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Playboy crosses line with Muslim interview

Controversial interview: Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner (File photograph by Jae C. Hong/AP)

In his 1966 debate with William Buckley about the “Playboy Philosophy,” Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner made clear that he opposes “religiously mandated, chastity-centred codes of sexual morality”. In fact, he opposes most any limit on public sexual expression, considering it fundamentally antithetical to freedom itself.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that after more than half a century of exporting the Playboy concept of femininity and sexuality to the world, Playboy’s October 2016 issue features Noor Tagouri, a Muslim woman with a headscarf — or hijab — making the case for Muslim modesty.

The interview is part of the magazine’s “Renegades” series that seeks to feature “men and women ... [who have] risked it all — even their lives — to do what they love, showing us what can be accomplished if we break the rules”. The interview focuses on Tagouri’s quest to be the first anchor on commercial US television to wear a Muslim headscarf.

By featuring a Muslim woman among its profiles, Playboy capitalised on a now-prevalent trend among American-Muslims, and especially American-Muslim women, to appear “normal” at all costs.

An Atlantic piece published on Monday, “American Muslims Should Reject the Politics of Normalcy”, explains the phenomenon precisely.

“Muslim women especially feel the burden to appear normal,” the article said. “ ... with all the negative assumptions they face about their religion, they must actively assert their lack of oppression, rather than simply living it out in their daily lives.”

Muslim women in headscarves feel the pressure to prove to the world that they are intelligent and inspired, and that the hijab does not hold them back. And mainstream media, from Forbes to The Washington Post to the online magazine Refinery29, have increasingly given these women the platform to share their story.

Just last week, the fitness magazine Women’s Runner featured Rahaf Khatib, a headscarf-clad marathoner, on its cover. In response, the Muslim community has, rightfully, celebrated these opportunities to share its authentic narratives. And for some, the story in Playboy was just another example of that.

But the Playboy interview is a step too far. It represents Muslim women, as purportedly represented by Tagouri, not on their own terms but in Playboy’s terms — and, in the process, mocks the very ethics and morals the hijab is religiously intended to reflect.

The hijab, although politicised in a variety of contexts, is at its religious core a symbol of chastity and spiritual connection to God.

As one prominent Islamic scholar has explained, the hijab is “essentially a mode of living” that reflects the sanctity of privacy and private spaces. In other words, it is a repudiation of the voyeurism that Playboy is fundamentally about.

The presence of a hijab-wearing woman in a magazine known for lasciviously undressing and objectifying women is jarring in a number of ways, and there are reasons to believe that is what Playboy intended. Playboy’s philosophy celebrates open sexuality and believes that modesty and chastity are a product of a shaming and oppressive culture, which it condemns.

Yes, Playboy has for a long time offered a range of hard-hitting political and social commentary unrelated to its pornography, but this topic in particular — religiously mandated modesty — does more than comment on a social phenomenon. Featured among overtly sexual content, a piece on Muslim modesty seems to mock and undermine those precise ideals. For many Muslim women, the hijab is about reclaiming ownership of their image — but the Playboy piece arguably takes away that agency and instead imposes its own frame, making the hijab sexy.

The piece also mocks through cognitive disruption. The piece showcases two contradictory themes — modesty on the one hand and blatant sexuality on the other — as coexisting in one harmonious space to elicit a kind of emotional response that does violence to our cognitive processes. The tactic is designed to lead to moral paralysis — or, at minimum, draw religious folks normally opposed to Playboy to now access its pages, eager to read its interview with one of their own.

And it mocks Muslim modesty the way that it has mocked so many other feminine roles and representations. Playboy turns traditionally female roles into caricatures in costumes — nurses, secretary, etc. With the hijab featured in its pages, Playboy now has one more costume in its wardrobe of fetishes.

In its all too eager rush to be accepted, the Muslim community can and has fallen prey to the perversion of its beliefs in the guise of acceptance and celebration. This is one example of that. Ironically, then, rather than dispelling misconceptions about Muslim women, the Playboy interview only added to the confusion.

Asma T. Uddin is the founding editor-in-chief of the Muslim women’s website altmuslimah.com and Inas Younis is a freelance journalist and commentator.