An Open Letter to Noor Tagouri
I begin in the name of Allah, the rahman, the rahim,
To my sister Noor, I ask you to take this letter in the spirit that it is intended — as your sister in faith who loves and cares for you. Final judgement lies with the Almighty, Who is more merciful to us than we are to one another; it is no person’s place to condemn you to hell, or to strip you of your God-given dignity. Through this letter, I only seek to open up a dialogue for all of us to reconsider our assumptions, and to think about the consequences of the path that our ummah is taking. I’m not writing this letter to you because I think you’re unworthy; but precisely because you are.
Before I begin, I want to tell you that I get it. Like you, I wanted to pursue a career in story-telling and journalism. As a child, I wrote and illustrated short, fantastical stories of a young hijabi who saved the world. I even applied to and was accepted into a prestigious journalism program (I didn’t end up going, but I digress). I wanted to take the media back, not necessarily to represent hijabis or even Muslims, but to speak truth to power, to rebel against, and subvert a broken system. I am coming from a place of empathy, a girl who was bullied through most of elementary school for donning the hijab. I know what it’s like to want to be heard, and to want to normalize hijab so that no girl has to struggle with her identity, and face anti-Islamic bigotry.
I don’t think that being interviewed in Playboy will help that. Playboy, and institutions like it, have an agenda to re-brand themselves as all-inclusive paragons of liberalism. They specifically sought out a hijabi woman. Sometimes, it’s not about us; it’s our hijab that makes us valuable tokens of diversity. The headline made a grandiose statement that you make a convincing case for modesty. I read the interview carefully, and the interview itself mentioned nothing about modesty, God, or Islam. Did they cut it out, tokenizing modesty and our faith as buzzwords in their headline?
If you are going to be featured in an interview that tokenizes you (and us) for your hijab in a magazine that is infamous for degrading women, the least you can do is call them out for it. We need to make a real case, truly for modesty, not by our mere presence in the room. We can’t strike a pose in our hijab for a magazine that profits off of sexually provocative images of women posing for the male gaze; we can be fully covered and still objectified and taken advantage of.
Perhaps the strongest line of defense has been that nobody is below talking to. In principle, I agree. But the platform that we choose to talk to them on does matter. As the Qur’an says:
وَإِذَا سَمِعُوا اللَّغْوَ أَعْرَضُوا عَنْهُ وَقَالُوا لَنَا أَعْمَالُنَا وَلَكُمْ أَعْمَالُكُمْ سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ لَا نَبْتَغِي الْجَاهِلِينَ
and when they hear frivolity, they avoid it and say, ‘Our deeds belong to us, and your deeds belong to you. Peace be to you. We do not court the ignorant.’ [28:55]
وَإِذَا مَرُّوا بِاللَّغْوِ مَرُّوا كِرَامًا
and when they come upon frivolity, pass by with dignity. [25:72]
I’m sure that we can agree that Playboy is a place of laghw and frivolity, and a place that degrades women (regardless of nudity). Nevertheless, we need to talk to people of various demographics. People are worth investing in and speaking to. However, people do not only exist looking into the pages of this magazine. Let’s look for them: in our neighbourhoods, in hospitals, in prisons, in the grocery store. Let’s be creative. We are intelligent, principled, unapologetic Muslims, and we can find better mediums than this. And we will.
There’s a growing movement right now of Muslims who want to be seen; they want to be visible, represented, and heard. We want visibility for hijabi women on the news, on the catwalk, and in sports. But why? Is this in and of itself a virtue? Representation means nothing — what matters is what we do with that representation. If we are going to be hijabis in the media who do nothing to speak truth to power, then where is our value?
Being heard has no value unless we are speaking truth. Being visible has no value unless we are worth being seen. Being a hijabi on the news is not intrinsically admirable. Being a hijabi on the catwalk promoting consumption, brand names, materialism, and capitalism is not valuable. Representation in and of itself in oppressive institutions, infrastructures, and frameworks is not valuable. Breaking barriers when they are your principles is not laudable. This brings us backwards, not forward. It is regress, not progress.
What is valuable is principled women, subverting systems of oppression, and ethical women, dedicated to God and God alone. We get our values from Allah and He never told us to seek representation in and of itself. He told us to fight for what is good, to condemn what is evil, and to fight for the souls of our brothers and sisters.
We live in a world where Muslim women are being commodified in a fashion industry that promotes the consumption of our bodies. We live in a world where materialism is rampant and consumption is at unprecedented levels. We live in a world obsessed with images and the dunya — the low and base. We live in a world where human value is determined by profit and aesthetic appeal. And instead of subverting the system by asserting that these are irrelevant, we assimilate into an objectifying culture. We embrace what oppresses us, becoming the perfect victim. I beg you to think about this, and to understand where the dissent against your decision is coming from. Playboy profits from this, and by merely existing in their pages, we are not subverting the objectification that they espouse. Donning a headscarf is not tantamount to a true rejection of objectification. Let’s not allow objectification and modesty to become buzzwords in our vocabulary.
For those who find this conversation a waste of time, and believe that we have bigger problems to deal with: The very foundation of our community is in our values and unashamed God-centric morality and ethics. The real battle is within. Our connection to God is our only true source of value.
Noor, I pray that if you do become the first hijabi anchorwoman in the US, that you are not celebrated as the first hijabi in Playboy. I pray that you are celebrated as someone who ended up making a powerful case for modesty by changing her tracks and subverting a system that objectifies, uses, and profits from the degradation of female bodies.
With prayers and love,