Aspiring Muslim hijabi journalist Noor Tagouri recently caused a ruckus in the Muslim community when she agreed to sit for an interview for the magazine Playboy. She is profiled as a Renegade of 2016, one in a series of “men and women [who] will change how you think about business, music, porn, comedy, gaming and more…[who have] risked it all—even their lives—to do what they love, showing us what can be accomplished if we break the rules*.” At the end of a succession of questions and well-thought out answers, she acknowledges her unique position to represent Muslim women – “I always remember Maya Angelou’s quote, ‘I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.'” Unfortunately, while she was well-intentioned in her goal, Tagouri’s execution missed the mark.
The reason is less about the scarf on her head and more about the concept of hijab. The funny thing which most non-Muslims and even Muslims don’t always understand is that hijab has very little to do with clothes, with the headscarf per se and the hair/skin/body that is covered. Like so much else in Islam, hijab is a way, not a thing – a way of holding yourself, conducting your interactions, preserving your autonomy and purity of mind as well as of body. It embodies among others the principles of modesty, dignity, independence, well-roundedness, poise, and self-control. The Arabic word “hijab” is literally translated as “barrier.” Like any other barrier, it is a way to keep the good in and the bad out: as women, to keep what is ours, ours, and what you would like to say or think about what is ours, out. Hijab is indeed a barrier, between the self and the outside, not only to preserve the sacredness of the human body, but to dissipate the negativity and judgment it might otherwise endure. Our skin is not merchandise – it is soft, beautiful, and valuable, and we will not allow it to harden against the criticisms of a petty society.
I personally do not cover my head, but I infer that the reasons to do so mirror my reasons to lengthen my own garments (my hijabi friends can please correct me if I am wrong). With the increasing liberalization of society – a positive development in so many ways – has come acceptance and therefore pressure for women to expose larger and larger amounts of flesh. In 2016, suddenly, Burkinis are the enemy and people are clamoring to “Free the nipple!” (I won’t dignify it by linking it here, but it’s a movement – Google it.) I suppose the idea is that if we have the freedom to uncover ourselves, we will somehow feel more carefree, fulfilled, content – the standard cocktail every generation’s social campaign of choice promises. And yet, as populations become more and more Westernized, their rates of depression also skyrocket, for a multitude of reasons. To me, it seems the “freer” we become, the more miserable we are. A paradox, isn’t it?
But when you think about it, it’s not that much of a paradox at all. The reality is that exposing your skin is also exposing yourself to societal judgment and criticism. I’ve grown up watching push-up bras go on sale for younger and younger age groups. I’ve been to middle and high school, ruthless cesspools of cleavage and lip gloss and getting cute boys to like you, disguised as educational institutions where we send our girls when their brains are the most vulnerable and malleable they will ever be. I now see the women who I assume used to be those girls struggling to balance being too clothed (“prudes,” “stiffs,” “hardasses”) with being too naked (“sluts,” “whores,” “loose”). I see them laughing off uninvited and unwelcome comments, positive or negative, about their looks – as if it’s wrong to react, as if it doesn’t offend, as if it doesn’t matter.
IT DOES MATTER.
Our identities, our self-esteem, our autonomy MATTER. And the reality is that a society that can see your flesh assumes the power, warranted or not, to pass judgment upon it. Therefore the reasons to cover are the same as the reasons to love yourself: Because freedom comes not from society’s approval of you but from approving of yourself, taking ownership of your body and telling the world, “World, these parts are mine, not yours, and therefore not subject to your critique. Not only will I not allow you the wrong opinion, I will not allow you any opinion, because to have an opinion period about my body is a privilege in itself.”
That is what hijab is. That is why we cover. While women of all walks of life must grow a thick skin in order to survive this world let alone thrive in it, the hijab provides an armor instead, preserving the innocence of the soul that it covers. Hijab is what allows me and all Muslim women who embrace it to be proudly different from the twisted, vague, ultimately unattainable ideal of a woman that others have imposed upon the female sex: me, from society’s expectations of me.
That is what Noor Tagouri compromises.
I do not believe her morality is compromised. Far from it, actually. I read the article. She has some excellent and admirable viewpoints, the likes of which probably have not been seen in Playboy, ever. But there is a way I’d like to explain my own distaste for the whole thing: I grew up watching The Cosby Show, and although Bill Cosby has since been completely discredited and I can no longer support him as an actor, the show itself taught important lessons that have been relevant to me at various places in my life. There is an episode (watch the specific, brilliant segment here) when Vanessa, Cliff Huxtable’s rebellious daughter, presents her family suddenly and unexpectedly, for the very first time, with a gentleman to whom she is already engaged, to understandable shock and dismay. Cliff explains to the obviously conscientious man that it’s not his fault:
“It’s the way she brought you to us. Do you have a favorite food, something that you really love?”
He answers steak.
“Steak! Just imagine a Porterhouse, with mushrooms and potatoes, mmm boy, can you smell it? Now I’m going to present it to you, right? I don’t go and get a plate, I get a garbage can lid and turn it upside down. I take your steak, your potatoes and your sauteed mushrooms and I give it to you. Not too appetizing is it? It’s in the presentation. That’s the way she brought you here – on a garbage can lid.”
By appearing in Playboy, Noor Tagouri presents a fabulous set of ideals on a garbage can lid. The message is excellent, the woman wonderful, I’m sure. But the inappropriate presentation tarnishes the whole affair. The situation would be the same with any other message: Most practicing Muslims would not go to a casino to talk about how gambling is frowned upon, or a bar to talk about how alcohol is forbidden, because in doing so one is by default contributing to the publicity and profit of an establishment that has by simply existing gone against the values a Muslim holds dear – and there should be no doubt that Tagouri does still hold them dear.
In an earlier piece on the hijab, I wrote that there is no excuse as a Muslim woman for tearing down another Muslim woman, and I repeat that now. Noor is 22, about my little sister’s age and a young woman who is developing and changing against the pressures of a difficult society just like the rest of us. We have no right to judge or attack her character, ever, and I hope that she attains every goal for which she reaches as a Muslim and as a woman – after all, I am both. What we can judge is the choice of this particular piece of publicity, which although full of good ideas, was in poor taste – steak and potatoes on a garbage can lid if you will – and that is not good enough to stand for 10,000.
*Um, who made it a rule that a hijabi woman can’t be a news anchor? I haven’t heard of this rule. I would like Playboy to stop making up its own rules a la Donald Trump.
P.S. A beautiful article I found on Huff Post about how the hijab is so much more than cloth: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rawan-abushaban/reducing-hijab-to-the-hea_b_9075126.html.