Overcoming Sexualizing Muslim Women
maybe they don’t know—
that there’s a soul beneath all these clothes.
By far, one of the most difficult experiences I faced in hijab was when I made the decision to wear niqaab (the face veil). As I discussed in my post “I’m Taking Off This Veil!” this decision exposed me to a host of confounding experiences, the most trying of which was the repeated assumption of what this decision represented about me.
One of the most offensive experiences I faced while wearing niqaab was receiving the repeated advice to cover my eyes due to the alleged fitnah men faced by seeing my eyes uncovered, while I was merely using my eyes to see where I was going. Amongst some Muslims who are deemed religious, a woman’s beauty itself is viewed as sinful, even if it involves no sin or wrongdoing on her part, hence my blog: “Is Beauty Evil?”
Repeated experiences of this nature, in which “naseehah” (religious advice) was given to me solely on the basis of what men might imagine about me, contributed greatly to my ultimate spiritual crisis which made me doubt my ability to even be Muslim anymore. The incessant harassment due to my hijab not being un-beautiful enough, my voice being heard at all in public, and any picture of me existing at all, made me actually fear for my soul if I continued to attend certain masjids or Islamic classes. It began to feel like “practicing Islam” (in the minds of these Muslims) was synonymous with following the faults of any woman who identified as Muslim. Till today, I feel (literally) sick when I read posts criticizing Muslim women who are covered in hijab but who inadvertently violated some manmade restriction on her behavior.
This phenomenon inspired this journal entry, which I shared in my book FAITH. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah:
Is following the faults of women now the sixth pillar of Islam? No matter how much some Muslims study this beautiful faith, they still come away with this bizarre manmade “principle of fiqh”: Any action by a woman that even has the possibility to involve the eyes or ears of men is by default evil and a sign of corruption and immodesty on her part.
So now we have to read endless posts about the decision of a hijabi or niqaabi to post a picture, to do an online hijab tutorial, or to even recite Qur’an!
By Allah, I’ve even seen some women change the required Salaah movements to appease the possible wicked thoughts of men.
Laa ilaaha illaAllah! What is wrong with us?
Even in the face of apparent wrong, we are taught to make excuses for our brothers and sisters.
Must we be taught the same regarding the apparent good of believing women, since we now twist nearly every public deed of theirs to be evil?
The Sexualization of Women in Hijab
I suffered my own emotional trauma from the repeated harassment by Muslims who equated fulfilling the conditions of hijab with achieving the humanly impossible goal of no man finding you attractive, even if only in his imagination. As a result, when I was struggling to hold on to my Islam, I couldn’t stomach any video, post, or lecture on the subject, especially if it was done by a man.
Naturally, this struggle of mine was nobody’s fault, and it certainly doesn’t mean that videos, posts, and lectures on hijab should not exist. I share this experience only to say that I understand on a deeply personal level why hijab is such a sensitive topic for so many of us.
Unfortunately, this generation has seen the tragic shift of hijab as a female-centered act of obedience to Allah to hijab as a male-centered act that women must do to curb men’s insatiable sexual appetites and overactive imaginations. As with any new concept introduced into the religion, the result of this un-Islamic shift is disastrous in ways that we cannot even imagine. In my post “Is Beauty Evil?” I reflect on one result of this shift in the section entitled Men’s Loss of Manhood and Respect:
“When the narrative of women’s dress consistently revolves around men’s sexual weakness and arousal, especially regarding the dress of women who are already covered, there is a significant loss of respect for Muslim men in many women’s hearts. As Muslim women, we are taught that men are our leaders in private and public life, and it’s difficult to reconcile this divinely assigned role of manhood with the helpless, sexually weak image many men paint of themselves.
“Though it is natural for any human being to feel attracted to the opposite sex and sometimes become aroused (often for reasons inexplicable to others), it is bizarre to be expected to listen to a public narration of this attraction and arousal—from a pulpit or Islamic scholar—and in all seriousness be expected to change one’s dress based on the inner workings of random men’s minds and hearts… In the ‘real world’ (in which we all live), there will always be a variety of people, and some of them won’t be Muslim; and still others (Muslim or not) won’t make even the slightest effort at being modest or obedient to God’s laws. But men still need to be men, and they still need to lead. And regardless of what others are doing or wearing, if men can’t handle their assignment of manhood, then they need to reassess their own hearts and behavior in front of God, not women’s dress and behavior in front of men.”
Playboy Da’wah and Redefining Islamic Hijab
By the time the infamous Playboy magazine decided to do an online photo shoot of a Muslim woman and subsequently print an article by her, I’d all but left the topic of hijab alone in my blogs, at least for the time being. I’d heard that the magazine had opted to minimally cover the private parts of the women whom they sexually exploited in print, but because the publication was of no interest to me, I paid little attention to this “news.” As a Muslim, I saw nothing praiseworthy in an immoral publication shifting from a “bare-all” approach to objectifying women to a “sneak peak” approach to objectifying them (by displaying just enough ‘awrah to imagine the rest).
So when I finally heard the news of a Muslim woman being featured in the new “sneak peak” version of the sexually exploitive magazine, it took some time for me to process what was actually going on. I’d seen some of the footage from the online photo shoot before I actually knew what it was, so I didn’t really know what all the fuss was about. It was only after I realized that the entire purpose of the shoot and article was to present “the first hijabi” in Playboy magazine that I felt physically sick. It was similar to the sickness I’d felt when I heard men speak about hijab as if it was ordained to curb their sexual appetites.
It was while battling the feeling of physical weakness and sickness due to the emotional trigger that the “first hijabi in Playboy” fanfare incited that I realized that the shifting of the hijab from female-centered to male-centered had taken on an entirely new level of harm. In this, I do not mean that the actual photo shoot and article was male-centered (though the publication certainly is). I mean that this shift made it possible for the hijab itself to take on an entirely new meaning in the eyes of practicing Muslims themselves—with very little room for respectful disagreement or varying views.
As we women sought to reclaim the hijab as rightfully ours, there was very little trustworthy guidance and support in this journey. Practicing Islam openly, especially in hijab, had become an experience of voluntarily opening yourself up to daily harassment and mistreatment by fellow Muslims, even if you were committing no sin. The harassment had reached the point where even justified discussions on the topic had become deeply triggering to so many of us (as I myself experienced).
As a result, any mention of Islamic hijab in public felt like one of two experiences (emotionally speaking): verbal abuse or supportive compassion. Any and all reminders about our souls (telling us to cover properly) felt like verbal abuse, and any and all kind words about not wearing hijab (i.e. disobeying Allah) were viewed as supportive compassion. And there was almost no in between.
It was in this spiritually confusing environment that the “first hijabi in Playboy” was announced.
Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits Today?
I don’t mention the Muslim woman in Playboy to rehash the whole debate about whether or not her appearance in Playboy was correct or incorrect from an Islamic perspective. I’ve heard the arguments of support that ranged from the most sensible (“She gave da’wah to a new audience”) to the most ridiculous (“She’s similar to Malcolm X”); and I’ve heard the arguments of disagreement that ranged from the most balanced (“It was very inappropriate, but she’s still our Muslim sister”) to the most despicable ([I’m not going to repeat the name-calling and character assassination here]).
I mention the Playboy incident because it brought up a question for so many of us that before then was just mulling around in our minds: Is discussing hijab off-limits today? Has the shift to define hijab as primarily a sexual-desire-blocking cloth for men made it necessary to leave the topic alone completely in public platforms, except to offer compassion and support to anyone who is at least trying to cover? Is the best approach to just have the information on Islamic hijab available to whoever wants it instead of speaking about the topic openly— especially in correcting “wrong hijab” or inappropriate behavior (or magazine appearances)?
When I ask the question, I’m not asking rhetorically. I really want to know how to deal with this topic appropriately today. Judging by the number of messages and calls I received after the Playboy incident (many from confused Muslim youth), I know complete silence is not an option (which was why I ultimately opted to post on my own social media page respectful disagreement with the Playboy feature).
I know that we cannot abandon teaching about hijab entirely, as this goes against divine instruction. But there has to be a better way than what we’re doing now. So many of us are hurting. And while our hurt is not an excuse to declare the topic of hijab off limits, I do believe there has to be a middle ground that helps us heal our wounds and save our souls at the same time.
And Allah knows best.
Blogpost originally published via muslimmatters.org
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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