Islam and the Politics of Looking Sexy

October 19, 2014

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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  • Reply Lady Gaga October 19, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    The song is called ‘Aura’, not ‘Burqa’.

  • Reply ali October 23, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks for looking out, Lady Gaga.

  • Reply Rachel October 24, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Except ‘Aura’ is anything but submissive.
    “I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.”
    “You want to pity me because I was arranged one man to love, but in the bedroom the size of him is more than enough.”
    It’s such a power anthem to women of any culture/religion that the world usually perceive as weak.

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