By Sara Maqsood, February 8 2021—
It is always fascinating to observe the politicization of Muslim women’s sexuality, particularly when it comes to her right to cover herself. After all, there are usually two extremes that can be considered when it comes to a woman’s sexuality, one that is public and commodified, and another that is privatized but oppressive. What fails to be taken into account in both of these extremes is a woman’s right to her own sexuality and bodily autonomy. Instead, a Muslim woman’s body becomes a conflict of interest, a political issue and an area of contention for the public at large.
In most Western societies, women are pressured to reveal more and make their sexuality public and commodified. This commodification leads to systematic under-valuation of the subjective value and starts viewing things — the thingification of women — through a primarily economic lens. When society ramps up commodification, objectification and sexualization of women, they are saying that it is empowering for a woman to use her body over her brains or her abilities that do not directly relate to her looks. She can do anything, “but not by wearing that.” One really needs to wonder why Western society is so fascinated by empowering women through their body and sexuality but not asking the same from men, or why the West hyperfixates on women being required to cover up more in Islam but fails to recognize Western society’s fascination with undressing women while requiring men to cover up more. In a professional setting, women can reveal their legs more easily than men. On a beach, a man in a Speedo is looked at sideways while women wear bikinis. I am not a communist by any stretch but advanced capitalism certainly has an interest in keeping women insecure and undressed while alienating women who choose to cover themselves.
On the other hand, the extreme of forcing women to cover is also wrong and oppressive as it takes the choice away from the woman herself. Yet, individuals who debate about a woman’s right to uncover themselves in an Islamic context are not interested in asserting that a woman has agency or a right to choose — they are too busy advocating for one of the above extremes. We see this with female activists advocating for enforcing all women to remove their hijabs in places like Quebec and France. Included among these individuals are politicians and either white or self-proclaiming Muslim feminists and activists who assert that they are advocating on behalf of Muslim women. Too preoccupied in their values and narrow definitions of sexual and female liberation, these feminists or activists often fail to realize when they invalidate the Muslim woman’s right to her wardrobe through the enforcing of either adoption or removal of hijab, they are going against their very values of liberation, autonomy and equality that they idealize for themselves and their own daughters.
Islam does not adopt an extreme. It highlights a mandate but reassures women the right and autonomy to choose to follow that mandate willingly, without any compulsion from the patriarchy. If these activists/feminists were really concerned about the Muslim woman’s right to bodily autonomy and her wardrobe, they would understand that highlighting issues related to Muslim women at large is more important than hyperfixating on the hijab as a political issue. The extreme of enforcing the removal in certain places is only resulting in Muslim women who observe hijab to be pitted against other women do not.
How are they pitted against others, you ask? When a Muslim woman is asked for her perspective on the hijab in public spheres, she is strategically set against other women to justify her perspective and her right to her wardrobe. I turn heads when I speak in a room full of white men because in those settings, my presence feels like a never-ending public-service announcement. In professional settings, my small talk is confused for arguments about feminism and politics. Because of their hijab, my friends need to constantly laugh off comments about being diversity hires to not come across as “too assertive” or “aggressive” while they quietly wallow in self-doubt.
A visibly-identifying Muslim woman is constantly made to feel this self-imposed pressure to represent Islam and justify to society that she is good and accomplished, despite wearing her hijab. If she fails to adequately convince her audience of this justification, she is pushed to either relinquish her religion or made to feel isolated and targeted. Western society cannot seem to respect her personal choice and instead, demands an answer that adheres to their Eurocentric perspectives — an answer that acknowledges that hijab is oppressive. Suddenly, gendered Islamophobia does not remain as subtle or innocuous as it previously seemed.
Western society has become so desensitized to the flaunting of sexuality that when said society comes across someone covering themselves, they assume it must have been imposed upon them. Individuals even take it upon themselves to humiliate Muslim women with sexual assault. In the aftermath, these women are victim-blamed for choosing to wear their hijab that led to said assault. In a society where Western democracy insists on pluralism and diversity, the Muslim woman, ironically, becomes demonized for her personal choice of adhering to her faith and choosing what to wear. When Western society colonizes the closet of the Muslim woman, it begins dictating what bodily “autonomy” looks like and tells her that it is either their way or the highway. Let us call out hypocrisy where we see it.
Not so interestingly, but subtly so, the Muslim woman is being wrongly told that the violence and gendered Islamophobia against her can be avoided by simply changing how she chooses to identify. However, if it is the hijab today, it will be something else tomorrow. After all, as secularists in France and Quebec attempt to ban religious icons for Muslim women, they are making said women even more of an icon. Why? Because it had nothing to do with their clothing to begin with. Clothing only receives meaning when put into social context, and the social context of Western society is its incessant fascination with the commodification of women. Sex really does sell here — in all its objectified glory. It is no wonder, then, that through the obsessive lens of commodifying women, Islam starts to feel so foreign.
Is our fight really to force women into one extreme over the other? Or is it to strategically fight and finally empower women, irrespective of their religion, to have a choice in covering or uncovering themselves. I would say the latter but the West begs to argue for the former.
This column, The Muslim Voice, aims to give voice to Canadian Muslims in order to highlight their achievements, perspective, experiences and struggles as well as explore Islamic history related to contemporary events. This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.