It’s 2016 and Playboy is rebranding.
Unlike its 1970s layout, last year Playboy officially decided to no longer publish nude photos of women and move toward a more philogynist, PG-rated future. What better way to do this than to feature Noor Tagouri, a hijabi-wearing Muslim woman, within its pages? Let’s talk about it.
Who is Noor Tagouri?
At only 22 years old, Noor Tagouri is an established journalist for CBS radio, a local news reporter for CTV news, and an international motivational speaker. A first generation Libyan-American woman born in Southern Maryland and now living in Washington, DC, she has hopes of becoming the first hijabi-wearing news anchor on commercial television in the United States. While her goals may seem particularly elusive given the country’s current political climate, her ambition is admirable and her decision to pose for Playboy is valiant, whether the Internet agrees with this or not. She will be featured alongside a sex activist, a comedian, and a novelist in a “Renegade” series highlighting the stories of men and women who have “risked everything to do what they love.” As you’d expect, the Internet has quickly morphed into one very flawed, feminist think-tank offering Tagouri words of encouragement, hate, and everything in between. However, I have yet to encounter an opinion piece that does not trivialize the voices of Islamic feminists and prioritize the voices that illustrate Muslim women as victims of their own religion. I also have yet to read an article that discusses the history of the magazine and seeks to answer a very fundamental question: what does a hijabi woman appearing in Playboy imply about Muslim women’s visibility? It seems like online experts fail to answer the hard questions— so, let’s do that.
Playboy: A Brief History
Let’s not pretend that Playboy’s rebranding functions as a redeeming, feminist initiative when, in reality, we know that it’s all about innovation and profit. The first issue of Playboy appeared in 1953 when the idea of a naked woman was still taboo and far more difficult to access. Now, it’s 2016. A naked woman is only one Google search away and Hugh Hefner knows that. The magazine peaked in the 1970s when statistics showed that 25% of American college men were purchasing it on a monthly basis. This popularity spawned the launching of international strip clubs, online content, and eventually the onset of an entire empire operating on the objectification of the female body. So, to say that there are no serious implications with using Playboy as a medium for expressing female empowerment is actually false. As with any other feminist discussion, history matters.
The Harm of Victimization
Noor Tagouri wears the hijab outwardly, confidently, and with full understanding that it makes her extremely vulnerable to both sides of a very political and polarizing discussion of women’s rights. It is for this reason alone that the false claim that Muslim women only wear the hijab, niqab, or burka because their fathers or husbands tell them to must be discredited. It is important to note here that I am NOT saying there haven’t been Muslim women forced to wear these veils but what I AM saying is that there is harm in uniting Muslim women under one collective experience of oppression. This type of victimization is damaging because 1) it wrongfully reduces a women’s empowerment to her choice of dress; 2) it homogenizes the experiences of millions of women; and 3) it implies that when one hijabi-wearing woman speaks, she is doing so on behalf of her entire religion, which is simply not the case. This problem emerges when someone like Noor Tagouri enters the public arena. Since Muslim women’s experiences are so frequently homogenized, Tagouri’s decision to pose for Playboy becomes the new war cry for Muslim women’s liberation. This is deeply troubling for many hijabi women and is essentially why Noor has encountered such harsh backlash for her decision— not necessarily because it is a step in the wrong direction, but rather because it speaks to a wider debate concerning Islamic ethic in public appearances.
Muslim Women’s Visibility
And now the fundamental question: what does a Muslim women appearing in Playboy imply about Muslim women’s visibility? Well, it depends who you ask. To many conservative Muslims it means adhering to the Western male-gaze to reclaim their narrative. For some, it means buying into the so-called “Western hijabi fetish” that reduces smart and creative women to the fabric over their hair in exchange for a moment of fame. For many others however, it means treading new ground in an attempt to bring Muslim women to the forefront— and for Tagouri it means this:
To be honest, I think being a hijabi Muslim woman, helped me gain that trust. I know what it’s like to have the narrative of our community be skewed and exploited in the media. I was like, “Hey, I know what it’s like to be misrepresented in the media. I won’t do that to you. I want to tell your story because it’s important and deserves justice. I know first-hand that once people are re-empowered, they realize their own story is powerful and they begin to share. It’s incredibly rewarding and can even help enlighten or save others.
The spectrum of reactions that have emerged from this event reflect the continuous nature of women’s rights. This moment in history reminds us that there is no one response when it comes to answering questions of representation, oppression, religion, and empowerment and that is perfectly okay. Whether we agree or disagree with Tagouri’s decision, we cannot deny the fact that her ambition has opened the door to a powerful discussion that not only challenges Islamic and feminist politics, but also acknowledges the value in breaking barriers and transcending cultural confines. So, we must thank Noor Tagouri for that and wish her the best and she continues to break barriers in a world that works against her.