You don't know me. I am a woman from across the pond, a Girl's Rights activist who is more than baffled at your decision to pose in a magazine that has featured full female nudity for six decades. I hope you won't mind that I've taken the time to pen this letter to you in the aftermath of your Playboy feature.
Firstly, I want to say that I abhor the vile, disgusting comments that you have been subjected to. Nobody has the right to judge you on your commitment to your faith. Sadly, etiquette is often missing when people interact with each other from behind a screen with a keyboard. Having said that, we cannot deny that if you place yourself on a podium for public consumption, the public will respond with their opinions on your actions. This is not back-biting as some of your online defenders have claimed, but is in fact social commentary. Perhaps you knew this and were prepared mentally and emotionally for the backlash that was inevitable. Or perhaps you didn't and were unprepared. Whatever it was, I hope you're surrounded by good friends and family who will support you through the good and the bad.
The storm will eventually die down, InshaAllah, and by the time it does you will have gained new ideas that otherwise might not have crossed your path. It is within this perspective that I hope you will consider my reasons for entering this debate. I am writing to you not because I share your faith, but because I share your gender.
As a Girl's Rights activist I am disappointed at your decision to choose Playboy as the medium to communicate your message of empowerment. This is the vehicle that has done everything in its power to disempower women since it launched the Marilyn Monroe centrefold in 1953. That's a multi-million dollar empire objectifying women for over sixty years. Now, in 2016, you may argue that Playboy has dumped the nudes to rebrand as a lifestyle magazine. Was this a victory on part by the feminists? I don't think so. The rebrand was about survival in a new competitive environment. Playboy's subscribers fell from their historical millions to under a million because the internet provides the images for free. What man will pay for hard copy when it's available at the click of a button on his computer?
1. Objectifying women leads to low self worth
Let's talk about the effects of objectifying women on women themselves. There are many ordinary women, regardless of race and faith, whose self worth falls every time they compare their faces and bodies to Playboy's standard of beauty. Low self worth has a detrimental effect on women's lives. It makes them feel inadequate, incompetent and un-lovable. When it becomes too much, depression follows. It is the reason women remain in dysfunctional or violent relationships. They think no one else will want them. They don't feel confident enough to break free and re-build their lives.
In your interview you talk about empowerment: About breaking barriers and glass ceilings and reclaiming power. If there are barriers and glass ceilings in place, it is because the patriarchy has erected them. In Playboy's world, women are not perceived to be capable, equal human beings. They are regarded as objects without agency.
If your purpose was to empower women, then perhaps a feature in Vogue or Vanity Fair would have made more sense, rather than the magazine men traditionally use to leer at women.
3. Women's Rights Movement
On this side of the pond, we had a summer of headlines concerning the burkini ban in France. Police officers forced a woman to remove part of her clothing on the beach, an image which trended for longer than 24 hours on social media. Yet what was absent was the voice of western feminists. There was notable silence from women activists who did not think it necessary to defend a woman's right to choose her own clothing. This position goes against the very fundamentals of feminism, and yet it was deemed acceptable by the majority of feminists because the women being forced to unclothe were Muslim.
Muslim women's rights will only be won, maintained and respected when the wider women's rights movement accepts a Muslim woman's right to exist as she chooses. From this point, I really don't agree with your online supporters who claim you were influencing a section of society (men who pore over semi nude images of women) and encouraging them to support your ideas about modesty. Convincing non-Muslim women about your right to modesty would have been a better start.
4. Role model
I am an author of a Young Adult novel and I tour schools to promote Girl's Rights. I am often told by librarians that South Asian/Arab girls love the fact that the main character looks like them. I can absolutely believe that there are thousands of American teens who idolise you and hold you up as their role model. As you said in the interview, there is a grade six girl in the USA who flashes your picture on her phone every time fellow students pick on her for wearing the hijab. Her words: 'Google Noor Tagouri and then talk to me.'
Will this girl now find Playboy in her google listing for you? Will she click on the website link and browse the contents of men's magazine which still objectify women with semi nude images? Yes, probably.
Is this acceptable when we are campaigning for that grade six girl to become an intelligent, confident and empowered young woman? Absolutely not.
I'm going to end on this final point. Ambition is a glorious thing. It's the stuff that turns dreams into reality. I think you have plenty of it and it will propel you to great heights in the future. However, somewhere along the path, your gut will raise doubts about some of the options that will be placed before you. Some will be dangled like carrots and some will pander to your vanity. Do not ignore that gut. Don't allow the ego to override the instinct for integrity.
Choose wisely. You are a role model. You have a responsibility to the younger generation.
All the best
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl
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