Tug-of-Warring over the Female Body (Part 1 of 2) by Jameelah X. Medina

Cover up! No, get naked!

Haraam [Sin]; cover yourself! Be free; show some skin!

AstaghfirAllah [seeking forgiveness from God]; aren’t you ashamed?! Damn, aren’t you hot in that?!

The Muslim woman’s body feels like a battleground, especially during times like last month (April) with the whole FEMEN “topless jihad” controversy sparked by the Tunisian woman who protested the female body as a source a familial honor. On one side is essentialized feminism and patriarchy on the other end with both sides pulling hard. Both sides have Muslim women on their team, but both sides also harm them. Let’s start with “Team Femesential.”

Questioning the headscarf and certain covering practices is mostly a healthy endeavor in which many Muslim girls and women engage before and after deciding (if they do) to wear a headscarf. However, questioning the headscarf can also be an oppressive and even dismissive strategy that is disrespectful to Muslim women and to all women in general.

We must widen our gaze to reveal that women of all faiths and no faith are often obliged to comply with very specific or very general patriarchal demands whether those demands be objectified in: 1) headscarves to hide the hair and neck, 2) restrictive brassieres to uplift and hold the breasts at attention, 3) high-heeled shoes to define a woman’s calves, 4) surgical treatments and magic potions and lotions to remove or reduce any signs of aging, and 5) makeup products to enhance or feign beauty.

When we speak of a Muslim woman’s freedom in the body being censored and thwarted by Muslim males, we must take into account those women who define freedom differently than we do lest we: 1) dismiss Muslim women’s ability to be self-determining and 2) reject women’s agency that does not mirror our own. Many feminists’’ intentions may be emancipatory, but we must not take on the voice of a female male chauvinist implying that women have false consciousnesses as if they are proletariats, unwitting victims of the religion or practice of Islam under the unseen, standardized ideological control of a mythical Islamic bourgeoisie.

We must not make ours the voice of normative, universal feminist reason. We must not presume to know these women better than they know themselves, thereby consuming their agency and exerting our ideological power and dominance over them much like what we accuse pro-headscarf Muslim men of doing. In our attempts to present counter-hegemonic practices and tools of resistance, we have to be careful not to isolate the very women we claim to speak on behalf of by introducing our own form of cultural hegemony clothed in patriarchal social structures, a male gaze and with hatred for the headscarf and maybe even Islam at the core. Just as some misogynist Muslim males use the headscarf to argue a virgin/whore dichotomy, let’s not dichotomizes the female body and mind as either free and equal or oppressed and unequal; these dyads are not separated by a piece of cloth wrapped around or draped upon the head.

It can be confusing for a Muslim girl to be told that she can only be modest if she wears a headscarf (and even that modesty is something for which she should strive). It is similar to mainstream societal standards of beauty that are ingrained into our girls telling them that they cannot be beautiful without being thin, wearing the right clothes or makeup, having clear skin, etc. It is also similar to the number of times young girls are put in skirts and dresses and told to close their legs when they sit, stop jumping around, “little girls don’t behave like that,” and when little boys are allowed to do as they please with the excuse of “boys will be boys.” Teen magazines, commercial advertising, and parenting techniques have similar effects on girls’ psyches just as messages from many Muslim communities have on Muslim girls.

Part of being female in patriarchal societies is that we are told how to gender our identity early in life, and most of the markers of our femininity and even modesty (usually imposed) are external, thereby causing a focus on the outward appearance and the performance of the identity without regard for the inward reality. For example, Muslim girls receive messages that the veil is their ticket to piety, while non-Muslim girls receive a similar message when they reach the age of not being allowed outside shirtless like their brothers to play in the summer or to go swimming. Modesty, in both examples, does not just focus on the behavior or actions of the girl; society has the power to determine how modest a girl is whether it is in condoning the headscarf or that she cover up her undeveloped breasts with a shirt, tank top, or tube top while her male counterparts are free to roam around shirtless with breasts exposed. It comes down to society’s social disciplining of the female body and a deep-seated fear of female sexuality. As a feminist, I won’t be complicit in this. While I have my personal beliefs and preferences, I refuse to tell a woman how to gender herself and how her gender liberation should look. To me, feminism means that I want for my fellow woman whatever it is that she wants for herself.

Jameelah X. Medina is a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University. She is also an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.


Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, Islam, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , ,

35 replies

  1. Excellent. I was disappointed it wasn’t longer!


  2. This is very interesting. Are girls and women anywhere allowed to make their own decisions? By whom? Usually men and women who have been symbolically captured by men, as when it was women in China who bound girls’ feet and is women in Africa who perform genital mutilations on girls. Is there a solution to these problems? Would finding one require the creation of a whole new society?


    • Thanks, Barbara.
      “Are girls and women anywhere allowed to make their own decisions?”
      I think they are, but I guess the question then would be are those decisions authentic or reactive, completely free and divorced from outside influences (cultural, national, familial, religious, etc.) or is it a mixture of free-thinking and decision-making within certain confines kind of how many argue about the relationship between free will of humans and Divine Will.


    • “Is there a solution to these problems?”

      I really can’t say other than I think that women raising and teaching girls are the solution themselves since they are many times very strong advocates of patriarchy and pass it down. Personally, I dislike using the term FGM (female genital mutilation) and prefer FGC (circumcision). I say this not because I agree with the practice (I don’t), but the use of the word mutilation is so subjectively charged with judgement using one cultural frame of reference to view another. I mean, we don’t call male circumcision MGM (male genital mutilation), and I have met read from and met women who do not consider circumcision anymore mutilation than tatoos, piercings, teeth implants, breast implants, permanent makeup, bunyons and foot defects from wearing painful but stylish shoes, etc. In the name of beauty, women “mutilate” other women all the time, but why are we not worth saving from the “mutilation” of our mothers when they pierce our ears as babies/children w/o our permission or our female dentists convince us or our mothers that we need braces (painful metal wiring in our mouth just to straighten up teeth because someone has decided that straight teeth are more beautiful and desirable than crooked ones). How would we feel if Angelina Jolie’s recent medical decisions caused outcry among women in China and African nations who were disgusted and distraught at society. science, the medical field encouraging and even performing the surgery to remove breasts (and ovaries soon) to avoid cancer and, perhaps, prolong life? So, I think there is nor more a solution or need for a solution to such “problems” in one area of the earth or culture than another. However, I personally feel about FGC, I know that there are women who live better lives after it because they will have a higher bride price, better marriage prospects, and it has a real economic value for the women who undergoes it and the women who perform it. Do I agree with it? NO! But, I really try very hard not impose my values and perspectives on other women. I don’t always succeed, and I’m still learning.


    • “Would finding one require the creation of a whole new society?”

      I’m not sure. The whole idea of “society” makes me think that there is confinement or norms and standards that come with that, thereby affecting the decision-making of the population. This is a hard one for me. I’m really interested to know what you think.


    • Barbara, thanks so much for these thought-provoking questions! Peace to you.


  3. Thank you so much for this informative and insightful essay. You are correct that patriarchal Euroamerican society is also oppressive to women and girls, and that wearing a headscarf can be liberating. I am Christian, but I respect other religions and I enjoy learning about them. Could you recommend good books on Islam for me to read? Thanks.

    Linda Costelloe


    • Hi, Linda! Thanks for your comment. I also enjoy learning about other religions; they are just so interesting! Here are some of my personal favorites: First, the Qur’an of course. There are different translators, but Laleh Bakhtiar came out with a female perspective in the translation “The Sublime Qur’an.” Here are other titles and authors I like for Islam:

      “A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam” by I.A. Ibrahim (here is an online version: http://www.islam-guide.com/ )

      “Islam: A Short History” by Karen Armstrong (really anything by her since she is non-Muslim)

      “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

      “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” by Reza Aslan

      “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective” by Amina Wadud

      “Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an” by Asma Barlas

      “Essential Rumi” by Rumi

      “The Illustrated Rumi: A Treasury of Wisdom from the Poet of the Soul” by Rumi

      “Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart” by Hamza Yusuf

      The following authors are not my favorites AT ALL but they show how they view Islam and how they think Islam has treated them. I think it is fair to give you information on Muslims who are critical of cultural Islam, religious Islam, and confusion between the two.

      Fatimah Mernissi

      Marnia Lazreg

      Ayaan Hirsi Ali

      Noni Darwish

      Good luck in your pursuit of knowledge, Linda.
      Peace to you.


    • Congrats on your MA, Linda!!!! I can’t wait to know how it feels to read the books on my list when I’m done next month, NshaAllah (if God wills it). If you have questions while reading up on Islam, feel free to contact me.


  4. Good post, Jameelah. It reminds me of a song by Cathy Rose and Betsy Winter that I used to sing in the 1970s and early 1980s, exhorting feminists to be more expansive in their understanding of feminism:

    “Don’t shut my sister out, trust her choices,
    Her woman’s wisdom and her will to grow.
    Don’t shut my sister out, trust her vision,
    Her intuition and her own way to go.”

    That being said, I can’t agree with you wholeheartedly that I “for my fellow woman whatever it is that she wants for herself.” For instance, I don’t want what Phyllis Schlafly wanted for herself and other women, namely to keep the Equal Rights Amendment from passing and enshrine in American law that women are second-class citizens. I’m certainly not going to tell another woman whether or not she should wear the veil, whether or not she should wear make-up, whether or not she should wear high heel shoes. But if she’s working against women as a class/group, I will oppose her.


  5. The day I see western women give up make-up, high heels and compulsory femininity, then there will be some cause to critique the conformity of women in other cultures. Women conform to male pleasing everywhere it seems. I have to go to lesbian groups in our 50s to 70s to see make-up free faces, ordinary grey hair, and beautiful faces just as they are.


    • I think you can get away with more non-conformity (without raising as many eyebrows – maybe because older people are more “invisible”) when you get older. I’m 65 with thinning grey hair and just cut it off to about a half inch long. I got tired of fussing with it. I have no partner who might have an opinion about it, I’m retired, and I don’t care what people think any more. There is a certain freedom to being older. I do wonder sometimes about some of my butch lesbian friends who dress in “men’s” clothing. What exactly does that accomplish?


      • “There is a certain freedom to being older.”

        I have heard this a lot and it seems to hold some truth. I don’t know if older women do not care anymore or if they feel that others no longer hold them to the same standard. It reminds me of how in mainstream Islam, the older woman does not “have” to wear the hijab anymore even among some of the most conservative Muslims. The idea, in my opinion and research, is that she no longer is seen as posing a threat to male virtue; she is no longer a vixen to be seen as sexy or desired. She goes to this other level where her covering herself is no longer warranted. Many older Muslim women keep the scarf on, but there are also many who no longer wear it or wear it sometimes.


      • “There’s a certain freedom to being older!” Yes, but it’s not that others no longer hold older women to the same standard. It’s the freedom of having lived and learned and in that living, to realize that you never really know what others are thinking (of you or of anything else), and that it doesn’t matter what they think. It’s what YOU think that counts. And what you do that counts. So if I decide to wear some outrageous costume, just because I feel like it, then I do. If I feel like going out in my slippers, then I do. If feel like singing right out loud even though I’m out on the street, then I do. If I feel like waving to all the passing cars in my neighborhood as I’m taking my daily walk, then I do. And in fact, I do all of those things. And I love all of them. I feel good in whatever clothes I decide to wear, because that’s what I wanted to wear RIGHT THEN. My feet feel better sometimes when I just wear my slippers, no matter where I am. I love singing, and I don’t care if others look at my sideways when I do it. And waving to the passing cars in my neighborhood makes me smile, and most of the drivers smile as well, so we all feel better.


      • Nancy, that is AWESOME!!!!!


      • The natural=beautiful, Right on, Turtle Woman. Love Katharine’s comment and agree we are more invisible as we age.. Also second Jameelah’s AWESOME!!!!! on Nancy’s comment (and thanks for the links, Katharine and Nancy, a while back, to the UU site).


    • Hi, Turtle Woman! I only have one thing to say to your post: “Word!!!”


  6. The conformity of women and girls in America is really a sight to see. Every country makes women conform, and only the very determined dress as they please. Who is calling the kettle black?


    • I agree, Turtle Woman! Unfortunately, I am still guilty of wondering why “other” women conform. I try to really step out of my gaze, but sometimes it is harder than others. It really bothers me.


  7. In terms of “women who define freedom differently,” I support women’s equal rights, of course, with all my heart, but philosophically I follow a contemplative path, a way of retreat that keeps me joyous. It’s simply a sort of returning to being who I am. There used to be a real understanding of the recluse, the glorious anonymity and pursuit of the inner life, an identity as you say. focused on inward reality. Women often lived that path quite naturally by way of not being invited into the main arena. There was for some of those ladies, not so much a modesty, but a whole other way of being, that they loved. To enter the world’s arena and succeed can be exciting and satisfying and helpful to others, but it is not always liberation, there is a negative side also of imprisoning in terms of being caught up in worldly values centered almost entirely on prestige and wealth.


    • Sarah, thanks so much for your comment. I agree that peace, joy, happiness, and freedom are not always found in the world’s arena. My mom happens to be a very strong woman who did work as an RN but who loved to just stay home in her own little world. Since she has retired years ago, she gets to enjoy her little world much more without certain expectations. I relate to and love your words: “I follow a contemplative path, a way of retreat that keeps me joyous. It’s simply a sort of returning to being who I am.” Peace.


  8. @ Jameelah: Thanks for sharing your lovely articles with us. However, Fatima Mernissi can’t by any stretch of the imagination be compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Fatima Mernissi is a Muslim feminist, who started out secular but became more religious (Islamic Feminist) over the years. She is a pioneer of feminism in Morocco, a convinced Muslim and writes with enormous respect about the Prophet (peace be upon him).

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the other hand is an atheist who started out at a social democrat party and then switched to a liberal, right wing party. She detests Islam, but doesn’t seem to much about Islamic theology AND feminism. She also sided with far-right liberals in the U.S. who are all but feminist. (I could go on and on, since I am Dutch and I know quite a lot about her, but this will do for now. :-) )


    • I often compare the two. It does not mean they are so similar as there is much contrast. Most time like things are compared but i like comparing difderentlt. Mernissi is so clearly educated in Islam and has the background knowledge not just experiences with Muslims that have colored her outlook like Hirsi Ali. I despise the work of Maria Lazreg in many ways too but I also use her in my comparisons.


  9. And about FGM: It IS mutilation, because parts of the body are removed.

    This mostly happens under very unhygienic circumstances, without any form of anesthetics or sterilizing of the knives, razor blades etc. they use. Women who are mutilated by this, often suffer from severe physical and psychological pain their whole lives, IF they survive it, since many of them die of gangreen, infections or simply bleed to death.

    For some, the trauma is so enormous that they become psychotic, depressed, or suicidal.

    Actively opposing this practice has nothing to do with “imposing” one’s values, but with upholding human rights standards for everyone.

    And more abstractly, think of the Golden Rule……would you like to be cut/mutilated? (I presume the answer is no) So that means that other women also have the right to remain intact, healthy and enjoy theyr sexuality and not experience sex as a torture.

    I would advise anyone reading this who wants to know more about the subject, to read Waris Diries and Nawal el Saadawys work. These are women who were cut as little girls and absolutely NOT would have wanted to be cut after they experienced what it was like. These are women who speak from experience. Siding with them and showing solidarity has nothing to do with “imposing ones values ont hem” – FGM was imposed on them.

    Kecia Ali also wrote an excellent chapter on the subject in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam.

    ” I know that there are women who live better lives after it because they will have a higher bride price, better marriage prospects, and it has a real economic value for the women who undergoes it and the women who perform it.”

    These “benefits” come from a patriarchal, mysogynistic society which forces women to “choose” between mutilating their girls for life or being ostracized/outcast for life. This is not a choice, but blackmail. “If YOU don’t comply with MY standards about YOUR body, I will make your life hell”. In this very article you state that womens bodies are used as battlegrounds. Well, this is one of these battlegrounds, this is the very thing you oppose – men/patriarchal society telling women how their body should be like and if they don’t comply with it, they will not be respected/considered as beautiful/married/etc.

    The problem is that opressive system. Practicing FGM is not a solution to this, but succumbing to blackmail. It’s a vicious, self-fulfilling prophecy cycle which should end.

    Oh yes and by no means is this a personal attack on you, Jameelah. I think you and your articles are very awesome, but our opinions about this matter clearly differ deeply.


    • I totally understand where you are coming from on this as it is also my natural reaction and argument. However, since 2008 I’ve tried to really explore my unnatural views on this based on several interactions and lessons from women directly affected by this. Thanks for sharing your opinions. It is great for readers to see.


  10. ” It comes down to society’s social disciplining of the female body and a deep-seated fear of female sexuality.”

    This is EXACTLY what is at the core of FGM, in the mosy literal sense of the word.

    Essential sexual organs of women are cut, so they won’t find pleasure in sex, and they will remain virgins before marriage/won’t experiment/won’t cheat on their husbands etc….

    Or simply, will not develop any sexual subjectivity. This is fear of female sexuality in optima forma.


  11. Thanks sister for your reply. There is (almost) nothing as intellectually stimulating as a lively, but civil debate. :-)



  1. Feminism vs. Humanism: A response to an idealized feminist identity by Mariam Williams | Feminism and Religion

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: