Remembering the body police

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns severalabayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

It all came rushing back when I heard him screaming: “You’re not a woman! You’re a BEAST. B**** if I ever see you here again I’ll f******* kill you!”

This was my home. My best friend lived down the street. I ate pizza and chips in this square every day. We were punks with tight black jeans and metal t-shirts. I wore a skull ring on my finger and shaved my head into little spikes, just because my mom wanted me to wear my hair curly and puffy in an unfortunately popular late 80s hairstyle.

To this day I have no idea what prompted the attack. I can only assume it was based on my looks. Moments before some of my friends met up with a group of high schoolers from a neighbouring town. We floated through saying “hey,” trying to bum smokes. Someone gave me a cigarette. I lit it.

Then I felt spit on my head and some guy said “you look like a lint-brush.” And that’s when I found myself bleeding on the ground.

Fast forward to a local coffee shop in 2002. Two of my dear girl friends and I were enjoying coffee and cookies when I noticed a large man staring at me. Being one of four hijabis on campus, I didn’t think anything of it. I was used to the stares and the occasional ignorant or curious comment. I ignored him.

After we were done gossiping, catching up and having a fine time together, we left and carried our laughter with us into the parking lot. That’s when he starting yelling at us. Specifically at me: “You f****** terrorist! Go back to Bin Laden you b****! Go back so we can bomb your ass. We’ll f******* kill all of you!” A woman who was with him desperately tried to hold him back, as if he was prepared to charge and make his violent threats real.

I’m sure more was said. But my girlfriends yelled back and drowned him out. I can’t even hear their voices in my mind because once the threat was made, everything else became a dull buzz.

The three of us sat in the car. My girlfriends raged. I sat silently wondering if he planned the whole thing. Was he waiting for us to leave the coffee shop? What small gesture or experience set him off? Did he plan a verbal attack on a Muslim and figured his best bet at successfully instilling terror was accosting a woman in hijab instead of a man with a beard? What if I were alone? Would he have said anything? Would he have done more?

Like the other incident, I can only assume the verbal assault was based on my looks.

I knew without a doubt that his anger was directed at my hijab as a symbol of Islam. One of my girlfriends was also Muslim – but she was hijabless and he didn’t seem to have any issues with her. The hijab for this person enabled him to vent his xenophobia and hatred for Muslims. And maybe he got off or felt empowered by engaging in a little gendered Islamophobia.

Because when the hijab is attacked as a symbol, it’s primarily women who are on the receiving end.

Both experiences affected how I related to myself as a woman – and are a mere blip in my life when compared to the unknown readers, fellow bloggers, friends and family who have experienced or who currently experience much, much worse. But while completely different in motivation, both instances illustrate to me that it’s permissible to enact violence against a woman when she doesn’t fit into a preconceived notion of what a woman should look like.

They taught me that a woman should dress for the pleasure of others – otherwise she’s an animal, a non-person, a slut, a prude, a symbol of an entire religious tradition, “other” and therefore, easily hated and abused. In that moment she’s no longer a human. No longer a woman. She’s an object to be corrected and attacked.

Body policing is endemic – based on judging if a person has the right body size, the right hair and the right skin, loves the right person, assumes the right gender roles, wears the right clothes, has the right job, looks the right age, is the right height, has the right reproductive health intent or .

Policing the bodies of women is just as harmful to men – who when public incidents of abuse are met with silent consent by onlookers, or have popular public discussion and support, are led to believe that women should indeed act and look a certain way. And specifically, that men can decide what that means.

So today, as much as I love wearing my hijab, when women are forced to enter the mosque from the back entrance just in case they’re not wearing the “proper hijab” – I can’t help but think back to being called a BEAST and a terrorist.

And no, I don’t think it’s a stretch. My style of dress, my shaved head and my hijab incited death threats. In both instances, I was not perhaps the ideal vision of what it meant to be “a woman” to those particular men. So when my mosque forces women to enter from the back and pray in a basement, while others enjoy the main hall and centre of mosque life – it also tells me that I am no one’s equal. I am not a person. I am not adhering to the proper vision of a “Muslim woman.” I am an object to be externally defined, abused, and forgotten.

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