I am neither: Beyond the whore-virgin discourse

A couple of days ago I encountered this in one of my friends’ facebook profile:

“A kafir guy asked a Muslim: Why do your women cover up their body and hair?
The Muslim guy smiled and got two sweets, he opened the first one and kept the other one closed. He threw them both on the dusty floor and asked the kafir: If I asked you to take one of the sweets which one u will choose?
The kafir replied: The covered one.
Then the Muslim man said: That’s how we treat our Muslim women.”

For many Muslim women this is not unusual… it is actually quite common… one can find books comparing women with pearls, with jewels, with mysteries. Within Muslim communities we equate modesty with hiding and we equate hiding with women.

However, this statement terrified me; especially because no one seemed to have an issue with it. The fact that women are constantly objectified in Muslim communities does not seem to bother anyone. We think that the objectification of women is purely a Western phenomenon that implies showing a woman’s body. Yet, in Muslim communities the objectification can be quite paternalistic.

When challenging this statement in my friend’s profile, it was man who replied. His statements were surrounded by an implied paternalistic approach in which he saw women “needing” men to justify their use of hijab. Thus, the role of a man was to display how wonderful Islam was by showing women as objects of desire that can be either precious or common and vulgar. Obviously, the precious women were the ones who covered themselves and therefore were “modest.” The other ones were just Western women who like to display their beauty.

This discussion is quite disturbing for me. First, it justifies hijab through patriarchal ways, which is problematic because not all hijabis agree with the patriarchy or wear hijab because of it. In addition, it takes agency away from women. Why are men justifying hijab? What is the male experience of hijab? In addition, I question how can we say that hijab liberates women when we use these types of metaphors that transform women into “precious” objects to be guarded and hidden? Finally, the statement of “that’s how we treat our women” perpetrates the idea that behind a hijab there is a man with authority.

I am not a fan of discussion on hijab. I believe that hijab is a purely personal choice and a sacrifice to Allah. Hijab does not protect women from sexual harassment, it does not protect them from rape and it does not give them more status. Yet, we like to think about hijab as chastity, as proximity to virginity. We rarely discuss the experience of non-hijabis within Islam. In a sense, we see these women as being at the margins of the religion.

The paternalistic justifications of the use of hijab disturb me as much as the objectification of women’s bodies in the West. The discourse is the same… there is a beautiful object that is desirable. The argument shifts when some Muslims say “this beautiful object must be hidden” and the West says “this beautiful object must be displayed.”

Women are often left outside the discussion unless they strong advocates of one side or the other. It is not common seeing Muslim girls believing themselves as “pearls” or Western girls who believe themselves “liberated” as they wear provocative clothing.

Nonetheless, it is a proof that we have not transcended the whore-virgin discourse. You, as a woman, are either or. We have even engaged in a fierce debate over the Slutwalk and its impact in Muslim women.

The Slutwalk somehow bothers me no because of its purpose. I believe in eliminating violence against women. I do not think that clothing justifies gendered violence and sexual harassment. However, the appropriation of the word “slut” is not simple. It is very complex. Through this name we try to appropriate something that is solely derogatory and gendered in nature. Does this help our cause? Does calling ourselves “sluts” challenge violence? Maybe it will… but most likely it will not. Yes, the name comes from the statement given by theToronto Police calling women to dress differently. However, changing the meaning of the word in the Western world, which is a challenge in itself, contributes to the idea that there are either “sluts” or “good girls.”

Most women are left with no option but to fit in either category. Women are determined sexually, socially and economically by these two words. In Muslim communities we “celebritize” the chastity of virgins, while in Western communities we “celebritize” the image of the whore…. (Whatever a “whore” looks like).

We remain objectified in these discourses because we are seen as one or the other and as objects of male desire or male respect. We are often excluded from the discussion and we are called to comply with either or. Both discourses claim that they will stop violence against women…. (Chaste girls do not get raped and nothing justifies violence against a “slut”). Yet, what are our gains? “Good” girls are still sexually harassed, and “sluts” are often abused. Neither discourse guarantees us safety. Neither of the discourses allow us to advance socially and economically… and when they fail, both discourses put us at the margins.

Those women that do not seem to fit in one of the categories are easily overlooked and further marginalized. Unless we become the “dirty” candy or the very well wrapped one… we are all without options, despite the fact that some of us refuse to be either a “virgin” or a “whore.”