Thursday, August 11, 2011

Invited Post: Beauty, Islamic Feminism, and Choice

Muslim feminism and beauty: "The timeless fight for choice." (image via)

"We are not reformists. We are revivalists," writes Nahida of The Fatal Feminist. The "we" she refers to are Muslim feminists, and Nahida's blog is a treasure chest of Islamic feminist thought. Whether she's writing about the concept of modesty, notable women in Islamic history, or giving wit to the question of whether mermaids are halal, the California-based blogger manages to be both provocative and welcoming, instructive but never pedantic. I was pleased she agreed to share her thoughts here about Islamic feminism and beauty. Enjoy!

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"Oh children of Humankind! Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, God does not love the wasteful!"
—(Qur'an 7:31)

When Autumn invited me to guest post, I thought of two things: (1) whether it is possible to discuss beauty and self-presentation among Muslim feminists without resorting to the tired subject of hi'jab, and (2) overt ways in which modern Islamic feminists present their Islamic feminism. In fact, the rightful authority of woman over her own appearance is connected to the divergence of men who attempt to claim this authority for themselves.

The Qur'an says nothing about veiling: Men and women are both told to lower their gazes in (today, a shallow interpretation of) modesty and to cover their private areas. Feminism is built into Islam, but as patriarchy began to claim the religion over the next few centuries women were once again at the mercy of corrupted men deliberately twisting the words of God in a jealous attempt to seize undeserved power and turn the pursuit of women into degradation through sexual and political weaponry. This was accomplished with familiar methods: first, a deepened wage gap. With the expansion, men unlawfully took slaves, several of whom were women, and who then were unable to make demands concerning the protection and respect of their Islamic rights due to of lack of economic and social status. And then—forgetting their Islamic practice of modesty—men began to arrogantly police the bodies of women and forge their own laws over the word of God, enviously forbidding feminine beauty itself.

In the Muslim world today, feminine beauty is strictly defined as soft-spoken, patient, and obedient: characteristics that express themselves in a meek, humbled appearance. Any woman who confidently and forcefully challenges this, even with makeup and high heels and accessories that we correctly or incorrectly would define as distinctly feminine, is in fact not entirely viewed as "feminine" but is instead associated with unruliness—the opposite of femininity, according to patriarchy. She's already worth less than the value of a man simply for being a woman—and she doesn't even possess the worth of a woman, as she's rejected conformity. In the eyes of men, that is, not God.

In the past few years (or centuries) of Islamic feminism, most writings have focused on simply defying patriarchal standards of modesty. But there's an area that has yet to be explored: women dressing or beautifying solely to appeal to themselves. The closest we have is an example from centuries ago: A'isha bint Talha, a niece of the Prophet through her mother—and a woman of extravagant beauty—who famously proclaimed, "God the Almighty distinguished me by my beauty, and not to keep me hidden from sight! I want everyone to see this, and acknowledge my superiority over them. I will not veil. No one can force me to do anything." And in this it is clear that her only concerns were the will of God and her own desires—that of no one else.

She was a contemporary of Sakina bint al-Hussein, the Prophet's own granddaughter, of whom historian al-Zubairi writes, "She radiates like an ardent fire. Sakina was a delicate beauty, never veiled, who attended the Quraish Nobility Council. Poets gathered at her house. She was refined and playful." Her feminism did not only include refusing to veil: She decided where to live, demanded fidelity of her husband and that he never went against any of her desires, and promptly and publicly divorced men who betrayed her. Sakina was neither afraid of scandal, nor hesitant to let the world know of her wrath.

 Her influence was great: interestingly, not only did women imitate her hairstyles—but men as well! This demonstrates not only her position of incredible power, but power over both sexes, and an absence of the societal perspective that what is feminine must be undesirable for men.

But that was the 7th century. And these were wealthy women. The veil, in fact, was culturally expected amongst aristocratic women. Because the wives of the Prophet were advised against remarrying after his death, they veiled for the primary purpose of proclaiming that they were unavailable. Consequently, this became a societal expectation for their daughters and granddaughters, the first Islamic aristocrats, who promptly refused on the principle that it was their own choice, as God had not ordered them to veil and men could not pressure them.

Women today are told that perfume is a sin. That makeup is a sin. That they may not pray during their menses or show too much skin. That they may only wear nail polish while they are on their menses. That they may not show their faces at all. Women are literally reduced to material: fabric. These political laws and social pressures vary between countries. In reclaiming womanly beauty for women, Islamic feminists must now consider not only the intersections of class but also cultures, a delicate balance between denouncing burkas—and wearing them when they are banned.

It is the timeless fight for choice.

And so Muslim feminists wear lipstick and burkas. We paint our nails to proudly announce that we're menstruating and observe "traditional hi'jab." We wear miniskirts and high heels and jeans and headpieces and perfume. (My personal current favorite is Stella by Stella McCartney...a little thick for summer but a light spray is AMAZING.) We defy stereotypical expectations in every way possible, as fearless hijabis and scholarly femmes. We consider having Slutwalks in which the participants wear burkas. (Because, dammit, women are raped in burkas—in no matter what we wear.) Which naturally prompts the question: If everything about our appearances is symbolically a significant contextual rebellion—when will we be free?

We are choosing, at least, the ways in which we rebel. And despite the claims of evolutionary psychologists, global patriarchy, and a particular type of radfem, women are whole, complete agents in our own lives and can fully grant and deny consent as is our right. It is the rest of the world—men, society, other women—that judges what our actions mean.

In July, I wrote a piece titled "Reclaiming Femininity," which ends with the lines, "Satirists and the patriarchy scoff and say, nowadays everything is female empowerment. And I want to scream, And does that tell you nothing?" Indeed, it is true—for not only Muslim feminists but all feminists—that the very fact our movement involves so many seemingly contradictory angles is evidence of the infliction of enormous damage by patriarchy from every possible direction. Each angle is redemptive. It is a story that repeats for centuries, and yet over and over the point is missed: Let women choose.


  1. So much of this was news to me. Fascinating news.

  2. very interesting background on the veil here...
    I have also read about the variety of ways in which it is worn--to indicate different messages.

  3. Rebekah, I know, right? It makes me want to paint my nails only when I'm menstruating. I sort of like the thought of having a little shout-out!

    Terri, it was certainly enlightening to me too--I'd only read of it as oppression or, occasionally, freedom, but knew nothing of its origins.