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.