Sorting through all the mental baggage that those experiences have left with me, one thing that I notice is… shame. There is still a residue of shame about the body. My body, as well about other female bodies. The idea that a woman who is sensibly dressed for jogging or yard work or whatever-it-is in the middle of the summer is being “immodest.” The idea that being uncomfortable in order to cover a bit more skin is better than the “shame” of exposure. And that judg-y undercurrent that still to some extent filters my perceptions.
As well as the constant awareness of being (for lack of a better word) seen, whenever I am in places that Muslims might be. Seen, and judged.
Back in the day, we used to interpret feelings of shame about our bodies and others, as well as that feeling of being “seen” as a positive sign that at last we were managing to internalize “true modesty.” Our consciences had become Islamified, we thought… and that could only be a good thing. We must be increasing in iman and taqwa.
Now, I suspect that these feelings and thoughts had little or nothing to do with either iman or taqwa. Sure, we strongly believed that hijab is an obligation and that whatever we did God would see and punish or reward us accordingly (note the order). But we were also immersed in an environment in which women’s bodies, clothing and behavior were constantly being scrutinized and piously dissected. To this day, those judgmental (and usually male) voices sometimes pop into my mind unbidden whenever I see a woman wearing something that we used to be cautioned about in the past. Or for that matter, when I get dressed in the morning.
There’s an awful lot of glurge on the internetz about “Islamic modesty.” So, I was delighted to see an article that takes apart the usual apologetics (that yes, I used to repeat back when I was a hijabi…) about hijab as something that frees women from objectification:
“…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….”
Yes, yes, and yes.
Instead of dressing for the secular heterosexual male gaze, we dressed with the standards set by conservative Muslim male scholars (and sometimes affirmed by conservative Muslim women) in mind. Strict hijab outside the house, or whenever we might be glimpsed by men who weren’t our maharim. At the same time, we were supposed to adorn ourselves for our husbands at home. And we were told that this is liberation.
If it didn’t feel all that liberating, then it must be because we didn’t have enough faith, or because we hadn’t surrendered completely to God’s will, or because we were corrupted by modernity. After all, it had to be good and just, because this was the way God wanted it.
This was years before I would read Kecia Ali, and realize that in fact, it wasn’t ever meant to be liberating—at least not in the way we thought that it should be. The jurists hadn’t been concerned with freeing all women from objectifying male gazes or giving women the right to decide who should or shouldn’t have the privilege of looking at her. They had been concerned with social order, and to their minds, controlling women’s sexuality (especially in the case of free as opposed to slave women), was a necessary part of that.
We had believed that by wearing hijab, we were following in the footsteps of the pious women of the past, like Rabia of Basra, who had somehow managed to find an escape hatch in the patriarchal structure and in a sense, leave behind their bodies. That by deemphasizing the body, we were doing something very different than those “worldly” women who wore the latest fashions. And that if we sometimes felt objectified by all the scrutiny, then it was just our nafs and we needed to learn to be more humble…..
And now, to realize that essentially we were had. That we never felt that we had escaped the male gaze because in reality, we never did escape it. We internalized it, and heard it as God’s voice.