The public gaze is generally a burden, but it is condescending and more unforgiving for female public personalities.
Rabat – A female MP from Morocco’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) has just been reminded of society’s constantly regulatory looks on the female body: Her dress should not reflect her choices but society’s take on what is best for her.
Earlier last week, PJD MP Amina Maelainine found herself entangled in a web of discussion about her public appearance. To Maelainine’s surprise if that is ever surprising in patriarchal societies—she discovered that her public appearance was more scrutinized and more important than her achievements as an MP.
Sharing a horde of the MP’s pictures without a veil—she normally wears one—while on holiday in Paris, critics decried Maelainine’s “hypocrisy” and double standard with clothes. Why, they asked of her, embrace different clothing in different countries? If she appears ashamed to veil herself while in France, why not just live without a veil while in Morocco?
As ever, Moroccans were divided on the case. There were those who rose to the MP’s defense. They were, unsurprisingly, mostly women, and they called for de-normalizing the dominant male gaze which tends to give society license to censor female bodies.
For this first camp, society should take its nose out of people’s—especially women’s—personal lives and choices. Self-proclaimed feminists or progressives in great part, they maintained that regardless of her political affiliation, Maelainine is free to dress as she sees fit.
But the online shaming went on, oblivious to claims of the sovereignty of personal choices. Commenters mocked, ridiculed, and lectured Maelainine about what is best for her. The acrimony bore all the marks of what Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has called “the male elite”: Women’s bodies continue to be the center stage of the relentless struggle between “tradition” and “modernity.”
To the MP’s critics, it was not only about the perceived double standard of her choice of clothes. The undertone of their slurs seemed to suggest that “authentic” Moroccanness, as far as the dominant discourse is concerned, lies precisely in women’s covering up.
Maelainine unveiled or in a bikini—there were reports of pictures showing the MP in a bikini—a number of critics fumed, was a “total disrespect and dishonor to the image of the authentic Moroccan woman”
Beyond the unending debate about women’s rights and individual freedoms in Morocco, there were whispers and signs of personal revenge in the Maelainine case.
As the cacophony showed no sign of abetting, the obviously disgruntled MP responded on Thursday night. Maelainine took to Facebook to deny the allegations, refuting the authenticity of the circulated images.
The pictures had been fabricated, she said, hinting that people in some ideological quarters would use “such methods we thought we were done with” to publicly humiliate those who disagree with them.
“I would like to point out that the pictures are not new and have already been sent to some of the party’[s] ministers and some members of the Secretariat who talked to me about them a few months ago…. You cannot bite every dog that bites you.”
The Facebook post’s most compelling part, however, was not her entreaty that the Moroccan public should dismiss the “fabricated” images. It was, rather, her plea that Moroccans judge her based on her merits as a politician and a representative of a cause, not on her personal life choices. “No one should hold me responsible outside of my public responsibilities.”
Yet her response set off a new wave of online discussion. There were supporters who sided with the PJD MP, upholding the sacredness of personal life choices.
But it also appeared that Maelainine’s rebuttals gave an air of falling into the trap of her critics. Lawyer Lahbib Haji, now Maelainine’s critic-in-chief, eagerly seized the opportunity to launch even sharper attacks.
In response to the Facebook post, Haji said he knew the pictures were not “fake” because they reflected PJD’s culture of deceit and “fraud.” “Your party knows this with certainty, which means that it adopts this type of fraud,” he commented.
The lawyer added, ever more confrontational: “I call on the parliament to urge the judiciary to conduct technical expertise on her published images which she claims to be fabricated.”
Re-centering the debate
While a strong case could be made that Haji’s call that the judiciary investigate the authenticity of the bikini and veil pictures would be a waste of Moroccan resources, the actual debates lies elsewhere: What if Maelainine had been a man?
Moroccan men constantly shift between traditional djellaba, jeans, and suits, depending on the social context of their public appearance. What is the fuss for? Is it about Maelainine’s “hypocrisy” or is it about the challenge that the pictures—putting aside her denials of their authenticity—pose to gendered roles and society’s expectations of an Islamist woman?
The answer, Moroccan illustrator Zainab Fasiki recently told Inside Arabia, is that Moroccan men are obsessed with the female body. Morocco’s predominantly patriarchal public sphere controls, tames, and categorizes women’s bodies, the 24-year-old argued. As if controlling female public behavior was not enough, there is now a tendency to hide and suppress their bodies.
“We are always hiding the female body,” she said. “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
In June of last year, Moroccan journalist Mouna Lahrech wrote a fiery attack on the limits that society puts on Moroccan women’s choices of clothes.
Titled “Here is why I hate the Djellaba,” the article was the passionate plea of a woman whose “boredom” with the djellaba and decades of docile submission to societal codes had made her rebellious against a national dress.
“I do not know why, and for what purposes, I would impose on myself to wear this thing that engulfs women in an obsolete conservatism,” Lahrech wrote.
Moroccan society’s gendered regulations and norms, the article elaborated, spring form patriarchy’s self-aggrandizing concern for women’s safety and wellbeing. The idea is to shame, censor, and call out women whenever they deviate from established expectations.
The end result is to seek and call for limitations on the public display of femininity. And, more often than not, shamed women are obliged, even when being defiant to play society’s game of likability.
Maelainine’s “polite” denial of the alleged photographs has very little in common with Lahrech’s outburst of feisty feminism. Seen from less ideological lenses, however, the two women seem to be at issue with the same thing: Society’s constraints on unencumbered selfhood and public self-expression.
In the frenzy that Maelainine’s bikini debate (let us consider that the images were authentic) engendered, there were those who intellectualized the discussion.
They complained that ultra-liberal Moroccans were making it sound as though women-shaming was a Moroccan preserve. “This is patriarchal and not a specifically-Moroccan reality,” one online commenter said.
The suggestion is warranted, as was recently revealed in the US’s pre-2020 elections thrill.
In a much-debated Politico article, Elizabeth Warren, who has just announced her bid to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, saw her winning chances reduced to her “likability” scores.
“How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux—written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” the Politico article asked, creating a forest of likenesses between two political figures—Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren—whose dissimilarities far outweigh anything they may have in common.
That Warren was reportedly perceived as “cold” and “unlikable,” Politico seemed to suggest, was a sufficient reason to foresee defeat.
The unwarranted comparison struck an intimate chord in America’s world of political commentaries, with the majority slamming Politico’s piece as mainstream media’s uneasiness with female candidates masquerading as “intelligent” political analysis. “The issue with Elizabeth Warren isn’t likability. It’s sexism,” Moira Donegan wrote in the Guardian.
Like Donegan, there is a rising cohort of media personalities suggesting that it is high time that the American public and political establishment start treating female candidates based on what they bring to the table of American politics and not on how well they perform womanhood.
While the US and Morocco substantially differ in terms of political culture, much the same could be said of the Maelainine affair.
Nearly eight years after the 2011 Constitution which set out to further Morocco’s democratic experience and “liberate” Moroccans, it is perhaps high time that Moroccan society reconsidered some basic tenets of private and public life. Or, as Maelainine herself suggested, what is the point of sneaking into other’s privacy?