We need to talk about the sexualisation of Muslim women

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.

juan-gimenez-y-martin-in-the-harem

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 inmuslim-model-demonstrates-how-dress-fashionably-yet-modestly 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.

 

dpAisha Hasan is Editor-in-Chief of The Muslimah Diaries. An Economics graduate from London, by day she works as a writer specialising in the Middle East. She is also an aalima student and a Quran teacher. She has been active in the community for the past ten years, appearing on television and delivering talks on issues important to Muslim youth. When not writing, Aisha can usually be found re-reading Harry Potter for the 50th time, taking photos of her cat, or googling holiday destinations.

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29 thoughts on “We need to talk about the sexualisation of Muslim women

    1. Yeah I call bullshit on your article. Muslim women need to take control, unite annuly wearing those black things over your faces and have a man purge. Disguise your eyes. Nobody can identify you. Oh and make sure to cut their balls off like they mutilate all of ypu (FGM). A few years of that shit and you females should be good. Maybe even straighten out the middle east finally.

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    2. Jazaki Allah khairan sister. You covered the topic very well. God bless you. 100% support. I have shared it on my Facebook page. Magdi Abdullah

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Suubhanallah. Subhanallah. Subhanallah. This sums up all the feelings I have had since muslimahs have surrendered our veil to the predatory fashion industry. It literally hurts to see how we are happy to allow the outside world to shape our identity. Muslim women foolishly believe that we are taking back our identity but in reality we are allowing the outside world to force us into assimilation. They praise us when we do as they do but call us backwards when we don’t. We can keep our veils but we have already sold our modesty. Our privacy from the outside world.

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    1. A veil is not modesty. It is chains. The freedom to wear clothing which allows the same compete freedom as men is essential in.tje modern world. This is not the 7th or 8th century dark ages with no police and rapist men on every corner. At 67 I have walked the streets freely and unveiled my when life and never ever been bothered by any man. Gentlemen do not bother ladies. Wake up. It is 2017.

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      1. Of course hijab is not a chain.
        Im a 17 year old hijabi. Hijab is not just for protection and modesty. It makes our heart pure. A women in real hijab never dare to do anything bad for the society. I am only respected by people. Hijab is the reason for all my success as it never deviated me from my goals. It helped me to be focused as the worldy lures that destroys you never reach you.
        Life is beautiful this way…..no show off, elegance, calm minds, focus (especially on education), love(for society and family) , no unwanted worldy luxuries (drugs, alcohols, movies which waste time). Moreover islam is not terrorism…..terrorist take name of islam. Its only muslim terrorist that are spotlighted by media.
        Islam requires a muslim to be productive and contribute to their world…..and I believe I can do that part perfectly!!

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      2. I dont understand where this concept of covering for men has come from im a convert to Islam and have been wearing a hijab for about 5 years now what man am i covering to please? When i began to wear my hijab I had no husband and my only muslim relative was my young son. Muslim women largely choose to wear the hijab and it’s not about men its about how i portray myself and how i see myself its nothing to do with any man never has been never will be. And if like to add the concept of a woman’s freedom being linked to how much flesh she chooses to reveal offends my feminist views far beyond my islamic ones……a woman is free as long as she shows her body but if she chooses not to shes oppressed?! I believe all some are free to chose how they adorn their body and it’s their individual right to cover or not cover

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      3. Darling ! True freedom is about choice. Choose to wear whatever we want without attacking each other. You are not a threat to me,and I am not a threat to you. That is mental freedom from domination. No fear! Oxox!

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    2. Well here’s the thing…do what you like in a muslim country. In a muslim country you have no “identity” but in the West your “identity”, if your speaking about that garbage bag over your face and body, represents terror, death and oppression. We don’t want it. Knock your selfs out in a country that imbraces that crap but not in America sister!

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      1. You’re an idiot lol. Many of us Muslims here in America are AMERICAN and have been here since before Europeans stole the land. Sometimes it good to shut the hell up sometimes. Maybe you should go back you you’re country. White America represents terror, death and oppression. How many hundreds of yrs of terror death and oppression have passed at the hands of White America??? Get over yourself and take look in the mirror

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      2. The first Muslims in this country were slaves (my ancestors). So we have been here as long as this country has been one and we are not going anywhere. I was born here, my family has a history here and I will remain here wearing what I please (niqab) as long as I want to. If you don’t like it that is your problem. If you think my veil represents death, terror, and oppression that is also your problem. You will have to deal with that on your own time. Now to me white nationalist and xenophobes represent death, terror, and oppression. If you feel otherwise it is because you have chosen to ignore how the alt-right commit the most terrorist acts in this country. Don’t believe me? Just research it.

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  2. Well done Ayesha. Very well defined aspects of modesty and Muslim Women, present scenario is fully dictated by western thought and propagated by so called Modernised Muslims creating a shiny cobwebs labelled as freedom of women, to attract youngster. Quran is our Manual Guide and Sunnah is the way to find correct path which heads towards final destiny of Muslim Women.

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  3. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar… Well done sister Aisha!
    Like you have mentioned, the West and the East will always want to please their power bases – money and media. By trying to show progress with blending of Islamic practices along those of worldly 21st century “norms” ! Islamic practices (action after thoughts) have and always will remain current for any time as they are based on practical reasoning, created by the Creator of time Himself !!! Something that the power base can never ever understand let alone control… Surah al asr – the last word “sabr” .
    May Allah Subhanahu wa taala increase His fortunes on the Ummah and may He grant me more.

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  4. I feel sorry for muslim eomen having to undergo genital mutilation having to wear a rag on their heads being married as young as seven li ing with three other wives Islam beeds to get into the 21st century

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    1. You need to learn more about Islam!! You have been misguided! There is no such practice in Islam!! I swear ppl always have an opinion on something they no nothing about! Shut your mouth with stupidity when you know nothing about the religion of Al-Islam!

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    2. Genital mutilation is NOT a muslim thing. It happens in nonmuslim countries as well. It’s actually not allowed in islam

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    3. Between 2010 and 2017 250000 child marriages have happened in the US as little as age 12 even. Just cuz you dont know about it doesnt mean it doesn’t exist here. And polygony is also found in the states. Genital Mutilation is a forbidden practice in Islam. Educate yourself about our country the USA and of the religion Islam properly from a Muslim and not form what you see on the T.V. or the news

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  5. Assalaamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatu my sister. Alhamdullilah for your article. I am a hijabi wearing niqab and have started noticing exactly how muslim women, especially young school going or entering tertiary education stages of their education and development are changing. It is sad. It seems the teachings of the qu’ran is lost and girls wait to get old to really understand the deen and put it into practice. Sometimes I ask myself why I wear niqab because of our sisters looking more like models than muslimahs and then I remind myself that my quest is for the akhira InshaAllah. Shaitaan is constantly around us and we can only protect ourselves through knowing and understanding the blessed qu’ran and following the sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad saw. Allahuma barek.

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  6. Good glad to see the Western culture is polluting muslim women. Turn about is fair play. Since assimilation with Western culture isn’t desired hopefully there will be a movement to return to their countries of origin where women can embrace the beauty and peace of Islam.

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  7. Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem
    Al Hamdu Lillaah. Very good article. While I don’t agree that any subject is taboo to discuss, if done correctly, I agree that Muslim women are being manipulated in the same ways that their nonMuslim counterparts have been for a long time.
    Shaytaan uses these issues to divide us ultimately.
    I hope that at some point, Muslimaat will come together to critically study these and other issues, and not let others impose their views upon our practice of our deen.
    As for those who are suggesting that practicing Muslims go back or migrate to other lands, I say the entire Earth belongs to its Creator. Who issued the certificates of ownership?
    Let’s pray that our progeny do better than we have.

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  8. May allah (saw) protect the muslim sisters from becoming manipulated and confused in their real true roles as ambassadors of modesty and islam.

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  9. -well done sister. I am so tired of being exploited sexualized and demonized as a Muslim woman.
    -have survived many froms of abuse.
    -constantly identify with the survivors of the genocides of Bosnia, Armania, Vietnam, Cambidia, Laos, Korea, and now Syria on the sexual abuse front.
    – no b.s. to be called when you have been molested and raped.
    – no b.s. to call when Allah saphanatallah knows your heart.
    – no b.s. when no felon arrests where given to those whom hurt you.
    May Allah(swt) be your only guide. Keep writing.

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  10. Asalam aleykom,

    Thank you for writing this article. It is eloquent and thoughtful. However, I feel that this does not really take into consideration Muslimahs that are recently reverted, or from cultures that are generally in contrast to Islam.

    Have you ever spoken to or listened to the struggles some sisters face of their upbringing and life before Islam?

    I am Hispanic. I am also the only Muslim in my family. It is often difficult to reconcile my culture and my faith. This is a very common struggle for reverts, and even more so for those from cultures who are comfortable with sexuality.

    I am not, as you insist, a “victim”. Although I agree that Islam prescribes basic laws for behavior, dress, etc., it is absurd to claim that one’s disobeying such laws really qualifies them as a victim. Real victims inspire pity.

    To simplify, please be aware, there are many women, even Muslimahs, who are unapologetically sexy, whether it’s intentional or not. Everyone is in a different place in their relationship with Allah. We really have no right to judge others and their actions. Leave that for God.

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  11. Very well done sister. Almost every single portrayal of Muslim women in movies, TV shows, literature, and lately fashions is absolutely problematic. I’m glad to see more and more sisters are noticing these trends, questioning the rational behind them, and challenging the justifications meant to excuse this. As the old saying goes a hurt dog will holler; I’m guessing the prespicacity of your article is just too much for some folk though. I’m always baffled as to why non-Muslim women feel compelled to inject themselves in conversations about and for Muslims women that do not concern them. Looool. Let’s not be distracted by the noise in the background sisters, it is nothing more than a distraction. Let’s focus instead on strengthening the bonds of sisterhood between us, and striving to stay in the straight path. Ameen.

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  12. Jazakallah for the article dear sister. Agree to the main argument, that we are indeed falling prey to the secular western standards, in newer ways, this time with the hijab on. Also, about what another sister was pointing out in the discussion above, cultural differences are to be kept in mind, but it is also necessary to call out the growing trends within muslimah fashion industry(yes, it is blooming) that will reinstate beauty standards and take away the essence of hijab, which is ‘haya’. Extravagance, materialism and constantly shifting trends are taking away our attention from the main goals of our lives and leaving us lost in complete, which begets jealousy and ultimately disturbs our connection to Allah SWT. May Allah SWT protect us from digressing. No pinpointing/judging here, we are all together in this struggle. The burden lies on each one of us.

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