By Corey Habbas
“Look at any advertisement. Is a woman being used to sell the product? How old is she? How attractive is she? What is she wearing? More often than not, that woman will be…taller, slimmer and more attractive than average, dressed in skimpy clothing. Why do we allow ourselves to be manipulated like this?” So asks a Muslim teen, Sultana Yusufali, in an article she wrote for Toronto Star Young People’s Press.
Her indignation is not unlike that which Muslims living here in the Twin Cities and elsewhere feel when they see women treated like commodities.
Any crowd within the Twin Cities is peppered with what Muslims refer to as hijab, the modest dress code followed by Muslim women. You can see it in Minneapolis, Saint Paul and surrounding suburbs that boast thriving Muslim communities like Fridley and Blaine. Worn by a diverse Minnesotan community including American converts and born Muslim-Americans alike that herald roots from all over the world, as well as immigrants who are Bosnian, Ethiopian, Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Somali and a collection of others, hijab is beginning to leave a unique mark on the fashion landscape within the state.
Although both Muslim men and women are commanded to wear modest clothing and conform to gender-specific guidelines for hijab, it is often the female form of hijab that is most noticeable to non-Muslims. Thus, upon seeing a woman who wears loose-fitting clothing and covers her hair with a scarf, some Americans might be prompted to ask, “Why do you wear that thing?” If the Muslim woman were to cite the Qur’an or Hadith as an explanation, likely the inquirer’s eyes might turn glossy and their gaze distant.
Since the publication of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new report on the harmful effects of media on society, coupled with data from other reports suggesting a correlation between sexual promiscuity and suicide rate, non-Muslims can better understand a possible wisdom behind how the Islamic commandments for modesty can be beneficial to not only the individual, but also the surrounding society.
The APA’s report entitled “Report of the APA Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls” is the secular proof for why modesty is healthy, although the religious proof for Muslims can be found in the Qur’an and Hadith which are approximately 1,400 years old.
The APA, established in 1892, represents the field of psychology in the United States and Canada. In the 72-page report released this year, the APA links low-self esteem, eating disorders and depression to various American media forms that objectify and sexualize girls and women. The mass media constitute one of the most influential forces behind the collective damage of the female gender experience, says the APA, because children and adolescents spend more time with entertainment media than they do with any other activity except school and sleeping.
Images on television, within magazines, video games, and commercial products reinforce to girls and women that they can gain societal leverage from an appearance that arouses the male gaze, but the APA comments that “despite the fact that many girls believe that a sexy appearance brings them power, quite the opposite may be true.” The report cites additional findings that girls who objectify their bodies more have much lower self-esteem than girls who do not.
While it may seem that women who make a choice to dress provocatively are exercising a form of self-determination, the APA suggests that it is less an intelligent choice spawned by strength and individualism than it is a choice motivated by a media industry that teaches women to objectify themselves in order to gain attention, validation, and approval.
The APA findings also suggest that objectifying images in the media also affect men’s experience in society, making it difficult for them to form and maintain loyal and intimate relationships with women because objectified images of women make them less likely to find real women satisfying. “Even viewing a single episode of an objectifying television program such as ‘Charlie’s Angels’ may lead men to rate real women as less physically attractive,” says the report. The report goes on to say that pornography has a degenerating affect on the male-female relationship, causing men to rate their female partners as being less physically attractive, as well as causing men to desire sexual experiences without emotional attachment.
Women, in earnest to keep up with the pace of the objectified feminine ideal, have been spending on plastic surgery with as much zeal as caffeine-pumped adolescents shooting paintballs. According to the report, nationwide, between the years 2000 and 2005, Botox injections rose 388 percent, tummy tucks rose 115 percent, buttock lifts rose 283 percent, upper-arm lifts rose 3,413 percent, and lower-body lifts rose 4,101 percent.
Solutions to combat the tidal wave of damaging media are listed in the APA report, which praises religious practices and social and political activism as some of the strategies communities can use to empower themselves.
“Whereas girls may have little control over how they are represented in the media, they have more control over the identity they create via their clothing choices,” states the APA report.
Hijab, as a component of Islamic worship, is one such strategy for Muslims. Muslim women who follow hijab cover up, usually leaving only their face and hands visible. They dress this way not as a sign of submission to man, but as an act of worshiping God. In the Qur’an, God states, “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty….” The religion of Islam promotes a view of women that enhances their value and worth as human beings and contributors in society.
The APA continues that, “The sexualization and objectification of women in the media appear to teach girls that as women, all they have to offer is their body and face and that they should expend all their effort on physical appearance.” Islam teaches men to lower their gaze, to turn their faces away, and instructs both men and women to guard themselves with modest attire. The Islamic message encourages people to look past the material and into the spiritual. While the media promote adversarial relationships between men and women, Islam nurtures a cooperative atmosphere between genders. Muslims believe that Islamic commandments on modesty are as relevant today as they were 1,400 years ago, and the implementation of hijab is a relevant response to a damaging atmosphere created by a media rooted in commercialism which thrives on the most base instincts.
Yet the Muslim woman’s brave choice to cover up in a society often hostile to Islam is not without its trials. Girls and women who wear hijab can be targets for discrimination because the modest attire makes them look visibly Muslim. The visible difference causes some non-Muslims in the surrounding society to feel threatened and so the backlash can include mild forms of ridicule to dangerous physical threats or an attempt by those in power to repress or attempt to remove those values they deem threatening. Or too difficult to understand.
In 2006 a Muslim girl who wears hijab and attends school in the Spring Lake Park School District in Minnesota was repeatedly harassed by classmates. Only after repeated mediation from the local Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was the incident handled and resolved by school officials so that the student could resume her studies in a less hostile environment.
And just in June 2007, a California school administrator loudly ordered a 13-year-old Muslim girl to remove her headscarf in a room crowded with more than 100 other students. In the same state, less than a year prior, a Muslim woman wearing hijab, the mother of six children, was gunned down while walking to pick up her children from school. Muslim women who wear hijab can be afflicted with job discrimination, verbal and physical harassment, and exclusion by non-Muslims from participating in various aspects of social, civil and political life.
Many non-Muslims who oppose women who wear hijab are hostile to what they think it represents, rather than its true intent of modesty.
Many Christian communities are returning to a value of modesty as an alternative to media’s value of immodesty. The aptly named Modesty Movement is gaining ground with young women and their communities. Pure Fashion, an American Christian initiative that reaches out to communities nationally, offers to turn girls into Pure Fashion Models with a value on covering up a little more. Yet their modesty guidelines fall far short of the Islamic standard of modesty. Pure Fashion guidelines imply that you can still show a lot of skin, as long as a girl’s bra strap isn’t visible through her shirt, and so that her shorts don’t creep higher than mid-thigh. People who subscribe to the Islamic faith would tend to view these guidelines as being unsuccessful at curbing objectification. With fashion guidelines in which large patches of skin can be revealed and curvy body contours still displayed by minimal cloth, not much de-objectification happens, no matter how sincere their intention to place an emphasis on what is on the inside of a person.
Minnesota Muslimah youth, in an effort to have fun and at the same time maintain their high standards of modesty, are finding outlets of their own. In June Al-Madinah Cultural Center and Muslim Youth of Minnesota co-sponsored PROM (Party foR Only Muslimahs) to allow Muslim girls who were graduating from various high schools in the Twin Cities to attend their own celebration in which their modesty would not be compromised. After more than 100 girls were within the private enclosure, they could discard their hijab, participate in a fashion show, talent show and dancing.
Modesty in the city trumps the sexist media. The APA is letting us know in 2007. For Muslims, the news came in the 7th century.
From a Muslim teen’s perspective, Sultana writes, “I made this decision [to wear hijab] out of my own free will. I like the fact that I am taking control of the way other people perceive me. I enjoy the fact that I don’t give anyone anything to look at and that I have released myself from the bondage of the swinging pendulum of the fashion industry and other institutions that exploit females. My body is my own business.”
Corey Habbas is a freelance writer who lives in Blaine, Minn. Her articles have appeared in The Milli Gazette, IslamOnline, Iqra! Newspaper, as well as many others.