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The Modern Muslim Woman is Who She Chooses to Be

11 January 2012 General 79 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

By Maryam Ismail (The National)

Where did this image of the oppressed Muslim woman come from and when will this battle against it stop? Growing up on a diet of Saturday TV matinees, every “Muslim woman” I saw in the movies was a belly dancer with a lot of chiffon wrapped around her. Mata Hari, who was actually a Dutch divorcée who recreated herself as a Javanese Hindu princess, changed the world of exotic women forever. In the films of old it was the dance of the seven veils that would woo a man into revealing secrets of war. Today, it seems there is the idea that under one’s hijab lies some mystical inner working, one that needs to be covered up by another layer of normality.

This seemed to be the idea at a recent panel discussion called “The Role of Muslim Women in Society”. This discussion was part of the ICover photograph exhibit by Sadaf Syed at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. This exhibit is a sort of official debut of the new American Muslim. This newly christened, hybrid identity is one that hopes to erase all ties with Muslim cultural, ethnic and linguistic history.

The exhibit tries to show Muslim women breaking the boundaries of so-called tradition. Muslimah rockers, surfers and boxers are some of the examples of the “modern Muslim woman”. OK, that may be well and good, but I am so tired of this conversation. Muslims are people and by virtue of this essential fact, they are going to do what they want. Perhaps some might wag a finger and proclaim this is un-Islamic. Others will argue that traditional (Islamic) ideology is a thing past and shout: “Come on now, get over it.”

I am so over hijab hysteria.

Standing on the sidelines of this discourse is like watching a dog chase its tail with the sincere hope of catching it. And if he does, what will happen? More than likely, he’ll yelp and bite himself again for being so stupid. Why should it be a special event if a woman who wears a hijab decides to be a fencer or a ballerina? Is it out of the realm of faith? Some may not think so and others may not care. Then, there may be another premise: that wearing the hijab will show the world that Muslim women have arrived. However, I think that if this is the case, they may end up being the oldest debutantes at the ball.

This was the case during the panel discussion sponsored by the US Consulate in Dubai. On the panel were the fashion designer Rabia K, the media consultant Wafa KBR, the artist Najat Mekky and the US foreign service officer Marwa Zeini. The first three are Emirati women who have been successful in their fields despite their covering Islamically and came to discuss their experiences. I don’t want to steal my sisters’ thunder – they deserve their applause, because their journeys have not been easy – but they were managing their lives as they see fit, within the context of their circumstances.

“Muslim women should wear clothes that they can run and play in,” Zeini said. Was she trying to tap into my unconscious and force me to do battle with my former self? Just then, I got an uneasy feeling that someone was going to kidnap me the moment I stepped into the streets, and then announce the next day that I was miraculously freed by Brad Pitt and American values.

If anything, I wish someone would rescue me from this endless notion that a woman is nothing unless she aspires to run with the big boys or tosses her Muslim soul into the sea and declares she’s free at last. Can we please talk about something else?

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Original post: The Modern Muslim Woman is Who She Chooses to Be


  1. well, I am so happy she is over it.

  2. The image came from the patriarchal, sexist Western mentality that women have no value unless they are seen & judged by men.

  3. It came from orientalism.

  4. it will never stop. its been ongoing for centuries under the European paradigm that invented it and the same one which keeps perpetuating it.

  5. Maybe when they are able to have the same rights as men in the middle east

  6. who gives a shit where it came from, lets try and stop it!

  7. It goes way back before that, to Biblical times and before. It’s the male dominated establishment dragging it’s feet, reluctant to recognize women as equal in stature.

  8. n0thng bt way 2 attak muslima

  9. It would be so nice if a woman’s appearance, whatever it might be, is not the thing by which she is judged in any way, shape or form.

  10. Why do men in the Middle Eastern regions, Islamics, get to wear what ever they want, but the men want the women totally covered up. Makes you wonder…..they (men) say that women are pearls and must not be looked at….why were women created with curves, breasts, etc…..because women are not MEN. The scarf or head garb, I have read, origins…goes back to Roman times. Used as a cover from dust and the sun. This seems more logical. Just some thoughts. Some pictures I’ve seen compare Catholic nuns to the hijab…actually, most nuns now do not have to wear a Habit, or the dress of the old days with the total cover and head gear. They wear regular clothes, but they do not flaunt themselves in skimpy clothes. Corrections are welcome to my post.

  11. You say Islam, I say Christianity. I fail to see the difference between the two and how they treat women, past and present.

    What “Thinking” woman would go surfing with that get-up on. It would water-log and could cause a poor swimmer to go under.

  12. christian women in middle east dont wear any hijab because its their do muslim women..they wear it because its part of their belief..they want to wear get over with it..

  13. I prefer the “practicing” muslim woman

  14. In my opinion, there is a vast difference between a woman wearing what feels right to her, and being forced to wear what men think she should wear. If the women want to wear this type of clothing, then I respect that (even though I never would do so), if they are being forced to wear this clothing….

  15. It comes from our media…. just like all the other lies.

  16. She has to wear that , it is an obligation is islam ; not a choice !
    May allah guide us to the straight way !

  17. Islam protects women and keep it pure and clean ! IAM PROUF TO BE MUSLIM THANK GOD !!!

  18. Male supremacism didn’t originate from ANY particular culture: it was present in all cultures, whether oriental, european or western, in all corners of the world. But arguing about its origins doesn’t change the fact that it still exists, and doesn’t help the situation either: we can’t change what’s in the past, especially something so deeply rooted. The Qur’an tells us that before Islam the pagan Arabs would see it as dishonor to father a daughter, and women and girls would be killed, abused and oppressed in the name of shame… The Prophet swt called upon the Arabs to correct their ways, and told us that men and women are equals and should be treated as such, so we should heed the wisdom of these words and work to improve conditions for women everywhere…

  19. Here, as I understand it, women wear first what their fathers tell them and then what their husbands tell them. Some of the women I work with cover except for the eyes whenever there is a man around. Some only cover their hair. I have to say it bothers me a little to see girls walking around the mall in their abayas and head scarves while the boys choose between the candoora and Western clothes. That doesn’t seen fair. However, other countries are different. I saw a teen girl who I was told was from Egypt at the Falconry Festival, hair covered, wearing jeans that were so tight and thin that I could see her underwear.

  20. @Mary, men do have a specific dress that they should adhere to. As for women being created with breast and curves, etc. Womenhave those features in order to bear and nourish children, not to be ogled by the opposite sex. Moreover, Muslims are not called “Islamics” that term even seems a bit offensive. Contrary to popular belief, a good majority of women who do cover dodo because they choose it. @Darda, that get up is made from the same material as a bathing suit. Plenty of surfers wear wetsuits which have much heavier material that these burkini suits. So those who wear wetsuits do not get water-logged then would it not be safe for us to assume that a woman wearing this “get up” as you call it, would not get water-logged either?

  21. Do so*

  22. The modern Muslim woman only exists in modern Muslim and non-Muslim nations.

  23. There are logical links missing in this article… the subject requires a more in depth explanation that the author seems loathe to provide.

    I’m especially talking about this: “Muslim women should wear clothes that they can run and play in,” Zeini said. Was she trying to tap into my unconscious and force me to do battle with my former self?

    What former self is lurking in your unconscious?

    Dear author I understand that you are irritated with this topic and so probably don’t want to discuss it in depth. But still, when you put in lines that are not properly explained, it gets confusing. Why write this at all? Rage? Frustration? This is not your journal, you are a professional aren’t you?

    In my experience people who discuss things with this level of emotion have some kind of psychological issue related to the subject. Maybe the inexplicable former-self line has something to do with it. There’s a battle there that hasn’t truly been won, isn’t there?

  24. Anyone who doesn’t know that the Prophet was deeply concerned with social justice issues ( and so is Islam BTW) knows nothing about the history of the region this religion emerged from. If we look at our OWN history, Catholic women used to cover their heads for Mass, Jewish women when they pray ( and men as well) nuns wore veils, women were veils when they marry, veils (mantillas) are part of traditional Spanish costumes, veils were used for mourning in Europe and the US well into the 20th century. But if MUSLIMS want to veil, it’s a sign of their backwardness? Many Muslim women veil to signal their faith, not because “someone” forces them to.

  25. American women judging other women’s appearance in cultures they have no clue about is a bit like paying Hollywood to foster moral beliefs on our children: both absurd and disgusting, yet it doesn’t stop us. Americans ought to consider the $50 billion we spend on lingerie, the billions spent on cosmetic surgery and cosmetics and the trillions spent telling ourselves we have a right to judge other cultures. We are our own worst enemies; we have no shame.

  26. Robert: and pornography, (one of the three biggest untaxed sources of money) which has changed the way individuals relate permanently.

  27. The hijab is not opression! Good God no matter what you think some people choose to wear it for their own purposes. I will be honest though, there are some Muslim countries that don’t treat their women right. But I also know there is a difference between islam and Muslims.

  28. why must humans judge each other??? why cant we just get along with each other????

  29. Unfortunatly, old stereotypes die hard. Especialy if thier use will help forward an adgenda. Just keep up the good work keeping folks educated and informed and you have done as much as anyone (God included) could ask of you. BTW, Reposting.

  30. If you are merican then not one of you should rail agaist a person making a choice to be this way, raise their kids this way, or anything relative. the act of condemming someone relative to their use of american freedom is anti american and stands agaist the premise on which this country is built…..I am for getting along, but not at the price of propagting sterotypes and futhering the gap between americans

  31. When the day occurs when a nun is forbidden to wear her religious attire, I will think that world has FAIRLY tried to “excuse” or “Enforce” oppressed women to be … “happy”. It is such hypocrisy.

  32. Referring to the article: How many women can “run and play” in tight/short skirts and high heels?

  33. or those usually unattractive “skinny” jeans.


  35. @Jill kellie moore yes I agree porno is disgusting and filthy for those who produce it, profit from it and those who watch it. There will be no difference in Gods judgement, yet more porno is downloaded and viewed outside the U.S. then inside its boarders. So again, there is no distinction between who is doing sin and too many Muslims watch this filth so dont blame my country for the sins of the world.

  36. Crime Statistics > Rapes (per capita) (most recent) by country. # 1 Lesotho:# 2 New Zealand: 0.315 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 3 Belgium: 0.299 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 4 Iceland: 0.286 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 5 Norway: 0.203 per 1,000 people 2008
    Crime in Norway

    Crime in Norway

    # 6 Israel: 0.166 per 1,000 people 2009
    # 7 Finland: 0.141 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 8 Chile: 0.12 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 9 Mongolia: 0.118 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 10 Ireland: 0.102 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 11 Kazakhstan: 0.099 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 12 Estonia: 0.093 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 13 Luxembourg: 0.091 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 14 Denmark: 0.09 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 15 Germany: 0.089 per 1,000 people 2009
    # 16 Argentina: 0.081 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 17 Czech Republic: 0.062 per 1,000 people 2008
    # 18 Mauritius: 0.06 per 1,000 people 2008

  37. the image of oppressed muslim women comes from the countries where “honor” killings are considered good, and women are treated less than men. It’s not about attire, it is about attitudes toward women. And it is not just muslim men who are to blame-it goes back , way, way back, and is still a problem throughout every country in this world. You can change the laws, but in order to change attitudes, it has to come from each and every individual.

  38. President Sarkozy, France, banned head scarves, not burqas, from all Muslim women resdiding in France. I can only wonder what Orthodox Jews would say if they were told to drop the prayer shawls, hats, black coats, wigs, etc. Another French revolution perhaps?

  39. Darda there are huge differences bw islam and Christianity. The major one being use of force. Christians don’t kill non Christians allover the globe. Muslims do.

  40. Wow Rachel, what planet do you live on ?

  41. the writing in this article was a little muddled, but I agree. There seems to be a sense of absolutes when it comes to Muslim women. Either they are fully veiled, illiterate, and beaten by their husbands, or they wear no covering, drink, eat pork, and never pray towards Mecca. It is as if there is no in between. Meanwhile, most Muslim women I’ve met are in between. They cover their hair, not because they’ll be stoned by their fathers if they don’t, but because it is a cultural tradition and they feel it an act of decency. Meanwhile, they still play sports, study hard and aspire for successful careers, and think independently and deeply on numerous subjects. Therefore i can imagine it must be truely annoying to be a liberal Muslim and be thought a medieval housewife because you wear a cloth on your head, or a soulless, non-religious westerner because you play sports and read. there’s no reason you can’t be a devout Muslim and a modern woman

  42. Ian the real world. That’s where. Anywhere on earth Muslims are a majority they murder non Muslims. Try reading a paper.

  43. I guess the image of the oppressed Muslim woman came from the fact they ARE oppressed. Truth hurts I guess

  44. Suzanne but only Muslim countries mandate the dress code.

  45. Rachel ur ass in oppressed.. And need I remind the Norway bomber killed many people because he believed he was a crusader..

  46. Syajkak
    I like how you understand the basic concept of hijabbut the “stoned by their fathers” is so blown out of proportion. I kno men who DONT want their daughters to wear it, some are proud, some girls wear it then take it off and their fathers didnt protest. Islam says you cant force a woman to wear it, you cant force her to marry someone she dsnt want (or get married at all) etc. There are guys that do it though. Very little, howver who get angry at all.

  47. Just check out all the websites run by Muslim women’s equality orgs!

  48. where are all the belly dancing muslim women at?…sounds good to me

  49. Ya when Christians go around killing women for not covering you let me know. Thanks.

  50. Hamdi it might help if you actually think before typing. The Norwegian bomber was reacting to muslims taking over his country and bringing their rape and violent culture with them. In Norway, 75% of rapes are committed by muslims. Women die their hair black as to not be targeted by these savages. Normal ppl are outraged and react. Second, this doesn’t change the fact Muslims are responsible for the vast majority of religious violence worldwide. Try again.

  51. i see ur back rachel with more hate………75% rape by muslims? read this:
    “Norway Ministry of Justice confirms that a 2010 Oslo police report on rapes which Gil Ronen and other Islamophobes claim has statistics showing the rapists were all Muslims are untrue”.

  52. GASP Rachel are giving a terrorist an excuse????? I don’t give a damn what his reasons were. I am pretty sure thats not the case, but it doesn’t make any difference. that man is no better than osama bil Landen. They’re both terrorist, if you can’t see that then there is nothing I can do for you.

  53. I’m sorry, I disagree. I don’t think Muslims should be discriminated against, but they treat women like 2nd class citizens.

  54. I don’t think Muslims treat their women like crap because of Islam, its their culture. they need to be educated. Yesterday I was reading a book for a class and it said Muslim men aren’t allowed in the delivery room because of their faith… and thats absolutely false.. Maybe in his culture, but it has nothing do to with his religion. People usually lump those two together.

  55. @marc, yes some muslims do treat their women as such. but its not exclusive to muslim men only. u should read up on other cultures as well. also did u know 4 female prime ministers have governed muslim countries in the past? and that muslim women r 2nd highest educated in usa according a gallup poll.

  56. Hijab is own choice of Muslim women, nobody force him to wear Hijab, I am from a very conservative muslim family but nobody enforce ladies of my home to wear it.

  57. you guys are making a big deal out of nothing. i believe that any religion should be practiced according to thier belief without hinderance from anybody

  58. Women should be able to do anything that men do and wear any clothes they want. Anything less than total equality is more medieval male chauvinism.

  59. Wow. I can’t believe people could be so ignorant.
    ‘Christians don’t kill non-Christians all over the globe. Muslims do.’
    That just might be the most ridiculous thing I have heard in a long time. Muslims have been killed over the centuries by various other religions, as Muhammad SAW and his followers were treated harshly in Mecca because they were Muslims. And there are much, much more but let’s move on to the more recent ones- Christians killing off homosexuals mercilessly, hasn’t anyone heard about those since forever? The so-called revenge of the Americans on the poor innocent American Muslims, no? Haven’t heard about that too? The 2005 Quran desecration controversies? The Flying Imams incident? Never heard of those? Islam has been oppressed just as much as other religions, don’t skip over the real facts and cherry-pick the good ones.

  60. The Hijab, now- Here in Indonesia women wear it because they want to. In Singapore, people wear it because they want to. Mostly it is worn because the wearer wants to. It is advised to wear the Hijab, yes- but it is not Wajib, meaning it’s not a must. If Muslims oppress women, don’t just blame it on Islam. It’s them who degrade. And why only Islam? For example, street gangs in America have been using women for prostitution in order to get money for their gangs. Skipped over that too?

  61. I want to know where this magical world where women are only oppressed in countries where Islam is the majority religion because I sure as hell feel pretty oppressed living in the U.S. Especially now that all of the hetero-sexist, misogynist Republican argleblargle has stepped up due to the Presidential campaigns.

  62. Rachel OKelley welcome back funny lady lol

  63. It is Islam that is doing the oppressing! Wow do you all have this one bass ackwards!

  64. Have you read: “Infidel” or “They Call Me Infidel” They both got AWESOME reviews, and these are first person accounts of 2 very brave and smart women who managed to get out of Islam with there lives! They have not been targeted for death, as is every apostate of islam! My gawd people.. wake the hell up!

  65. It’s not a “Phobia” when the threat is “REAL”!! The threat of Islam is VERY REAL!!

  66. Of course the Muslim woman is oppressed. Read” Now They Call Me Infidel” by Nonie Darwish for starters. Women have fought long and hard to just get to where we are today to be taken back to the dark ages by the muslim/islamic ideology. Islam is misogynistic. Truth.

  67. Hey rachelll
    Guess wat babe im a muslim girl And proud of it ive never been oppressed a day in my life neither has any girl of my religion that ive ever known.
    Have you read abt preislamic Arabia where they used to bury their daughters out of shame? Islam sstopped it. The usage of women for their bodies, stopped. Giving them an education, given. A right to marry if she likes to, whether or not to keep her maiden name if she does, it goes on.

  68. In muslim lands women are punished for being raped so who is going to report it?

    Grotesque stories about women appear in all parts of the world, but only in muslim places the grotesqueries are apt to be legal.

  69. Anon
    Its so sad, but i agree partially. I kno. A lot of times theyre raped and they cant tell anyone basically they do exactly the opposite of the quran (the gov)
    In Surat al Noor, particularly verses 4 and 23, it says that lets say you accuse me of adultery because maybe i got raped and got impregnated but your just accusing me, the ACCUSER has to get the four witnesses, not the accused/victim.the killing/punishment? This is not Islamic but the ugliness of the old culture coming back out to lead us astray. My mother was telling ne a story of a girl who got raped as a little girl and became pregnant. The thing is she was only getting sugar from a neighbor. The family was freaking out. The father couldnt kill his child or his unborn grandchild, the uncles couldnt do it , nor the brother, so just as they were abt to forget it, the cousin killed her. Its not a real story, but it rings true for a lot of people. I told my mom that it wasnt islamic and if we claim were muslim then we kno its wrong to kill someone for something they didnt do. She agreed but told me “elle its the culture. People have a hard time shaking it off”. Its so stupid to me, though. They acknowledge that its not your fault you were raped, but then they resolve to kill your baby, orr you, or send you off. In Islam theres a saying ” kill one person, its like you killed all of humanity, but save someone(save a life) and youve saved all of humanity” so our religion says it right there, and the old culture sort of triumphs in the end. I heard of anothef guy who wanted to kill his pregnant daughter amd she hadnt been raped. I thought “wats the point of killing her? allah will label you as a murderer. He will also put you down as a person who committed shirk, setting something else beside God/his word. This thing is the culture. But, it doesnt happen as often as you think.
    I just hope the old generations’ culture-centric rules die along with them.

  70. Wendy wendy wendy
    I think i kno wat a muslim girls life is like since i am one. Give me the darkest of the muslim ideologies, the misogynist ones please and let me explain wat your missing here, k?

  71. Bill
    “got out of islam with their lives” kal lol
    Sorry but i think wat we have her are two sad women who have bad cultural experiences, sadly sometimes muslims follow their old culture (pre islamic arabia, persia, well everywhere basically) islam, real islammmm is not the culprit. Y are there female muslim converts. So wat are they stupid now?

  72. That “kill one person” verse is from the Bible. So much of the Koran is from the Bible I wonder you just don’t go to the original.

    What muslims have got plenty of is excuses for not taking action.

    It’s the culture…my friends and family are good people so everything is alright…. those people aren’t muslims, so everything is ok with us.

    It’s not in the Koran so Islam is not to blame….

    What is to blame is the inaction and hypocrisy of people. They have been terrified into inaction perhaps by their violent elements.

  73. Anon
    Lol didnt i just say islam came from christianity and judaism? Im not saying oh they copied but the bible and the quran share a lot of themes and verses. Its all gods words. The quran is literally based off them with add-ins. We branch off you guys basically.
    No it is the culture. Seriously arab christians, irani zoroastrians and christians, indian hindus, man they all do it. I swear because islam really doesnt say its ok for any of that but hey they do it. Hinduism christianity, catholicism, islam, they dont say to do that but um…ya i cant explain it anymore. Lol its too simple. Thats just how were raised to act, despite religion. It seems religion comes second in a muslim home. Kinda sucks but like i said, this old generation is finally learning some new shit so perhaps culture and tradition will get out of the way and let us all breathe a little easier without thinking, omg am i going to somehow shame my family…and its also directed at boys too. If you dont do wat your father tells you, you dont choose to follow in the family busines (unless you become a doctor or lawyer) your better off dead. I guess it depends on wat parts of the middle east but yea. It was like this in europe and asia and africa, really it hapenned everywhere.
    And no. Believe me a lot of us do the opposite. In my world issues class (muslim school, muslim teacher, all muslim students) we see a lot of that. And we opposed it. We wrote letters. We made videos which all got lost-_-. My school is the biggest advocate against that. (all girls muslim school) we started a movement against that. But, were a small school. We havent been heard. We are trying. Though. And the rest of us. Well lets see, some of us are
    1. Embarassed to talk about it because its taboo, the idea of rape, andmurder because of it, its considered ‘ayb , taboo. I swear thats our culture too. Talking abt rape, taboo. Pregnancy, taboo. Everything is taboo so when it happens…to then its shameful.
    2. The government instills fear. Taliban, al qaeda, all that bs, im not exagerrating to them its ok to slaughter you on the spot. Your a man trying to help a woman in trouble, dead. A woman calling after her child, dead. Woman without hijab, imprisoned and then most likely dead, drinking a non alcoholic drink that looks alcoholic, dead. Its the extremities were dealing with here. Look at Ned Flanders. Hes super Christian which is cool but its to such an extent that it pisses people off. Look at christians and catholics who believe abortion/sex before marriage is wrong. They hate that so much they bomb planned parenthood places, abortion places, steal babies and either raise them or give them up. Like ok is that not extreme? Horrendous, violent? They claim they were driven by the Lord, or the bible, or watever. I dont know.

  74. To them*

  75. Sex before marriage is wrong *

  76. Rachel
    Dye their hair black? How does that make sense? The black isnt some kind of repellant to muslims. My dads hair is black. My uncles, my nanna, my friends, how does that even work? And oh sorry honey, only .7% of all violence in europe is committed by muslims. Less than one precent. Try again, doll



  78. Thanks for all of the comments and criticism. I have to say some are the same tired arguments of old and some are so ludacris they made me laugh out loud.


  79. i was wondering where the proof for the hijab is not wajib, maybe..the niqob, but hijab is very so much wajib, i stopped reading after this,everyone is trying to change Islam to their way,this is not what it is about, if one does not want to do as Islam says then ok, do as u like,but plz know ur proof for what u r saying. women have way more rights, ppl plz read,learn and make sure u have the right books, we will all be asked bout things on the day of judgement, so do as u will but plz leave Islam rules alone and dont mess with them,better for us all, if a man beats his wife or what ever dont blame Islam, for this is not allowed,as well as in any religion i would think. thanks

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