Women's Bodies, Hair, and Clothing: What's There to Normalize?

"Leap of Faith". In Arabic calligraphy, the following words are inscribed: "Always do what you are afraid to do".
"Leap of Faith". In Arabic calligraphy, the following words are inscribed: "Always do what you are afraid to do".

With the popularization of social media and other outlets of discourse beyond the academic and the news desk, the discussion on women’s bodies is undergoing a transformation. Media outlets like the Huffington Post publish blogs and articles about women’s daily experiences of body shaming and insecurities that result from societal pressures. Expectations of what women “should” look like are certainly changing. Whether they’re evolving is an entirely different matter, as this depends on subjective ideas of what “progressive” and “evolving” mean.

Embracing curvier and more “festively plump” (my preferred word choice for “larger”) images of women can be empowering. It can be a point of strength to look at society and give it the proverbial middle finger, telling it that it does not get to dictate what women’s bodies should look like.

The same applies for women who struggle with other beauty “ideals” that impinge on their disabilities, natural body types, and hair types, too. There’s a wide body of literature on how women of African descent interact with white-washed beauty ideals on skin tone and hair texture. These beauty ideals impact work environments where Black women are often told that their natural hair and hairstyles are “not professional” – that only sleek, straight hair is desirable to clients and patients, and attracts business.

Lately, women have been confident enough to turn things around, post images of themselves in their “natural form” – whether it is larger, smaller, darker, lighter, coarser, or finer. We now face a virtual world that relies heavily on imagery. With Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media outlets, images dominate the discussion on body image, especially women’s body image.

But does confidence with one’s body image necessarily mean putting it out there on the internet for people to see? Does “body-love”, a concept seemingly introduced recently, rely on presenting ourselves physically for others to accept? Do women’s images need to “go viral” in order to make a point about the way we understand and perceive beauty?

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Enter the hijab, niqab, burkinis, or what have you that many (albeit not all) Muslim women wear. From an Islamic perspective, as well as a Jewish-Orthodox, Sikh (etc) perspective, women prefer to practice “modesty”. Modesty can be defined in many ways, as it relies on an element of subjectivity. What defines modesty? This is a discussion taking place also on the same media outlets mentioned above. Muslim women present their ideas of what beauty and positive body image means. This is particularly revealing in light of the latest efforts to police and criminalize Muslim women’s bodies.

In countries like France, Germany, Spain, and even Canada, Muslim women’s bodies have been politicized to fit an anti-Islam narrative. Post 9/11, and especially post Paris-attacks, Muslim women’s wardrobes have suddenly become everyone else’s business. They have become an object of fascination and obsession. France, which claims to be secular, is more obsessed than ever with religion – with women of a certain religion. Canada’s own former Prime Minister reduced his entire political campaign to whether a Muslim woman should be able to wear the niqab in a citizenship ceremony, despite the Supreme Court ruling to her favour, citing basic constitutional and charter rights. More recently, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, bases his new political campaign on a promise to ban the burkini nation-wide.

It’s remarkable how women’s bodies – especially Muslim women’s bodies – have become such a point of obsession by men on the highest levels of government.

But this should come as no surprise. As is common knowledge, and as history continues to remind us, men have always obsessed over women’s bodies. Women’s bodies give life and pleasure, and have often been regulated, policed, and criminalized. Several American states, as well as other countries, ban abortion and imprison women for performing it, even for miscarriage. Contraception is inaccessible to women. Rape laws protect rapists rather than survivors. If we were here to discuss all the ways in which women’s bodies have been the subject of obsession and policing, we’d be here forever.

But let me return to an earlier point regarding the presentation of our bodies on social and other media to further our perspectives. For the first time, New York Fashion week presented a fashion line by a Muslim designer. Women in hijab strutted down the NY Fashion Week’s catwalk to many observers’ applause. Olympic and Paralympic Muslim athletes’ images have decorated the internet. Weeks later, a Muslim woman and decorated marathoner in hijab graced the cover of a US fitness magazine. At around the same time, a Muslim woman in hijab posed for a Playboy cover. To this latest development, there has been a strong reaction from the Muslim community – both positive and negative.

The woman who posed for Playboy in her hijab claims to use this medium for self-expression and to challenge stereotypes of Muslim women. She claims to represent Muslim women by pushing the envelope and daring greatly to do so on Playboy Magazine, which she and a few others argue is changing its format.

But here’s the thing: Playboy magazine, like many others, has been branded to capitalize on women’s objectification and subjugation. For decades, it has been proudly branded to capitalize on women’s hyper-sexualization. Even as it claims to be changing format, Playboy has openly admitted to doing so as a result of tough competition from porn-providers on the internet for free and cheap. The magazine’s recent efforts to supposedly reformat are not in response to a change of heart and perspective of women in general. If anything, it may even be seen as a response to a recent trend in the porn industry – a trend that fetishizes the hijab. As recent porn films show, women of colour in head scarves “serve” and pleasure White men. This image invokes a long and rich colonial history that hyper-sexualizes the “exotic other”. The “exotic other” has included Muslim, Black, Latina, and First Nations women. We deal with the remnants of this long history that hyper-sexualizes our bodies till this day.

Over-looking that history by posing for Playboy magazine, considering recent trends in the porn industry, is a failure to examine social culture. Claiming that posing for such a magazine is an effort to “normalize” the hijab is naïve, at best. Moreover, it begs the question of not only what exactly are we trying to normalize, but what are those norms to which we’re adhering, and who gets to determine what these norms are? Unfortunately, in an effort to “normalize” the hijab, one may inadvertently normalize the “fetishization” of the hijab. Also, in an effort to “normalize” the hijab, Muslim Youtube “stars” and fashion bloggers conform to beauty ideals and norms imposed by the fashion and cosmetic industries. While the rest of society is giving these industries the proverbial middle finger as they take charge of their bodies, a minority of Muslim women who crave acceptance and validation from a hostile environment, that labels them as terrorists, are conforming to norms that contradict the concept of the hijab. Let’s be honest: a “sexy hijabi” is an oxymoron. The hijab is meant to privatize women’s bodies, achieve women’s self-determination, away from society’s reach.

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As time progresses, feminism changes its tone. Many Muslims, including myself, argue that the hijab is feminist in essence. Strength lies in choice. By choosing the hijab, Muslim women are empowered. Some may argue that making the choice to pose for Playboy, or present oneself in any other capacity is feminist, as well. But here’s my question, and it comes from a place of genuine introspection: is it feminist to present ourselves in such capacities in a constant search for approval? Are we challenging societal norms and beauty ideals by seeking approval and validation? Shouldn’t we just continue to live our lives on our own terms, without demanding validation and approval from others? Is it too idealistic to propose that we do so?

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When the burkini was recently banned in a handful of French cities, it was met with not only global outrage, but with a French court’s decision that it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Sarkozy still laid out his policy to ban the burkini if elected for president. A couple of French city mayors have chosen to challenge the court decision by enforcing the ban. In contrast, not only have Muslim women launched the debate on their right to dress as they please, but men and non-Muslims have joined in their self-defense (and otherwise). It is fascinating to see how a woman’s clothing choice can launch such great and global discourse.

Watching from a distance, I took great interest and read essentially every article on the matter that I could find. I absorbed all the various opinions on the topic. As a woman, and particularly a Muslim woman, I ached to write and share my thoughts. But something held me back. I kept on asking myself, “what original ideas do I have that would contribute greatly to the discussion?” It’s not a new discussion, and most opinions on the matter have been regurgitated ad hominem.

Then one day, I read an article where the non-Muslim, female author genuinely asked:

“In those places where hijabs are banned, can women who have lost their hair, perhaps from cancer treatments, wear a headscarf?”

I sat there, re-read the question, and sighed. I scratched my head, took a great, heavy pause, then asked, “YES, what about women who have lost their hair? Can’t they wear a headscarf if they want to?”

I looked at the article page, then glanced over to a Gif image of a woman surrounded by two men, each either dressing her in a “burqa” or stripping her completely, except for her underwear. She glanced uncomfortably and in confusion at both men as they both took the liberty of deciding for her whether she should or should not be covered. This Muslim woman’s agency was completely stripped, and no one asked her what she wanted.

I paused again and asked, “YES, what about women who don’t have hair?” I scratched my head again.

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Only a few weeks prior, I had – after a long wait – decided to shave my head. After a thirteen-year battle with alopecia, I decided to take things into my own hands and shave my head. Alopecia is an auto-immune condition where the body’s immune system fights hair follicles, mistaking them for a virus or toxin in the body. This results in chronic hair loss – whether only on the scalp (alopecia areata) or all throughout the body (alopecia universalis, totalis). For thirteen years, I struggled with the idea of losing my hair, of not looking the way women are “meant to look” – with full, healthy hair. For thirteen years, I had compared myself to the women around me, including my own family, wondering why and how I got alopecia and lost my hair, when no one else I knew did. The older I turned, the more I questioned whether any man would want to spend the rest of his life with an alopecian woman. I never wanted to question my desirability, but interactions with people provoked me to do so.

Over the past year, I ached to shave my head. I had read some testimonies online from alopecian women that shaving one’s head is empowering. By doing so, one would be taking things into her own hands, be in control, and embrace the condition that has no cure (but many excruciating treatments and others that give false hopes). I really wanted to shave my head, but my family did not support the choice. I kept on asking my siblings whether they would help me shave my head, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do so or to even accept the thought. I wanted to shave my head so badly, but wanted support and acceptance.

But then, Ramadhan happened. It is a month of not only fasting, but worship, meditation, and introspection. After much meditation and praying, I finally decided to just go for it. Two days later, I shaved my head. I actually did.

Here’s the remarkable realization I had: it was not scary or emotional as I had thought it would be. The head-shaving may or may have not been a culmination of all my emotional ups and downs with an unpredictable medical condition. Either way, it was done. Finally.

My family had visceral reactions to my head shaving decision. They couldn’t look at the photos I shared with them of my bald head. They were not used to this new image of me, and could not embrace it so easily. Needless to say, it took them a long while to accept it. Months later, I feel that they still have a long way to go.

My own family’s reactions prompted me to think about shame, discomfort, and how both relate to women’s bodies in particular. The more I spoke about alopecia with friends, the more I realized people are simply uncomfortable with the topic; with the idea of a woman losing hair. I kept on wondering why. WHY does some scalp on woman, but not on a man, make people uncomfortable? Bald men are deemed attractive and hot, but women aren’t? Why? As some friends have suggested, this simply has to do with long-standing norms and beauty ideals pertaining to the female body. This has to do with expectations, and apparently, losing one’s hair disappoints people’s expectations. Either way, I realize people need time to get used to the idea.

Since shaving my head, I have attended a conference by the Canadian National Alopecia Areata Foundation, where I met a diverse group of people dealing with the same condition. They included men, women, children, teens, and adults. NBA star Charlie Villanueva gave an inspiring talk about his experience with alopecia. Children and teenagers’ faces were lit with joy. There stood a celebrity – a successful, talented athlete – with whom they could directly relate. To them, he is an inspiration. He embraced his condition and celebrated it. Now they could, too.

After having many discussions with fellow alopecians at this conference, I realized shame was prevalent. As much as everyone wanted to accept, embrace, and celebrate alopecia, as well as their individuality, they feared what others would think and feel about their hair loss. Everyone feared judgment, and that was natural. There were creativity sessions, and vendors selling wigs, hats, scarves and various ways to cover bald heads. I couldn’t help but realize – we’re protecting societal norms and expectations, enabling them, and allowing them to be uncomfortable with our bald heads. Sometimes, this is conscious, and sometimes it is not. Some (all non-Muslim) asked me how great it must be to be wearing a hijab - to be protected from people’s judgmental eyes. Suddenly, my hijab held different meanings to me more than ever.

After shaving my head, and after attending this conference, my inner dialogue began to really show change. I viewed myself as a strong, empowered woman with agency. I went against my family’s discomfort and advice, shaved my head, and now love my bald, badass self.

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Here’s the thing: to be badass is to be yourself. To be badass is to embrace tribulation as a blessing. To be badass is to embrace your faith in spite of a world growing increasingly hostile to your existence. To be badass is to cripple misogyny by practicing female and individual agency; not by seeking misogyny’s validation. To be badass is to engage in critical awareness discourse, not flaunt one’s body in a constant search for approval and validation. To mind one’s life, promote awareness in the face of ignorance, and love one’s body is badass.

Since shaving my head, a small part of me has wished I could just unveil my head to show people that I am more badass than they ever thought I was. But in response, I find myself thinking, “No. I choose to privatize my body because I love it so much. That is what the hijab is to me – privatization of the body, disarming the public reach to it, and taking full control of it myself. My body is God’s gift to me. He gave me hair, and took it away. I believe in Him and in myself, just like He does. I don’t need validation from others if I can find it within.

My alopecia has strengthened my faith in God and in myself. For that, I find it to be a blessing, not a tribulation. Not anymore. I will not let society tell me that I am unattractive, un-feminine, or going through a “life test”. I am who I am, with and without my body. What I do with it, at the end of the day, is MY choice. I do not cover my head to ease people’s discomfort with my baldness; I cover my body to own it.

So to my sisters – Muslim and non-Muslim alike, I say this: let’s just live our lives on our own terms, and not heed voices of misogyny. Let us not heed voices that second-guess our instincts. Let us not heed voices that try to politicize, regulate, criminalize, commodify, and objectify our bodies and souls. Let us not heed voices that try to use our bodies to further their dogmatic and consumerist ideals. In the end, the body is only temporary. Only you get to control your body while it lasts. Normalize nothing but love and compassion. Just be present.

(September is Alopecia Awareness Month. For more info on Alopecia, see: http://www.canaaf.org/ and make a donation of your choice to further medical research on Alopecia)

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