Words by Aryam Marafi
Photography by Fatima Zohra Serri
I only started truly living my life when I came to the realisation that my personal happiness is more important than satisfying other people’s expectations of me. I had no idea that saying this out loud and reclaiming ownership over my body and life as a Khaleeji and Muslim woman would be perceived to be controversial.
When I publicly shared my experiences of child abuse online (see here and here), Arab and Muslim men told me that they believed that I was telling the truth about the abuse I suffered because of my hijab. I received praise for wearing it, some going so far as to tell me that my choice of clothing shows that I am a “respectful” person, and even pitting me against other women who choose not to wear the hijab.
These men use women who fit into the confines they’ve established as a standard for other women to aspire to in order to be shown a semblance of respect. There is an underlying belief that other women who do not conform to the standards established by men must be unworthy of dignity and deserving of dehumanisation. These men feel so entitled to a woman’s body that they see nothing wrong with exploiting my vulnerability and sexually objectifying me as I share my experiences of abuse. Many of them seemed to be under the impression that I would be grateful to be spared from the misogyny they directed at other women.
We cannot accept compliments that come at the expense of other women without contributing to the dehumanisation and degradation of all women. As Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
As a queer Arab woman and activist with non-conventional views, I am bombarded by Arab and Muslim men demanding I remove my hijab. Patriarchy, enforced by male guardianship laws in the Khaleej, sows the seeds of entitlement in men so that they believe they can claim ownership of my body and decide what I should and shouldn’t wear. Since I do not conform to their standards of an obedient and submissive Muslim woman, I am, in their eyes, unworthy of bodily autonomy. The problem with many of these men is they view the hijab as a form of “protection” against unwanted sexual advances. By coercing me to remove it, they are on some level, whether subconsciously or not, deciding that I deserve to experience sexual harassment and violence.
Being a survivor of sexual assault, I have struggled with these thoughts – whether or not I “deserved” it – myself a lot, but I now realize that these thoughts are not my own, which has allowed me to release them and free myself of guilt and blame. I no longer carry the burden of guilt for the way I am sexualised; the guilt does not belong to me or any other survivor of such violence, and the shame belongs solely to the predators who feel entitled to our bodies.
Photography by Fatima Zohra Serri
When we grant men the power to make decisions regarding what women should and shouldn’t wear, and what women should and shouldn’t do, we are endorsing patriarchal victim-blaming attitudes that suggest that some women are deserving of sexual violence. Fixation on what we wear distracts from the real problem: the sexual objectification and dehumanisation of women by the patriarchy.
Men often claim that the reason they control, restrict, and even abuse women is to protect us. This begs the question, who do we need protection from? I have become wary of men who make such claims, these “custodians of patriarchy,” for they choose to normalize and impose the sexualisation of women rather than use their privilege to resist such narratives. They persuade us to accept their dehumanisation and the deprivation of our rights to live safely. But, experience has shown that we are fetishized and subjected to harassment regardless of how we dress.
It seems our society has persuaded us to fear “feminism” more than we fear “patriarchy.” Patriarchy persuades women that their role is to serve and obey men and that refusing this deems them unworthy of happiness, safety, and rights. We are taught we are merely sexual objects from a young age. Many girls in our community, myself included, were raised to believe that our bodies belong to our future husbands: we were shamed about hair and encouraged to remove it and prevented from horseback riding or cycling because it would be “bad” for our marriage (meaning, it may cause the hymen to stretch or break so we would no longer be considered “pure virgins”). Regardless of how it is said, the throughline is that we are the property of our future husbands. It is ironic that the homophobic custodians of the patriarchy inform us that queer people are sexualising children when it is actually the members of our community who are persuading little girls to believe their bodies already belong to a future husband.
The objectification and commodification of women are even codified in the laws of many Khaleeji countries, including my home country of Kuwait, through male guardianship laws that tie women’s safety and rights (and all people assigned female at birth) to their husbands and fathers. Deemed incapable of making decisions like renting property or marrying without permission from male guardians, we grow up believing that the only way to acquire greater independence and autonomy is through marriage. This association between marriage and perceived freedom legitimizes objectifying women until marriage, but, even then, this freedom is still denied. Last year, a Kuwaiti lawyer argued that granting women financial independence is “dangerous” because it encourages women to leave their husbands and could lead to the dissolution of families. Associating a woman’s independence with higher divorce rates indicates that our norms of family and marriage are built on the oppression of women or fear of their independence.
The only way to guarantee our safety is to dismantle the patriarchy itself. It is possible for us to raise women and girls in a healthy way that does not cater to the limitations that patriarchy imposes on us. We can do this by empowering ourselves and our sisters to nourish our bodies, minds, and souls above all else. It means giving ourselves and our sisters the power to decide what this looks like on our own terms. In the meantime, I will continue to be myself, to live the way I want, and to wear my hijab proudly and without compromising my values and authenticity for others. My life and body belong to me, and me alone, and I do not need permission to reclaim ownership over myself.