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Jakarta Post

Islamic identity between D-cups and fascism

  • Bonni Rambatan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, August 29, 2014   /  10:19 am

Taking a brief look at the struggle for an Islamic identity in Indonesia in these past couple of months, two things '€” polemics, if you will '€” undoubtedly stand out. The first, of course, is the Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIL, a worryingly hyper-violent ideology bent on destroying all in its wake in order to achieve the ultimate Islamic caliphate to end all caliphates.

The second has less to do with bombs and more to do with busts '€” more specifically, the female bust. Even more specifically, debates on how to cover it appropriately, which have somehow come to be dubbed the '€œjilboobs'€ polemic.

No matter how you look at it, it comes across as a strange phenomena, especially with this stupid question: Why now? Why now, of all times, when, as Julia Suryakusuma and others have noted, we'€™ve been seeing large-breasted women in this country for more than 10 years and maybe even longer?

Why are we suddenly noticing busts in the middle of bombs? Because we just realized they can both be kept beneath the clothes of suspicious Muslims and can destroy us in their own malicious ways?

What is it that makes us, as a society, suddenly grow more and more obsessed about policing women'€™s fashion and even coming up with an obscene name for it?

Why these two faces of Islam and what might they have to do with each other? At first glance, this seems silly: one is a threat to your life, and another to your... what, exactly? Morality? Why think about breasts when your next door mosque could be hosting the next big ISIL gathering?

Actually, there is a perfect name for such a mental mechanism: fascism. Walter Benjamin, one of the most influential 20th century thinkers, defined fascism as '€œthe aesthetization of politics'€.

Fascism reduces politics to a play of symbols, where the space to voice one'€™s opinions is replaced by strict codes and symbols with predetermined meanings. Instead of the usual pickets of concrete social and economic demands, fascist uprisings rely on abstract symbols and ultra-fanatic iconography.

But what about the jilboob moral panic? Although the case is undeniably far more innocent than ISIL, there is no denying that what is truly at stake in the polemic is a question of aesthetics.

More specifically: as a Muslim woman, how are you supposed to understand the relationship between beauty and the body?

This question may seem simple on the surface, but it opens a whole other can of worms: '€œWhat is the true teaching regarding a woman'€™s position?'€ '€œDid God really say that, or is it just Arabic tradition?'€ '€œIf God did say that, are you sure he meant it for every person at any given time, not just to the society at that time?'€ And so on and so on. Who knew that so much debate can be crystallized in a D-cup?

This matters, then, because, as Julia succintly put it: instead of criminalizing women who dress a certain way (yet again), why not make boob-ogling haram? And this stupidly obvious question is precisely where Benjamin'€™s theory of fascism can once again shed some insight: making boob-ogling haram addresses basic rights (of women to feel free and safe to express themselves), but making jilboobs haram will instead serve an aesthetic purpose, creating yet another code of symbols, another marker of difference that people can rally around in fundamentalist glory.

Clearly, we are still bent on upholding more male-centric codes and less basic gender equality.

Here is another thing about codes and symbols: history, especially the history of symbols and iconography, is full of instances of appropriation. Symbols and customs become enmeshed as they adapt to each other, maturing in their search for new identities and discovery of new rights. Nothing is set in stone '€” customs evolve, cultures grow, wars turn to peace.

This is how we must read the jilboob: not as some form of hypocrisy on the part of Muslim women who can'€™t decide whether they want to be sexy or pious, but a search for a middle ground, a belief that women can '€” that women should be able to '€” be both sexy and pious at the same time.

I mean, let'€™s be honest here: do women who wear jilbab (Islamic garb) and tight clothing really wear them so that men would feast their eyes on their curves? Or is it more of a statement of identity: I'€™m a Muslim, but also a moderate who believes that women have the right to be fashionable in their own way?

Maybe I think I would look terrible in very loose clothing and I sure as hell cannot afford to buy all those fashionable Jakartan designer hijabs that are the latest trending items.

Maybe I wear the jilbab by choice, not because I have to '€” and I don'€™t want people telling me what to wear because I have agency. Or maybe, just maybe, I simply have large breasts and, please, my face is up here, duh.

And if you think gigantic black burqas aren'€™t sexualized in any way, think again: recall those infamous '€œsex slave'€ pamphlets circulating in the State Islamic University (UIN) a while back. They were supposedly a call by ISIL for Muslim women to join the cause as sex slaves of the mujahidin, featuring a row of burqa-clad women showing off their bare legs up to their thighs through an opening in the burqa.

Regardless of whether the pamphlet was real or a hoax, the fact remains: such fantasies exist and pretty strongly at that.

Here, sex takes on a different form: as some kind of private property reward for supposedly pious men. The tales of '€œ72 virgins in heaven'€ testifies to this fantasy. And isn'€™t it more a lot more violent, more hypocritical this way when sexual objectification is masked as some kind of heroic feat?

Sexualization of women is everywhere, regardless of what you wear. Because, here is a little secret for you, it'€™s all in the eyes of the men!

Here is the question we must ask ourselves: which road do we want to follow? Do we, as the country with the largest Muslim population, go down the proto-fascist route of patriarchal fashion fetish and police all we can police about how women should dress, continuing this obsession with uniforms and codes and symbols and deploy forceful maintenance, through fatwa (religious edicts), verbal violence and otherwise, in the name of some abstract, codified semblance of glory that ultimately does nothing but justify the male gaze?

Or do we, as the country with the largest Muslim population, step up to the plate and show the rest of the world what a moderate, peaceful Islam might look like as an alternative to the violence-saturated image it has now, by embracing these new progressive codes of conduct in feminine fashion and tackle the real issues instead: the right of women to feel safe in whatever clothing they choose, the right to dress without being judged, the right to search and think for themselves about what their lives might mean to the larger society without being told what to do because they are just sex objects?

Remember this the next time you see a tight-clothed jilbab-wearing Mbak-mbak on the streets: our fate, the role we will play as a largely Muslim nation in the world and how it will perceive Islam, rests on how we perceive those curves.

If you are unsure, here is a hint: respect might be a good place to start.


The writer is a critical theorist and cultural researcher. His latest book Cyborg Subjects talks about new potentials of political subjectivity brought forth by digital technology.