Last week, a national religious organization, which focuses on proliferating accurate information about Islam, shared a photo on its Facebook page depicting two lollipops- one bare, with a swarm of flies and one in a wrapper with a solitary fly. Predictably, the photo likened the lollipops to women- those uncovered and those covered. Following a frenzy of angry comments, the photo was promptly removed, but of course once on the Internet, something is never truly erased and so this photo continues to surface on every social media platform imaginable.
Yet long before the arrival of social media, women have had such analogies preached at them at every turn. They take different forms: modest women have been likened to pearls which remain pristine hidden inside their shells or the current favorite, the clean candy covered by a wrapper. These analogies are problematic for many reasons: they divide women based on their appearances, they reduce women to something they are not, and they neglect the Muslim male’s responsibility to practice modest, chaste behavior.
Society has historically found dozens of ways to divide and categorize women: beauty, career, motherhood and more. In the Muslim community, we add hijab to the list. Analogies that compare women with and without hijab, often depict those without the headscarf as ultimately inferior. Instead of spurning the prevailing appearance-obsessed culture, these analogies conform to the age-old problem of judging women based on their appearances. Instead of objectifying women as sexual objects, this rhetoric objectifies women as delicate objects which must be protected from men.
A quick scan of these sorts of analogies reveals a disturbing pattern: nearly all of them insist on comparing women to inanimate, coveted objects, whether pearls or candies. To state the obvious—we are neither. By constantly comparing women to objects, dirty and clean or pure and impure, we reduce a woman to her sex, silencing her voice, ignoring her mind and soul and robbing her of her agency.
Most disturbingly, these analogies reinforce a self-constructed hierarchy in the Muslim community: that women who wear hijab are spiritually superior, regardless of their words or deeds. This divisive, demonizing narrative is troubling for obvious reasons. Both women who do and do not wear hijab are much more than inanimate lollipops or pearls; they are warm-blooded human beings with their individual consciousness and faith, who evolve and learn, especially in relation to Islam. To say a woman who dons a headscarf is a better Muslim than one who doesn’t is a simplistic and superficial evaluation. After all, God himself says: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them” (Qur’an 49:11).
And what do these analogies say about men? They reduce them to flies that swarm an uncovered lollipop. For starters, a woman’s covering does not always serve as a shield from unwelcome attention. Studies show that in some Muslim countries men do not discriminate between harassing women who wear hijab and those who do not. Besides, the same set of Qur’anic verses that command women to guard their modesty begin by instructing men to lower their gaze, a responsibility these analogies conveniently neglect. In fact, these analogies go so far as to suggest that men are incapable of doing so, just as flies are incapable of resisting sugar. So what are we left with—men have the brain power of flies and women carry the burden of avoiding sexual interest.
These sorts of analogies and photos try to divide women, turning them against one another. They reduce women to their dress and dress alone. And they treat men like brainless creatures with no responsibility to exercise modesty or impulse control. Both sexes should be offended; we are not lollipops or flies.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the organization at issue is Islamic Relief. This was incorrect and has been changed.
Hafsa Ahmad is a graduate of Middlebury College; she is currently heading an anti-Islamophobia campaign with Matter Of Cause, and serving as Secretary for the Muslim Women’s Organization.