Hijabi pole dancers and then some

OCT 2 — Meet Vixen.

And Moxie.

The two young hijabs in front of me are married, well-educated, love Sephora and cats. They are the best of friends, and adhere to Islamic teachings faithfully. They both are professionals, and have gone far in their careers.

They are also pole dancers.

“This,” Moxie says, tapping her own hijab, “is a sign of respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We nurture our bodies and minds. Our bodies are not for show.”

But you pole dance, I say.

“Well, the classes are women-only. So we’re not showing our bodies to men and the public.”

“And our husbands like it,” Vixen smiles. They have poles installed in their homes.

They both look at me. “Do you want to come for a trial class?”

I fend them off. No thank you, I hear pole dancing is brutal, I say.

How do the two reconcile their faith, aurat with their hobby of pole-dancing?

Why not? Again they reiterate, this has nothing to do with syirik. It’s exercise, and conducted in a closed class full of women. They don’t perform in public.

I have been speaking with and following a couple of young women of the new generation of hijabs, who are worlds apart from their mothers, and me. 

In the 80s, when more Malay women took to covering their aurat, many wore black, and some took to the niqab, which spawned off the Hantu Kum-kum myth. 

Beginning from the Nineties, modest fashion began to be more colourful, as women took to wearing floral baju kurungs with pastel coloured scarves (tudungs). 

However, in the last eight years, the young have made modest fashion their own. Yuna, the singer, who is now making inroads in the highly competitive music industry in the US, paved the way for many young Muslim women. The Internet also influenced young Muslim women, as they poured over blogs, fashion websites, and adapted the latest trends in modest wear.

There had always been this perception: Malay women in hijab are less educated, less exposed to the world and are conservative. They are also perceived to be at the lower rung of the wage scale. 

Maybe this could have been true 20 years ago, but today, the hijabi professional and hipster hijabi come from upper-middle class backgrounds, are well educated,  and tote the latest designer IT bag.

The pole-dancing hijabs sitting in front of me are proof that veils and modesty to not equate to low IQ.

The new generation of hijabs manoeuvre their way in life with panache. They understand contradictions and irony. If their mothers have not covered themselves up yet, small matter. That’s their mothers’ journey; they have theirs. The older women are still their mothers.

Yuna, the poster girl for the modern hijabi, is a singer-musician, set the path for many young women who were trying to get past the hijab-progressive conflict. She sings, dresses modestly but colourfully and has appeared in Allure magazine and on the Conan O’ Brien show. How many Malaysian women can boast of these achievements?

Ally (names have been changed to protect interviewees) is an indie-hipster-musician hijabi. Her Instagram photos display well-taken shots of bands at play and in concerts, and occasionally she appears with the bands she manages. The ever-present cat photos appear too. When Ally is seen, she is always grinning away with her boys.

Then there’s Sha. Tall, lanky and quiet, Sha is another hijabi who has a lot of energy: she goes to the gigs, events, forums, almost everything the city offers. Sha is regal in manner, and her hijab is always fashionably arranged.

I do not know both very well, though our paths have crossed many times, as we attend almost similar events. I am fascinated. My young hijabi cousins also participate in gigs and raves. Yes, they attend raves with their girlfriends or husbands, and dance the night away.

How do women like Ally and Sha get away with their activities when they wear the tudung?

It’s an interesting position to be in, they say.

Ally, in an email, wrote to me,

“I only started covering up a year ago, out of gratitude. Things fell into place for me and I felt that maybe it’s time for me to ‘give back’ and learn to be a better Muslim. I still am learning, of course. But for one year, I’ve seen and experienced a few interesting things…”

One of them would be that people assume Ally knows Islam well. “That I’ll start quoting the Quran here and there and drop some fancy Arabic word in conversations. I don’t and I can’t.” 

There’s a perception that she covered up because it’s trendy. “My working in music pretty much helped with them assuming this. Because of Yuna and the rise of ‘hijabsters’. That also said, I like to go to venues like clubs for music events and discover that not all of their patrons are comfortable with the presence of a covered Malay girl.”

But Ally doesn’t  like going to ceramahs because they’re all patronizing, though there have been some interesting hijabi conferences (but) they don’t appeal to her. She’s trying to be a better moderate Muslim, her way.

“I find it hard to give up my habit of hugging my good guy friends. I recently travelled with two bands and I think it was more awkward for the boys than it was for me. They were careful not to run around the homestay with boxers and stuff while I was completely OK with it!”

Sha, in another email interview, which I quote ad verbatim below, wrote that she was somewhere between a moderate and liberal Muslim. 

Islam is very important to me. I feel that Islam keeps me grounded and in check. I think that as long as I perform my basic duties as a Muslim, I am allowed the freedom to discover the world around me. Islam promotes curiosity, gaining knowledge and being the best version of you. Going to gigs, concerts, involving myself in the arts are the things that I enjoy doing but at the same time they each contribute to my life experience. By going to events and meeting new people, I learn new things every day. This is how I balance between worldly matters and the spiritual. 

”Religion to me is very personal. What and how I practise are the result of my upbringing and my own readings/research. A wise imam once said, ‘Listen to the religion, not the people.’ 

“I have to be honest; my peers have commented that they wish they were as liberal as I am. In a sense where I dress modestly, keep my prayers complete but still go to gigs and be socially active. Some of them still have the opinion that if you’re wearing the hijab, you’re not supposed to be out and about going for concerts or stay out late at night. Or even do extreme sports!

“Having said that, I have definitely been jeered at by older women as well as my peers. I’d rather not focus on them that much because I believe they haven’t the right to judge me by my appearance alone. My faith isn’t only on the outside, what’s within and the unseen weighs more than what I wear.

“I pray, fast and read the Quran. When I carry these in my heart, spiritually I feel complete. As a person growing up in this globalised (I apologise for using that word) world, I can’t help but be exposed to a lot of information and opportunities that may not be viewed as “Islamic” but they contribute to my work, life and personal growth. 

“This is reason enough for me. That being said, I am well aware of the boundaries I should not cross. I suppose you can say I believe when you do an act with good intentions, most of the time it adds value to your whole being. I admit there are grey areas where it’s hard to define right from wrong. In these situations, you only have to use your own moral compass. “

She prefers to see it as combining her world and Islam. Islam is a way of life and it shouldn’t be a separate thing. It’s in her, in everything she does. Religion or wearing the hijab isn’t separate from her life.

“I must say though, my openness to this subject may be the result of my moderate/liberal Muslim upbringing. My family is good mixture of several religions and races. When I was growing up I was never told off for hugging a non-mahram uncle/cousin. There weren’t rules like, you shouldn’t be touching that cousin or you must not let this uncle see your hair.”

My previous article on how young Muslims are creating their own rules did not sit well with some quarters. This second piece is evidence that they are determined to be faithful believers, participating in world ruled by Google, Youtube, Facebook.

Is this a trend? Maybe. But they are here to stay.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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