I’ve been thinking a lot about Muslim women’s issues lately, usually provoked by content I stumble across online. Sometimes I just scroll past it, sometimes I share it and speak about it in classes, but other times it prompts a heated response on my behalf that you could probably consider ‘trolling’. I’ve been wondering why these topics really agitate me and as I am writing on this topic, it just happens that earlier this week was #muslimwomensday as part of Women’s History Month in the US, launched by the now-famous Muslim Girl magazine.
This day was announced by the magazine within only 4 days’ notice to the public, but from the scale of the content and joint interviews launched on March 27th, it’s quite clear that its launch was orchestrated in collaboration with many outlets and individuals weeks prior. That’s fine, if it was a Muslim Girl launch, but as a #muslimwomensday, many of us firstly had no opportunity to utilise the event to campaign around it, and secondly, many of us haven’t even heard of it except through the content flooding our newsfeeds from Tumblr, MTV, The United State of Women, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, and others.
I just wonder, if this day is meant to be to ‘amplify our voices’ in societies that often speak for us and about us, how were we meant to not just participate but prepare content and organise events around this day if it was not widely circulated or launched by a collective? What does the day stand for if it’s presented through a few Muslim women names from one country and we don’t actually know much about its purpose or vision?
Putting these concerns aside, the largest trigger for me was the launch of the music video #hijabiXmona as a sort of anthem for this day. As a song about Muslim women for a day about Muslim women, I don’t understand why its focus is on hijabis – young, able, American, multicultural, women, in different hijab outfits – as though they can represent all Muslim women.
It’s fine for #hijabiXmona not to be representative if it’s just a song produced by a Muslim woman with Muslim women performers; this happens all the time in the Arab music industry or in Bollywood. But to make a song with a message about Muslim women, representing and role-modelling certain women – that is quite different and does require our attention.
Watching the music video, I feel that Muslim women are a) very fierce b) very stylish c) very swag d) come in different shades and e) wrap their hijab. Sorry, I did learn that the singer was a mother-to-be as well, but I can’t really say much else about the other women in the video other than that they are resilient when it comes to microaggressions, but is that really as profound as we’re told it is? Why are they power-posing like a boss? Why are they posing as they’re ‘teleporting through trauma’?
I guess my issue is that I don’t see myself represented in these videos even though I share their migrant experience and probably their ethnic background and socio-economic status. I don’t see me. I see Beyoncé and her pregnancy shoot, I see Beyoncé and her women in Formation, I see Beyoncé the Queen matriarch with her girl gang, but I don’t see myself anywhere there. I don’t even know how they managed to replicate so accurately the images of modern female empowerment we see in mainstream music videos – I can’t even get through a video like ‘Formation’ without feeling uneasy about the sexualisation of women’s bodies and their performance to the male gaze.
I often feel marginalised by this type of empowerment discourse because I believe it advocates for women through prostituting our bodies and putting them on display, not as passive objects, but for consumption of the male (and female taking on the male) gaze. That the women in the hijabi video are clothed does not suddenly move their content away from the genre and discourse that they have quite obviously reproduced. Just because a woman is wearing clothes does not mean she is not performing to a male gaze.
Of course, as with Beyoncé’s content, the consumption is often through a white gaze that is ‘friendly’ to minority women, excited to appropriate black culture for a fun dance and for a boost in morale. Unlike Beyoncé’s content, this hijabi video does not draw on Islamic culture, history or stories, leaving it emptier and less difficult to defend as a subversive form of art.
And that’s not even commenting on the orientalism represented in the music video, whether it’s the Middle Eastern tune, or the calligraphy, or the lanterns, or the exotic dance. The orientalism itself is enough to make many Muslim women feel uncomfortable by the music video due to the connotations to colonial histories of desiring the veil and the unveiling of Muslim women.
The music video does present Muslim women as diverse – but all modern, fashionable and active. It does not present Muslim women working on anything. It does not present Muslim women through Islamic practice – they aren’t really doing any religious activity. So if they aren’t shown living day-to-day or practicing Islamic tenants, then how are they actually being subversive? What are they actually doing?
When we ask these questions we begin to sense how hollow the symbolism of Muslim women empowerment has become, celebrated through a day like this. We are empowered because look at what we are wearing, look at how we move, listen to our string of rap. The politics of it works to centre the late American Muslim woman’s experience above all other female Muslim identities.
As a Muslim woman who wears some nice and some pretty ordinary wraps, I really don’t care to be fashionable. I wear whatever I can quickly find. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered any clothing item online. I’ve never gone for a massage or manicure. I don’t know any of these beauty brands that Muslim Girl is teaming up with and I definitely do not like posing for a selfie with my kids, let alone model like a superior matriarch because yay empowerment! (I am an introvert and it seems the hegemony of extroversion permeates through Muslim valuing of individuals as well, but that’s another topic.)
To clarify, I don’t really care about the relationship other women have with fashion. But if content that says Muslim women are empowered through fashion is being produced, then I feel I have to intervene and say, hang on. I’m pretty sure most of my friends and I enjoy secretly wearing pyjamas under our abayas and skirts. I’m pretty sure a lot of us haven’t really gone to a hairdresser in ages for all sorts of reasons – for me it’s because who can bear their inspection and chatter, seriously? I’m pretty sure there are those of us who hate sport even with athletic hijabs smiling at us through their Nike-branded headscarves and leggings.
We wear whatever we wear; the point is, what does that have to do with empowerment except to appease the Western gaze that cannot accept a visibly Muslim woman except when she’s appealing to Western status symbols that determine entry into a Western society? We’re constantly told a good woman is a modern, fashionable and pleasurable woman. A good black woman, a good indigenous woman, a good Muslim woman is a woman that is tamed by and acceptable to Western standards.
I feel betrayed by the #hijabiXmona video’s appeasement and its marketing as the antithesis of what it actually is – a performance to a dominant gaze. Why are we accepting that images matter so much instead of just going along our lives doing good things? Islam elevates people’s status through their contribution to community, not through how we are judged in appearance. It’s forbidden to draw the prophets and the rightly guided caliphs. We love Maryam [Mary] mother of Isa [Jesus] (alayhum asalam) but unlike the Christian tradition, we do not draw her or imagine her image. It doesn’t matter. This business of breaking stereotypes will never bear us fruit.
Can’t we learn this from the black experience? Neither music videos nor acting on media platforms will protect black lives and these same outlets certainly won’t end the terror on Muslims. If we are going to produce Muslim videos about Muslim women, why not get them to express opinions about the issues they care about, because I’m sure the hijab itself is not where it starts or ends. Let’s talk about how spinach leaves can be used to repair hearts. Let’s talk about building communities. Let’s produce content of women’s voices beyond the tired ‘this is my life as a hijabi and this is my dress’ narrative. I don’t really even think about my hijab and I’ve never watched a single hijab tutorial. Let’s not amplify something that isn’t as core to all of us as the Western gaze assumes.
Cover image by Rudolf Cronau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons