Featuring in a magazine which has been sexually objectifying women for more than half a century does no favours in “demystifying” the Muslim woman, writes Shohana Khan.
Upcoming US television star, Noor Tagouri, features in October’s edition of the Playboy magazine. She could be seen as just another woman in the long line of women who since 1953, have taken the decision to emboss its’ glossy pages. This is knowing full well how Playboy has projected the woman as a sexual object; never apologetic.
Firstly, this discussion is no way about bashing an individual Muslim woman who has taken a decision for whatever reasons, she deems best. But nevertheless, when it comes to Muslim women in the limelight, the action of one soon sadly becomes a discussion point by others, about us all. So on this basis, it is important we engage and impart our views, instead of having them defined for us – and I do not claim that all Muslim women share the below views either.
Noor’s decision to feature in Playboy could be seen as just a career move by any TV hopeful, starting out in the public eye. But the thing is; despite what might have been her intentions, the magazine decided to feature her alongside a group of other individuals, all brought together because of their ability to do something that others had not done – pushing boundaries, breaking rules. Appropriately named the ‘Renegades’, which along with the description, depicted them largely as a group of people going against the grain in the groups or communities they come from. Noor is portrayed as ‘determined to break down stereotypes’, building a new type of ‘modesty’.
Of course there are stereotypes of Muslim women, but to say this through a magazine that is centred around objectifying the bodies of women (even if they no longer exhibit nudity it’s still utter objectification), implicitly suggests the following: the stereotypes/barriers that we should be pushing are those around modesty, to bring them in line with the normalised sexualised culture we live in. The modesty that many Muslim women may have Playboy tells us, is not modern enough, not cutting edge enough.
Noor may have had good intentions in attempting to normalise the presence of the fabric wrapped around her hair; however, the problem with this all is that for many observant Muslim women, it’s really not just the piece of fabric that we solely seek to normalise.
Even though most of us take an interest in what we wear and how we look, the focus on our external appearance is something we don’t want to plunge into the limelight. The perspective towards how we dress and behave in our external lives, what is often deemed as hayaa (modesty), shapes not just the adorning of a headscarf but behaviour and choices, including how we decide to project ourselves – at a distance from the varnish of sexualisation.
We want people to become normalised with the idea that as Muslim women, we actually do not want to partake in an industry that focuses purely on the external appearance – I believe there are lots of us who really don’t want to know how much you rate the way we look.
But the fact that maybe one of us has a skill, has knowledge about a particular issue, or can do something really great; really does need more focus. We remember that one of the greatest women in Islam, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (saw), Aisha (ra) accomplished things many of us today would dream about in terms of scholarship – and most Muslims to date haven’t even given how she looked, a passing thought.
For minority Muslim communities today in the current Islamophobic climate, most of us are interested in a discourse where we can attain acceptance without having to break our rules and our boundaries – because we regard most of these as divine. Although we are not one homogeneous community, and have a wealth of different opinions; our mainstream views on modesty and social relations regularly come under fire – not because they are deemed socially damaging, but because they are alien to the predominant norm.
But it is through these Islam specific boundaries, rules and values that we are trying to create communities who are upright, moral, dedicated to family and value women. So I would say, although there are problems in our communities to push against (what community doesn’t have problems?); it’s not breaking and pushing that is of most need, but of resolutely standing and explaining the life we already lead.
So breaking barriers? I think the only barrier Muslim women need to break, is the hesitation to speak about our unique, but wholly wonderful and positive identity – just as it is.
Finally, it must be stated that the horrific abuse that our sister Noor has experienced since this has been made public, is unequivocally unacceptable and goes against the very nature of our values as Muslims.
Shohana Khan writes about issues affecting women in contemporary society and specialises in Islam. She is also a blogger for the Huffington Post.