Progressives should act like progressives –
even when Islam is concerned
The first woman in a hijab to anchor a television news broadcast! To dance as a ballerina! To fence in the Olympics! To — cue for gasps at the sheer progressive splendor of the moment — pose in Playboy!
Headlines proclaiming such “firsts” — performed by Muslim women living, nota bene, in the United States and Canada — have appeared often in the press over the past couple of years. Surely by now you’ve seen them. The associated coverage is frequently gushing, but when it is not, it is not probing, and certainly not critical. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the regressive left’s insidious attempt at brainwashing well-meaning liberals into lauding what should be, in our increasingly diverse societies, at best a neutral fact: freedom of speech means freedom of religion. Women should be free to dress as they please. Some Muslim women wear hijabs and are the first to do so in various endeavors.
By no means does freedom of religion, however, confer on religion or religious customs exemptions from criticism, satire, or even derision. The American revolutionary Thomas Paine, among others, established that. Too much is at stake. Unsupported by evidence, at odds with science, and frequently deleterious to the common good, religion and its attendant customs deserve intense, sustained rationalist scrutiny. Our fellows, of course, are free to base their lives on ancient claptrap ideologies entailing uncritical acceptance of absurdities (talking snakes, virgin births, flying horses, and so on), but they should not expect the rest of us to ignore or let pass without comment the intrusion of said claptrap into the public arena. In the United States, for example, the faith-addled — though, thankfully, dwindling in number — use their votes to the detriment of, inter alia, reproductive rights, the right to die with dignity, and public education. With religion losing its grip on the young, progressives of all ages need to seize the initiative and speak out. The established trend is toward nonbelief.
Hence, few spectacles are more puzzling, disturbing, hypocritical, and potentially damaging to women’s rights — and therefore to human progress as a whole — than the de facto campaign in some purportedly liberal press outlets to normalize the hijab and portray it as a hallmark of feminist pride and dignity, and not as a sartorial artifact of a misogynistic, seventh-century ideology, forced upon its wearers by law in some countries and by hidebound cultural norms and community and familial pressure, even violence, elsewhere.
It should shock true progressives that the hijab’s media champions are, in the majority, non-Muslim women residing in the West, working for secular publications, and enjoying the protections afforded by a secular legal environment: no one is going to force them into a hijab, or threaten or murder them if they refuse to wear it. They may well hold that they are promoting the right of a mostly nonwhite minority to dress as they please and follow the faith of their choosing, but in fact they are traducing freethinking women in this same minority — and, what’s worse, with the implicit backing of thugs, acid-throwers, and assassins. Their campaign reeks of betrayal of the most craven kind — inadvertent though it may be.
Before moving on to specimens of “first-hijabi” reportage, it’s worth noting that Muslim populations everywhere — even in Saudi Arabia — comprise both men and women of varying degrees of faith, from diehard believers to reformists to doubters and outright atheists and those who just don’t give a hoot about religion. (Atheism is, in fact, growing in the Arab world.) Journalists who assume, say, that imams or hijab-clad women speak for everyone in their communities unjustly deprive nonbelievers, especially nonbelieving women, of representation. Reformists and nonbelieving women nominally of Muslim background often live with threats of violence and even death, and frequently find themselves ostracized. The brave, Somali-born atheist and public intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali is only the most famous example (she has needed armed guards ever since, more than a decade ago, when she began speaking out against Islam), but others, including the Canadian blogger and illustrator who goes by the name of Eiynah (@NiceMangos) are also at risk. Eiynah has to hide her true identity for obvious security reasons — a fact that should give the hijab’s cheerleaders pause, to say the least. Again, we are talking about residents of North America, not North Africa.
To the press. The highest-profile “first-hijabi” was, no doubt, the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics on the American team. This turned out to be something less than the sparkling gala moment for hijabis it was initially touted as. Muhammad’s mother chose this sport for her because she could practice it while wearing a headscarf. Ibtihaj Muhammad later said herself that “I wanted to find a sport where I could be fully covered and I didn’t have to look different” (given that a protective mask would hide her face anyway). Though her adherence to Islamic modesty customs effectively ruled out any of the thirty-nine other sports at which she might have excelled in the Olympics, the Huffington Post saw fit to inform us that this restricted captive of her mother’s worldview was “Winning Hearts Everywhere” and that her participation in the games (drastically limited as it was) was, of all things, a “Feminist Moment.”
The Huffington Post also apprised us of the case of the fourteen-year-old Stephanie Kurlow, an Australian who converted to Islam at age ten, and her hopes of being the first hijabi ballerina. Young Kurlow tried to crowd-fund her dance school tuition, but eventually, Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg (who professed to be “really moved” by her story) stepped in, and his organization offered to foot the bill. Upon learning this, Kurlow declared that she sought to “bring the world together by becoming the very first hijab-wearing ballerina” and wanted to “encourage everyone to join together no matter what faith, race or colour” and thereby “leave [sic] in a world with greater acceptance.”
How Kurlow intends to “bring everyone together” by espousing a faith mandating everlasting hellfire for non-Muslims — still the majority of humans on this planet — and death for apostates and gays, is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, Bjorg’s marketing director swooned over her. “The strength and the courage that it takes for [a] 14-year-old to not give up in a situation like this, to see possibilities where others see problems, is exceptional.” (Italics mine.)
“In a situation like this?” Presumably, Kurlow converted to Islam of her own free will; it’s not like she suddenly found herself stricken with polio. What is truly exceptional is this marketing director’s discounting the obvious — that fourteen-year-olds, to say nothing of ten-year-olds, sometimes do and say silly things. Perhaps worse, though, is that an editor would exploit a teen and her possibly temporary adherence to a belief system to make a highly questionable political point.
When Kurlow grows up and abandons Islam, as she may well do, will the Huffington Post be on hand to cover it?
Kurlow credited — if such is the right word — Amna Al Haddad (a hijabi weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates) and Noor Tagouri, a hijabi Internet news anchor in the United States, with inspiring her to pursue a career in ballet while duly scarved. The twenty-two-year-old Tagouri has since garnered attention for being the first hijabi to pose (fully clothed) for the “Renegades” issue of Playboy (which no longer runs photos of naked women). The headline for the Huffington Post article about her states, without intimations of satire, that “Noor Tagouri Makes a Forceful Case for Modesty.” Again, by appearing in Playboy.
(Google Tagouri and you will find quite a few photos showcasing boldly — that is, immodestly — her model-level looks on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You will also come across a saccharine Hollywood Life piece about her career, which leaves readers no doubt about how she has leveraged her faith to make a name for herself.)
The Huffington Post also publishes, without commentary but with typos, Tagouri’s assertion that she believes “in rebellion as a form of honestly [sic] . . . . To be our most authentic self is to rebellious [sic].” Wait – to be one’s most “authentic self” as a twenty-first-century American woman means adopting a 1,400-year-old religion that demand wives submit to their husbands (even abusive husbands), sets out inegalitarian inheritance rights for women, permits taking captive women as sex slaves, and even sanctions the savage butchery that is female genital mutilation? No one at the Huffington Post thought to ask her such impertinent questions.
Anyway, since when does obedience to religious dictates count as rebellious? Lest we forget, truly rebellious Iranian women took to the streets to protest against being forced into the hijab after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. We are obliged to conclude the obvious: professing Islam as a woman is “renegade” in the West, but only if we ignore or know nothing about the faith’s onerous misogynistic injunctions. It would hardly be so “renegade” in, say, ISIS-held territory in Libya — the homeland of Tagouri’s parents.
The Independent, in covering Tagouri’s men’s mag “achievement,” at least publishes a couple of critical accompanying tweets:
— Rowida (@EdgarAllanRo) September 23, 2016
. @NTagouri you really shouldn't feel honored to be featured in a magazine that profits from objectifying women.
— Zainab Al-Rawi (@zeerawi) September 24, 2016
In the same genre of the “immodestly modest” The Washington Post recounted the story of Colorado-born beauty-blogger Nura Afia, a twenty-four-year-old hijabi who is “one of the new faces of CoverGirl.” The author at least adumbrates the checkered reality surrounding the “choice” to wear the hijab in Muslim countries. Afia, chosen as an ambassador for CoverGirl’s So Lashy! BlastPro Mascara campaign, told CNN that, “It’s a big accomplishment for all of us,” since “we’re average Americans . . . . We’re just girls that love to play with makeup and do everyday stuff.” CNN also informs us that Afia “has more than 200,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, where she posts video tutorials on how to recreate various makeup looks, and more than 300,000 followers on Instagram.” By the virtual world’s standards, this is some mightily impressive “modesty.”
Which prompts me to ask, just how much money and fame can a “modest” woman earn by capitalizing on her profession of Islam? CoverGirl is finding out, that’s for sure. And their target audience (and profits) certainly look set to grow.
Most recently, Halima Aden, a nineteen-year-old Somali-American teen from Minnesota, won attention for a two-for-one: for being, again according to the Huffington Post (notice a pattern?), the “first ever contestant . . . to wear a hijab and a burkini” in, of all things, the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. A tweet reproduced shows a video of Aden, thus attired, swinging her hips – modestly? – as “contestant number one” on the catwalk in the swimsuit competition. Emblazoned above her Huffington Post accolade in hot pink letters is PAVING THE WAY.
Halima Aden starts off Miss Minnesota USA's swimsuit segment to big cheers from the crowd. Announcer: "She's making history tonight." pic.twitter.com/OUvbHv6xct
— Liz Sawyer (@ByLizSawyer) November 27, 2016
One wonders, paving the way to what? to the dawn of Islamic theocracy in Minneapolis? To the shaming of non-hijabi Muslim women across the land? To the shaming of uncovered nonbelieving women in general? A hijab- and burkini-bound beauty contestant “paves the way” to nowhere I would want to go. And hey, aren’t beauty pageants something to which we progressives should object? In any case, a shame-based retrograde view of the female body (as nothing but a provoker of male lust) forms the core of modesty dress codes, be they Islamic, Christian, or Jewish. Such codes implicitly brand the women who choose not to comply as impious sluts inferior to the Righteous Ones strutting about in their ostentatiously self-segregating getup.
There are, to be sure, other “first-hijabi” features on line. What we should remember when perusing all this digital dross is that donning said headscarf is either required by law, imposed by custom, or at least strongly encouraged in countries across the Muslim world — countries ranked, by the standards of the World Economic Forum, as eighteen of the nineteen worst on earth for women. Violators of the law or custom can be murdered or threatened with execution, as the Saudi woman who dared post on line a picture of herself hijab-less in public found out, as contributors to the Iranian hijab-free site My Stealthy Freedom know, and as women who have escaped ISIS territory and joyously ripped off their hijabs would attest.
The hijab signals a deep, unbridgeable, and mostly (at least in the above-mentioned articles) unacknowledged ideological divide between hijabi women and the rest. Which does not mean that the garment should be proscribed or that, by any means, obviously, those who wear it should be harassed. Eiynah tells us, in a must-read piece, that, “Yes, we must oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, but we must keep in mind that this doesn’t mean glorification of modesty codes that target women.” However, she notes, and it’s worth quoting her at length, that her
[S]ocial media feeds are inundated with well-meaning liberal friends sharing article upon article praising, celebrating, glorifying religious garments like the hijab/niqab. But it’s a garment used exclusively in its original form to ensure women cover up lest they provoke the lust of men. . . . The Muslim girls who want to be ballerinas, athletes or models and aren’t hijabis simply aren’t given very much coverage.
As someone who immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia, who was forced by morality police to cover her hair, threatened with a cane, I cannot stomach the fetishization and praise surrounding these practices that are primarily used to control and hold women back.
Eiynah’s voice deserves to be heard a lot more than it is. Ironically, if she donned the hijab, it surely would be.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, Topless Jihadis — Inside Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group, is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.