Rabbit Fundamentalists

Playboy and the False Normalization of the Hijab

With the best of intentions, no doubt, the magazine has fallen into the slut-shaming game of Islamists around the world.

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Playboy magazine has just featured an article about a hijab-wearing Muslim-American, Noor Taguri, “making a forceful case for modesty.”

Yes. You read that correctly.

In its October “Renegades” issue, Playboy is showcasing a religious-conservative practice as emblematic of an independent woman.

White religious-conservatism is not often celebrated or glamorized by American liberals and progressives, it is derided. But switch up white Amish or Catholic notions of modesty with brown Muslim ones, take a fashion shoot complete with a graffiti-ridden backdrop, and presto: brown religious-conservative attitudes about hiding the female form in the name of modesty become… progressive.

To be fair, many Islamists and Muslim fundamentalists advocate a much stricter form of hijab and “modesty,” which one presumes would not countenance photo shoots for Playboy. And I applaud anyone who trolls the Muslim religious-police mindset.

So, well done there Noor Taguri! I know you will be criticized by our own fundamentalists, and I stand with you wholeheartedly against those female-obsessed Quran-thumpers. Certainly what you represent is a step forward from the austere Saudi form of hijab that includes the full-face veil, and bans on women driving.

But, it is also a step backward from the progressive feminism many Muslim women enjoyed in the 1980s. That was before theocratic Islamism and Muslim fundamentalism began competing over who is Muslim enough. Now, they punish those who dare to bare too much flesh.

No debate around this issue is complete without solemnly recalling this reverse trajectory for the rights of Muslim women.

In the West, the hijab should be a choice that faces the same liberal scrutiny that all other religious-conservative choices face, which it currently doesn’t.

Globally, though, it is not a choice.

Millions of girls are forced to be “modest” by wearing the hijab. Of course women should be left to choose what to wear, but it has only ever been male Quran exegetes who have told women that covering up equates to modesty.

As such, the hijab is enforced by law over female populations in theocratic Muslim states.

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This is why the Catholic nun’s habit is no comparison. No state in the world enforces the Catholic habit over all women then punishes them for not complying. And rarely would a nun be glamorized by American liberals, or by Playboy(!), as a symbol of female emancipation.

This need not be a zero sum game. Progressive liberals can simultaneously defend the legal right to wear a hijab, while disputing whether it is right to wear one.

As a reforming secular liberal Muslim, I do not endorse the gender-discriminatory body-shaming and moralizing of the hijab. I will fight fiercely to protect anyone’s right to wear this medieval flag of female “chastity,” but that doesn’t mean I think the wearer is right to do so. Let us not ban the hijab, but let us not glamorize it either. I prefer leaving that to religious conservatives who are fixated on nudity, “modesty,” and female “honor.” This is a conservative, not liberal, view of the human body. Such illiberal, regressive-left promotion of religious conservativism—only for Muslims mind you—is nothing short of exoticized Orientalism rehashed.

The assumption made by some liberals is that the “authentic” Muslim woman is the hijab-wearing one, while non-hijabis are seen as Westernized, inauthentic Muslims. Likewise, the religious-conservative Muslim assumption equates concealing the female form to “modesty,” as if a woman who shows her hair or reveals her figure is somehow immodest.

This is a not-so-subtle form of bigotry against the female form, and it has real consequences, including rising social-conservative attitudes across Muslim communities around gender and sexual freedom. In too many instances across Muslim-majority societies, including those embedded in Europe, this “modesty theology” has led to slut-shaming of women who do not cover. Worse yet, it can lead to so-called honor killings.

Many non-Muslims simply assume there is only one—conservative—way of being Muslim. But we Muslims are no longer this distant and native “other” that liberals and conservatives can visit once a year to share a bit of falafel.

We are born and raised among you, and Islam is therefore now firmly native to our societies. So judge us by the same progressive standards you reserve for everyone else. We Muslim reformers have to be able to demand the same progressive rights within our communities that are enjoyed by everyone else. Your intervention and interaction with Muslims’ intra-religious debate around these issues is not neutral. A civil war is raging within our communities about the future of Islam for Muslims.

Liberal Muslim theologians such as Britain’s Shaykh Salah al-Ansari, Dr. Usama Hasan, and Pakistan’s Javaid Ghamidi, argue that the hijab is not a religious duty (fard) at all. And that is how it used to be.

Up until the 1980s, the female body was not shamed out of public view in Muslim-majority societies. But from the ’80s onward, theocratic Islamism began replacing Arab socialism as the ideology of resistance against “the West.” This struggle against the “other” necessitated defining what is “ours” and what is “theirs”—and women, of course, were deemed “ours.”

Suddenly, women’s bodies became the red line in a cultural war against the West started by theocratic Islamism. A Not Muslim Enough charade was used to identify “true” Muslims against “Western” stooges. Religious dress codes became a crucial marker in these cultural purity stakes. Any uncovered woman was now deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking. In short, aligned to the “Western enemy.”

Back to the Playboy shoot: The admirably entrepreneurial Noor Taguri advises younger girls who look up to her to “stay fearless and remember that everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.”

My advice to Noor is: I hope you do the same, sister. Do look up the late great Egyptian feminist Huda Sharawi who truly stepped out of her “comfort zone” when, in 1923, she shocked Muslims everywhere by removing her hijab publicly for the first time.

Within months Muslim women the world over were encouraged to shed this gender-discriminatory medieval throwback to “modesty.” Those were the days when genuine Western progressives supported genuine Muslim feminists.