Islam and the Politics of Looking Sexy

Aminah

This is Part 3 of Religious Fashion: a series of interviews with people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can do that here, which also includes a paragraph introduction to the series.

Part 3: Islamic Fashion

Aminah is a 28 year old academic, currently getting her masters in gender and development. You might recognize her as one of the ladies from the viral Mipsterz (Muslim Hipster, duh) music video. The Mipsterz are a group of young women proving that it’s possible to be stylish while still covering up, aiming to break the stereotype of the hijab as a symbol of oppression. Aminah was born and raised in Toronto to Muslim parents who immigrated from Pakistan. As an adolescent she never wore traditional Islamic dress, however when she turned 18 she made the independent decision to start wearing hijab, and continued to wear it for 10 years. Last year, she made the difficult and complex decision to take it off again.

It’s no secret that the appearance of women is a major issue in Islam. Muslims around the world have differing ideas about what constitutes an appropriate female dress code; while the most extreme believe that all women should wear a veil that covers the entire face and body, most commonly, it’s preferred that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Muslim men are also expected to dress simply and modestly–as a minimum requirement, a man must always be covered in loose and unrevealing clothing from his navel to his knee.

Hijab is the general name for the head covering worn by Muslim women after puberty, and also refers to modest Islamic styles of dress in general. In the West, there’s an assumption that wearing hijab demonstrates a woman’s inferiority to men, whereas Islam states that a modestly dressed woman commands respect and rejects sexual objectification. According to Islam, the “liberated” Western woman, obsessed with looks, figure, and youth, is the one living a life of slavery.

I recently spoke with Aminah about how wearing hijab has affected her life, the male gaze, and the politics of looking sexy in Islamic culture.

Why did you decide to start wearing hijab at 18?

Aminah: Well, first of all, a lot of people would assume that because my dad didn’t make me wear hijab growing up that he must not be conservative, which isn’t true. He’s very conservative, and he definitely had an obsession with telling us how to dress. But simultaneously, as a new immigrant, he didn’t want to ostracize our family and prevent us from assimilating. For a lot of Muslims who grow up in Western countries–and I’ve heard this from people in Orthodox Jewish communities, too–we grow up embracing the identity of our country–so we feel very Canadian, or very British, or American or whatever–but we also have this alternative identity because we were raised being told that we’re Muslim, and are therefore different. You can’t do everything everyone does–maybe you can’t go camping with the opposite gender, or go to the prom, and so you kind of feel like you don’t belong. But then, after 9/11, I noticed that a lot of Muslim women started wearing hijab. And then I went to university, and suddenly I was around way more Muslim women. St the beginning of the school year almost no one wore it, but then one by one girls started wearing it, and by the four year almost all of us wore hijab.

So you think the trend was about unity?

I do. Obviously covering is a tenant of that faith, but in my opinion, in a lot of cases, it’s more about identity politics. It’s sort of like how goths have their place in society. If you’re in hijab, other Muslims will be like ‘Hey, I get that girl, she’s like me.’ When I was younger I would have said wearing hijab was about God, but looking back I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe there really is a crowd-psychology, sociological reason that pulls people in.” There’s a comfort that comes along with feeling like you’re in a group of people who relate to each other.

I recently spoke with a Hasidic girl who said that the hardest part of leaving her religious community was taking off the outfit, because even though she no longer followed all of the rules, it was primarily the clothes that established the group mentality.

It’s good to hear that, because there’s a lot of Muslim girls who wear the outfit, and then people get shocked–especially non-Muslims–if they see her smoking a joint or kissing her boyfriend. And yeah, those things are taboo within our community, but they obviously still happen, but it’s just not talked about. So you can wear the outfit and be part of the group, but you might not be following all the group’s principals.

Aminah recently

So what’s the consensus on the recent rise of Muslim fashion bloggers–girls who are pushing the boundaries of hijab, most of whom look undeniably sexy, right?

Totally. There are some bloggers with like 100k readers, and some have makeup and fashion lines, and they do look sexy, and it’s sparked a conversation within the community about what is hijab and what isn’t. In certain ways, hijab can be seen as celebratory, because it separates you from the mainstream’s obsession with beauty, which is why a lot of women don’t like that hijab has become more pop culture and mainstream and fashionista. They would argue that if you’re wearing hijab you should be saying to the world, “I don’t give a shit. I’m being radical. I’m not going to do my hair.”

But surely these girls are being radical in their own way, right?

Yeah, I think these girls are challenging lots of things. They’re challenging the patriarchy within the Muslim community that says that a good Muslim women wears no makeup, averts her gaze, hides from the public, and is shy, humble and doesn’t laugh loudly. These girls are reconfiguring that and instigating a dialogue. I think a lot of Muslim women want to be pretty and fashionable and current, and maybe even sexy, but not in a way that’s overt. Many Muslim women are pulling from the Quran and saying, ‘Actually, it’s not my problem if a guy is looking at me, I can look good if I want to.’

So it’s not true, as we sometimes hear, that it’s the woman’s job to make sure men don’t look at her?

Not in Islam. In Islamic law men and women are both supposed to be modest. Muslim scholars wouldn’t say that the reason for a woman covering herself is to avert the male gaze. Because really, you can go to a Muslim country as a woman and be fully covered in black garb and men will still hit on you. And covered women get harassed in this country, too. If someone wants to sexualize you, they’re going to sexualize you. So the problem isn’t about women covering themselves, it’s about men who have been constructed to behave in a certain way, and that behavior being considered acceptable.

So if it’s not about deflecting the male gaze, especially in the case of a burqa, then what is it about?

Well the burqa isn’t something that’s common globally. Islam is a global religion–you have Muslims in Africa, in Saudi Arabia, in the West, etc., so there isn’t one monolithic practice, and that’s why a lot of people don’t understand us as much, because we come in very different colors and with different ideas. You will see women in Africa wearing hijab, and it will be tied in a turban, but she’ll be wearing a sleeveless dress, and that’s considered modest. But to achieve modesty in Saudi Arabia a woman will be wearing a full black veil, but it will be Christian Dior or Versace or whatever. So context is very important. So if you want to know why women cover that way in Saudi Arabia, well, I would say that it’s a lifestyle, it’s very bourgeois, a lot of the women there don’t work, it’s an oil country… but then the reasons why women cover in Afghanistan are different. And of course, there are examples of women being forced to cover.

How do you feel about that?

Well, I’m reluctant to talk about it because I don’t want Muslims or any religious people to be perceived as though they need to be saved by another ideology, or by secular humanism. In order to understand each other we really have to see where the other person is coming from, and to deconstruct and be critical of what we’ve been taught in our own culture. I live in a society where I was privileged enough to grow up with choice, so I can’t fathom what the life of a woman with no choice is like. But I do think the obsession around womens bodies is unfair, and that women are at loss when they have to cloak in such an extreme way, and aren’t allowed to participate in the public sphere or get an education, or even drive in Saudi Arabia. And those laws are usually not taken from the Quran. It’s just men at the top deciding what level of strictness fits their needs.

So earlier this year Lady Gaga wore a see-through neon burqa, and her song “Burqa” erotisizes Islamic dress. I’m sure she probably meant well, but many Muslim women have spoken out against the song, saying it evokes the worst stereotypes of Muslim women, painting them as submissive and sexually repressed.

Right, and that’s problematic. Like, when the women in the Mipsters video are wearing hijab in fashionable ways, that’s not submission, that’s power. They’re not just fighting against patriarchy in their own community, but in the West, too. The West is constantly saying that Muslim women are backwards and anachronistic, that we don’t contribute to culture, we have no art, we’re not intelligent–these are ideas that go back to colonial Africa! It’s the saving discourse, and some Muslim women resent it, and so in response they’re like, “No, actually, I like wearing it, I like covering my hair, it saves me time and makes me feel comfortable.” And ultimately they want to wear it because they believe in God. And as the world becomes increasingly secular and atheist, it becomes harder for the public sphere to grasp the religious community. But I think that goes both ways, and some Muslim women can’t understand why people like Lady Gaga, or someone like the feminist artist Petra Collins, for example, does what they do.

Why did you recently make the decision to take off your hijab?

Well, that’s a heavy and complicated question. I was comfortable in hijab, but then I started dating, and some of the guys weren’t Muslim, and people would literally stare at us in the street. Also, I felt like I was constantly being fetishized. I found that a lot of white men–and a lot of hijabis say this, actually–will fetishize you in this orientalist way, like they think you’re so exotic and want to take care of you, and treat you really peculiar, and that started to aggravate me. Especially in the work place. Or I would be riding a bike and people would literally point like, ‘OMG Muslim girl on a bike!” and sometimes I wouldn’t care, but other times it would just be like, ‘Ugh, fuck off, just let me ride a bike and drink coffee and play guitar and not have to answer to all of these politics.’ Ultimately, I just wanted to know what it would be like to blend in for once.

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CONVERSION: A New Short Film for Purple Mag

Coco Young and I made a new short film, yay! ”Conversion” is a contemporary (aka hipster) take on the ancient Greek tragedy “The Bacchae,” by Euripides. In this interpretation, Dionysus, the god of wine, art and divine ecstasy, is a downtown fashion photographer with a gluten allergy, who, along with his model Maenads, lures the rational and civilized King Pentheus into his hotel party of debauchery. Watch it now on the Purple website

Directed by Coco Young and Karley Sciortino; Cinematography by Sonia Ostrovsky; Edited by Jeremy Cohan and Coco Young; Starring Joseph Geagan as Dionysus, Andy Darling as Kind Pentheus; and Charlotte Carey, Danielle Knudson, Flaviana Matata Roosmarjin, Karley Sciortono, and Coco Young as the Maenads; and Caleb Addison, Millie Brown, Tea Hacic, and Jonathan Smalls as the Tinder Guests
 
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Religious Fashion: So Sexless It’s Almost Sexy (Pt. 2)

Lazer

This is Part 2 of Religious Fashion: a series of interviews with people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can do that here, which also includes a paragraph introduction to the series.

Part 2: Hasidic Fashion

The Hasidic dress code is one of the most extreme of all religious fashions, and often considered to be the most peculiar by outsiders. Hasidic style has evolved throughout the years, and different sects can be distinguished by subtle differences in attire. Jewish law requires women to dress with extreme modesty–they’re expected to wear loose fitting clothing, thick stockings, and to cover the collarbone, elbows, and knees. Once married, a woman should stop showing her hair in public, and begin covering her head with a wig, hat or head scarf. Some women go as far as to cut their hair off entirely.

Hasidic men traditionally wear a white shirt covered by a dark vest, dark pants, a long dark coat and a black hat. The preference for black goes back to the 18th century, when it was thought to be very gentlemanly to dress all in one dark color. For men, the beard and peyot (sidelocks) are never trimmed or shaved. (As an ex-Hasidic friend of mine once put it, “To shave your beard is to shave the grace of God off your face.”) The Hasidic look is constant all year round, which must makes summers in New York–home to the largest population of Hasidic Jews in the world–pretty darn brutal. Oh, and by the way, that whole thing about Hasidic people having sex through a hole in a sheet is actually a myth. In truth, that was an old Puritan practice that was somehow transposed to the Hasidic community, whereas Hasidic people are meant to have sex completely unclothed, in total darkness.

Lazer and Raizy (cool names) are a couple and filmmaking duo from New York, both in their 20s. They grew up in separate Hasidic communities in and around NYC, and both made the decision to leave their community at the early age of 15. They’ve been dating for two years.

Why is Hasidic dress so distinct?

Lazer: It’s about segregation. Each piece of the Hasidic wardrobe has its own traditions and reasons for being worn, but the philosophy behind the extreme outfit as a whole is that the world should see us as a group. It’s like a suit of armor, making it impossible for you to assimilate. And that, of course, includes sexual separation, too.

You’d never get away with sliding unnoticed into a bar to casually hit on a girl, basically.

Lazer: Exactly–everybody notices you. And it happens within the community, too. For example, once a woman is married she can’t show her hair in public. Some women, like my mother and sisters, cut off their hair and wear a hat, whereas others just wear a wig on top of their hair. And that in itself is another form of separation–if a woman walks down the street in a wig, you know she’s married and belongs to someone, and therefore and you can’t connect with her.

Is it true that some Hasidic women have special, sexy wigs that they wear at home for their husbands?

Lazer: Sure they do. Some women will spend 3 or 4 grand on a wig, maybe one that’s long and blonde, whatever. A friend of mine told me that a Hasidic woman came into a hair salon in Williamsburg and asked for a short, pink haircut to look like Rihanna, and afterward she went to the bathroom, put on her wig, and left. She couldn’t be seen in public like that, but her husband wanted her to look like Rihanna at home.

A friend of mine, who grew up Hasidic, told me that the pockets of a Hasidic man’s coat angle just slightly backward, ostensibly to prevent his hands from coming into contact with his penis. Have you heard of this?

Lazer: Yeah, there’s lots of stuff like this. For example, after your bar mitzvah, when you’re 13, you have to start wearing different underwear–it’s longer and more baggy, because you shouldn’t have any tight fabric around your penis, because the friction could stimulate you sexually. For the Hasidic community, everything is about protecting you from sexual thoughts, because improper actions always begin with improper thoughts.

So, because you were constantly reminded not to think about sex, did that just result in you thinking about sex all the time? It’s like saying to someone, “Don’t think about an elephant.”

Raizy: It definitely creates a sexual tension, and that tension can keep sex on the brain. Like if your principal says, “Why are you wearing this tight outfit, is it to make the men like you?”, you’re going to start evaluating your sex appeal, ya know? Did you know that in Jewish newspapers there’s no images of women at all? They’re all blurred out, even if it’s a photo of a little girl, which obviously is sending the message that a photo of a female child is too titillating to be seen, and in doing that you’re forcing people think about sex in association with the image of a kid, even if that wasn’t the intention of the person looking.

Lazer: The schools actually hire people, whenever the new textbooks arrive, to cross out all the pictures of girls in the textbooks for the boys schools, in order to eliminate temptation.

So if there’s no contact, do you end up becoming terrified of the opposite sex?

Lazer: Basically. When boys are young we go to Yeshiva, where we study the Talmud, and girls aren’t allowed. So basically from when you’re 12 until you’re 18, or really until you’re married, you don’t have any contact with girls. Like even at home my sister wouldn’t come close to me. So in Yeshiva a lot of the guys started to hook up sexually with each other, because everyone’s young and developing sexually, and the natural desire is to fool around and experiment. But for us there wasn’t even the choice of “should I pick a boy or a girl?” or “should I be gay or straight?” because at that age your only option was to be with a guy. I think most of the guys who were in Yeshiva with me fooled around, and the girls did the same thing in the girls schools. It’s basically like being in jail–it’s obvious why so much homosexuality goes on in jail, because you can’t force people to shut off their sexual desires, and so naturally people experiment with what they have available to them.

Raizy covered, and Lazer and Raizy now

So did both of you have gay experiences before being with someone of the opposite sex?

Lazer: Yes, I fooled around with lots of guys before I was with a girl. It took me years to be comfortable even talking to a girl. The concept was just so foreign to me.

Raizy: My first experiences were with girls. It would happen when my friend’s and I were hanging out at each other’s houses, or when a bunch of girls would get together over a long Shabbat, because literally there’s nothing for you to do except sit around with a bunch of girls the whole time. Sometimes girls would hook up on the staircase to the roof at our school. But since I left I’ve basically only been with men, aside from a couple makeouts. Girls weren’t really for me. When I was 14 I had my first boyfriend, which wasn’t allowed so I was always sort of a troublemaker–I always thought differently and was really curious. I told my whole class about sex when I was 8.

You’re together in a heterosexual relationship now. Do you think you’re younger experiences made you more sexually fluid, or was it ever confusing?

Lazer: Well, that’s the thing–when you finally start hanging out with girls, you’ve had so many experiences with guys that you don’t even know what you are anymore, and it definitely leaves you feeling really confused. I know a lot of Hasidic married men who are still very attracted to guys because of the experiences they had in Yeshiva, because those sexual experiences were really fun, and it felt secretive and exciting and dangerous, whereas with your wife everything is so controlled and premeditated–for example there are strict laws about what days you are allowed to have sex, or even touch your spouse, based around the woman’s menstrual cycle–and because of that it never feels as exciting as back when you were young. So maybe it’s less that they’re attracted to men, and more that they’re attracted to the mindset they were in during those first sexual experiences. I remember, there was one guy in school–I don’t know if I would call him my boyfriend, but he was a boy I hung around with a lot at the time–and he had the keys to all the little closets at school where they kept the books, so we would sneak in and hook up between the bookshelves, and that was really exciting. And that’s why married men still crave it–they want something sexy and exciting and free.

How “bad” is homosexual behavior considered to be in the Hasidic community?

Lazer: Well, for a guy, cumming in itself is a sin, and penetrative sex with a man is not allowed, but fooling around is fine. And girls getting with girls is never mentioned in the Torah as being bad.

You mentioned that there are laws about when you can and can’t have sex. Are there also laws about what you can do–like banned sex positions or something?

Raizy: There are varied ideas about what is and isn’t allowed sexually, and it was even agued about in the Talmud. Like there’s one crazy statement in the Talmud that says if you give oral sex it will make your children blind. Another commentator suggested you should have sex very quickly, like the devil is pushing you.

Up until 20 or so years ago, if you were a religious person, your general views on sexuality wouldn’t have been too far off from the views of society at large. But now that’s we live in such a hyper sexualized society, the strictly religious stand out even more. How does that weigh within the Hasidic community?

Lazer: I would say that the community definitely has to put up a stronger fight now. You hipsters coming into our community is definitely fucking everything up, because young kids can’t even walk outside of their house in their own neighborhoods, because there’s girls walking around in all sorts of skimpy outfits.

Raizy: I see some people in the community getting a little bit more lenient, too. Like they’re starting to get more fashionable, and try to learn about trends. If you’re a Hasidic woman, there’s not a specific type of shirt or skirt you have to wear–as long as your clothes cover the right parts of your body, you’re ok. So a lot of women will go to really expensive stores, like Bloomingdales, and buy designer dresses, and then go to the Hasidic tailor to make it kosher–they make the sleeves longer, extend the length, etc.

Do some girls want to look sexy?

Raizy: Definitely. They just make sure they follow the rules, but that they look hot within those boundaries, and of course you can cover your elbows and your neck and still look sexy. But then there’s other people who make sure they don’t look provocative in any way. We’re taught that the Torah says it’s the woman’s job to make sure a man doesn’t look at you. Basically, the worst thing you could do in your life is to make a man cum, so if you end up walking down the street terrified that a man might look at you and get turned on, and then go home and cum thinking about you.

Sounds stressful.

Raizy: In Israel, there’s a group of women who started covering their whole face, with just a piece of lace around their eyes to see, and they wear a giant black cape, so they basically look like Muslim women. I have an aunt who does this, and we went to dinner recently and I said to her, “Do you really think men don’t look at you because you’re dressed like that? You look like an alien–everyone is looking at you!” And she goes, “Yeah, but when they look at you they go mhaw!, and when they look at me go ugh!” And that’s what makes her happy.

Do Hasidic girls ever wear sexy lingerie under their clothes?

Lazer: When I met her she still dressed very Hasidic, and then when she undressed her underwear would say “kiss my ass” in rhinestones. When she was naked she looked like some LA girl, and when she was dressed she looks like your perfect pious Jew.

Do you think that within the community the religious clothing ever becomes fetishized?

Lazer: Totally. There’s a lot of men in the community who only want a Hasidic woman. Bring them the sexiest woman on Earth, and they don’t want her unless she’s wearing a spiuzel [head scarf]. They want their woman to speak Yiddish during sex. And some men start having fantasies about married Hasidic women too–it’s sexy because it’s not allowed.

I imagine it must feel like a drastic change to stop wearing your religious dress once you leave the community.

Lazer: Leaving is a long process, with many steps, and losing the clothing is usually the last step. You can change the way you think, you can stop keeping Shabbat, but as long as you’re still wearing the clothing, you feel like you belong to the group. It’s a hard step to make because you’re really saying, “I’m different now,” and It makes it hard to go home to your family.

Raizy: Usually, the first rules people break have to do with sex. When I was 14 I first “broke the rules” by hooking up with a guy, but at that time I never imagined that I would later stop keeping Shabbat. Even if you believe in your religion and want to be part of the group, sexual desire is just something so natural, and it feels like only a matter of time before you give in.

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