Despite having heard about Playboy’s attempts to rebrand itself last year, like most of us, I didn’t expect to be putting the magazine’s name in the same sentence as the word Hijabi quite so soon. As part of their October issue’s “Renegades” theme the magazine has taken the bold decision to include a Muslim journalist by the name of Noor Tagouri among its profiles. She’s 22 and she wears a hijab; one of her goals is to be the first hijabi anchor on commercial television in the U.S.A.. As you’d expect this has caused quite a stir. The Internet is abuzz with outpourings of love, hateful condemnations, and everything in between.
Playboys Checkered History
Founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953, the Playboy magazine grew in popularity rapidly over the following decades with its output of short stories, interviews and most famously, its photos of nude women. To some it played an important role in the U.S.A.’s “sexual revolution”, while to others it represented the worst of a misogynistic media. The magazine peaked in popularity in the early 70’s when it is reported that 25% of all American college men were buying the magazine monthly. As well as a magazine the Playboy empire spawned strip clubs, infamous parties and eventually, online content. Playboy was also active in promoting the use of abortions and contraceptives. The magazine took a decision last year that as of March of this year, it would no longer publish photos of naked women.
Despite the move away from nude content, many are disgruntled about Noor’s decision to sully the hijab by allowing it to be featured within the magazine. To some the magazine represents the antithesis of the Islamic view of women; literally reducing them to their naked forms and placing that within the eye-line of leering men, all in the name of selling magazines and making a profit. As well as being reductive to women, it could be said that Playboy was one of the prominent pioneers in creating a media that pressured women into becoming obsessed and dissatisfied with their bodies. Media such as this has a lot to answer for when we consider the rapidly increasing rates of eating and body image disorders that are terrorizing too many people today. It might also be said that Playboy was playing on the lower selves of men, stirring up their lustfulness while masking that behind a façade of “culture”. While Playboy’s fans might claim it to be an opponent to the rigid form of conservatism that entraps women and denies them their freedoms, they could also be seen as being of different sides of the same coin; commodifying women and dictating to them how they should live.
Any Hijabi will do?
The fallout from the controversy around this saw Linda Sarsour post on facebook an impassioned defense of Noor and a condemnation of the hate she has received. Part of the post revealed that Playboy had also contacted Linda Sarsour, inviting her to take part in the October edition. This has led some to claim that Playboy were looking for any hijabi of fame in order to stir up this controversy. Rather than seeking to shed some light on Noor and her work, it looks like Playboy were looking for any girl with x and y stats; last year they’d have been looking for a leggy brunette with 38-26-34 measurements, this year they’re looking for an edgy hijabi with style. Most of us wouldn’t be surprised if the minds at Playboy weren’t fully conscious of the commotion this would stir up and the publicity that would come with it. Again, this feeds into the narrative that the hijab has been somewhat used by Playboy.
Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Some commentators have already noted the important reality that the possibly two most renowned American Muslims in history, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, were among the interviewees featured on Playboy. Adding significance to this, they were both featured during Playboy’s heyday in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when the magazine would be loaded with triple X content. Did they receive a similar outpouring of criticism? I haven’t been able to find any. Some have made the point that Noor’s responsibility towards oppression against fellow women is higher, given that she’s a woman. However it’s fair to say that oppression against women is a universal concern, one that should be on the minds of all. Further to this point, I’ve seen many Muslim journalists write, broadcast and work for media outlets who have arguably done much graver things than Playboy, for example media outlets who have advocated for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
One Rule for Men…
Many of us are already aware of the reality that the actions of women are more heavily scrutinized, particularly in matters of perceived “decency”. Young women get it worse while I think there’s particular scorn reserved for young women from minority backgrounds or from religions and ethnic minorities. We can debate the merits of interacting with and legitimizing the likes of Playboy and there’s surely a healthy debate to be had. But the manner in which the criticism has come flooding in Noor’s direction is indicative of something bigger than concerns about Playboy. As well as the misogyny in the variance of reactions based on whether it was a man or a woman engaging with Playboy, there’s the ugly face of the rapid and definitive judgment that is suffocating to youth. People, particularly the youth, need to be given space to carve out their own paths; yes, while criticising and granting each other the respect of being honest in our differences is one sign of a healthy community, all too often the way in which this is done is anything but healthy. Make no mistake about it, there’s a lot to be despised about Playboy, particularly within its history. But we certainly shouldn’t be closing the doors on sisters like Noor; do you know what Malcolm was doing when he was 22? Let’s keep the doors, our hearts and the conversation open.