The Muslim world does not exist

Recent developments in Iraq and Syria and the rise of “Islamic State” have unleashed a new round of inane internet commentary about Islam and Muslims (consider, for example, this impressively incoherent article by Professor Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago). When faced with outsider commentary about “Muslims”, I sometimes struggle to articulate why, exactly, it is so wrong. It’s easy to point out blatant inaccuracies or to demonstrate how de-contextualized excerpts from a religious text are misleading, but this genre has problems at a far more fundamental level. We are not just talking about wrong answers here. We’re dealing with wrong questions. Wrong vocabularies.

The core assumption that grounds any discussion of “Muslims” and “the Muslim world” is the assumption that those categories do, in fact, exist in some empirically significant way. And there lies the problem. While these broad categories are rhetorically useful, they are politically and sociologically meaningless. Many of the supposed pathologies of “the Muslim world”, for example, are alien to vast swaths within it. We can have substantive discussions about “honor” violence in Kurdish or Pakhtun communities, the exclusion of women from mosques in South Asia, the austere interpretation of Islamic law that prevails in Saudi Arabia, or the policing of women’s dress in Iran. These issues can be discussed in a fruitful way when they are treated discretely, but when problems stemming from such diverse cultural, political and historical contexts are gathered under a broad umbrella term like “gender discrimination” and attributed to an even broader “Muslim world”, we lose all hope of gaining even the dimmest insight. A discussion of “honor killings” or “purdah” in Indonesia, for instance, is about as meaningful as a discussion of Dia de los Muertos in Uganda (because “the Christian world”). Imagine if we started writing opinion pieces about “the Buddhist world” and about how the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China and Bhutan illustrated “its problem” with religious intolerance. For some reason, this type of analysis is taken seriously when applied to Muslims.

This asinine line of reasoning is promoted by hawkish politicians, Christian demagogues and evangelical atheists alike. It is also promoted more insidiously by organizations like Pew and Gallup, which have responded to the growing public debate about “Muslims” by creating polls which lump populations from wildly different cultural and political backgrounds into a single “world”. This helps to spread the misconception that “Muslims” and “the Muslim world” are discrete categories that can help us know or say something meaningful. This belief, in turn, leads to the predicament described so eloquently by Zen master Huang-po: “Open your mouth— already a mistake.”

The problem with Islamic women’s dress

Disliking something and believing people should not be free to do it are very different things. I don’t know why, but as soon as people start discussing Muslim women’s clothing, they forget this. Something about this topic makes us conflate personal taste with political values, and causes many champions of free expression to suddenly become enlightened despots. I’ve always defended the right to wear the hijab (and the niqab) and my politics haven’t changed, but I’ve found myself developing a personal distaste for “Islamic women’s clothing” in general. This bothered me at first, because many women whom I admire wear “modest”, “Islamic” clothing; it felt inappropriate and disrespectful to criticize their choice of attire. Below I explain where my feelings come from and why I feel that, ultimately, they are justified.

image via “hijab-scarf dot com”

According to the cultural logic that prevailed during the time of the Prophet, a man’s reputation was strongly tied to the perception that the women of his family were “honorable”. Likewise, if “his” women were seen as “loose”, he would lose standing in the community.

In this context, if a woman was sexually approached in public, gossip could spread and her family’s name would be dishonored — even if she did nothing to invite the advances. The Qur’an advised Muslim women to cover themselves in a distinctive way, apparently to help avoid this type of drama and slander:

Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful. (33:59)

The veiling of the body, it appears, was prompted by the need for Arab families to manage their “honor” by ensuring that “their women” would not be harassed in public. There are other readings of this verse, but in light of its social context, I find this to be the most compelling interpretation, and a number of early classical scholars came to the same conclusion (see more on this).

People often say that the Qur’an commands women to cover themselves because it is a sign of “honor”, but that is only partly true. The Qur’anic injunction is designed for a context in which women aren’t “honored” for their intrinsic dignity. Instead, they’re more like “honor vessels” who serve as social currency for male-dominated families.

Eli Alshech (2007) argues that this concern for family “honor” and reputation helps to make sense of some of Islamic modesty regulations that “sexual morality” alone doesn’t account for. He also notes that “honor” was a concern shared by many of the earliest Muslim scholars:

Muslim jurists writing in the classical period, I argue, were keenly aware of the link between the reputations of women and the honor of men and their families, and thus they crafted modesty norms for women not simply to demonize or subjugate them but to prevent people from questioning their sexual chastity and defaming their families. (Alshech 2007, 273)

Most discussions of Muslim modesty norms focus on the idea that women’s bodies must be covered so that they don’t sexually entice men. This idea is certainly common in the classical Islamic tradition, but Alshech argues that it was a later development, and he demonstrates that many of the earliest scholars saw modesty rules as having a different purpose:

Early classical exegetes viewed the dress restrictions specified in the Qur’an for free women as a way of establishing a social hierarchy and stratification and ensuring that women were approached by others in a way that was appropriate to their social class. The dress restrictions rendered free women distinguishable from their nonfree counterparts in the public sphere, thus warning men against addressing them in a way that was demeaning or otherwise harmful to their reputations. (Ibid., 274)

Slaves were not required to cover themselves the way that free women were, presumably because their master’s personal and family reputation was not tied to their “chasteness”. (As I mentioned before, female slaves often walked in public with their breasts exposed.) If modesty rules were meant to protect women from harassment, then it was largely for the sake of their family and its men. Public sexual harassment was tolerated as long as it didn’t have repercussions for free men and their families.

The Qur’an forbade people from prostituting their slaves, but Islamic “modesty” rules made no attempt to protect them from public harassment; in fact, they reinforced it. Slaves were actually required not to dress like free Muslim women so that they didn’t upset the social order. According to one traditional report, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab angrily struck a slave for veiling herself:

A widely-reported hadith states that “‘Umar struck a slave girl whom he saw walking veiled, asserting, ‘Do you wish to resemble free women? Take the veil off.’” See al-Baghawi (d. 516/1112) Ma’alim al-tanzil (Riyadh, 1993), vol. 6, p. 377. (Alshech 2007, 375, in footnote 35)

Public respect, it seems, was a privilege reserved for the social elite.

“Portrait d’une négresse” (1800) by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist

Muslim women may have reinterpreted the covering of the body in various ways over time, but we cannot overlook its past, especially since the entire discourse around it is one of religious obligation, which is obsessed with scriptural origins. Most women today are covering their bodies because of the perception that doing so is either required or encouraged in Islam. Even those who discuss this dress in practical terms (“it allows me to focus on what’s important and not my outer image”) still view it as a religious tradition. If we want to continue speaking of “modest dress” as anything “Islamic”, then we have to deal with its origins.

It isn’t easy to distance ourselves from the original cultural logic of “Islamic dress”, either. It is still widely believed, for example, that the visibility of a woman’s body signals her openness to sexual advances from strangers. Likewise, in many parts of the world a family’s “honor” is still tied to the sexual reputation of its women. (The “honor violence” in places like Jordan and Palestine is directly related to this perception.)

“Islamic dress” was, to a large extent, a tool for patriarchal “honor management” in pre-modern Arab society. It also reinforced the exploitation of female slaves by effectively marking them off as “fair game” for sexual solicitation. It was introduced in such a way that validated the belief that a woman is disproportionately responsible for her family’s reputation, that a woman’s manner of dress indicates her sexual morality, and that slaves should not be recognized as full people. In short, the cultural impulses that both necessitated “Muslim women’s dress” and shaped its application were patriarchal, sexist and pro-slavery.

Any individual who wears “Islamic” attire is free to interpret its personal meaning as they see fit — and many interpret it beautifully. But the “Islamic” origins of this practice are not for anyone to decide. There is a documented history, and even if we discount the interpretation of 33:59 above, that history still includes active complicity with slavery and an effort to undermine the public dignity of slave women.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman veiling her body, but body veiling as an “Islamic” tradition has deeply questionable roots.

Conservative Muslims: Stop Pretending You’re More Traditional Than Liberals

People tend to think that conservative Muslims are more faithful to the texts of Islam and more observant of its legal tradition than their “liberal” counterparts. Conservatives, for their part, certainly promote this story. When “liberal” Muslims challenge their social views, they respond by accusing “liberals” of skirting the “Islamic tradition” and deviating from “scholarly consensus”. Muslim legal scholar Haider Hamoudi recently wrote a great essay explaining why that is all a bunch of nonsense.

Many Muslims, Hamoudi notes, resist social reforms by suggesting that they’re incompatible with the principles of Islamic law or the words of the Prophet. They are amazed that other Muslims could so brazenly disregard centuries of scholarly opinion in order to advocate for something like homosexual marriage, equal rights between men and women, or marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. At first glance, they do seem to have a point.

What Hamoudi points out, though, is that nearly all of these “traditional Muslims” actually broke away from traditional Islam a long time ago. They lost the right to present themselves as adherents to the texts and to Islamic law the moment they decided that slavery was an immoral practice.

Moral criticism of slavery is a modern innovation that contradicts Prophetic practice as well as centuries of subsequent legal consensus. In the Prophetic tradition as well as classical Islamic law, slavery was a morally neutral practice; one could not legitimately be criticized for simply owning slaves. If you were cruel to your slaves you could be condemned and punished, but it was not considered “cruel” to buy and sell people and use them for free labor in the first place. There is no way around this fact and there is no way to reconcile it with contemporary Muslim morality. As Hamoudi colorfully puts it, to take a critical view of slavery is to “piss” all over the Islamic tradition.

Maimuna, wife of the Prophet, freed her slave-girl. The Prophet said to her, “You would have gotten more reward [with God] if you had given the slave-girl to one of your maternal uncles [instead of freeing her].” (Sahih Bukhari, from the section on “Gifts”)

Since virtually all modern Muslims agree that owning other human beings as slaves is morally wrong, it is absurd for anyone to reject social change on the grounds that it contradicts traditional principles. “Traditional” Muslims talk up the importance of texts and fiqh, but actually they pick and choose the topics they want to be “traditional” about. Many of them, for example, personally prefer patriarchal marriages, so they defer to “traditional rigor” when that topic comes up; yet they discard this rigor when slavery is mentioned. This is Hamoudi’s point, and it’s a very important one.

He grasps hard to the tradition on the issue of marital relations because that’s how he likes his marriage to be. Not because it is more rigorous to do so (his position respecting the moral outrage of slavery prevent that possibility), but because he prefers it, even as I prefer its opposite.  … That’s not rigor.  That’s social conservatism. ~ Haider Hamoudi

I would like to propose a new rule. Anyone who is not willing to publicly declare that “there is nothing wrong with simply owning slaves” has no right to criticize others for “breaking consensus” or “straying from the tradition” — or even to use those phrases as pejorative terms. Additionally, they should openly declare that “there is nothing inherently wrong, theoretically, with enslaving a woman and then claiming a unilateral right to have sex with her”. If and only if people accept those two statements, it will be conceded that 1) they are not, in fact, in serious breach of the Islamic tradition, and 2) they have a license to criticize social reforms on traditional grounds.

The next time someone dismisses something because it “goes against the Sunnah” or “violates consensus”, ask them whether they agree with the two statements above. When they say no or start to equivocate, ask them why they expect others to defer to “sunnah”/”consensus”/”fiqh” when they are not willing to do the same.

P.S. I use “traditional” and “conservative” in a very wide sense. Also, by “liberal” I mean socially liberal; it isn’t a reference to political liberalism.

Can Muslim Women Be Sexist?

You can tell a lot about people by the jokes they tell. Jokes tend to convey things people actually believe but don’t dare to state plainly, and that’s probably why racism and sexism are such common themes.

Earlier this week Yasmin Mogahed shared an interesting sexist joke on Twitter. (For those who don’t know her — Mogahed is an author and speaker who has recently made a name for herself in the field of “Islamic self-help” with her popular lectures and blog posts. Her Twitter account has almost 100,000 followers.) Here is what she posted:

If a woman is upset, hold her and tell her how beautiful she is. If she starts to growl, retreat to a safe distance and throw chocolate at her.

This may sound like a harmless bit of fun, but it has a very sexist subtext. The joke plays on popular stereotypes about women, and reinforces the belief that:

  • 1) Women get upset over trivial things. This justifies the man’s decision to respond by ignoring their complaints and telling them they’re beautiful.
  • 2) Women are vain and not very intelligent, and therefore they can be easily duped by flattery. This is the only reason why such a transparently cynical attempt to distract them with compliments could work.
  • 3) Women are prone to fits of irrational anger. The animalistic nature of this fury is evoked by the “growl”. And one does not reason with dogs; one throws food at them and hopes they forget why they were growling at you.
  • 4) Women are excessively sensual, and their sensuality can be used to emotionally manipulate them. Thus their instinctive lust for chocolate can be used to sensually overwhelm them and make them forget whatever it was that upset them in the first place (which wasn’t important, in any case) .

This joke is comprehensible only because we are familiar with the four sexist stereotypes above. It works as a mnemonic device which reminds everyone how silly and stupid women are.

Why am I dissecting this joke? It’s not that Yasmin Mogahed unwittingly tweeted a joke that’s saturated in sexism. The point is that this sort of sexism and gender stereotyping is very much in line with the type of Islam that Mogahed and many other women promote. This reading of Islam is marked by gender difference: men are (to be) manly and women are (to be) feminine. The stereotype that underlies the joke above – that women are fickle and susceptible to whims – is much at home in this scheme, and in fact would serve (and does serve) as a convenient excuse for male social authority and “guardianship” over women.

Mogahed may not go so far as to say all that, but the stereotype of women being emotional/sensual would fit nicely into her worldview. She not only encourages women to embrace popular ideas about gender difference; she also criticizes women who do not adhere to them. She justifies and naturalizes unequal rights for women by arguing that their lesser rights are really a sign that God sees them as “special”. In her view, women who aspire to equal rights are “degrading” themselves by literally trying to become men:

Given our privilege as women, we only degrade ourselves by trying to be something we’re not–and in all honesty–don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.

If I had to sum up Mogahed’s message to women about gender relations, I would put it this way:

You are fundamentally different from men, and therefore you should be satisfied with the lot that men/God have apportioned for you. Focus on the things that distinguish you as a woman (like motherhood), and stop hankering after what has been set aside for men. Just think: if you were really satisfied with yourself as a Muslim woman — and by extension with the social fate that male Muslim scholars, a.k.a. God, prescribed for you — you would not “degrade” yourself by obsessing over men’s rights. Don’t you value your womanhood?

As a person who uses gender stereotypes to defend sexual hierarchy, it makes perfect sense for Yasmin Mogahed to enjoy jokes that portray women as silly creatures who require benevolent manipulation. In the eyes of many Muslims, this is basically how Islam’s “social system” works: limitations on women’s rights prevent fitna. Mogahed peppers her speech with feel-good platitudes, but her insistence that women, as women, should not aspire to “men’s” rights is just as sexist as the joke she passed along. It’s disconcerting that so many women seem to share her views.

Religious Modesty and Pornography: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Is a woman’s body inherently erotic? Both religious conservatives and the fashion industry seem to agree on this point. The difference is that one group objectifies women’s bodies and then exploits them commercially, while the other objectifies women’s bodies and controls them socially.

Both sides have their own justifications: religious modesty “protects” women, while fashion allows women to “fully express themselves” and “celebrate” their beauty. In reality, “protection” is often the pretext for marginalizing women and erasing their public presence, while “celebrating beauty” is often a cover for commoditizing women’s bodies and altering them to satisfy men’s desires.

Mainstream religious modesty and fashion/pornography both treat women as erotic objects: people whose bodies, hair, and even voices are sexual by nature. (This is why breastfeeding is taboo for so many people: breasts have been defined – by men, of course – as inherently sexual, regardless of context.) By treating women as sexual objects whose interests are secondary to those of men, both groups have created a culture which empowers men to police women’s appearance through scrutiny and criticism.

Posing for Playboy does not challenge mainstream religious conservatism, because religious modesty begins with the assumption that women are Playmates (whose bodies, as sexual objects, must be hidden from society and surrendered to husbands). And wearing a headscarf to cover your “charms” does not really challenge the fashion industry, because the industry already views women’s bodies as a fitna (to be packaged and sold). The two sides disagree about “what is to be done” to women, but not about what women’s bodies fundamentally are.

The greatest challenge to the fashion and pornography industry would be for society to stop hyper-sexualizing women’s bodies, for men to stop publicly scrutinizing women’s appearance, and for women’s bodies to be presented on their own terms in honest, holistic, and non-sexual ways. But that would be equally devastating to “traditional” religious modesty. For that reason, religious modesty will never pose a significant challenge to fashion culture, nor will it offer women an alternative that is meaningfully different.

Why I Changed My Mind About That Stupid, Brilliant #Mipsterz Video

The debates generated by the ‘Mipsterz’ video have been interesting, to say the least. Some responses to the film were enlightening, while others made me lose faith in humanity. Initially I found the video shallow and somewhat annoying, but over the past few days I’ve come to a different conclusion. Below I respond to five common complaints about the video.


Let’s start with the video itself. What is it, anyway? As Sana Saeed points out, it doesn’t seem to have a clear message; it’s just a handful of women in headscarves being silly and walking down the sidewalk like a fashion posse. When I look deeper, though, the implicit message I get is that Muslim women who wear headscarves come in all shapes and sizes, and that some of them enjoy the ‘hipster’ aesthetic. It’s as if they’re meaning to say:

‘We’re hijabis. We’re ‘hipsters’. Deal with it.’

This message could be aimed at the wider non-Muslim public, who associate the hijab with meekness, solemnity, submission to male authority and an all-consuming religiosity. For non-Muslims, this video would be a helpful reminder that Muslim women are much more than those stereotypes, that their hijab does not define them, and that being a Muslim does not preclude anyone from being equally ‘American’.

On the other hand, the video could also be directed at the traditional leaders of North America’s Muslim ‘community’ – the people who run mosques, give sermons, consult on questions of Islamic ‘law’, speak at conferences and so on. These figures often encourage Muslim women to aspire to become ‘ideal Muslimahs’ who speak softly, restrain their gestures and movements in public, obey their husbands and religious scholars, and devote their extra energy to humbly ‘seeking knowledge’ (meekness, solemnity, submission to male authority and an all-consuming religiosity).

The Mipsterz video is the product of an environment where Muslim women’s bodies are trafficked as cultural and religious symbols. Veiled Muslim women in North America live heavily mediated lives and are under intense scrutiny from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Non-Muslims assume they embody a certain stereotype and criticize them for it (or want to ‘save’ them from it), while mainstream Muslim leaders often encourage them to embody that same stereotype. If they fail to live up to this ‘ideal Muslimah’ image, the mainstream ‘community’ disciplines them with disapproving glances, unsolicited ‘advice’, hurtful gossip, abandonment, and even outright social rejection (and when all else fails, there are patronizing youtube videos). Worst of all, most of this violence (yes, and it hurts) is dealt out by their fellow ‘sisters’; men are often the least of a Muslim woman’s worries at the mosque. To top it off, once they step outside, the non-Muslim public typecasts them as weak, voiceless and boring people who are only interested in religion. In this environment, it’s not surprising that some women felt boxed-in and wanted to create some space by making a video like ‘Somewhere in America’. What sets them apart is that instead of trying to talk their way out of the box, these women got on their skateboards, rolled right out of it, and sent us all an unsolicited postcard.

‘Greetings, from Not-giving-a-damn-what-you-think-istan!’

This guy is definitely there.

I thought the Mipsterz video was dumb at first, but it’s actually a brilliant gesture. One of the its co-creators, Abbas Rattani, says that his production team ‘wanted to create a thought-provoking video that was very creative, very imaginative, very beautiful, that sparked critical conversations.’ They’ve succeeded on all counts.


I have to agree with the viewers who questioned the content of the Jay-Z song playing in the background of the video. The parts where he talked about selling drugs and Miley Cyrus twerking were kind of awkward. Maybe an instrumental version of the song or a Lupe Fiasco track would have been better.


A lot of people disliked the video because they thought it was presenting these women the way Muslim women are almost always presented: as religious and cultural symbols. But the complaint that ‘this doesn’t represent North American Muslims’ only registers when someone is actually purporting to represent North American Muslims. These women were not. They were representing themselves. But people aren’t used to seeing Muslim women make public statements unless they’re promoting Islam, advocating for ‘the community’, engaging in interfaith dialogue or raising awareness about ‘Muslim’ political issues. Because of this, the Mipsterz video disoriented a number of folks, making them puzzle over what it was ‘about’ and what the women in it were ‘supposed to be doing’. I’ll admit that this was my own reaction. After some reflection, I came to see that the video is ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’, as Sohaib Sultan helpfully points out. It isn’t attempting to show how hijabis, as a group, are or should be; it’s simply letting one group of hijabis say, ‘this is us, doing what we like to do’. That’s a hard thing for people to wrap around their heads wrap their heads around, but it’s a positive development and a healthy message.

I like the Mipsterz video because it subverts both the Islamophobic gaze and the normative Muslim gaze simultaneously by presenting hijabis being silly, having fun, and just for once, not functioning as voices for other people or larger ideas. If the ‘ideal Muslimah’ represents one aspect of American Muslim women, then so does the ‘Mipster’, and I’m glad that this neglected facet of Muslim life is getting more exposure. Abbas Rattani has said that he hoped the video would inspire others to make their own versions. That is a worthy endeavor. If any Muslim women don’t feel represented in the video, they’re encouraged (and hopefully, by now, empowered) to do their own shoot.

I should add that if these women had released a video of themselves playing the ‘good hijabi’ and praying in a mosque, not a single soul would complain that ‘this doesn’t represent American Muslims’, even though only 40% of American Muslims pray at mosques on a weekly basis, and a third rarely or never go. Funny how that works.


A number of commentators, including Sana Saeed, whose article I refer to throughout this piece, knocked the video for ‘objectifying’ (most of) its participants. Saeed says it contains ‘images that, simply put, objectify the Muslim female form by denigrating it completely to the physical’ [sic]. (Strictly speaking, don’t all images reduce their subjects to the physical?) She rationalizes her claim by saying that most of the women are not shown doing anything that showcases ‘what makes each and every one of those women Herself’. Apparently Saeed assumes that having fun with friends is not a part of ‘what makes those women themselves’. Really? Can she rightfully criticize anyone for not conforming to her own subjective impression of ‘what makes people themselves’? I don’t think so. Abbas Rattani had this to say about how the film was made:

I do want to point out that the women involved had full freedom in the sort of scenes they came up with. The only direction that Habib, the director of the film, gave them was ‘Do what you do, and have fun doing it!’

Rattani added:

The aspects of the video that we wanted to capture was that regardless of the fat resumes these women have, they are very down to earth, they do other things outside of their day-to-day or their job. [sic]

So that’s pretty much that. To be fair to Saeed, she didn’t know this when she wrote her piece. But her assumption that the women weren’t doing anything relevant to who they are is still, on its face, unreasonable. In the same interview, Rattani explained that women played a central role in creating and producing the video:

The credits originally had everybody who participated in the film. There were two female producers. I was the only male producer. The fashion director was a female. We had about 60 women who consulted on the project, and there were were a total of 5 men on the entire project. Unfortunately, we had to take everybody’s names down, so that nobody could actually go out and find out who these individuals were.

Apparently Saeed’s assumption about ‘what makes these women themselves’, along with the erroneous belief that the video was ‘produced/created/directed primarily by Muslim men’ led her to conclude that it was a case of ‘textbook objectification’. But this is transparently wrong, and she has yet to correct her (mis)statement about the production team’s gender ratio (the initial error wasn’t Saeed’s fault, as Rattani’s quote demonstrates). If Saeed and others can’t appreciate that some women might actually want to make a video of themselves having lighthearted fun, then that’s their loss. (I know, that’s almost as hard to believe as the fact that some women choose to wear hijab, isn’t it?) But it gives them no grounds to accuse those women of being ‘objectified’.


The most common complaint about the video is that it ‘doesn’t represent hijab/modesty’. Saeed articulated this when she wrote,

The Mipsterz video is hard to stomach for so many because it throws the increasing Islamofashionista culture into your face. Catwalk ready, catwalk strut and catwalk ‘tude seem so antithetical to what we know and expect, sometimes zealously, as Islamic modesty. This isn’t about policing what we wear and how or about casting judgment, but about the sort of culture we’re creating for Muslim women’s dress that is no diferrent than the images and lifestyles sans hijab we criticize. The superficial culture we critique and claim is why we wear hijab is becoming our hijab. [sic]

Saeed reads the women in the video as symbols of an ‘Islamofashionista culture’ that threatens ‘Islamic modesty’ with its ‘catwalk strut’ and ‘superficial culture’. Most interesting is her use of ‘we’ when she makes a normative appeal to ‘what we know and expect, sometimes zealously, as Islamic modesty’. Who ‘we’ are is unclear, but apparently it doesn’t include the women in the video. What she means by ‘Islamic modesty’ is also unclear. Does she object to the clothes in the video, or only the way the women were carrying themselves? Judging by her article, it seems that Saeed associates the video’s aesthetics with America’s fashion industry and its objectification of women. But such an association could only be based on the most ‘superficial’ of similarities: some of the women in the video walk confidently in heels, which (apparently) reminds Saeed of strutting, which (apparently) makes her think of a catwalk, which (apparently) reminds her of the fashion industry’s objectification of women. Finally she suggests that the video is helping to ‘create a culture’ of Muslim women’s fashion ‘that is no diferrent than the images and lifestyles sans hijab we criticize’ [sic]. Where she got all this from is anyone’s guess.

After reading Saeed’s comments, I re-watched the video carefully. The only ‘catwalk’-esque content is a blurry shot of a woman striking a pose while standing (1:56) and a brief shot of a woman (in yellow) walking in a group with a bit of swing in her gait (0:34). (Disturbingly, some of the other women also angled their faces during selfies and placed their hands on their hips.) These two moments comprised about 1.7 seconds of the 2:29 video. That’s 1.1%. The other 99% of it shows women walking, skipping, skating, jumping, running, rising, shoe-tying, gazing, climbing, sipping, somersaulting, throwing, eating, laughing, sitting, putting on sunglasses, taking off sunglasses, smiling, blocking the camera and riding. Complaints about ‘catwalk strut’ seem frivolous in light of the video’s actual content, which is dominated not by ‘strut’ but by goofiness and happiness. This trifecta – goofiness, happiness, and a touch of swagger – may be distasteful to Saeed, but it will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has known more than a handful of American-raised Muslim women. This is very run-of-the-mill stuff.

This all makes me wonder, who is this ‘we’ that Saeed speaks for? And what ‘images and lifestyles sans hijab‘ (that ‘we’ criticize) is she talking about? Images of young women skateboarding in long clothing?

Or sans hijab images like this one of Shadia Mansour?


What about these sans hijab women? Do ‘we’ criticize their ‘superficial’ lifestyles?

Or is Saeed upset with images like this one of journalist Hajer Naili, from the Mipsterz video?


‘We’ criticize ‘images and lifestyles’ like this? Excuse me? So, what – do ‘we’ criticize her hijab for being loose, or her eyebrows for being plucked? Do ‘we’ fault her for wearing make up? Or heels? Or is she guilty of ‘imitating non-Muslims’? Did I miss a part of the video where hijabis were twerking on skateboards?

I have no clue who Saeed’s ‘we’ is supposed to be (maybe this guy?), but if ‘images and lifestyles’ comparable to the ones shown in the Mipsterz video are a threat to it, then it excludes many of the Muslim women I know (in everyday life, not the hijabulous internets), and I want no part of it. Saeed’s use of ‘we’ invites the reader to become her accomplice in the baseless criticism of Muslim women, and to me is the most offensive thing in this entire discussion.

Also, if ‘we’ can use such loose standards to tie the Mipsterz video to the commoditization and hypersexualization of women, then it would be equally valid for ‘us’ to blame niqabi women for ‘creating a culture of Muslim women’s dress that is no different from the images and lifestyles’ of the Taliban. Both associations are ridiculous.

I want to focus on another question here: What is ‘Islamic modesty’, anyway? Since Saeed suggests that these women are being immodest, she could at least outline a sketch of the ‘Islamic modesty’ that they’ve breached. Additionally, from a historical perspective, her attempt (and really almost any attempt) to use ‘Islamic modesty’ a standard with which to criticize other women is deeply suspect. Most Muslims are blissfully unaware of the fact that in early Islam, the hijab was a status symbol that slave women were not allowed to wear. ‘Umar, one of the Prophet’s most important companions and a caliph himself, forbade slaves from wearing hijab and is said to have actually hit a slave woman for daring to cover herself. Slave women walked around topless in public, and it was not considered ‘immodest’ for Muslim men to look at their breasts. As Laury Silvers writes,

“Modesty” was reserved as a social marker for free women; the “private parts” of enslaved women were only from navel to knee. The second Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women.

Hamza Yusuf himself even mentions this awkward bit of history during an attempt to get Muslims to stop obsessing over the hijab and ‘Islamic modesty’. I’m guessing that Sana Saeed, along with everyone else who suggested the video was immodest, is referring to the ‘Islamic modesty’ that Muslims have fabricated for themselves in the latter portion of Islamic history, and not the ‘Islamic modesty’ that reinforced the dehumanizing division between free women and slave women back when some of Islam’s most important personalities walked the earth. (See  this article for a detailed analysis.) One writer asks,

I wonder what all the Muslim feminists who defend hijab in the name of modesty would think, if given a full accounting of this history, where Muslim women were in fact punished if they tried to be modest?

Personally, I wonder whether such an accounting might motivate Saeed and others to be ‘modest’ enough to stop wielding ‘Islamic modesty’ as a weapon against women whose ”tude’ and fashion choices they dislike. ‘Islamic modesty’ and morality have transformed beyond recognition since the days when slaves walked around topless and it wasn’t considered ‘cheating’ for a married man to have sex with concubines. Surely ‘Islamic modesty’ can accommodate a few sharply-dressed hijabis goofing around on video. I don’t mean to ‘go all Kecia Ali‘ on everyone, but people in glass headscarves shouldn’t throw stones.


All in all, I don’t find much to criticize in this video beyond the content of its background lyrics. It threw me off at first, and I still find it a bit cheesy, and I still think skating in heels is a bad life choice, but I appreciate where the video is coming from and I recognize that it’s serving an important purpose. If you didn’t ‘get’ it, that’s on you. If you didn’t like its style, that’s on you. Do your own thing. Rock a pants suit. If you mistakenly thought the video was supposed to be representative of all Muslim women in North America and then got mad when it wasn’t, that’s on you. If you didn’t like the fact that the women in the video were just chilling because you wanted a serious, cathartic ‘Muslim woman’ story of adversity and perseverence, that’s on you. And if you didn’t like the video because it undermined your own artificially-constructed image of ‘Islamic modesty’, that is most definitely on you.

They’re hijabis.

They’re ‘hipsters’.

Deal with it.

(I did.)


UPDATE: For more background on the hijab/jilbab as a social status marker in early Islam, see this article (pdf, link is also embedded above): “Out of Sight and Therefore Out of Mind: Early Sunni Islamic Modesty Regulations and the Creation of Spheres of Privacy” by Eli Alshech, published in the Journal of Near-Eastern Studies in 2007. Some quotes:

Early classical exegetes viewed the dress restrictions specified in the Qur’an for free women as a way of establishing a social hierarchy and stratification and ensuring that women were approached by others in a way that was appropriate to their social class. (Alshech 2007, 274)

Alshech cites early authorities such as Muqatil Ibn Sulayman (d. 150/797), Abu al-Layth al-Samarqandi (d. 373/983) and al-Tabari (d. 310/922) to support his assessment. He also mentions the account of ‘Umar hitting a slave for wearing the jilbab:

A widely-reported hadith states that “‘Umar struck a slave girl whom he saw walking veiled, asserting, ‘Do you wish to resemble free women? Take the veil off.'” See al-Baghawi (d. 516/1112) Ma’alim al-tanzil (Riyadh, 1993), vol. 6, p. 377. (Alshech 2007, 375, in footnote 35)