Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pious Sexy Hijab



WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non. 

I have a terrible secret: I stuff my hijab.

After I gave birth to Eryn, and my luxuriously thick, hormone-infused locks gave way to clumps and clumps of shower drain clogging wisps, I decided to chop it all off. I got a delightful pixie cut to match Eryn's tiny mop.

But without the ponytail to anchor my signature hijab bun, how was I going to style my hijab? I played with different manners of tying, but couldn't settle on one that suited me. I didn't want to wear the traditional hijab. So I decided to fashion some fake hair out of an old pair of gym socks.

Talk about false advertising.

If you notice, many hijabs are filled out by some kind of tell-tale bump or ponytail. Then there are those who prefer large hair clips, giving the tops of their hijabs an alien crown -- or those who sport a large poof capable of supporting cotton-candy-like layers, typical of the Gulf hijab style. Some even wear two or three headscarves. Underscarves help support gravity defying and very stylish headwraps. Some simply use a bandana braided at the forehead to give an added hijab flaire. But you can always tell when a hijabi has short hair, or prefers to keep her hair styled with braids, or even shaved. The suggestive draping, full-body, volumizing caused by a hijab accent is missing from the woman who has short hair and who doesn't stuff her hijab. The result: flat hijab head.

Some may disagree and shout from the rooftops that this is deception. That hijab must be modest and subdued. That we've been warned through prophetic traditions that the inhabitants of hell include scantily clad women who seduce others with their "hair piled high like a camel's hump" -- often quoted to decry the hijab bump as sinful. Women should only go outside when necessary and maintain proper standards of modesty when they do. A pious sexy hijab is a ridiculous contradiction -- so is a modest and uncovered woman. All uncovered women are immodest and “are asking for it.” Fashionable hijabis are just misguided.

Nobody wants a lacklustre hijab and so people have been stuffing their hijabs for years. It makes us feel taller, bigger, perkier. Stand up proud and glide your way into the masjid with your voluptuous bump. Any hijabi can seductively flip her hijab over her shoulder, or play with her tassels while sipping coffee. But a hijab bump helps create tantalising lines of modesty, as the eye is guided along a cascade of sheer material floating effortlessly down one's back.

I'm being slightly facetious, and that's because this week two articles on women’s clothing made my jaw drop. The first was a parody of conservative religious edicts by Roznama Jawani, the Pakistani version of The Onion. The article reports on protests against Pakistani lingerie shops, quoting protesters and Islamic scholars as saying that the use of padded and colourful bras by Muslim women is unislamic, immodest, and calls for the offending underwear to be banned, citing that only "devil women purposefully accentuate their private parts.” In the story, they even invited researchers to invent underwear that would suppress a woman's natural curves and keep her chest looking virginal, or in other words, pre-pubescent:
    The third employee … was cheered on by the crowd after she announced, “I will not wear these sinful, men-attracting padded bras that make my jugs look juicy.” She then ripped out her bra and threw it on the ground where the protesters stomped on it repeatedly. She was later thrown an abaya by someone in the crowd.
The article was published with the headline: “Padded Bras are Devil’s Cushions” says Council of Islamic Ideology, and illustrated with an obvious photoshopped lecture presentation of a giant brazier. The parody ended up being reposted by Fox News’ Fox Nation website. As a factual news story.

The second article is more serious. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a 40-page report on acts of violence, harassment and threats that occurred against women in Chechnya during most of 2010. The purpose of the documented attacks was to intimidate women into wearing the hijab or into dressing more modestly – and included several physical attacks with paintball guns. The perpetrators are believed to be gangs of government supported, law enforcement officials charged with the task of supporting a “quasi-official virtue campaign” – ensuring that women are piously attired when leaving the house:
    Aggressive young men joined the purported council envoys, pulling on women's sleeves, skirts, and hair, touching the bare skin on their arms, accusing them of dressing like "harlots" and making other humiliating remarks and gestures. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, over 30 victims and witnesses described a pattern of harassment that continued throughout Ramadan and that in some cases involved law enforcement authorities as enforcers of the women's dress code.
So no, I'm not surprised that Fox news, or the resulting comments from readers, not only believed the parody article, but took it as an opportunity to fear and hate monger against Muslim men, women, Islamic scholars and shariah law. While I'm sick of Islamic feminism always being reduced to our obsession with hijab, it's plainly obvious that it continues to be a struggle for power and a vehicle to control the active, public participation of women.

I feel sometimes that the Muslim community is suffering from quixotic expectations for women on a global scale -- from within and without. There are indeed religious edicts banning bras and high heels, while hijabistas are lauded for their attempts to westernize Islamic concepts of modesty into fashionable Islam. It’s tongue-in-cheek to say that "devil women purposefully accentuate their private parts,” but I’m one of many women purposefully accentuating my hijab. Hijab is marketed as a defense from temptation, but women in hijab are routinely harassed. Women are made the sole protectors of modesty and chastity, but Muslim women are banned from wearing hijab in Muslim and in non-Muslim countries. Pious sexy hijab is an expression of culture, style and personality for some, while countless women are shamed, attacked, sexually assaulted, terrorized and raped into wearing it.