*Forgive me for the Today Tonight-esque title, I couldn’t help myself.
Picture this. A mass of frenetic yet graceful activity. Music blaring, lights flashing. That moment of realisation in the middle of the dance floor of just how much life is inside each and every one of us. Insistent, carefree, reckless life. Am I describing a club? I’m not, because I’ve never set foot inside one and have no plans to do so. I’m describing the world of women-only functions, a world I only really began to understand after I started wearing hijab.
A woman who wears hijab can, depending on what she wears, be a complete visual mystery. What lies beneath the veil? This preoccupation fascinates and titillates in popular Western discourse. This kind of talk gives me cold shivers and the urge to punch someone in the face. My brain shuts down and starts running through the (few) words I learned in my Social Inquiry degree: Orientalism, the male gaze, exoticising. (I haven’t seen Sex and the City 2, but I hear there’s a terrible scene in which niqabis unveil, showing off their party outfits underneath.) But I must admit that I find myself reflecting on the nature of modesty and hijab each every time I go to one of these parties.
I remember the first one I attended. I had only just begun to wear the hijab and was unused to the concept of this glorification of removal. I’m not sure what I was expecting: some food, a bit of background music maybe. I arrived and was immediately ushered to a room buzzing with activity. In one corner girls carefully unpinned their scarves and primped their perfectly coiffed hair, while in another girls pouted painted lips and posed for selfies. In short, I imagine the scene would not have been out of place in any club in the city, except for all the abayas strewn across the chairs and the prayer mat tucked discreetly behind the door.
The club atmosphere didn’t end here. Music blared at a deafening volume, while on the dance floor girls carefully avoiding stepping on each other’s toes in their platform heels. I could barely recognise some people; here we were larger-than-life versions of ourselves from our glittery eyeshadow to our painted toenails. I hadn’t known what to expect. As a new hijabi, I hadn’t understood the appeal of it all. Frankly, I found it confusing and somewhat disconcerting to see Muslim girls behaving in this way. Imitating the kuffar, my mind screamed, even as I joined in the revelry. Some people seemed to switch in and out of party mode as easily as they changed outfits; for me, the self-consciousness was never more than a song away.
Several years on and several parties later, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. If I had to offer a reason for the popularity of these parties, I’d suggest that it has something to do with the desire for release. Muslim women are always on show; we feel the need to be ‘modest’ enough to please Muslims but lively enough so as not to appear oppressed to our non-Muslim friends and colleagues. It’s hard to just be. Arguably, this mindfulness is at the heart of what it is to be a believer. Muslims, whether male or female, are supposed to be in control of our actions at all times and not lose ourselves in any worldly activity. We don’t drink or take drugs or have casual sex. Many of us don’t even listen to music, a somewhat tamer form of release. All things considered, it’s unsurprising then that people have created an alternate space in which to let loose.
I can’t make up my mind as to whether I like these parties or not. I enjoy them, certainly. But I’m always slightly disgusted at myself afterwards, as if I’ve unlocked a part of myself I’d rather not let loose. I’m well aware that many people are disapproving of such parties and even boycott them. From an Islamic perspective, there are definite issues people have with them. I won’t go into those because they’re straightforward enough. From a sociological perspective, it’s slightly worrying that there seems to be so much tension to let go of. I also think culture has a part to play in all this; my culture has no real element of segregation and as such, there is no ‘female space’ to revel in. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it all and it really is just a bit of harmless fun before we go back to our lives as responsible, tax-paying adults.
Before being swept up into the reverie at the last party I attended, I wondered what a non-Muslim would make of the scene. Would they conclude that we were ‘just like them’, underneath it all? Would our free-wheeling behaviour in this women-only environment confirm in their minds that Islam is oppressive and repressive? I wondered too what a Muslim man would think of it all. Would he even recognise the girl he sees every day in skirts and blouses, now similarly attired to any non-Muslim girl out on a Friday night? Would he be impressed or dismayed?
Do you feel comfortable at these parties? Why do you think they’ve become such an institution?