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05.01.11

Playboy's Muslim Cover Girl: Is Sila Sahin Good for Women?

Actress Sila Sahin has sparked outrage as the first Turkish woman to pose for Playboy—but perhaps her rebellion will inspire other Muslims to define modesty and honor for themselves, says Asra Q. Nomani.

German-Muslim actress Sila Sahin, 25, is causing quite a stir as the first Turkish woman to undress for Playboy, posing in the May issue of the magazine's German edition. "For me, these pictures are an act of liberation from the cultural constraints of my childhood," the star of the German soap opera Good Times, Bad Times told Playboy. "I have tried to please everybody for too long. With these images I want to show young Turkish women that it is OK to live the way they are, that it is not cheap to show skin, that you should pursue your goals instead of bowing down to others."

I'm not a fan of porn as a symbol of empowerment, but as a Muslim woman, hearing divinely sanctioned mandates all my life about what a good Muslim girl looks like, I can understand why Sahin has responded to our community sanctions about honor, shame and modesty by stripping—and why members of her family have ostracized her for it. The battle over the Muslim woman's body is a debate over a simple Islamic concept: awrah (or awra), an Arabic word that refers to the zones of women and men forbidden from the public eye. While it's an equal opportunity word, it's the excuse some Muslim men use to subordinate, silence, segregate and cloak women from Afghanistan to Seattle, Washington.

And in fact, Sahin's decision to pose for the nudie mag may mark an important milestone on Muslim women's path to defining awrah for themselves. Recently, France banned the veil—in part because it perpetuates the notion that a woman's body is forbidden. Sahin's exhibitionism takes this concept to an extreme. Yet similar to how American women responded to the sexually repressive mores of the 1950s with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, only to find a happy medium of sexual freedom in the decades that followed, perhaps acts like Sahin's will prove liberating.

I can relate to rebelling against my community's standards of modesty—and to finding a middle ground. I come from an ultraconservative Muslim family in which my mother wore the full-on black face veil and shroud until she married into my father's family, and my feminist grandmother literally ripped the veil from her face.

Yet we lived by conservative standards. When I was about 9, growing up in Piscataway, New Jersey, my father, a wonderful but traditional man, told me I couldn't bare my legs anymore, so I slipped on pants below the frocks my mother had hand-stitched. Later, as a teen in Morgantown, West Virginia, as a runner on my high school's cross-country team, though I wore shorts, I put on a T-shirt under my sleeveless Morgantown Mohigan uniform so I wouldn't run with the bare arms I was told I was forbidden to show. At graduation, I was the only teen with pants beneath her graduation gown.

As a 21 year old, I staged my first act of awrah disobedience on my college graduation day as an undergrad from West Virginia University: for the time since my youth, I wore a skirt and blouse, borrowed from my independent thinking mother's clothing boutique. Still, the skirt fell to my ankles. Then came my big bang of rebellion: in my late-20s, I challenged all orthodoxy by being the first woman in my ancestry (as far as I could figure) to wear a bikini. I chased volleyballs in a blue Speedo two-piece, in front of my father, as I played in a tournament on a New Jersey beach. My father, though horrified, didn't make a big deal out of it. And, sure enough, the experimentation of my youth settled down into my own sense of modesty in my 40s.

As a Muslim woman, I can understand why Sahin has responded to our community sanctions about honor, shame and modesty by stripping.

Of course, challenging awrah is a complicated task, in part because the concept is so open for interpretation. The word sounds like "aura," and it's similarly amorphous. The understandings of what makes for a woman's awrah can amount to everything about the woman, from her voice to her sheer presence, based on the strictest interpretations of Islam. In its most extreme form, the debate over a woman's awrah defines rulings regarding gender segregation at mosques and headscarves, marriage, driving, social mobility, sex and even so-called honor killings. A publication by a group linked to the hard-line Salafi interpretation of Islam said women who expose their awrah even to other women "will not enter al Jannah," the Arabic word for heaven.

The emergence of Playboy's first Muslim cover girl underscores a dilemma for us in society as we try to assert women's rights, negotiating competing ideologies that are rooted in one common theme: the hypersexualization of women. To me, protecting women's freedom doesn't mean accepting philosophies that define women by their sexuality, veiled or bare-naked. But as Muslim women take bold steps to make the forbidden commonplace, perhaps they will help others make tiny rebellions of their own—to everyone's benefit.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam . She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown . She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace . asra@asranomani.com