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.

Modesty Discourse, Women, and Bodily Entitlement

Dear fellow Muslims,

I am TIRED. Tired, tired, tired. Actually, sick and tired, of the modesty discourse within our Muslim communities. Like, very effing tired of it. It is dehumanizing, it is objectifying, and it is dangerous for women. And I need to rant.

But before I move on, I want to clarify two points.

First, that I am speaking of modesty discourses, or the messages surrounding modesty that are commonly promoted and believed in Muslim communities, and not women’s individuals choices to dress modestly. Women choose to dress modestly for a variety of reasons, including spiritual, personal, etc. This is not about them.

Second, the arguments I raise here are not in the least new. In fact, what I speak of is what many feminists in Canada, the US, etc. speak about today. None of this is specific to the Muslim community. All I am saying is that the misogyny and patriarchal oppression we see in mainstream Canadian and other Western societies is the same we see in Muslim communities, just expressed in different ways. Body policing, body shaming, and control of women’s bodies are universal phenomenon, as is the assumption that women are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and behaviours. (Skim through any feminist blog and you will read countless examples.) And why wouldn’t Muslims be the same as others. We ALL live in patriarchal societies. All societies (with the exception of some small tribal societies here and there) oppress and objectify women. So non-Muslims need not get all high and mighty about this.

Alright, now on to my rant.

What is modesty for Muslims? Who defines it? Why is it valued so much?

All Muslim women know how MASSIVE an emphasis is placed on Muslim women’s clothing within Muslim communities. There have been khutbahs (delivered by men) about it, books written (by men) about it, pamphlets distributed (by men) on the topic, lectures delivered (by men…and parents) to women on how important it is for a Muslim woman to cover herself, hide her feminine curves. Nay, how it is her ISLAMIC DUTY to cover her body.

And it’s not only to cover our bodies, but lower our voices, diminish our perfumes, wear soundless (or quiet) jewellery, etc. In other words, we must do anything we can to make sure men do not notice us and are not turned on by us. Because, you know, men get erections at the site of a woman’s stray hair, from a whiff of a woman’s perfume, or from the clanking of a woman’s bangles. Must be hard to live like that…..poor things (sorry for the blunt words but that’s basically what we’re talking about, no?).

But who decided THIS was modesty? There is no doubt that modesty is an important aspect of Islam. But as Muslims we are supposed to be modest in all aspects of our lives, not just our clothes. We are not supposed to show off our money, our knowledge, our abilities, etc. We are always supposed to be humble and treat everyone equally. That is why we value modesty, in general – it is meant to create egalitarianism. It is meant to ensure that we are not making others feel inferior to us in any way.

Yet, the general modesty discourse in Muslim communities is almost exclusively in reference to women’s bodies and clothing. It is almost always about how much skin a woman shows and about enticing/distracting men. After all, when was the last time Muslim community leaders policed men wearing Movado watches, Gucci shoes, or Armani suits? When was the last time Muslim men were told not to show off their wealth by driving to Eid prayer in their BMWs and Mercedes? Or when was the last time an Uncle at the mosque went around telling all the doctors not to congregate together with their noses up in the air, or all the engineers to not talk down to the mechanics and restaurant servers? Those are surely very immodest acts,  acts that are sure to fuel inequality and make others feel inferior (unlike women showing some skin), yet men are NEVER policed for them.

We know that men have defined the modern incarnation of modesty. Men, interpreting Islamic texts, have defined everything for us, including what it means to be modest. Men who live in a patriarchal society have a vested interest in controlling and oppressing women. An agenda, if you will. The men who have interpreted the Islamic texts have all done so from a patriarchal perch. Their agenda (to make sure their power over women is not diminished) must be taken into account when we critically examine how they defined modesty for us.

And critically examine it we must because it is harmful to women.

The modern discourse of modesty means a woman covered from head to toe. It is rigidly defined and it is tied intimately to sexuality. A “moral” Muslim woman, we are told, will cover herself in a particular way. A “good” Muslim woman will not show her curves or her skin (most of it at least). Because an uncovered Muslim woman is too sexually enticing to men. (What about the menz???) At best she will distract him from his duties. At worst she will “make” him rape her. Therefore, those who are not covered (in very rigid ways) are to be reminded of their unIslamic behaviour (I’ve gotten a few of those lectures myself). They are to be enlightened of their Islamic duty (we’re told it’s to God, but I think it’s to men) to cover and how they are causing erections in men all over the place (sorry, again, but how else can I say it?). And if they continue to remain uncovered then they are choosing to be sexually immoral and purposely going against Islam. Therefore, they are not to be respected.

A few years ago when Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, posed nude-ish for Indian FHM magazine, many Pakistanis online were outraged (not all, just many). And not because she appeared to be catering to the objectifying (and exoticizing) male gaze (a criticism I can get behind). They blamed her (as many do with other Pakistani models and actresses who show some skin) for the moral downfall of Pakistan. Not the mass corruption in the government and judiciary, not the killing of Ahmadi Muslims, not the celebration of murderers, not the high levels of violence against women. No, women showing skin is the moral downfall of the country. It appeared that Veena Malik deserved less respect than the men who are literally destroying the country.


Veena Malik

We all know what happens when a woman is seen as unworthy of respect (which is pretty much the norm in any patriarchal society). She is seen as an object, dehumanized. The vast majority of women have experienced the resulting sexual harassment/abuse. Catcalling, whistling, lewd comments, touching on the subway, sexual harassment at work, etc. The list is very long. (I encourage readers to check out #firstharassed on Twitter. Countless stories of girls and women being sexually harassed and assaulted, but I give a trigger warning.) Regardless of modesty discourses, women’s bodies are seen as public property (because we’re things, not people) to which men are entitled – entitled to comment on, entitled to touch, entitled to violate. Patriarchy teaches us that. Add to that a religious modesty discourse and the stakes are raised higher. Women’s bodies now become a moral playground for men. A woman’s body is not only read as public property to which men are entitled, but also a religious statement for which men can criticize and judge her. They can justify their entitlement through self-righteous religious judgement.

“Hey, she’s not dressed “modestly”, which means she’s not religious, which means she’ll sleep with me, which means she’s slutty, which means I can make comments on her body and she’ll like it.”

What I’m saying is that the most common modesty discourse we see flowing through Muslim communities all around the world, allows men to religiously justify their policing and sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Even without religion patriarchy allows men this control. We don’t need men’s misogynistic interpretations of Islam entrenching that oppression further. Instead of using religion strengthen an oppressive discourse, we should use religion to fight it, resist the objectification of women, and eliminate men’s sense of entitlement to our bodies.

Muslim Women and Mental Health – Part 2

A few days ago I posted a conversation between Muslim women on the issue of Muslim women and mental health. If you haven’t had a chance to watch/listen to it please do.

After watching the conservation I had a few thoughts of my own, on the issue of Muslim women and mental health, that I wanted to share.

In the video a discussion on the issue of spirituality and mental health highlights how religious leaders, as well as many community members, assume mental health issues to be caused by lack of faith. The participants in the discussion very rightly noted that this would not apply to those with clinical depression or psycho-pathologies such as schizophrenia. Clearly, a lack of faith cannot be to blame, and doing so is extremely unhelpful.

However, mental health issues that are not the result of chemical conditions should also not be assumed to be due to lack of faith. Such an assumption is often (usually, even) wrong and can be isolating. And problematic.

My education is in social psychology, so I am very well aware of how central our surroundings and our environments, and everything within them, are as influences in our lives. There are so many experiences, big, small and everything in between, that can result in mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc. It is humanly impossible for our psyches to not be impacted by what happens around us, to us. Impossible.The social world can be as powerful, controlling, unpredictable, and uncontrollable a force as any physiological or chemical function in our bodies.

That’s why it’s extremely problematic to tell someone who is depressed due to, say, losing their job,  or the ending of a relationship, or experiencing violence, that they lack faith. Faith can often help us deal, and indeed can be a wonderful coping tool for those for whom faith is important, but it rarely works alone. Forces outside us are powerful and we need tools to deal with those forces as well. Having faith needs to be complimented by strategies such as counselling, self-care, and, if needed, medication.

And this takes me to my next point. Mental health professionals.

The women in the video mentioned that there is a need for more Muslim mental health professionals. Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important to have a counsellor/therapist who understands our religious background without us having to explain it to them. It’s so helpful to speak with someone who understands the subtleties, the nuances, the understandings and worldviews that we, as Muslims, take for granted because they are so second-nature to us.

However, these counsellors/therapists also need to be non-judgmental and not necessarily approach each interaction with a Muslim client from a religious perspective. I suspect that trained counsellors/therapists would be better at this than, say, Imams who provide counselling. It can be difficult to open up and if we suspect that our Muslim counsellor/therapist may judge us for drinking, having sex, etc., than we won’t be able to get the help we need. As important as it is for our counsellors/therapists to be able to understand our background without us having to spend multiple sessions explaining cultural/religious details, it’s also important that those same understandings not be used to shame us or isolate us further.

The discussion on Muslim women and mental health is just beginning. I know it will continue and I’ll be following.