28/09/2016 2:41 PM IST | Updated 29/09/2016 8:20 AM IST

The Hijab, 'Playboy' And The Commodification Of Sexuality

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Noor Tagouri at Paris Theater in New York City.

Symbolism is about power. It is also about intentions. Symbols can often have great cultural value for one group of people while they represent something entirely different for another group. Recently, a young woman wearing a hijab or headscarf was interviewed and photographed for Playboy magazine. Although the magazine has made its fortune from the objectification of sex and beauty, it also has a section that discusses current affairs and politics and it is in this that this young lady appeared. Of course, this section is meant for the more discerning reader who might want to read an interview of Martin Luther King, Vladimir Nabokov or Steve Jobs after not quite being satisfied with the other material in the magazine. Since last year, Playboy stopped carrying nude photographs, not because of any ethical concerns but rather because the internet had made the financial model unsustainable. The young lady in question, Noor Tagouri, aspires to be the first hijab-wearing anchor on US television. The interview has created somewhat of a furore in Muslim communities across the world. However, aside from notions of instrumentality and sensationalism, there are some deeper questions that need to be addressed.

Tagouri's emphasis on the hijab... and the fact that the interview is in a magazine like Playboy cannot be decoupled from the implicit sexualization of the hijab in the eye of the reader.

Orientalists of all hues have long been fascinated with the women of the exotic East, and a cursory study of art produced in the 18th and 19th centuries bears testament to this. As in many other cultures, here too unfortunately, it is the woman whose body bears the weight not only of the outsider's gaze, but also of the insider's restrictions. Today it is not just the Orientalist gaze that remains but indeed, due to the internet amongst other things, a form of Occidentalism also exists in many non-Western societies which stereotypes the women of the West. Western women are viewed as somehow fundamentally promiscuous and sexually unrestrained, in no small part because of magazines such as Playboy.

The obsession with the women of the East has a somewhat longer history that is enmeshed with the power dynamics of imperialism and colonialism. The Orientalist notion of licentious harems was more a reflection of the state of mind of European artists, or as academic Ruth Yeazell has argued, it represented the artists' "harems of the mind." There were a number of French painters who played out their fantasies on canvas, in some cases without having even visited the "Orient." Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix were two Orientalist artists whose portrayals of Eastern women were not only extremely popular but also went far in entrenching stereotypes of the East as culturally inferior and socially backward.

Delacroix visited Algeria, and his work, for instance the famous painting Women of Algiers, evokes images of the oriental harem, albeit in a subtler manner than Ingres's The Turkish Bath, which represented the perennially exotic and inaccessible East that is imagined to be constantly inviting sexual conquest. Delacroix's art had such lasting impact that today Moroccan artists use his style as something that faithfully reflects traditional Moroccan art. Ingres did not travel and used travelogues to inform his art. Like many other artists, he would call in prostitutes to sit in for subjects and indeed, often brothels served as the templates for his harems. Incidentally, Tagouri is from Libya and the image of her posing in front of a massive American flag is certainly not without irony. The point is that art was and continues to be a powerful tool and as Edward Said argued, it cannot be viewed as separated from its ideological moorings and socio-political reality. Ultimately, the tropes of the erotic and violent East are not only a part of academic writing but are also common generalizations amongst lay populations.

Tagouri self-consciously speaks as a Muslim woman and also admits that she is acutely aware how "the narrative of our community is skewed and exploited in the media."

It is in this wider context that Tagouri's decisions must be viewed. Her personal reasons for appearing in a Playboy interview aside, it is the symbolic nature of the story that is being told that poses a number of troubling questions. Perhaps the fact that a magazine like Playboy thrives on the commodification of sexuality is not of concern to many readers. In today's day and age, the use of a woman's semi-clothed body is used to sell anything from cereal to deodorant and has inured us to the manner in which the market thrives on sexualizing everything. However, Tagouri's emphasis on the hijab in her interview and the fact that the interview is in a magazine like Playboy cannot be decoupled from the implicit sexualization of the hijab in the eye of the reader. For the person who might already have a set of preconceptions about the hijab, it merely moves the trope of the hijab from a symbol of patriarchy and violence to that of sexual repression and exoticization.

Traditionally the interpretation of the hijab manifested itself in different societies according to that particular place's cultural and social norms as well as geographical context. All these were undergirded by the fact that each society has its own notion of beauty, and therefore naturally the understanding of hijab—not merely the headscarf itself, but rather its metaphorical and metaphysical value—also varied according to the context. Thus, the very fact that Berber understandings of beauty are starkly different from those of Malaysia would mean that the hijab would manifest itself differently in Africa than it would in Malaysia.

One of the many ways in which technology has disrupted these ideas of beauty is that now people think of everything in terms of global standards. The spread of the internet has meant that heterogeneous identities are often made subservient to Arabicized or Persianized standards and one manifestation of this is a change in Muslims' sartorial choices. This partly explains why people often observe that they see more women in hijabs than they did earlier. This is as much to do with globalization as it is to do with religion. Indeed in a place like India, the hijab actually has played an important role in bringing Muslim women from certain socio-economic backgrounds into the workplace and public-sphere whereas earlier they might have had to stay at home. Sadly, the more popular perception amongst commentators is that the increase in hijabs is an indicator of increasing radicalization.

Despite all these changes, women often wear the hijab precisely in order to move away from the objectification of their bodies. In her interview, Tagouri self-consciously speaks as a Muslim woman and also admits that she is acutely aware how "the narrative of our community is skewed and exploited in the media." Given this, it certainly seems strange that she chose, perhaps unconsciously, to make her case in a magazine like Playboy that thrives on the objectification of the female body and the commodification of sexuality.

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