Shaheen Pasha: How Western Muslim Women Bear a Double Burden
By Shaheen Pasha
I had to look up the word “objectification” when I was just 11-years-old. I remember trying to understand what it meant to be treated as an object for someone else’s gratification. I remember trying to figure out why it applied to me all of a sudden.
At 11, I was a typical tomboy, sporting short hair, playing kickball, and trying to keep my coke-bottle glasses from breaking as I slid into home base. Then all of a sudden, I developed. It was almost overnight and the same boys that I ran around with on the playground began to look at me with different eyes. I was uncomfortable but I ignored it, as woman of all ages are taught to do. It wasn’t until a group of boys surrounded me in the gym and began to strut around with baseballs under their shirts in imitation of my new, traitorous figure that a teacher pulled me aside and said, “Don’t allow yourself to be objectified.” The onus of their bad behavior apparently fell on me.
As a woman, we learn that our bodies and our identity are under perpetual scrutiny. Cross your legs, sit like a lady, don’t wear that outfit. The list is endless but the message is clear: suppress who you are or people will judge you. As a Muslim woman, however, my objectification adds on a whole other layer. My gender is not only about my sexuality. It is also a walking, talking personification of the misperceptions and misinterpretations that surround my Islamic faith. It takes on the nuances of cultures that I don’t even belong to yet am expected to represent. I am not a woman. I am a symbol of a religion that 1.6 billion people belong to. I am exotic, I am oppressed, I am a conundrum that apparently needs to be solved.
It is exhausting, particularly when I’m forced to explain that, in many cases, it is the Western savior mentality that has objectified me far more than any misguided and ignorant interpretation of Islam from other Muslims. So here’s a compilation of some of my favorite labels, in the hopes it will help enlighten the masses on the riddle that is this Muslim woman.
The Harem Girl
I grew up loving the stories behind The Arabian Nights. Scheherazade, weaving her tales of magic and intrigue, exemplified, in my mind, the wily, survival instinct that many of the strong Muslim women in my life showed on a daily base. When I thought of The Arabian Nights, I thought badass Muslim woman. Apparently not everyone got the same message from those tales. I was in high school in Brooklyn — a diverse school where neither my skin color nor my religion was an anomaly — when the class hunk sat down beside me in the cafeteria. Blonde-haired and sporting a JV jacket, he smiled eagerly and asked, “in Islam, how old does a girl like you have to be before she has to join a harem? You know, like in Arabian Nights.” I waited for the punch line. It never came.
“Eighteen, I guess, although my family will probably wait until I’m 21 before they have me join,” I said. His eyes lit up.
“Wow, maybe I should convert,” he said.
“You do that,” I responded.
I still wonder how long it took before someone set him straight. I kind of hope he converted and got the shock of his lifetime.
The Exotic Dancer
I love to dance. Turn the music on and I will be the first person to jump on the dance floor. As a Pakistani-American, I love Bollywood and bhangra music. As a Brooklyn girl, turn up the hip-hop, reggae and soca music. Yet, over the years, I’ve been asked one question repeatedly: can you belly dance? It started in my college years, when young men would sidle over to my friends and I at a party. After some small talk, one would figure out I was Muslim by my background. Then would come the inevitable statement: “That’s so exotic. I bet you can belly dance.”
I have heard that line over and over again throughout the years. I think it was meant as compliment, an appreciation of my Orientalist sex appeal. But the assumption never failed to perplex me. So, let me set that straight. Belly dancing is predominantly associated with Middle Eastern and North African cultures. I am not Arab. Most Muslim women in the world are not Arab. Therefore, most Muslim women do not belly dance as par for the course. Just no.
I don’t cover my hair. I never have and I never will. I have no problem wearing clothes that accentuate my figure. Yet, I also have a deep sense of faith and spirituality tied to my religion. I don’t see any disconnect between those two truths. But it never occurred to me how hard it was for others to comprehend this duality until I became an international journalist who happens to write, on occasion, about Muslim issues. Suddenly my appearance was cause for derision among both Muslims and non-Muslims. While fundamentalists within the Muslim community, predictably, condemn me as a Westernized harlot who lost her way, it was the slut shaming I received from non-Muslim men and feminist allies that blew me away.
“If she is Muslim, she better be careful or her Muslim brothers will try to stone her for dressing the way she does,” wrote one enlightened female commentator. Obviously, her concern over my choice to wear jeans and a fitted t-shirt was really heartfelt.
“Dressed like that, she certainly doesn’t look like she’s Muslim,” read another comment.
And my personal favorite: “She should probably shut up and cover up or no Muslim guy will ever want to marry her.”
I’ve been married for 15 years to a Muslim guy.
As Islamophobic rhetoric in the US reaches fever pitch, there have been a number of stories of women in hijab attacked or harassed for the cloth on their heads. I know a few personally. It is a troubling trend. But what particularly bothers me, as a Muslim woman, is how many times I’ve been told that I am smart for not covering my head in this climate. That I am safe because I choose to assimilate. This one bothers me, above all, because it relegates me to the role of a shrinking violet. It implies that my decision to not cover my head is either an act of cowardice or an attempt to somehow hide my religious faith as though it is something to be ashamed of or feared. Of all the statements that take away my agency as a Muslim woman, this is probably the most offensive.
I choose not to wear hijab as a declaration of my personal belief system, which very much includes my religion. That is also true of my many accomplished, beautiful Muslim girlfriends who wear their scarves proudly as declarations of their faith. They are not to blame for the ignorance of bigots who target them. We are two sides of the same coin. If anything, my decision not to wear hijab gives me even more responsibility to speak out for all Muslim women who are targeted. That is hardly an act that will keep me safe.
My daughter is turning 13 this year and has proudly declared herself a feminist. She is still a child in many ways, but I see her rapidly maturing into a beautiful young woman. I know she will turn heads one day. She doesn’t understand the word objectification yet. Not really. She doesn’t realize that she will bear the double burden of being Muslim and a woman in society today. She doesn’t know that she will be under constant scrutiny. I’m hoping we have some time before she figures it out. But something tells me, it may already be happening and she has learned to ignore it. Like so many women do.
(Shaheen Pasha is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. – Courtesy The Dallas Morning News)