By Aisha Hasan
When one looks back at historical depictions of Muslim women, one will usually find typical orientalist tropes, presenting the women of the East as full of mystery and exoticism. Other than the few female Westerners who were able to fully document the huge contribution of women to the Islamic state, students of colonial studies otherwise pictured women as belly dancers, dressed in gauzy veils, hidden behind harems where they spent their lives in wait for their menfolk.
Ingre’s 1814 Grande Odalisque, for example, depicts a concubine languidly lounging about, lightly dusting herself with feathers as she peers over her shoulder at the viewer with absent eyes.
Or Juan Gimininez and Martin’s representation of women in a harem; luxuriously dressed with nothing else to do but stretch gracefully, surrounded by riches.
In the Harem – Juan Giminez and Martin
It’s safe to say that Muslim women have rebelled against this kind of imagery.
Or have we?
In the post 9/11 era, the Muslim woman is once again presented as an object of intrigue; and increasingly so in the West, she is not shown as an example of backward conservatism, but instead as an exotic modern fusion.
As the Muslim millennial culture converges with that of modern secular norms, Muslim women seem to have “halal” equivalent for every imported “progressive” standard by which women are judged. It is easy to see simply from the huge industry that modest fashion has become; from hijabi catwalks and models, to Muslim designers and makeup artists, that the depiction of Muslim women as mysterious yet beautiful has returned, albeit in a more modern context.
The evidence: go to any Muslim fashion website. Are the artistic shots of women in fitted dresses and loosely wrapped hijabs, elegantly (and suggestively) poised on a sofa or ledge, not the 21st century’s Ingre?
It is ironic that the very piece of clothing that was ordained in Islam to protect women from being sexually objectified by society has turned into a weapon with which to do just that.
The hijab is no longer seen as something that hides women’s beauty, but rather a way in which Muslims express their identity. Wearing a hijab does not prevent you from doing anything they say, one can be beautiful, a hijabi is not a perfect Muslim, she does not fit into the narrow definition the broader public perceive she fits into.
Between risqué photoshoots to rap videos, the hunt is always on to find a hijabi doing something more outlandish, more “stereotype breaking”. The result: we have Muslim women entering industries aspiring to be the first Muslim in that profession; we have Muslim women dancing in the street, we have Muslim women justifying hijabi porn.
But it’s not all about the hijab. The recent release of a supposed guide to intimacy for Muslim women was met with widespread praise from the community, insisting that Islam has always empowered women through their sexuality. The reaction to the book overlooked the fact that many of the recommendations made by the “guide” are contrary to what fiqh has determined as permissible relations, but also completely disregarded the hayaa (modesty) that women (and men) should approach such issues with. Whilst sexual relations should not be swept under the carpet entirely, there should be a taboo about discussing such a topic in public.
When we read of the modesty of Uthman bin Affan (ra), and how even Prophet Muhammad (saws) was shy in front of him, covering his calves when Uthman entered the house, how can we rejoice in a guide that speaks so candidly about private issues?
How many posts on social media have we seen about how modesty is in more than just your dress, it is your behaviour; but when is that understanding ever embodied? Has society today not normalised the sexualisation of Muslim women, such that any kind of shame is seen as backward?
This is not the fault of any individual woman, nor is this meant to shame any individual. This is to raise awareness of a culture that is being propagated; the redefinition of what it means to be a modern Muslim woman in the 21st century.
The perception promoted, specifically after 9/11, that Muslim women are supposedly ugly, boring, and oppressed has motivated the community to break those misconceptions over the past 15 years. But we have gone into overdrive.
In our desire not to be seen in that negative framework, we have broken what it actually means to be a Muslim woman – who is not ugly, but hides her beauty; who is not boring, but abides by Islamic appropriate restrictions; who are not oppressed, but at the same time are not empowered by the Western definition of fame, fashion and fortune, but by her conviction in Allah (swt) and her ability to raise her voice to convey Islam.
Many people say we need to stop talking about this issue; that we are just perpetuating an unnecessary focus on Muslim women by critiquing mistakes that we see. But I for one will not stand by and watch my sisters fall victim to the same insecurities, the same sadnesses, the same expectations, that Allah (swt) has said we should be free from.
Because ultimately Islam encourages modesty, via practices like the hijab and discretion in our speech and actions, to preserve the Muslim woman’s happiness; to not let her be exploited by society for monetary, ideological or personal benefit. This enables her live her life in submission to no one but Allah (swt). What we see today is not empowerment. It is a subculture that makes our sisters vulnerable to the same dangers that women in secular societies face – from the gender pay gap and the career-motherhood pay off, to the need to look 25 when 40 and keep up with fashions designed primarily by men.
Its time for us to reject the attempts of anyone and everyone to transform what it means to be a Muslim woman. We must open our eyes and condemn all cultures that are unislamic, not simply the blatantly restrictive Eastern ones. We are the only ones that can free ourselves from this prison, and Islam is the only means by which we can do this.
In 1959, political radical Frantz Fanon famously said: “It was the colonialist’s frenzy to unveil the [Muslim] woman. In this battle, the occupier was bent on unveiling…because there is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession.”
I would argue that the orientalists of today have found a way to possess Muslim women, whilst keeping her veil on.
Aisha Hasan is the founder of the Qarawiyyin Project. A researcher in international development and the political economy of the Muslim world, she is also a student of Islamic Studies and a Quran teacher. She has been active in her Muslim community for several years, appearing on television, radio shows, and delivering talks at universities around the UK.