The Muslim Twitterverse has been roused to anger again by the one hot button topic that is certain to awaken even the quietest recesses of our community: the scrutiny of veiled Muslim women in the public eye. A good friend of mine, Noor Tagouri, recently made the decision to give an interview to Playboy about her work as a Muslim woman in journalism, fully clothed in hijab, while discussing the need for greater representation. It’s an interview that has sparked controversy within the Muslim community for what its platform represents, and how that connects to the status of Muslim women in our society today.
I was approached for an interview at the same time, but eventually made the decision to turn it down. I initially agreed to the piece and gave a full interview, for many of the same reasons she did: it was an opportunity to make Muslim women prominent to a new audience and make a powerful statement in the assertion of our modesty. That’s why, while I eventually reached personal disagreement with it, I still unequivocally support Noor and do not believe hers was a wrong decision to make.
My decision was a very different one, in that hers was on her terms, while mine was not only representing myself as an individual, but also an entire brand that has been called a “cultural phenomenon” for Muslim women’s empowerment. That’s why my opinion changed when I decided to pay a visit to the Playboy.com site one night. I couldn’t help but notice, in the top corner of the menu bar, a link to an online application where any woman could apply to pose nude for the website, or to be considered for a Playboy Bunny role. I thought of all the Muslim Girl readers that would be redirected to this page, that could potentially give a second thought to the acceptability of selling our bodies to a patriarchal society that profits off of them while simultaneously seeking to destroy them.
I thought of how my body, covered or not, would be used to sell issues of a magazine that I fundamentally disagreed with on principle. I thought of how my participation could be perceived as an endorsement of an industry complacent in the ongoing sexual violence against women, a rampant problem that disproportionately impacts women of color today, especially with our country’s militarization in the Muslim world. I thought of the little girl I met this summer that saw me as an example that Muslim women could be anything, and wondered if this was the type of milestone I wanted her to be celebrating when she looked for Muslim women role models to consume.
I considered the fact that even Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X gave interviews to Playboy. But, then, I concluded that it was a much different power dynamic for a male leader to reach the once-sweeping male readership of the popular magazine to address them with his cause, than an attractive woman to do the same within pages that regularly exploited women for their bodies and only presented women that satisfied a Western patriarchal male gaze. No matter what, given what the magazine stood for and the type of following it had, I felt I would be catering to the same objectification that I committed so much hard work to defying.
It was explained to me that, yes, Playboy.com is rebranding, and, no, it doesn’t publish nudes online anymore. But what’s more important is the reason why they’re rebranding: it’s because the once-paid subscription format of Playboy.com has now been completely put out of business by the rise of free and accessible porn online. The rebranding is a last-ditch effort for the digital publication to reenergize its traffic base. Of course, it needs really captivating content to do that.
Remember: Muslim women are a hot topic right now. Our image is being rapidly commodified in many different industries for the diversity appeal or to attract viral attention. In many ways, this commodification has come with the high risk of exploitation, especially during a time when violence against Muslim women is at a climax.
In the end, I could not reconcile appearing in a full feature photoshoot for the public eye in a traditionally pornographic magazine on behalf of a feminist Muslim women’s publication. All that it came down to for me was that I could not think of a genuine response that I could give to our young Muslim Girl readers for why I would choose to appear in it. While I saw the benefit in reaching this audience that might otherwise not be acquainted with an empowered Muslim woman making the case for modesty, it eventually seemed contradictory to me specific to my position, and, more importantly, not worth the cost. It was much easier than I thought to say no, even when more people tried to convince me to go for it.
I know there are people who will want to celebrate me for my decision for the same reasons they will feel justified in crucifying other women for going a different way. I want to state for the record that I am wholeheartedly against this. It’s important for us to have productive and ongoing dialogue about the representation of Muslims, but it’s impossible to ignore that, when the subject is Muslim women, the criticism veers off the path of productive discourse and more into sexist vilification.
This is not a conversation about modesty — your definition of it is subjective and personal, and other people’s not subscribing to it does not disqualify us from being the worthy Muslim women that we are. The topic of how a Muslim woman dresses in public is enough to cause our community to completely negate her merits and cause more outrage than some social justice issues more deserving of our concern. Our society qualifies hijabis as automatically and unfairly being ambassadors of Islam, robbing us of our God-given autonomy and forcing upon us an impossible, restrictive, and arbitrary social standard of “the perfect Muslimah.” Our decisions to wear headscarves don’t allow you to lay claim to us.
Newsflash: Our. Community. Doesn’t. Own. Muslim. Women.
By the same token, this isn’t a conversation about decency or how you feel about women revealing their bodies. It’s the woman’s decision how she chooses to practice her Islam, define her modesty, express her sexuality, and conduct herself. If your concern is Islam’s teachings, and that makes up the crux of your heedless criticism, then know that all you are obligated to be concerned with is leaving the judgment to God. Islam’s stances on modesty, sexuality, and otherwise do not entitle you to using the double-edged sword of insulting Muslim women, attacking them, or publicly ridiculing them, especially when you could care less about their positive intent. That’s your ego.
It is my deeply-held belief, planted by the glorious history of our Rightly Guided Caliphates, that if a person accepts a role that is being used to represent all of us, then they are obligated to rise up to that responsibility. I do also personally believe that if an individual’s work is being dictated as a collective milestone on behalf of a community, then that community is entitled to exercise its autonomy in accepting or rejecting that representation. However, this plays out much differently and unfairly when it comes to veiled Muslim women, especially those that occupy any sort of space in the public eye.
Simply our presence, regardless of whether we assume a leadership role or not, is tokenized to represent Islam as a whole. We already know that our racist society is quick to attribute the actions of the individual to the people as a whole. And most of us are well aware that our sexist society is obsessed with the way women dress and present themselves in public more than anything else. Is it right for the Muslim community to perpetuate both of these societal ills, ironically, in the name of Islam?
The truth stands that holding Muslim women to the expectation of performing on behalf of all of us, plays into the perception of Muslims being a monolith. That’s a dangerous game to play. If our community is so pissed off about our representation being tokenized right now, then we should use these opportunities in the discourse to rise above it. We can do so by not expecting every Muslim woman to make decisions on our behalf and feeding into the belief that one of us is all of us.
The Muslim community is not entitled to dictate how Muslim women choose to conduct themselves. We Muslim women are not obligated to center our community in our independent choices. And it might be the most tragic irony that in the name of coming to the defense of Muslim women, we have no problem throwing them under the bus.
For more about the experiences of Muslim women in a post-9/11 world, check out our upcoming book, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, by Muslim Girl’s founder, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, available this October.