“The New York Times”, the venerable newspaper of record, the blushing Grey Old Lady, has discovered a new phenomenon – and a new word – thanks to an op-ed by Romaissaa Benzizoune, a college girl from Queens:
A couple of years ago, Nadia Ali made international news for being a Muslim porn star. She was banned in Pakistan and began to receive death threats. (How many porn stars can say that they have graced ISIS’s personal hit list?) So I don’t think the conservative Muslim world liked her.
The Western world, on the other hand, had a field day.
One of the films that Ms. Ali stars in, “Women of the Middle East,” flaunts the following tagline: “They may look suppressed, but given an opportunity to express themselves freely, their wild, untamable natural sexuality is released.”
Unsurprisingly, outlets like Refinery 29 and The Daily Beast made Ms. Ali’s story one of liberation and modernity. In truth, it was textbook Orientalism. In the Western imagination, Muslim women are either sexless victims or belly dancers shaking it somewhere in Beirut.
It was in elementary school, when I first starting to wear the hijab, that I realized — without quite having the words for it — that my sexuality as a visibly Muslim woman would be decided for me. When I talked about my crushes, some classmates looked at me in disbelief. This reaction was replicated when they realized that I, too, had memorized every word of Pitbull’s very explicit “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” (it was the national anthem of Queens at the time). I will never forget the way a terrified Polish kid named Arthur confronted me by the water fountain to ask if he would go to hell for giving me a hug earlier that day. (Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I had said yes.)
No, dear reader, that terrified Polish kid named Arthur wasn’t me, even though I keep telling you all that Arthur continues to be a very popular boy’s name in the Polosphere. I’m not sure why the other Arthur thought he would go to hell for hugging a Muslim girl, unless he meant either a) an academic disciplinary hell for hugging a member of the opposite sex, or b) Romaissaa has brothers who are strong on the honour culture and inclined to dispatch into the fiery afterlife any male stranger who gets too close to their sister..
Flash forward to the present day. I am a 20-year-old student at a liberal college. My sexuality is still being decided for me. Ditching my classically wrapped head scarf for a turban style has helped, but not entirely. Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I am married. I am automatically held to a different standard, assumed to be deeply religious rather than secular — an assumption that works the opposite way for just about everyone else.
Before a certain age, Muslim women are presumed to be virgins; after a certain age, wives. Since these assumptions — enforced both within and outside the Muslim community — rob the individual Muslim woman of any agency, this mythical virgin/wife figure becomes one and the same. Once again, there is no middle ground.
Even when a Muslim woman in a non-Muslim society tries to make the halal choice, the virgin/wife transition is tricky. There is a practical problem posed by virtue of your environment: Where are the Muslim boys? What happens when you develop a crush on, say, Mike from your Politics of the Middle East class? How does one convert beer-guzzling, Patriots-watching, frat-partying, flag-waving Mike to Islam? Does Mike even like you, or does he just want your notes from last week?
The struggle is real. I’m not actually being facetious here; it has been quite real for billions of people who over the course of history have moved from the more conservative and closed rural communities to those dens of sin and inequities that the cities have always been recognised as from the time immemorial.
The Polish people have experienced that culture clash and the “great unsettling” too, whether a poor young peasant girl from Galicia was moving to find work in the early 20th century Krakow or jumping on a ship to find a better life in New York or Chicago (like my great-grandmother did).
If anything, this phenomenon of being caught between two very different worlds feels even stronger today because while there are still many very traditional societies around, the modernist societies some of their members are moving to are infinitely more challenging to their mores than in the past (the Chicago of the 1900s had neither Gay Pride Parades nor Tinder).
But there is some hope for Romaissaa:
The struggles Muslim women face in this arena are hardly ever represented on film, and we can’t discuss them just anywhere we want. Talking about them in non-Muslim circles puts us at risk of being on the receiving end of endless, useless pity. Discussing them within traditional Muslim circles risks encountering an endless, useless taboo and vehement astaghfirullahs. Or, as in the case with my parents, confusion. This is uncharted terrain.
So what does the modern Muslim woman do? How does she escape from the taboos pressuring her from all sides? How does she find humor in her situation?
Cue the hoejabis, the fellow Muslim women you can swap stories with. Taken literally, the term “hoejabi” (not my coinage) refers to women who see themselves at the crossroads of being “hoes” and “hijabis.” But deeper than that, it mocks all of the negative implications that come with “hoe,” all of the negative implications that come with “hijabi,” and all of the ways that people who are not us try to define our sexualities for us. For me, “hoejabi” symbolizes the way that Muslim women are never granted that middle ground — the word itself is a bridge. It’s empowering, and more important, it’s hilarious. (If you’re not a Muslim woman, don’t even think about using it.)
Congratulations Romaissa. By introducing the word “hoejabi” in print in such an august and widely read newspaper you have pretty much ensured that just about everyone else who’s not a Muslim woman will be using it. And using it. And using it again. I certainly will.
As for Muslim women being never granted that middle hoejabi ground, don’t look at me. I couldn’t care less what you think or do. The hijab is not my invention and imposition, but clothes, just as other aspects of personal culture, send messages to others.
So forgive me if I associate it with modesty, the same way that when I see nuns on the street I don’t think there are frustrated sex fiends under those habits, despite the best efforts of Italian pornographers of a certain vintage. As the saying goes, you are what you wear. Or at least, for whatever reasons, you pretend to be what you wear.
For all of Romaissa’s complaints about “textbook Orientalism”, whose “Western imagination” sees Muslim women as “either sexless victims or belly dancers shaking it somewhere in Beirut”, this is not so much Orientalism as the view promoted by the traditional Islam where women are either good wives or wife-material (which does not, of course, preclude a good marital sex life) or shameless whores. It’s not even a particularly Islamic thing, as the traditional Christianity in some parts likewise for centuries has struggled with the dichotomy of “Madonna/whore” and still fights in holdout pockets
Romaissaa and her fellow hoejabis feel caught between pity and taboo. But pity is only a reaction to taboo and will exist as long as taboo does, or at least as long as it holds enough sway over the majority of Muslim women. This is not a problem that this or the other Arthur can solve for Romaissaa.
In the meantime, good luck to hoejabis (see, I said it again); under both kinds of sheets.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears.
Illustration: Nadia Ali, Twitter.
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