Feminism and fundamentalism have at last, if unwittingly, converged on a significant social issue: the hyper-sexualization of women. At face value, the arguments are diametrically opposed. One argues for carefully guarding the female form, the other for freeing it from all constraints, including tradition—and clothing. The irony, though, is that they represent two sides of the same coin. Both end up focusing on sexuality to the exclusion of all else. Dannah Gresh in Christianity Today makes this point using two dolls: “I have two Barbies in my office. The American Barbie wears a mini-skirt and a low, cut tight bodice that pushes her breasts upward. … The other, a Muslim Barbie named Fulla, is dressed in a burqa.”
She concludes that both modes of dress “raise awareness of a woman’s sexual nature and reduce her to being a mere body.” She also notes also that in some Christian circles, the women “might as well wear burqas.” The Muslim and Christian fundamentalist attitude stigmatizes sexuality, regarding it as shameful; feminists idolize it, holding up promiscuous behavior and dress as the pinnacle of female achievement.
You can see this dynamic at play on an international scale when you examine the popular U.S. reception—largely influenced by feminism—of the sexual norms seen in many Islamic cultures. A New York Times column by Haleh Anvari points out that American horror at the mandatory hijab has inadvertently caused a widespread fixation on the bodies of Iranian women: “Ever since the hijab, a generic term for every Islamic modesty covering, became mandatory after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been used to represent the country visually.” U.S. media coverage has measured Iranian cultural progress by the shorthand of how its women dress, as “Serious reports about elections used a ‘hair poking out of scarf’ standard as an exit poll, or images of scarf-clad women lounging in coffee shops, to register change.” But, as Anvari says, there is more to the nation and its culture than the way it treats female sexuality: “Showing the world our designer handbags or bra straps does not signify what we have achieved or strive for. Maybe it’s time for the world to stop measuring Iran through the bodies of its women.”
Another response to hyper-sexualization is the “respect” movement, burdened with phrases like “smart is the new sexy,” or “reading is hot.” The problem again is that those within the movement fail to transcend the puerile and hopelessly inadequate perspective on female sexuality that they hope to combat. Marc Barnes for Patheos recently quipped that American women are “swiftly running out of things that aren’t sexy.”
[I]n our wannabe feminist culture, reading a book, being a nerd, being smart — even this is “sexy.” And thus even the intellectual life of women, a strenuous activity with its own unique sufferings, joys, and worth — even this is reduced to the value-sphere of carnal desire.
He continued, “This is precisely the same problem with ‘Christian’ phrases like ‘modest is hottest.’ You cannot reassert the virtue of modesty within a framework in which ‘being hot’ is the dominant value.” Whether you stigmatize or idolize female sexuality, the problem of objectification will return time and again until you take into account the woman as a whole. Barnes again:
If we want to fight the atrocity of our culture’s treatment of women, … we must do it by actually speaking of the entire person, who cannot be reduced to her sexuality, for it is precisely the lack of the entire person that makes our culture’s treatment of women so perniciously evil.
The beauty of womanhood lies not in the celebration of any one particular aspect of being, but in the cultivation of body and soul together. Feminism belittles the significance of a woman’s divine nature; fundamentalism denies the dignity of her physical nature. True modesty, true virtue, and true beauty rest in reconciling the carnal and the divine, not denying one for the sake of the other.