Rape, Body Image & the Exploitation of Brand Hijab™

Growing up in a post-Sept. 11 world meant growing up with Brand Hijab™: a multi-purpose device that prevented rape and sexual harassment, cured body-image problems and served as a counter-culture to the capitalist West’s exploitation of the female body. As pundits exalted the virtues of the Hijab™, the larger structures of patriarchy were left largely unaddressed.
Here I attempt to explain the bizarre Hijab™ phenomena and hopefully offer some counter narratives.
The idea that hijab prevents rape and sexual harassment is rampant in Muslim circles at both an individual — see: Karim Metwaly’s “prevention of sexual harassment” video — as well as a governmental — see: prominent cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s injunction on the hijab or scholar Ahmed Mohammed’s injunctions with regards to the women protesting in Tahrir Square – level.
Indeed, the myth is reinforced through the viral memes comparing women to candy and men to flies that make their rounds on social media every few months like clockwork — something I’ve written about before.
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There are several versions of the meme present: women as uncovered meat, women as iPhones without a cover, women as the Earth with the hijab as the ozone layer, etc.
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It would be difficult to overstate the dangers of such thoughts and images — victim-blaming operates everywhere. But in Muslim circles, it takes on the double-bind of being seemingly religiously enforced. This creates a world where women might feel immensely hesitant to report instances of harassment.
Worse still — as happens in many heartbreaking classes — they may experience doubt and anxiety in their relationships with their own bodies and their deen if they face catcalls or leers.
Let me clearly state this: the hijab has nothing to do with harassment.
A cleric Musa Furber – who has “studied traditional Islamic disciplines for over 15 years with numerous scholars in Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere” — seems to agree. In his apt and well-worth-reading article, he explains:

    “In terms of how women ought to be treated in public areas, those responsibilities are immensely clear: their dignity should be protected from being infringed upon by anyone, and their person should be off limits for anyone to even touch, let alone harass. Men in particular have a specific duty: that regardless of how women are dressed or behave, men are obliged to lower their gaze and keep their hands to themselves.
    Islamic jurisprudence is utterly clear on this point. A woman’s dignity entails that a stranger on the street is forbidden completely from even touching her, let alone groping her. Indeed, a man who is even leering at a woman, without touching her, is guilty of a sin, regardless of how she may or may not be dressed. There is a way through which such things can become permissible: it’s called marriage. Otherwise, men need to keep their hands, their looks, and their cat-calls, to themselves.
    Provocation is not an excuse for shirking one’s responsibilities and denigrating another human being’s dignity.
    Even if a woman were to go naked in public, demand men on the street grope her body, and threaten them with death should they fail to comply, it would be prohibited for any male to do so.”

Even if a woman were to go naked in public, demand men on the street grope her body, and threaten them with death should they fail to comply, it would be prohibited for any male to do so.”

His other piece on the matter reinforces this and takes some sexist fatwas to task too.
In some spaces, the whole Hijab™-prevents-rape narrative seems to exist not so much as a stand-alone argument, but solely as a counter-narrative to Western criticisms of the hijab.
The conversation goes like this:
“The hijab is oppressive!”
“It is not. I choose to wear this; it is my safeguard against rape and harassment. An emancipatory tool.”
The apparent irony of a woman claiming that the hijab is emancipatory while also victim-blaming is lost on the people of the internet.
And why not? Given that popular Muslim clerics use the same rhetoric often. Here the problem to be addressed is the Muslim community’s excessive need to counter Islamophobic arguments – often only for a few likes, shares or claps – while uttering the most problematic views in the same breath.
Indeed, the silence of these populous figures on the issues Muslim women face – from domestic violence to marital rape to harassment – is what shows the separation of legitimate concern for women from this we-must-stand-against-Islamophobia concern.

If the only time you can muster up the will to speak about women is in the second case, we’ve got a problem, bro.

The hijab’s relation to body image is also something that seems to be reserved for discussions where Brand Hijab™ is invoked. This magical garment removes all effects of capitalism’s insidious marketing of women’s bodies as well as our gendered culture of beauty. Buy now at $12.99 at your most convenient website! Available in six exciting colors!
In certain cases, I’ve seen the same men who defend their consumption of pornography under some weird guise of liberalism and make unwanted and lewd references to actresses (literally no one wants to hear what goes on inside your brain. Ew!) also put forth these very arguments.
And this – apart from being hilarious and pathetic – points out another important issue:

By insisting that hijab is a tool that completely removes the harm of how women are portrayed in print and on screen, we absolve our communities of doing important work to fight against hyper-sexualization and place the entire onus on women.

Instead we must educate young men and women on how the media operates; why it’s not okay to make disparaging remarks about other people’s bodies (the concept of gheebah applies here, dudes); and, how we should completely remove hyper-sexualized media from our televisions – not just because of notions of hayaa, but also because of how this media treats women.
You know you’ve got a problem when communities that hold hijab up to be the cure of body image problems are the same ones that show no shame in publicly discussing people’s bodies and/or fat-shaming.
The use of hijab to absolve the general public of fulfilling their responsibilities is not okay, and even if the hijab may offer some women a certain degree of freedom from an anxiety-inducing focus on looks, there are more out there for who covering their hair increases the issue.
Also. Can we please all agree that while we insist that the hijab is a counter culture to the West’s capitalist notions of a sexualized femininity, pictures like these don’t exactly help our case?
What case do we have left when we objectify women in the exact same way that advertisement agencies do?
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There is literally no difference — women are presented as food so often I think most of us are desensitized to it. Only, apparently when you present it under Brand Hijab™ and not an Abercrombie & Fitch label, it’s okay to showcase women as irresistibly alluring.
The hijab: with its place in Islamic history as a separator between free and slave women, as a marker of class, as a garment to ensure modesty for women and to establish a proper decorum for gender interactions – and the Hijab™: a 21st century invention that magically deals with all the problems modern women face and is central in our Western-values-suck debate – are two vastly different things.
It is up to Muslims to navigate their way to more wholesome and less sexist ideas of hijab.

Contributed by Saira Mahmood, who is pursuing a BA in English Literature and enjoys cat videos. She lives in Karachi.