e-WAVES Issue #2 November 2013: MUSLIM WOMEN & BODY SHAMING


From young, Muslim women are pressured to cover their “aurat”. The concept of the “aurat” is the parts of the body which are said to arouse desire in the opposite sex, and thus should be covered up to tend to the general notion of public morality.

Traditionally, the aurat for the female has always been more restrictive than the aurat for the male. For the male, it is simple – they need only cover the body parts from their waist to their knees. The aurat of the woman, however, is a frequently debated matter in contemporary Islam, both amongst scholars and the everyday Muslim. There appears to be a general consensus that the whole body, excluding the face and hands, of a female ought to be covered.

In Malaysia, Muslim women often don the hijab or “tudung” as it is known in Malay, as a means of fulfilling this condition of covering the aurat. So widely-disseminated is the idea that this is obligatory for a Muslim woman that Muslim women receive peer pressure not only from their fellow Muslims to cover up, but even from non-Muslims who may be curious as to why some Muslims do not follow this condition.

The existence of a subject in school specifically to educate young Muslims about the (state-approved) version of Islam means that Muslim women are taught from young to feel guilty about their bodies. When I was in primary school, Islamic Studies teachers were more understanding and told us, “It is up to you if you want to cover up”. They understood that the decision had to come from within, as an expression of true devotion to Islamic teachings on our part, rather than being foisted upon us.

In secondary school however, things were less easy. My teacher would attempt to guilt trip us up into covering up. She would reiterate that it was sinful to expose our alluring female forms, and that, for the good of society it was our responsibility to dress modesty. She didn’t quite believe in the concept of donning the veil voluntarily. She was a believer in ‘merelakan pakai tudung’ (make them wear it and eventually they get used to it).

Secondary school, being the place where girls begin to grow into women, was filled with controversy over the aurat. Muslim schoolgirls who wore the pinafore were given questioning looks by the religious teachers, and during Ramadhan we were prohibited from wearing it. The cheerleading squad was a particular battleground – religious teachers scoffed at its existence and the squad was only tolerated as an old legacy and tradition of the school that needed to be maintained, rather than given full support. In my school, allowing Muslim girls to join the cheerleading squad had always been a matter of contention, and on some occasions led to problems with the squad competing in national cheerleading competitions due to tension with the school administration.

Notice the pattern here?

The female body is constantly shamed, perhaps more so in conservative Malay-Muslim culture than it is in other Malaysian culture. It is a dirty, seductive thing, a devil’s helper, luring innocent men to desire it. Muslim women are taught to fear it, hide it, hate it. It is not enough that the mainstream media instils in us the self-loathing that comes with a less-than-model perfect body, for Muslim women their community dictates not only that they must attain this body (to please their husbands or potential mate) but they must also learn to loathe its very existence. Either way the Muslims women’s body is portrayed to be the possession of men- Muslim women constantly face the contradictory messages that they need to be both sex goddesses for their husbands and “good” pious Muslim women for the rest of society.

It is saddening to think that Muslim women are taught to loathe their own bodies, forgetting completely the core message that their own religion preaches – love.

Why should we teach our women to hate themselves, when they should be learning how to love? The donning of the hijab should not be an act of compulsion, but an act out of love and true devotion to God – those who choose not to do so however should not be viewed as somehow being less devoted. There are after all many different ways to show devotion to God.

Moreover compliance with popular views on religion should never come at the price of compromising human dignity or freedom of expression. Cultural expectations for Muslim women have greatly limited the capacity for these women to have to have autonomy in their lives. These expectations do not just stop at how to dress, but also how to behave. The personality of the “good Muslim women” has been popularised and widely disseminated in Malaysia, not only in recent years but going as far back as the “Islamisation” wave of Malaysia in the 1980s. It has forced Muslim women to fit themselves into the mould of the “good Muslim woman” to gain societal approval, completely disregarding the effect that such expectations have on alienating women from truly embracing the original spirit of Islamic teachings.

Unfortunately it does seem like religious teachers who believe the wearing of the veil should be imposed are more common than the types who believe the decision to veil has to come from within the women themselves. This perpetuates the idea that being a good Muslim is a largely ritualistic matter rather than a spiritual one.

Beyond the question of “to veil or not to veil” is the underlying assumption in society that true spirituality is material and perceivable. The notion that the strength of our spirituality manifests itself in how closely we adhere to religious rituals and cultural practices has not only trapped Malaysians in cultural prisons, but has been co-opted by the political elite in their struggle to gain or retain power.

It is a problematic notion that should not exist for a society that is healthily diverse. We need to rid ourselves of our body-shaming habits; and of the idea that wearing a veil automatically makes one a better Muslim women.

Spirituality extends far beyond anything you wear – it is immaterial, something we do not perceive, because it is a question of how strong our own personal connections with God are – and we kid ourselves by saying that that is something humans are capable of measuring.

WRITER’S PROFILE: Kamilia is currently a first-year law student at University College London. She volunteered with AWAM for a month before starting university, and continues to be a part of the e-WAVES editorial collective.

Click here for the full publication and other articles.

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