Rage over Hijab in the Age of Sexual Objectification


While the so-called gender-equal societies rage over Muslim women taking on Hijabs, they purposefully turn a blind eye to the vast sexualization and objectification of women in the media and fashion industry.


T A NELOFAR, KERALA

JULY 8, 2020

Why women need to cover up, why can’t men control themselves? Do you think men will change, just because, women cover-up? I don’t see anyone sexually harassed just because they don’t wear a hijab

This was something my friend asked me, as we trod along the busy streets of Kochi. She was pouring out her opinions on the headscarf, which I had chosen to wear from those days. Her questions may seem quite reasonable to be asked in a world where Hijab is still seen as a patriarchal symbol forced upon women. But, as a Muslim woman, I wish to differ.

The majority around the globe consider the Islamic teaching of Purdah as a restriction placed solely upon women to limit them from participating in different spheres of human activities. The actions of autocratic regimes who consider themselves as ‘Islamic countries’ and the cultural norms portrayed by the media as being Islamic fuel up these misconceptions. This misrepresentation of Islam has become so common that even people living in the Arctic Circle have a notion ingrained in their minds that the women wearing Hijab or Burqa are oppressed.

But, what exactly do the true teachings of Islam say about Hijab? According to the Holy Quran, the practice of Hijab is not limited to women alone. On the contrary, the Quran primarily asks men to practice it. It says:

Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and stand guard over their sexual impulses. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.[1]

Here, men are commanded to control themselves and treat women respectfully, irrespective of their attire. It is quite important to note that the Quran lays stress on the control of gazes before asking to control the sexual impulses. Because, as concluded by a review article on sexual behaviour[2], visual stimuli play a crucial role in male sexual arousal than in female sexual arousal. Thus, teaching men to control their gazes from childhood is the key to make them control their sexual impulses.

This Islamic teaching was exemplified by the Holy Prophetsa when a strikingly beautiful woman approached him seeking guidance on some religious matters. One of his companions, Al Fadl began to stare at her because of her beauty. Noticing this, the Prophetsa caught Al Fadl’s chin and gently turned his face to the other side so that he may not stare at her.[3]

Yet, this primary teaching of the Quran is neglected in many levels so much so that gazing lustfully at women or even watching pornography is deemed as healthy and culturally accepted in many parts of the world. Statistics reveal that 28,258 users are watching pornography every second and 88% of scenes in porn films contain acts of physical aggression.[4]

Thus, boys and men learn from a young age to gaze at women uncontrollably, leaving no guard over their sexual impulses and driving them to see women as sexual objects. Herein lies the root of the problem of sexual harassment and domestic violence faced by women all across the globe. Moreover, the society itself is naive about the need for control of gazes as proposed by the Quran, that it continues to condemn sexual harassment but does nothing to demolish the whole system which creates sexual predators.

But, why should women cover-up themselves? Will not all problems end if men truly control themselves? Does a woman’s clothing play a role at all? A study conducted on neural responses to sexualized targets shows when men see images of women dressed in bikinis, a part of their brain gets activated which is associated with tools, as compared to seeing images of fully dressed women.[5]

Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as ‘I push, I grasp, I handle’, which suggests that ‘sexualized women are more closely associated with being the objects, not the agents, of action as compared to clothed women’. On the other hand, they associated fully clothed women with third-person forms, ‘indicating that these women were perceived as being in control of their own actions’. This finding reveals the role of women’s clothing and points out the graver consequences of the objectifying culture prevalent in the fashion industry.

Yet, the objectification of women has become the norm of advertisements and online media platforms. A study conducted by researchers at Wesleyan University found that ‘on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 per cent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects. However, when women appeared in advertisements in men’s magazines, they were objectified 76 per cent of the time’.[6]

This sad reality is further gruesome in the way it triggers up violence against women. A study based on perception neuroscience concludes sexual violence as the ‘consequence of a dehumanized perception of female bodies that aggressors acquire through their exposure and interpretation of objectified body images’[7]. This is further validated by UNICEF USA which states that ‘the objectification and sexualization of girls in the media is linked to violence against women and girls worldwide’.[8]

Thus, as proposed by Islam, modest clothing can offer protection for women to a greater extent and stop them from getting degraded as ‘objects’. Yet, ironically, Burqas and Hijabs continue to be specifically portrayed as inhumane and regressive, while the vast objectification of women done in the disguise of fashion and freedom is promoted as ‘liberating’.

Islam says ‘no’ to this destructive agenda of dehumanizing women, which judges them based on their fairness or beauty standards. Islam emphasizes on intellect, talent, and innate qualities and thus stands for the true liberation of women.

In actuality, Islam asks women to stop defining themselves in terms of outward attractiveness and to take safety in their own hands rather than relying upon the goodness of fellow men. It asks them to place physical or spiritual boundaries during interactions with the opposite gender while in public and private, to safeguard and protect themselves from possible dangers.

Unfortunately, these teachings based on gender justice, which place the social responsibility of morality on both men and women are vastly misunderstood. The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, has shed light upon the real teachings of Islam. He says:

The Book of God does not aim at keeping women in seclusion like prisoners. This is the concept of those who are not acquainted with the correct pattern of Islamic ways. The purpose of these regulations is to restrain men and women from letting their eyes rove freely and from displaying their good looks and beauties, for therein lies the good of men and women.[10]

Hence the question is when delirious patriarchal comments of misogynistic clerics are often quoted, why the true teachings of Islam are purposefully ignored? When the gender-equal societies rage over Muslim women taking on Hijabs, why does it turn a blind eye to the vast sexualization and objectification of women in fashion magazines, advertisements, and the worst, in porn sites?

So, when objectification is the ulterior motive of the so-called ‘liberators of women’, there is no wonder why a Muslim woman, who chooses to defy the standards of outward attractiveness by giving precedence to her faith, is deemed to be ‘oppressed’ and not liberated. Thus, rather than getting blindfolded in the race to keep up the orientalist tradition of ‘liberating’ Muslim women, I think, the time is up for the world to open its eyes to the monstrous marketers, for whom, ‘liberation’ is just a tool of commodification.


The author is an undergraduate in Physics and serves as the President of Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Students Association, Ernakulam, Kerala.


References:

[1] Holy Quran 24:31

[2] Heather A. Rupp, K. W. (2008). Sex Differences in Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli: A Review. Archives of sexual behaviour, 206-218.

[3] Sahih Bukhari Kitab al-istizaan, Sahih Muslim Kitab al-Hajj

[4] Pornography Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from Covenant eyes: https://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/

[5] Susan .T. Fiske, J. L. (2010, March). From Agents to Objects: Sexist Attitudes and Neural Responses to Sexualized Targets. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 540-551.

[6] Rosselli, J. M. (2008). Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements. Sex Roles, 579–589.

[7] Awasthi, B. (2017, March). From Attire to assault: Clothing, Objectification and Dehumanization- A possible prelude to sexual violence? Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

[8] Jaimee Swift, H. G. (2020, January 15). Not An Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls. Retrieved from Unicef USA: https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366

[9] Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2008). Retrieved from American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report

[10] Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Philosophy of the teachings of Islam, (1905)

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