Let's Appreciate, Not Appropriate Muslim Women

This Womens’ History Month, you will see countless websites, news outlets, businesses, and social media pages celebrate women and the rich history we have. This is a big step from the misogynistic outlets of the past, and it’s refreshing to see a visibly Muslim woman (often with a hijab) featured on these platforms. Although we should be excited by the inclusion of Muslim women in these spaces, a graphic with a Muslim woman on it doesn’t necessarily mean we are being included and appreciated in the right way. Oftentimes, this inclusion on a graphic or an ad in Times Square makes us forget the appropriation and exclusion that Muslim women face in the United States and worldwide.

Just a few days ago, Switzerland joined Belgium and France in passing legislation banning Islamic coverings (burqa and niqab) in public. (Source: Muslim) In the midst of a pandemic where face masks are common, Muslim women are banned from covering their faces with a niqab, clearly showing that the law has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with Islamaphobia. Feminist organizations in all of these countries support these laws, excluding Muslim women from the female narrative and not supporting their choice to cover.

Globally, Muslim women are also excluded from taking part in women’s empowerment movements and events. In Jerusalem, Israeli police shut down a small event organized by Palestinian women to celebrate International Women’s Day and a few of the organizers of the event were taken into questioning (Source: IMEU). Although Muslim women are included on the surface level, PR-related feminism, if you look deeper our narratives and traditions are being banned and excluded all over the world.

In addition to Muslim women being banned from being modest and celebrating their heritage, the idea of a covered Muslim woman has become extremely exoticized. The idea of unveiling a Muslim woman has perpetuated global media, including TV shows, movies, and social media. Countless film and TV productions have featured a Muslim woman taking off her hijab for a man’s love and attention, including Hala, 9-11, Elite, and Ramy. This narrative has overtaken many other voices and made Muslim women seem to have only one purpose: to find the attention of a man and unveil for their sake.

Even in the modeling industry, Muslim women have been sexualized and taken advantage of; their modesty used as a tool to make them more enticing to “unveil”. One of the first hijabi models, Halima Aden, completely left the industry a few months ago because she felt like she had to sacrifice her modesty in order to fit into the industry. She shared how producers forced her to participate in projects that made her feel like an exotic object. Although she was providing representation, the modeling industry appropriated Halima’s hijab and made her feel excluded. Yet again, Muslimahs are being represented but in a way that is detrimental to our identity and faith.

The modeling industry is not the only place where Muslim women are exoticized. Recently, Muslim match apps such as Muzmatch and Salaams have been overtaken by non-Muslim men looking to date/hook up with Muslim women since they are “harder to get” and more “exclusive” due to being more modest. This has made the experience of Muslim women trying to find a partner all the more difficult since they are constantly being appropriated and fetishized by non-muslim men.

As Muslim women, we need to make sure that we are being appreciated for all that we are: our history, our modesty, and our love for Islam as a religion that empowers us fully. When we see a graphic or a picture with Muslim women included, we should feel happy but we need to dig deeper to make sure that representation doesn’t misrepresent who we are and what we stand for. When we are being exoticized and appropriated as a woman who needs saving from an oppressive system, we need to fight against this narrative and show the beauty of Islam and the role women play.

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