve the unequal regulations imposed on both Arab women and MAA women, we need to dive into this discomfort and repurpose it as a catalyst for liberation.

References

Aghajanian, Liana. “’I Am Here to Prove You Wrong.’” The New York Times, 4 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/04/style/muslim-beauty-pageant-miss-muslimah-usa.html. Accessed 19 November 2020.

Anonymous. Personal Interviews. 10 Nov. 2020.

Bahbah, Sarah. “3eib.” SarahBahbah, 2019, http://www.sarahbahbah.com. Accessed 19 November 2020.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Miss America, National Identity, and the Identity Politics of Whiteness.” There she is, Miss America: the politics of sex, beauty, and race in America’s most famous pageant/, 2004, pp. 67-92.

Delivosky, Kathy. “Normative White Femininity: Race, Gender and the Politics of Beauty.” Atlantis, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, pp. 49-59.

Hazime, Munna A. “Dear Arab Sisters: Our Current Understanding of Sex Limits Us.” Muslim Girl, Muslim Girl, 20 January 2019, https://muslimgirl.com/dear-arab-sisters-our-current-understanding-of-sex-limits-us/. Accessed 19 November 2020.

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review, vol. No 30, 1988, pp. 61-82.

Quran. https://quran.com/search?query=Surah+Israa+verse+32.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Women: Sex and Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 4, 1980, pp. 631-660.

WHO. “Defining Sexual Health.” WHO, 2006, https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/sexual_health/sh_definitions/en/. Accessed 19 November 2020.

Women’s Liberation. “No More Miss America.” Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture, 1968, p. 1. Duke University Libraries, https://repository.duke.edu/dc/wlmpc/maddc04036.