Enough with the Clothes Shaming of Muslim Women

By now most Muslims living in North America who have followed the Olympics even tangentially know about Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American Muslim woman ever to compete in the Olympics in a hijab. The American Muslim community has been celebrating her well before she went to the Olympics and won a bronze medal. And rightly so. There is no doubt that Muhammad is an inspiration for young Muslim girls. Her accomplishments and her visibility should be celebrated. Though much has been made about her wearing the hijab in the Olympics, Muslim women have criticized detractors, rightly pointing out the normalcy of hijab in sports.

Today, on my social media, I’ve seen the (relatively subdued) celebration of another Black American Muslim woman athlete who just won a gold medalDalilah Muhammad. However, an interesting (I’ll just use that word for now) contrast was noted by those posting regarding the way Muslims had been talking about Ibtihaj and they way they talked about Dalilah, in that they hardly talked about Dalilah. While Ibtihaj has been, and is being, celebrated all over Muslim social media for a long time, Dalilah has barely been recognized. In fact, many Muslims just learned of her presence in the Olympics after she won, despite the fact she did receive media attention before she competed and the fact that she is the first U.S. woman to win gold in the 400-metre hurdle.

The discrepancy in the celebration of these two women by the Muslim community in the U.S., and Canada, has highlighted a very pervasive and disturbing problem within our community.

Clothes shaming. An act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for wearing certain clothes that deviate from traditional or orthodox religious expectations of modesty, which may or may not include hijab and/or niqab. The Muslim version of slut shaming.

(The term ‘slut’ has extremely negative connotations in the Muslim community and I would assume most Muslim women who do not cover would not want to “reclaim” that descriptor. I could not think of any other appropriate term and since Muslim women who do not cover are commonly made to feel guilty or inferior due to their choice of clothing, I thought this to be the most appropriate.)

Both women are brilliant athletes. Both women are Black Americans who come from a country that is brutally anti-Black and a Muslim community which includes non-Black Muslims who are incredibly anti-Black. One difference that is very notable is their choice of clothing. Ibtihaj Muhammad wears the hijab and covers her arms and legs. Dalilah Muhammad does not wear the hijab and wears shorts.

And the Muslim community’s reaction to Dalilah has been, as Sarah A. Harvard has summarised:

And this is a problem. It’s been a problem in our communities for a very, very long time. It’s a problem that exemplifies our misogyny and our adherence to patriarchy which result in spiritual violence against women.

Mainstream Muslim organizations, such as ISNA, tend to be male dominated, within their leadership, in their public image, and at their conferences. However, when women are included, women who cover, or dress more conservatively (with or without a hijab), are chosen above those who do not. All images of these organizations include covered or conservatively dressed women, as if to say that ‘real’ Muslim women must look like a certain way.

Muslim women who wear clothes that would be deemed ‘revealing’ constantly have their Muslimness doubted. Pay attention to the comments from Muslims on any post, anywhere, regarding a Muslim woman who dresses in this manner (e.g., Pakistani women actors or models) and you WILL, without any doubt, find countless commentors doubting her religious identity and referring to her as a ‘so-called Muslim.’

When a non-covering Muslim woman begins to cover, she is celebrated, showered with praises, and told how beautiful she looks. When a woman who covers decides to take it off, she often experiences the opposite.

When a woman who does not cover in traditional ways is the victim of sexual harassment or violence, she is blamed. “If she had been a good Muslim woman…”

When Thanaa El-Naggar wrote about Practicing Islam in Short Shorts one response implied that although she was still Muslim she wasn’t a believer, while another response suggested that, although she could choose to wear what she wanted, she was setting a bad example for young Muslim women and girls.

In our communities women who do not cover, or dress in conservative ways (again, with or without hijab), are not considered Muslim enough – not Muslim enough to be taken seriously, not Muslim enough to be invited on conference panels, not Muslim enough to represent Muslims, not Muslim enough for God. This is spiritual abuse. It is a form of violence.

It’s violence created by the male-dominated, patriarchal discourses common within our communities, and as such this is not a critique of dressing modestly or more traditionally, nor is it a critique of the women who choose to do so. Indeed, it is misogynistic to criticize women’s choice of conservative clothing. This is a discussion of a patriarchal discourse used to control women’s bodies; a patriarchal discourse that MUST be challenged.

There is no doubt that challenging this exclusion and this abuse is very tricky. We live in a world in which Muslim women who wear the hijab and/or niqab are targeted by Islamophobic violence. Hell, Muslim women and girls who simply dress conservatively, hijab or no hijab, are targeted by Islamophobic violence under the label of secularism. As Muslim women we need to protect each other from that form of oppression. We need to fight for the right of Muslim women to dress however they wish without threat of being targeted for being Muslim. Part of that solidarity and resistance to Islamophobia does mean promoting and celebrating representations of Muslim women in hijab and niqab. Absolutely. But within our own communities there are a group of women who are hurting spiritually and no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to help us fight this expression of misogyny within our own communities. Even when we try to tell our side of the story, as El-Naggar did in the Gawker piece, there are attempts to purposely obfuscate and distract from it.

Too many are mistaken that we cannot focus our energies on resisting both gendered Islamophobia from non-Muslims and spiritual misogyny from within our communities. Islamophobes will be Islamophobes and will use our internal struggles against us, regardless of what we do or do not do. But that doesn’t mean we let women be spiritually abused within our communities. It’s a fine balance but we have to at least begin to make an effort to find that fine balance.

Muslim women in porn

Here’s my latest on Muslimah Media Watch. Recently,  The Daily Beast published an article on Pakistani – American porn star, Nadia Ali, along with an interview with her. It was overloaded with tired, old, racist, orientalist, and colonial discourses. I had to critique both the author’s work and Ali’s responses to the interview questions. Pornientalism, folks! It’s pornientalism.

Indigenous Rights and Muslims

This post has been a long time coming. The issue of Muslims and Indigenous rights, specifically in the context of Canada and the US, has been on my mind for many years, but recently, with an increase in Islamophobia in both Canada and the US (especially the US) its got me thinking about our relationship to the land, and subsequently, to those from whom the land was taken.

Growing up I was lucky that I didn’t hear the common stereotypes at home about Indigenous peoples in Canada. Perhaps it was my parents’ own anti-colonialism (as a result of being from a part of the world that was brutally colonized by the British) that produced empathy, rather than the disdain too commonly seen, toward Indigenous peoples. However, the same couldn’t be said of society in general.

Negative beliefs about Indigenous peoples are so ingrained in Canadian society it really doesn’t take long for those new to the country to adopt them. Muslim or not, I’ve heard too many immigrants and non-white peoples make the same racist and White supremacist comments as White Canadians. And it truly perplexes and shocks me each time how easy it is to be from an oppressed minority and perpetuate harmful and violent beliefs about other oppressed minorities. (I realize this adoption of white supremacist and colonial attitudes often has to do with survival, but I’ll save that for another post).

However, as shocking, offensive, and harmful as those may be, what tends to irk me more is sense of entitlement. It’s true that most white Canadians (and Americans) have a false sense of entitlement to the stolen land upon which they live. Basically, in very simplistic terms, much of Canada is unceded Indigenous territory. Taken, immorally, from Indigenous peoples. Canada, and the US, are both countries formed on the basis of Indigenous genocide and land theft. The non-Indigenous inhabitants of these countries live the lives they do, have the benefits they do, because of that genocide and land theft. In other words, we benefit from the devastation that was wreaked upon the original inhabitants of this land.

It really should go without saying that White people living on this land, especially those descending from the colonizers, should not have the sense of entitlement to this land they do. It is stolen land. No one should have a sense of entitlement to something they, or their ancestors, stole. The lack of humility is unnerving, especially in the US.  The same applies to Muslims.

Recently, in response to an incredible increase in Islamophobia among certain politicians in the US (who will remain unnamed) many American Muslims have felt the need to “prove” their “Americanness.” This sentiment is understandable. When politicians in the country you call home start talking about banning Muslims, including ones who already live there, you do feel the need to assert that you belong and that the US is your home. Canadian Muslims often have the same tendency to “prove” their “Canadianness.” However, this assertion must always be made with caution.

We are settlers on stolen and occupied land. Our relationship to this land is no more nor less secure than that of white people. So before we, as Muslims, make assertions of how American or Canadian we are we must humble ourselves and recognize what our relationship to this land truly is and how we have benefitted from the destruction of Indigenous lives. We must remember we are indebted to them, not the colonizers, and demonstrate our allyship by supporting calls for social justice. If we pride ourselves on the Islamic value of humility then this is surely the time to demonstrate that.

Discomfort Defines Me

I’m easily distracted. Too easily. I enjoy reading but I find myself thinking on tangents as I read, much too often for my liking. Grad school was particularly bad as it would take me much too long to finish a scholarly article because one phrase may trigger an indirectly related thought which would then take me down a rabbit hole of searching for information related to the musing. But, luckily, it was being distracted that actually lead me to write this post before I got distracted again.

I was reading this piece by Fatima Bhutto on her travels between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India – her impressions of the similarities between the two Punjabi cities and how they are inextricably tied together through not only history, but culture, language, and struggles. Perhaps it’s age, or perhaps it’s my constant struggles with identity, but I have found myself thinking about Lahore, in particular, and Pakistan in general, a lot lately.  Lahore is a city I shouldn’t get emotional about. I’ve never lived there after all, only visited a few times. I wasn’t even born there – or in Pakistan for that matter. But my history is there. My identity is tied to the history of that city, and, despite never having lived there, I have a certain affinity for that place.

Old Lahore. Photo by artasiapacific. From http://tinyurl.com/phnlyrn

Old Lahore. Photo by artasiapacific. From http://tinyurl.com/phnlyrn

To be fair though, it’s not just Lahore to which I’m attached. My roots span a few areas of Pakistan. My father and his entire family of many generations are from Lahore, as is my maternal grandfather’s family. My maternal grandmother’s family, however, hails from the KPK, specifically Bannu, a part of the country I have never visited but have heard so many stories about from my grandmother (Allah bakshay) and a place I long to visit. But my mother grew up in Lahore’s sister city, Kasur, and that is where I spend most of my time when I visit Pakistan. Despite my teasing my mother for loving the city so much (I always saw it as a boring and neglected city) it holds so many of my childhood memories. Memories that I can’t see in my mind, but that I can feel.

Even today when certain  memories are triggered I feel all warm and fuzzy inside – when the power goes out and we light candles; when I smell a diesel engine; the combination of warm summer air, street food, and cars (that’s my favourite); South Asian shops in Toronto with their neon lights flashing brightly at night. There’s a warm sort of comfort and relief I associate with all these memories that Canadian childhood memories don’t elicit. And this makes me wonder.

I wonder if my own sense of comfort and relief comes from the comfort and relief my parents most likely felt on our visits to Pakistan. Perhaps I picked up on their ease of mind and happiness when we visited. And perhaps my Canadian memories were associated with their stresses of trying to survive, on their own, in a culture they were learning to navigate every day. Alhumdollilah, they’ve done well. But balancing two very different cultures, and learning how to negotiate with them, is never an easy task, and it’s one that even children of immigrants can’t avoid. It’s a difficult struggle that shapes our identities. That constant sense of discomfort, sometimes obvious and other times subconscious, just becomes a part of who we are. Maybe that is the signature of those of us who straddle two, or more, different cultures. Discomfort.

Anyhow, in true South Asian fashion I refuse to divulge too much information about myself and my family (we’re a private bunch, often to a problematic level). However, my struggle to understand identity continues. It’s clear that place plays an important role in that understanding (and I haven’t even touched on my status as settler in Canada and how that informs my identity). I think the struggle is a worthwhile effort.