Loving your body? Who are you kidding??

There’s been something of a buzz in the blogosphere recently about the tumblr, Fat Brown Hijabis, which I found through another tumblr, Badass Muslimahs.

All I can say is: wow. Just wow.

Part of me is thinking—man, it’s so awesome that in the midst of all the media stereotypes and conservative Muslim notions of what “good women” should do and be that some women nonetheless refuse to be shut down. That they don’t feel that they somehow have to make do with the images that are already out there. That they can and will define themselves, and put their own representations of women like themselves out there.

But another part of me was disbelieving and, well… shocked, for lack of a better word. A hijabi gymnast? A “Guide to loving your body” that advises you to love, appreciate and take pride in your body with all its quirks, to even “get naked and take a good long look at your body. Trace your stretch marks, feel your hip bones poking out, place your hand over your tummy and take a fistful of yourself in….”

Needless to say, back in the ’80’s when I converted, such things were absolutely not accepted. And even though things seem to be getting better now in some parts of North America at least, I still find myself dealing with the after-effects of the ways that we were taught to see our bodies as Muslim women. I wonder if I will ever get beyond them.

Hijab and gymnastics in the ’80’s? Forget about it. I remember the very, very earnest discussions by young, hijab-wearing Muslim women at an ISNA-sponsored “sisters’ camp” (which was a misnomer, there was absolutely no camping involved) about whether women could play volley-ball in hijab in public. I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t see why not. A born Muslim woman quickly set me straight on that one—even if a woman is wearing a hijab and and tracksuit (she said), then she would still be moving, and she would sometimes have to move suddenly when the ball comes her way. Basically, her breasts would bounce, or her butt might suddenly become outlined because of a motion that she would make, and that is a violation of the laws of hijab. So, women cannot play volleyball in public, or in any place where men might catch sight of them.

It absolutely wasn’t enough to cover your body and head with long, loose clothes (and they had to be loose—tights were absolutely out). You had to constantly be aware of what your body was doing, and how it might appear to others. Any kind of sport was potentially problematic, because even if you were fully covered, by the mere act of doing something other than sitting still, or walking at an average speed, you are calling attention to the fact that there’s a female body under your clothes. Which would of course be immodest.

As converts, we tried to find some sort of middle ground between observing hijab, and managing to get exercise and encourage our kids to get involved in some kinds of sports at least. But that middle ground was so hard to find.

If you were into sports like gymnastics before conversion, you would pretty much have to give it up. How would you have been able to do it, even if you could practice in an all-female gym? What would you wear, for starters? If your daughters wanted to do something like gymnastics (or horror of horrors, ballet—but let’s not even get into the whole dancing issue), then this would be a problem. Some people argued that it would be ok for girls to do these sorts of activities before they reached puberty, but when they reached that stage, then they would have to stop. Others thought that it would be kinder to the girl to never give her the idea in the first place that she could do such things, because being made to stop at puberty (a difficult age, to be sure) would both be hard on her, and could lead her to rebel against all the “Islamic” restrictions and rules that would in any case fall on her at that point.

I admit with shame that for years, I held the latter view. Now that I look back, I wonder how many dreams died–or were never even allowed to sprout–among converts and their daughters. This is all the more ironic when I remember that we used to argue quite seriously that hijab preserves women’s dignity, and protects us from being treated as sex objects.

Today, I no longer adhere to such views. But their after-effects are still very much with me, as well as with my children (which is another post altogether).

This is such a complicated issue for me, because the views of the (female) body that we were taught go far beyond the requirements of hijab. It was a complex and internally contradictory discourse—on one hand, we were told (and we believed) that hijab freed us from being enslaved to the unreachable beauty standards of the larger society. But the reality was something else.

There was just so much body policing that went on.

Part of it was the various communities I lived in, part of it was the particular man I married, and part of it was the wider society (no, hijab actually didn’t shield us from its pressures).

As far as the conservative Muslim communities I lived in were concerned, a woman has the duty to be attractive to her husband. That meant remaining slim and trim, even through pregnancies (and despite the limitations placed on women’s access to sports). Weight gain would be noticed, and commented upon. You weren’t fulfilling your wifely duty. “You should fast on Mondays and Thursdays, Sister. Like my wife does.” (A piece of unsolicited nasiha given to me by a community leader as we rode in a van full of other Muslims, mostly young men, who couldn’t help overhearing.)

As far as my ex was concerned, there was always something wrong with my body. First, I was too thin, according to him. After my first child, I was too fat. It didn’t matter what weight I was (and it did change through the years) it was never right. Looking back, I can see that this issue was much deeper than my appearance… but this was a convenient thing for him to complain about, because then all the problems in the marriage could be attributed to my short-comings.

The long-term effects of this sort of thing are again… pretty long-term. Essentially, I learned to hate my body. To see my body (and therefore, myself) as always falling short of the standard. To see myself as deserving of rejection, because I didn’t measure up.

I wasn’t the only woman who internalized such ideas. I remember hearing a convert friend of mine, J., discussing a brother she knew who was trying to get married. She was talking about how he went to the house of a woman he was thinking of marrying, talked to her in front of her family, and then asked to see her without her hijab. J. seemed to find this a bit odd, but went on to say that “it’s his right to make sure if she is what he wants.” At the time, I thought to myself, “Is he marrying a woman, or buying livestock??” but squashed that thought, and didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Like everyone else, I had read the ISNA matrimonial ads, and knew that a lot of men had pretty specific physical specifications for the type of woman they were willing to consider as marriage material.

I am gladdened by the likes of the author of Fat Brown Hijabis, who advocates that women should love their bodies regardless of their size and shape. But to me, this is like a glimpse of an imaginary world, which I might dream about but am not likely to ever inhabit.

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