For Goodness Sake: Two views on womanhood and moral identity

You know campus is alive and well when speakers offer not just opposing views on a topic, but juxtaposing views on life.

NWU students got exactly that juxtaposition in March. On consecutive days, the Global Studies Program’s series, “Islam and Muslims in America” brushed elbows with a University Forum lecture on the state of American feminism.

The two events weren’t paired for any simplistic “point/counterpoint” effect. But Zainab Al-Baaj and Jessica Valenti’s juxtaposing perspectives on womanhood and moral identity show how dynamic the campus conversation truly is.

By Her Cover

Zainab Al-Baaj is an Iraqi refugee who came to the U.S. after the first Gulf War. She wears the hijab and covers her arms and legs as a public reflection of her Islamic faith and its values of modesty, privacy and morality.

Zainab Al-BaajShe pointed to the Koran, which calls on believing women to “guard their modesty,” and to “draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty” to any man except their husbands, fathers and certain others.

While Al-Baaj’s hijab distinguishes her from most Lincolnites, many other things about her are quite typical. She’s a woman juggling a job with a husband and four kids. Her message to NWU students was about that overlap of American Muslims’ uniqueness and commonality.

For Al-Baaj, acclimating to the U.S. was about more than adjusting to differences in faith. It was about climate, community and language. Al-Baaj resettled initially in Fargo, N.D. “I was so excited the first time I saw snow,” she said. “Not so much since.” Unfamiliar with ice, she broke her ankle twice her first winter.

When people she meets today seem awkward with her faith or culture, she can sympathize. She knows that first steps in new environments can be slippery.

When Al-Baaj’s daughter was in fifth grade, she began wearing a hijab, too. The only Muslim in her class, she spent years dressed like everyone else. Now she had to face her friends dressed unlike anything they’d seen.

So Al-Baaj asked the principal if she could explain the change to her daughter’s classmates that first day. “Of course I brought cookies and ice cream,” she said. “They immediately accepted and understood. Afterwards, her friends would tell her on the playground if her hair was showing. In the restrooms, girls would ask if they could try it on.”

Al-Baaj’s family became refugees precisely because this intercultural openness isn’t everywhere. She said that understanding in others makes it easier to be different in America. Here, she can be the kind of Muslim and the kind of woman that she wants to be. She can be purely herself.

Where Is Your Moral Compass?

Jessica Valenti had a secret to tell NWU students. Virginity doesn’t exist. “It’s a term with no medical definition,” the author of Full Frontal Feminism and blogger behind said to a crowd of more than 200 students in Olin Hall. Her forum topic was that of her latest book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women.

Jessica ValentiShe said our culture barrages American children with countless sexualized and misogynistic images. Parents and social conservatives have countered those messages with a “purity movement,” encouraging girls and young women to remain chaste until marriage. Valenti pointed to 1,400 “Purity Balls” in 2006: federally funded “promlike” events where daughters pledged their virginities to their fathers until marriage.

Valenti said these conflicting cultural forces- one glamorizing hypersexuality, the other stressing chastity- actually convey a similar message to girls: “A woman’s worth lies in her ability- or her refusal- to be sexual,” she wrote in The Purity Myth. “And we’re teaching American girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable.”

When we push girls and young women to view their self-worth as inextricable from their bodies, Valenti argued that we ignore larger questions about what it means to be a good person.

“While boys are taught that the things that make them men- good men- are universally accepted ethical ideals,” Valenti wrote, “women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs.”

Valenti said the healthiest response to a corrupting, misogynistic and hypersexualized culture is not an opposite—yet equally corporeal—push for chastity among young women. It’s the consistent and supportive confirmation that female goodness, coolness and identity are all rooted well above the waist

“Our daughters deserve a model of morality that’s based on ethics,” she said, “not on their bodies.”