Check out our new design. Click here to return to old version

My Body Is My Own Business

Naheed Mustafa in her article My Body Is My Own Business, published by The Globe & Mail on 29 June, 1993,argues that the jihab – a special garment worn by some Muslim women – protects her from discrimination by appearance. However, she ends up facing the other type of social discrimination in that she receives many strange looks from people stereotyping her as either a potential terrorist or a victimized Muslim woman. She accurately underpins the humiliating standards of female beauty in the Canadian society and makes a valid point that she herself should be the master of her own body. However, her argument is rather far-fetched because it has several logical flaws and lacks references to credible sources.

Canada’s national Mustafa starts with telling about other Canadians who often treat her as a stranger and irk her with questions in slow and articulate English as if she never spoke it. This is the fact. Then, she proceeds to say that, when she wears the jihab, people perceive her “as a radical, fundamentalist Muslim terrorist packing an AK-47 assault rifle inside [her] jean jacket…Or maybe they see [her] as the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere”. Although these statements sound genuine and vivid, they lack objectivity in that she cannot really tell what people think just by looking at her. Growing up in this country, she might very well have faced the stereotypes she is talking about, yet she has no way of knowing what each and every stranger thinks of herself.

The author’s claim that the person wearing the jihab has an ultimate control of her own body sounds intriguing. Indeed, it would be hard for a by-standing observer to judge her by the existing male requirements for beauty. Mustafa tries to link her wearing the jihab to the long-standing Islamic tradition, saying that the covering gives her liberation from inescapable attention to her personality. She thus does not need to be afraid anymore of exposing her body and face ridicule because of her stretch marks or disorderly hairstyle. However, the opposite seems to be happening in real life. She gets that “gamut of strange looks, stares, and covert glances” only because people do notice her presence and naturally attempt to make out some personality inside that impenetrable veil. Paradoxically, she ends up facing even more judgment, which then shifts from her physical self to the cultural features of her personality. 

In several places in the text, Mustafa refers to the almost omnipresent male standards for women’s beauty. She thinks that the male-dictated models of appearance strip her of personal freedom unless she covers her body. She regards other women as slaves to the patriarchal system of values. Yet, in her strand of criticism towards men and their domination, she forgets to mention that men also confront similar pressures. For example, there are also standards of beauty for men flowing from TV screens and glossy magazines, the standards that make many men go to the gym and expose their beautiful bodies to get women’s attention. These gender archetypes are something nearly every man and woman has to go through in their lives, not only Mustafa.

The other point about her article that merits mention here is that she did not really refer to any documented facts that would prove her points. For instance, she says that she is not the only one “reclaiming the jihab”; however, she does not cite any numbers or expert opinions substantiating this statement. Her illustrative discourse surely invokes empathy in most readers; however, she fails to win the critical reader’s confidence by making overly general statements of what men and women in Canada think of beauty and of her personally. Although the author’s emotional appeals are persuasive, she has not been known for any other works on the cross-cultural issues of Muslims in Canada. Therefore, her ideas, albeit wise, should be taken with a grain of criticism.

In summarizing this critique, Naheed Mustafa, with her own example, makes a decent attempt at shaking the jihab stereotypes as she sees them in Canada. As persuasive as it is, her argument is flawed in several aspects. For example, she tries to second-guess people around and their stereotypical perceptions of herself wearing the jihab. She stands up for the ultimate control over her own body but confronts even fiercer discrimination against her, disguised in the jihab, personality. While making a strong point about the standards of beauty that many contemporary women have to fit in, she omits the fact that many men also must follow very similar standards in order to be considered attractive to the opposite sex. Mustafa uses a lot of personal opinion and employs many ethical appeals to make her message persuasive to the audience, yet her claims would be stronger if she provided some documented evidence in support of her argument.