At the Southeast Asian Games of 2015, 21-year-old gold medalist Muslim Farah Ann Abdul Hadi from Malaysia was wearing a leotard. For this, she received criticism from, among others, mufti Harussani Zakaria, for not complying with received standards of modest dress according to Muslim jurisprudence. Abdul Hadi also received support from Malaysia’s minister for youth and sports, Khairy Jamaluddin, and several Western media outlets for her stunning athletic ability and performance. All this was to be expected. But how did media portray the incident? It is clear that the perspective on their news story is a Western perspective. Western news media is condemning the Muslims for criticizing Abdul Hadi’s choice of attire, with no respect for the norms of other cultures as to proper dress. It is almost as if they didn’t know, or perhaps it would be more fair to say do not care about the role of culture in determining the where the line is drawn for “appropriate dressing.”
What seems to be the problem for the Muslims criticizing Abdul Hadi is that the leotard is revealing Abdul Hadi’s aurat (the parts of a person that should not be revealed in public). Therefore they are speaking out against Abdul Hadi, as a Muslim woman, showing this at the Southest Asian Games. Australian News writes: “Not that the country’s religious hardliners noticed the impressive tally – they were too busy looking at the 21-year-old’s vagina.”
Outline of her vagina would be more precise, but we get the point. Valid as the Australian news outlet’s point may seem, they have forgotten that their own culture and society, like all cultures and societies, has norms and rules that govern the way we dress and affect their own notions of decency. For example: not only would it be frowned upon, it would also be illegal for any gymnasts to appear completely naked, or for any woman to unveil her chest, in the Southeast Asian Games. To put this in an American perspective: not only would religious leaders most likely condemn a bare-breasted gymnast, but so would news anchors and other officials. Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? Is there an objective, inherent moral argument to draw the line between bearing one’s breast and revealing one’s thighs and the shape of one’s vagina? Rather being a clear moral issue, this is an issue of cultural difference – of different degrees of nakedness permitted in different societies.
This brings the discussion back to another thing written in News: “The head of the National Muslim Youth Association’s female wing, Roszida Kamaruddin, also released a statement condemning Abdul Hadi’s costume. ‘Women should not be stopped from sports, but they must prioritise the Islamic codes in sports attire,’ she said.” Notice the use of the word condemning when talking about Kamaruddin’s statement. Then imagine, if an American woman would appear naked at a gymnastics competition and an American counterpart to Kamaruddin would give a similar statement: “Women should not be stopped from sports, but they must prioritize the norms in sports attire”. The likelihood of an American counterpart issuing a statement like this seems great. Yet, it would not be seen as her condemning the clothes, merely pointing out what everyone who supports the norms of that society is thinking.
Thus, what News, The Independent, and other news outlets do is report yet another news story in a manner that makes the Muslim community more misogynistic and intolerant than themselves. Just because the Islamic guidelines differ from the Western norms, it does not mean that the Western norms are liberating women and the Islamic guidelines are not – they rather differ in terms of degree of coverage they deem appropriate to the dignity of a woman. Still it would be fair to ask why so many Muslims are more obsessed with the dignity of women than they are of men. As Malaysia’s minister of sports put it: “I think this whole incident also smacks of sexism. Nobody has complained about… kinky Speedos, or Sazali (Samad) wearing tight shorts when he flexes his muscles but when it comes to gymnasts, suddenly it’s a big problem.”
A more fruitful debate would have been to ask the general question of to what degree should and can government regulate nudity/modesty. A libertarian could argue that that the it should be legal both to be completely naked and to reveal one’s aurat in this kind of competition, as long as individuals were allowed to follow their own religion, customs, or personal opinions.
Of course Westerners are not the only ones wearing cultural blinders. On the Muslim side of the aisle we have the case of Jean-Baptiste Michalon, a Muslim grocer who was shocked, shocked, at the anger he provoked by posting a sign inviting female customers to shop on different days from male customers. He did not realize that such an invitation was illegal in France, punishable by a 25,000 Euro fine. He quickly removed the sign, yet marveled, “I’m shocked that I have been accused of discrimination. After all, hammams (steam baths) have different times for men and women.” Well, Jean-Baptiste, when in Rome, or in this case Bordeaux, do as the Romans, we mean the French, do.
By the same token, when in Kuala Lampur, do as the Malay do. As we were saying, to fix the debate in a framework that presumes that anyone who differs one particular culturally set standard of modesty is intolerant is a logical fallacy. It is telling that no one is calling for the athletes to compete completely naked, as was the practice in the original olympics games in ancient Greece; that was another culture.
Eva Forslund and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute