National

A Muslim woman in Playboy. What could go wrong?

Micah Forrest blocks then-journalism-student Noor Tagouri from filming outside the courtroom of Chancellor Robert Corlew III, in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on March 24, 2014, after Corlew excused himself from a case challenging the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro cemetery approval by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals at the Rutherford County Judicial Building.
Micah Forrest blocks then-journalism-student Noor Tagouri from filming outside the courtroom of Chancellor Robert Corlew III, in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on March 24, 2014, after Corlew excused himself from a case challenging the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro cemetery approval by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals at the Rutherford County Judicial Building. AP

It doesn’t matter that she’s fully covered, wearing a shiny headscarf and leather jacket. It doesn’t matter that she speaks passionately about media distortions of minority communities. And it doesn’t matter that she’s collaborated on a fashion line whose proceeds help to fight human trafficking.

Noor Tagouri is a Muslim woman pictured in Playboy, and that’s enough for some conservative Muslims to lose their minds.

Tagouri, a 22-year-old West Virginian broadcast journalist with Libyan roots, appears in the October issue of the legendary men’s magazine under the theme “Renegades.” As the news flew across social media over the weekend, she received a torrent of criticism, opening a debate among U.S. Muslims who’ve lobbied for years to be included in mainstream media and pop culture.

The question: Is a Playboy write-up progress or just provocation?

“There was the backlash, then the backlash against the backlash, then the (I’m not kidding) backlash against the backlash against the backlash,” Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution fellow who specializes in Islam, summarized the episode on Facebook on Monday.

Hamid added that the mini-tempest had made his social media feeds “unreadable.”

The uproar over Tagouri speaks to a wider debate over Muslim representations. After years of being confined to a handful of stereotypical roles – think bombers and oil barons – Muslims are becoming increasingly visible in other roles onscreen and online. Hijab-wearing women in particular can now point to Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, roles on TV shows such as “Mr. Robot” and “Quantico,” and ads featuring H&M model Mariah Idrissi.

But the wider exposure is forcing a discussion of Islamic ethics in public appearances and whether there’s an issue of too much of a good thing. What about the scarf-wearing marathoner who’s on the cover of the October issue of Women’s Running magazine? What about the heavy-metal guitarist who wears a full facial veil? What about Muslim comedians performing stand-up? In each of these recent cases, Muslims went back and forth over the boundaries – if any – of acceptable cultural expression.

“Which cultural and political spaces are pure enough for Muslims to represent their views? Comedy clubs? The White House?” wrote Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim academic and former president of the Islamic Society of North America, on a Twitter thread about the Playboy interview.

The scandal erupted last Thursday, when Tagouri broke the news of her Playboy appearance to her 28,000 Twitter followers. The magazine’s site shows Tagouri perched on a wooden bench before a bullet-riddled American flag, wearing a golden scarf, fringed biker jacket and Converse low-tops. Her pretty face is twisted into a scowl. In her interview, she describes her dream of becoming an anchor for a major U.S. network. She tells Playboy that sources trust her because “I know what it’s like to have the narrative of our community be skewed and exploited in the media.”

On Twitter, Tagouri wrote that she was “honored” to be among the renegades Playboy profiled. The eye-catching combination of “Muslim woman” and “Playboy” practically ensured that the story would go viral. The backlash wasn’t far behind.

Muslim critics wrote on social media that Tagouri was a whore, a publicity seeker, a disgrace to the modesty implicit in the scarf. Fellow hijabis were among her harshest judges. Softer responses ranged from the scolding (return to true Islam!) to the self-righteous (but what about Syria!) to the semi-supportive (I don’t agree, but it’s her body).

“I believe as a Muslim how you win is just as important as the win itself,” American Muslim novelist and artist Maryam Sullivan wrote on her “Umm Juwayriyah” blog. “I want Noor Tagouri to win and inshallah she will. Hopefully, in the future she will think more carefully about who she works with and the impact it has on the Muslim community.”

Feminists defended Tagouri’s message but lamented that the outlet was a magazine that’s practically synonymous with the objectification of women. And the focus on Tagouri’s headscarf annoyed Muslims who’ve grown tired of a so-called “hijabi fetish” they believe reduces smart and talented women to the scraps of fabric over their hair.

“Muslim women have been vilified in the media for years for being too hidden and there is no better way to make Muslim women more visible than appearing in an intellectual magazine like Playboy,” wrote Bushra Wasty in a satirical take for FemiNisa, an online magazine for Muslim women in the West.

There was plenty of support, too, among Muslims, including from some American clerics whose outspokenness came at a personal cost. For example, the Washington-based imam Suhaib Webb, whose Snapchat sermons and pop-culture references have made him popular among young American-born Muslims, spent the weekend defending his reputation after he was attacked over his solidarity with Tagouri.

Webb had merely tweeted his support for her and noted that Playboy had a history of in-depth interviews with Muslims, including Malcolm X. He was immediately vilified as a cleric who condones pornography and as a sellout who accepts government money. He unleashed a series of tweets over the weekend in response to the critics, underlining his support for Tagouri, blasting fellow Muslims for their intolerance and saying that “shaming and public trials must stop.”

Linda Sarsour, one of the country’s most prominent Muslim activists, revealed that she’d also been approached by Playboy and had turned down the interview. Sarsour explained that her decision was personal, “as a woman, as a mother, as a Muslim.” But she had sharp words for the Muslims attacking Tagouri.

“While I don’t agree with Noor’s choice to take this interview, I am OUTRAGED by the slut-shaming of a young sister in our community,” Sarsour wrote. “She is someone’s daughter. She is our daughter.”

As for Tagouri, she’s kept a relatively low profile. She shares messages of support from fans and posted a text from her mother, who told her that it was natural for a trailblazer to get burned along the way.

Tagouri has promised a personal response to the drama soon, but first, she posted on Twitter, she’s “gonna let everyone get the hate out of their systems and calm down for a sec.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

  Comments