Naheed Mustafa in her article My Body Is My Own Business, published by The Globe & Mail on 29 June, 1993,argues that the jihab – a special garment worn by some Muslim women – protects her from discrimination by appearance. However, she ends up facing the other type of social discrimination in that she receives many strange looks from people stereotyping her as either a potential terrorist or a victimized Muslim woman. She accurately underpins the humiliating standards of female beauty in the Canadian society and makes a valid point that she herself should be the master of her own body. However, her argument is rather far-fetched because it has several logical flaws and lacks references to credible sources.
Canada’s national Mustafa starts with telling about other Canadians who often treat her as a stranger and irk her with questions in slow and articulate English as if she never spoke it. This is the fact. Then, she proceeds to say that, when she wears the jihab, people perceive her “as a radical, fundamentalist Muslim terrorist packing an AK-47 assault rifle inside [her] jean jacket…Or maybe they see [her] as the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere”. Although these statements sound genuine and vivid, they lack objectivity in that she cannot really tell what people think just by looking at her. Growing up in this country, she might very well have faced the stereotypes she is talking about, yet she has no way of knowing what each and every stranger thinks of herself.
The author’s claim that the person wearing the jihab has an ultimate control of her own body sounds intriguing. Indeed, it would be hard for a by-standing observer to judge her by the existing male requirements for beauty. Mustafa tries to link her wearing the jihab to the long-standing Islamic tradition, saying that the covering gives her liberation from inescapable attention to her personality. She thus does not need to be afraid anymore of exposing her body and face ridicule because of her stretch marks or disorderly hairstyle. However, the opposite seems to be happening in real life. She gets that “gamut of strange looks, stares, and covert glances” only because people do notice her presence and naturally attempt to make out some personality inside that impenetrable veil. Paradoxically, she ends up facing even more judgment, which then shifts from her physical self to the cultural features of her personality.
In several places in the text, Mustafa refers to the almost omnipresent male standards for women’s beauty. She thinks that the male-dictated models of appearance strip her of personal freedom unless she covers her body. She regards other women as slaves to the patriarchal system of values. Yet, in her strand of criticism towards men and their domination, she forgets to mention that men also confront similar pressures. For example, there are also standards of beauty for men flowing from TV screens and glossy magazines, the standards that make many men go to the gym and expose their beautiful bodies to get women’s attention. These gender archetypes are something nearly every man and woman has to go through in their lives, not only Mustafa.
The other point about her article that merits mention here is that she did not really refer to any documented facts that would prove her points. For instance, she says that she is not the only one “reclaiming the jihab”; however, she does not cite any numbers or expert opinions substantiating this statement. Her illustrative discourse surely invokes empathy in most readers; however, she fails to win the critical reader’s confidence by making overly general statements of what men and women in Canada think of beauty and of her personally. Although the author’s emotional appeals are persuasive, she has not been known for any other works on the cross-cultural issues of Muslims in Canada. Therefore, her ideas, albeit wise, should be taken with a grain of criticism.
In summarizing this critique, Naheed Mustafa, with her own example, makes a decent attempt at shaking the jihab stereotypes as she sees them in Canada. As persuasive as it is, her argument is flawed in several aspects. For example, she tries to second-guess people around and their stereotypical perceptions of herself wearing the jihab. She stands up for the ultimate control over her own body but confronts even fiercer discrimination against her, disguised in the jihab, personality. While making a strong point about the standards of beauty that many contemporary women have to fit in, she omits the fact that many men also must follow very similar standards in order to be considered attractive to the opposite sex. Mustafa uses a lot of personal opinion and employs many ethical appeals to make her message persuasive to the audience, yet her claims would be stronger if she provided some documented evidence in support of her argument.
As the number of converts to Islam grows around the world, little is more surprising than the fact that the vast majority of those converts are women – by some counts, as many as four times the number of women in the United States as men. And over and over, as if reciting dogma, these women offer the same bizarre explanation: Islam, they say, with its "modest" dress code, frees them from the "oppression" of Western society and a culture that judges women on their looks alone. It is, in fact, as if they have bought into the religion not for its precepts, but for its costumes.
Perhaps you could even believe their reasoning if most of these women actually dressed in full chador or burqa. But they don't. Rather, they simply cover their heads – and occasionally their bare necks – in hijabs, or headscarves, arguing – with flawed logic and misrepresentations of the principles supporting Western notions of equality and feminism – that even this is a sign of "liberation" as much as it is of their allegiance to a religion.
And evidently, more and more non-Muslims are buying it, especially as legal battles erupt in Europe -- and in some American cities -- over the right to wear a hijab in the public realm.
Latest among them, it seems, are the editors of the International Herald Tribune, who earlier this summer ran an op-ed by Ayesah Nusrat, a self-described "Indian Muslim," defending her decision to don a hijab at the age of 23. (What the editors evidently failed to notice was that the pious young author of the piece lifted all of her ideas and a reasonable portion of her words directly from a previously-published essay by a Canadian Muslim, Naheed Mustafa, which is widely available online,)
Poorly written, speckled with faulty grammar and plagiarized clauses, Nusrat's piece presents a downright bizarre depiction of Western media and public opinion (among other things, she describes Western feminism as being defined by "a skewed perception of women's equality as the right to bare our breasts in public"). Nonetheless, her commentary places in full view of a wide public one of the biggest obstacles we face in combating the growth of Islam in the West, and, even more, of political, aggressively Islamist Islam as it masquerades as a faith – and a doctrine – based on justice and equal rights, slinking its deceitful, theocratic destructiveness into the secular humanism of the West.
And it is exactly that deceit which makes it all so dangerous, especially to young women struggling with their own body image and sexuality: what easier escape, what simpler coping mechanism, than to throw a sheet over your head before heading out in public, and convince yourself that no one either sees what you look like underneath, or cares? (Indeed, Dutch psychiatrist Carla Rus, who works closely with young Muslim women – including converts – notes that the ease of dress and discomfort with cultural emphases on appearance is behind much of the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and contributes to the radicalization of Muslim women in Western countries.)
But Islam is not about garments, any more than a hijab actually covers anything but a woman's hair. In fact, to the contrary, a hijab-wearing woman in the West attracts attention to herself merely by the fact of the scarf itself, and to the political statement it really represents: "I am not-you. I am Muslim. I am other, and I reject what is not me." It pronounces the "us" of "us and them" in a gesture of arrogance and isolationism, while ignoring the greater truth of any faith: that it exists in your heart and in your behavior, and no more.
Yet ironically, the women who place Islam in an article of clothing, who choose the so-called "modesty" of Islamic dress, the women one often sees covering their heads, parade along the streets of American and European cities in skin-tight turtlenecks and leggings, the lines of their lace undergarments visible beneath. Or there was the headscarved Dutch-Turkish woman I saw once who, in the jubilant post-game revelry of a soccer match victory pulled down her pants and shoved her cotton-pantied derriere out a car window in The Hague.
"Does that seem normal to you?" I asked an Iraqi friend of mine, who had herself recently stopped wearing a hijab.
"Absolutely," she replied.
Nonetheless, the rampant spread of propaganda like the Herald Tribune piece continues to serve the aims of missionaries for Islam and to falsify the truth of its misogyny not only for women, but for a larger public easily persuaded to tolerate the intolerance of its doctrine. (It is not, after all, the hijab that makes these women free, but the secular, Enlightenment values of the West; where else, after all, would they have the liberty to choose whether or not to wear one – or, for that matter, to convert to Islam, or to leave it? Where else, too, could a woman wearing a hijab stick her naked behind out in public view?)
The truth is that the decision to do anything at all – pray, tithe, fast, or dress – in abeyance to religion is anything but a gesture of "liberation." Liberation, rather, is what you get when you refuse to allow such gestures to define your worth - -either to society, yourself, or our god.
Indeed, hijabs – those, that is, worn for allegedly religious, rather than political reasons – declare a submission to religious mandate (or rather, the belief in one: in truth, the Koran does not call for women to cover their hair, or even their faces and bodies). Nor, either, does it serve to desexualize women, as the high rate of rape in Muslim majority countries makes abundantly obvious. What it does do, however – and what burqas and nikabs especially do -- is dehumanize them, creating faceless beings, property to be sold into marriage, beaten, or battered to death with the pelting of a thousand stones against their heads.
Consequently, the persistent misperceptions, the insistent protests mischaracterizing this symbol of religious and political subservience, these dishonest declarations about sexuality and freedom, echo beyond Nesrat's words; they spread through the willingness of a misguided media and naïve public to other young women at risk of becoming similarly misled. And if we fail now to confront – and combat – such misapprehensions and distortions with the unveiled and naked truth, we will have only ourselves to blame for what becomes of them.
Abigail R. Esman is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy In The West (Praeger, 2010). A columnist at Forbes.com, her articles have also appeared in The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and others.
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