Tug-of-Warring over the Female Body (Part 2 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 with essentialized feminism on one side (covered in Part I) and patriarchy on the other. Both sides have Muslim women on their team, but both sides also harm and silence them. This second part deals with “Team Haraaminator.”

The Haraaminators are kind of like “Daddy Longlegs” or “Momma Longreaches” who hold their wives, daughters, sisters, and even extended sisters in faith close to the chest with their long-legged grips. They come in the male and female variety. They believe that all women should be covered and wearing at least a headscarf. They speak with authority about the headscarf and how important it is for a woman in her pursuit of piety, virtue, modesty, chastity, and heaven. Some allow questioning the headscarf while others take it as a decree from Allah that should never be interrogated. Many use the Qur’an and ahadith (prophetic sayings and doings) to arrive at their opinions while other haraaminators just go by what their shaykh, imam, father, mother, friend or others have told them is the Islamic ruling on the headscarf.

Patriarchy makes a Muslim woman believe that she must cover her body in order to protect her male coreligionists from temptation and sin. It makes her think that she has only two choices for her body: 1) be a righteous, virtuous Maryam (Mary), Mother of Jesus, or 2) be a painted, whorish Jezebel, Queen of Israel. It makes her think that her body is familial and community property, that she must safeguard her body at all costs because her worth and her family and community’s honor is based on whether or not her vagina remains untouched and her hymen remains intact. It makes her think that she is impure, even filthy and untouchable, or unfit to worship Allah when her body sheds the lining of her uterus as it mirrors the full moon’s monthly shedding of its fullness all the way down to just a crescent sliver.

Patriarchy makes her silently accept her place in the dungeon-like basements, small corner rooms, and loud balconies of mosques after she’s walked to the side of the building to enter through the separate women’s entrance. Patriarchy camouflages itself into religious doctrine and practice in a way that makes her feel that she is rejecting Islam when she rejects patriarchy.

It keeps her quiet when she knows that Allah is genderless, and she wonders why almost all Muslims accept the gendered pronoun “He” in reference to Allah.

Patriarchy is also that spoiled gift and rotten family heirloom that many mothers pass on to their daughters and sons with and without reflection. It is that whisper a Muslim woman hears as she is told not to wear perfume in mixed-gender gatherings even though she smells all sorts of colognes and perfumes on the Muslim men as they pass by her. It is that false belief that women are only the object of men’s sexual desire without having sexual desires themselves.

Patriarchy is the calling of anything that would empower a Muslim woman “haram [sin/sinful]” in order to cause her to feel shame and fear of Allah’s wrath. It is the belief that many Muslim women have when they refuse to sing, dance, or even speak in public spaces where males are present; they believe that all of these (and even a woman herself) are fitna [something causing sedition and chaos].

There are so many things that need to be discussed and grappled with when we speak of Muslim women’s freedom in the body being censored by patriarchy. Thankfully, many Muslim women are having these conversations as we interpret our religion and religious teachings from a female perspective.

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: , , , ,

10 replies

  1. That many Muslim women are having conversations regarding their freedom, makes wearing a headscarf a way also of celebrating being a Muslim woman, exactly because of the shared oppression, and thus transforming the headscarf, ultimately and hopefully, into a symbol of liberty!!


    • Francesca, I agree. It really is a symbol of self-expression, celebration, and liberty among many Muslim women I know. This is especially true for many women I know in the USA who are so thankful to be in a place where they are neither prevented by law from wearing it or forced to wear it by law.


  2. I hoped your blog might explain why women voluntarily wear headscarves and long sleeves, even in hot weather, even in western lands where it’s not required. Why do women in, say, France fight to cover themselves when French law says they should not? Why don’t intelligent Muslim women walk away? Very interesting blog.


    • But Barbara, since when is French law a paragon of feminism, that women should obey? Aren’t “you must cover your body” and “you must display your body” two sides of the patriarchal coin which says, “Women must” and sets about constraining us? Muslim women in France are between a rock and a hard place: French law and institutions on one side, and on the other, vigilante enforcement, including gang rapes, of hijab and jilbab (long robes, no short skirts) from men in the ethnic banlieues. What a no win situation.


    • Barbara, maybe my post (part 1 of 2) speaks more to this. Personally, the more someone, especially men tell me I cannot do something, the more I will do it. French women are fighting so strongly for the scarf and niqab, many times, because they are feeling forced to NOT wear it. It becomes a choice, a stand against an oppressor who wants to vilify their religion and save them through oppressive measures. It just can’t work that way.

      I completely agree with Max that these women are caught between two forms of patriarchy. In my travels, I have found that many Muslim women who would normally NEVER wear a headscarf or face veil might start to as a way to counter the mainstream narrative that they feel once to absorb them and their culture and religion until it’s unrecognizable.

      Also, I live in the desert in So Cali and I can tell you that construction people often times wear long sleeves and even cover their heads and necks with cloths, towels, and t-shirts to counter the sun’s burn.


  3. Patriarchy is everywhere, and it manifests everywhere in different ways. As a radical lesbian, I would expand Barbara’s question: “Why don’t intelligent Muslim women walk away?” and the answer to that can be found in my questions, “Why don’t intelligent women stop marrying men? Or attending patriarchal churches of all kinds?” What makes women stay anywhere? Hey, I live in a huge city, should I move to a smaller one? Good question.
    When I hear too many western men talk about the oppression in Muslim countries, I tend to smell a rat. It means western men aren’t dealing with the horror here! A lot of women have good reason to wear long sleaves in summer. When I go out in the world, I am dressed for battle. That means I have clothing that will protect me from male attack, and I have pockets to carry everything so I don’t have a purse to haul around. In a Muslim country, I would be considered a good candidate for modesty, except being a lesbian…. oh well. I’ll get to the basic question, why do women live with men at all?


  4. Another fabulous article that says it like it is! Keep up the good work sister. :-)


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