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Empowerment of Women comes from God, not Men’s Gaze

Noor Tagouri’s decision to be featured in Playboy has caused recent uproar amongst Muslims about the article and it’s implications. From hijabi fashion blogging becoming more and more prominent to hijabi women walking the catwalk during New York Fashion Week, hijab, or the headscarf, is being presented to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences in a way that makes Muslim women appear attractive and beautiful, despite their hijab. This, in turn creates a pressure on Muslim women who choose to dress more conservatively to be both modest and attractive. That is not to say that Muslim women cannot be presentable, or adhere to modest practices whilst wearing Western clothing, but to bring attention to oneself in this way on a public platform is inherently against modesty.

Many question how Tagouri’s decision affects other Muslims, claiming she has every right to make decisions about how to practice her faith. Although this is true, what she did went beyond the sphere of personal religious choice. She is not an isolated figure in terms of influence in both Muslim and non-Muslim circles and so although much of her work is commendable, this decision severely lacked thoughtful understanding of its implications.

The notion that the way one wears hijab is completely separate from the actions that one does or from the rest of society is a concept developed from individualism in Western society. Over time, the concept of Amr Bil Ma’roof and Nahi an il Munkar (The concept in Islam of encouraging people to do good and discouraging them from doing bad in a kind, respectful manner in private) has been discarded as people become sensitive to any criticism, even if private and respectful. Islam is not an individualist religion, it encourages people to treat every other person as their brother or sister and attempt to bring them closer to God. Muslim women that put themselves in the position of defining a hijab as a fashion statement are taking on the role of re-defining hijab and are thus not just impacting themselves. This is different than demonstrating that hijab can still be worn in normal contexts in the West, for example, hijabis who wear modest clothing while participating in sports. This is a more positive normalizing of hijab, which attempts to keep the modesty of hijab intact while portraying an image of hijab that is different from the orientalist narrative that all Muslim women are oppressed and in need of saving.

This choice also sets a precedent that success in an industry that is not predominantly Muslim can only be done through assimilation. The notion that a hijabi being in a Playboy Magazine is “breaking barriers” is one that accepts that Playboy is the standard to which Muslim women should hold ourselves up against. This is not breaking barriers, it is instead accepting the criterion which the misogynistic Playboy magazine promotes. Playboy should not be considered as an authority that validates women, but should be, instead, viewed as a force whose power to control the image of women should be slowly eradicated. The image of hijab should thus, have never been given to the magazine to be given the power to control how hijab is seen, or where.

In the Playboy article, when asked “At what point will you feel like you’ve succeeded in effecting change?”, Tagouri shared a story of a mother telling Tagouri how her own daughter looks up to Noor as a role model. The question, then, is what message is she trying to portray to young Muslim girls who are trying to make a difference in their own way?

To talk about being an inspiration to young Muslims in a magazine most young Muslim girls would never comfortably buy distances herself from some members of this audience while normalizing the publication and what it represents.

The only purpose that placing hijab in Playboy serves is to give this publication power over hijab. It objectifies hijab as it places it in a magazine that defines not what an empowered woman looks like, but instead, what subjugated women looks like. When hijab is placed in this context, it only serves to further misconceptions that hijab is a symbol of subjugation and oppression. The women placed in these magazines are giving their bodies to be seen by the male gaze for the purpose of earning a profit and to put the hijab in the same context is to say that this is where women belong. Now the magazine has hijabi woman off its checklist and serves to help them attempt to normalize their publication even though it still exploits the image of women.

Tagouri’s choice also ignores that the magazine is not dignified, even to many non-Muslims such as those who believe in women’s rights or who are adherent to their own faiths. As the image of ISIS or oppressed Muslim women make it to headlines everywhere, Muslims in the West try to overcompensate and assimilate to make Islam seem “normal”. Gradually the principles of Islam and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and his family (s) are being forgotten, who were the most persecuted for their beliefs in the history of Islam. Islam being different from the popular beliefs at a time is not new, in fact, it is the very strength of Islam. Prophet Muhammad brought Islam to a society rampant with practices of tribal warfare, discrimination and burying infant girls. His strength to stay steadfast in his beliefs is the example that we should strive to follow because as Muslims, if we believe Islam is a beautiful, perfect religion, there is no reason to be apologetic.

As the image of Muslims is constantly being controlled by people that are not Muslim, we must reclaim our own image to portray what Islam, more specifically, hijab, truly represents. Hijab is not only a practice in clothing, but also a comprehensive, all-encompassing etiquette of modesty.

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, hijab is meant to do just the opposite of being controlled by men. It asserts that the empowerment of women does not come from male gaze, but instead, only comes from God.

This is a concept that should be re-instilled into our communities and ensure that Muslim sisters are being supported when they do make efforts to practice true modesty instead of praising choices that are not aligned with Islam for the self-satisfaction of seeing an Islam that we believe that will be more easily accepted in the West. Islam is not meant to be changed, but is instead meant to set the standards by which people should live by as ordained by God. This concept is not one to shy away from, as it is shared with many other religions doctrines. It is only the fear that has been instilled in Muslims that practicing Islam firmly and being conservative will not be accepted by others that leads them to reactions in their own insecurities. Yet, it is time to stop trying to fit in and start asserting that Islam is beautiful, just the way it is.


About Rabab Jafri

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