Playboy, Noor Tagouri, and Why it Even Matters
Updated: May 22, 2019
The following was originally published in October 2016. Some edits have been made to the original version.
In the last few days, it feels as though all 1.8 billion Muslims have taken to social media to share their opinions about you-know-what. My initial decision was to refrain from adding to the thunderous online warfare catalyzed by Noor Tagouri’s decision to feature in Playboy.
Separate the Person from the Problem
Before anything substantive can be said about this matter, the most predictable argumentative fallacy to which we are all susceptible, and of which the Muslim community is often a culprit, must be named and nullified: quit the personal attacks and focus on the issue itself.
What gives any individual license to put another’s character on trial? What divine assessment certifies us in the practice of personal judgment? Like many others, our Muslim community is notorious for hasty ad hominem fallacies, which very effectively breed shame and stigma. Statements like the following have clouded the issue and deterred us from considering the heart of the matter.
Criticisms like this bear little-to-no substance. Shots at an individual’s character
are arguments doomed to crumble under the weight of scrutiny. Further still, consider the implications of statements like this on the subject’s sense of self. It’s no wonder Tagouri chooses not to read comments online. To do so would be masochistic in the long run.
Bottom line: whether or not we like Tagouri as a person is irrelevant.
But, Playboy Doesn’t Do Nudes Anymore
Many in the Muslim American community have leapt to defend Tagouri’s decision by attempting to exonerate Playboy from its pornographic roots, mentioning the company’s choice to rebrand from trailblazer of the porn industry to reputable source of substantive journalism and high-end photography.
Unfortunately, Tagouri’s social media attorneys have lost this case.
The motivation behind Playboy's decision to rework its identity has nothing to do with moral conviction and women’s rights and everything to do with economic survival. The company’s decision to rebrand last year came at a time when its CEO, Scott Flanders, and stakeholders finally surrendered to the altered landscape of America’s sex culture.
“The political and sexual climate of 1953, the year Hugh Hefner introduced Playboy to the world, bears almost no resemblance to today,” said Flanders. As Fortune magazine puts it, “The publication has been buried by the very culture it created.”
As an aside, it’s important to recognize that our digital age has not only widened the margin for what is acceptable in America’s sex culture, but it has also made certain that what was once forbidden is now inescapable. There simply is no hiding from nudity, sex, and everything in between (no pun intended). The tentacles of technology have captured us in a gridlock of over-sexification. Let’s not forget that globalization and technology have also made America’s cultural and political presence global, and America’s sex culture has come along with it.
Now that Playboy has lost its luster, the company has been forced to get up from its cushy backseat and get back to work in order to survive. Playboy now finds itself trapped between two stone walls: the porn industry is alive and well, but the publication’s audience is no longer satiated by its old-fashioned model. Yet, to escape the reputation Playboy has embedded in the American psyche over the last 63 years will take longer than the company can afford, if it can escape its reputation at all. The reality is that Playboy continues to be remembered as the pioneer of pornography.
Why the Playboy-Tagouri Pairing is Bad News for the Muslim Community
So, why has Tagouri’s decision to collaborate with a historically overtly pornographic magazine proved problematic? Why is the Muslim community so divided on the matter?
There are several issues at play here, and because her decision raises both questions and implications for Muslim Americans at large, it’s important to clarify what these issues are.
Playboy Capitalizes on the Public Image Muslims
Playboy‘s stunt to include a hijabi is not an effort at elevating women, let alone Muslim women. It has everything to do with capitalizing on and exploiting the attention surrounding Muslim Americans, namely Muslim American women in hijab. Despite the content of Tagouri’s interview, which includes nothing more than recycled information about the rising journalist’s ambitions and motivations, the power of this ploy is in the shock factor created by pairing two extremes. The optics of Tagouri’s name alongside Playboy have been enough to gain massive attention.
The shock factor of unveiling breasts, butts, and thighs in the 1950s has now lost its effect. If nudity won’t fascinate today’s oversexed society, what will? What will shock us and grab our attention? Try merging the two most polarized images of today: Playboy and veiled Muslim women.
There is no doubt that featuring a hijabi in a magazine that will forever be wound up in its own pornographic history can raise brows and drop jaws. Playboy may not be able to shed its old persona, so rather than fight it off, the company seems to have taken advantage of its inescapable reputation by leveraging it to create a slightly different shock factor. If featuring nude women no longer causes raucous that reels in capital, perhaps featuring the least expected kind of woman will.
Is our Muslim community that susceptible to the ploys and plots of those who misunderstand and misrepresent us? One would be hard-pressed not to believe that the same groups currently exploiting and commodifying Muslim women aren’t also benefiting from the schisms and cracks that result from linking an attractive hijabi to a historically lewd and misogynistic magazine that guises itself as normal and empowering.
Muslim Representation in Western Media & Who Gets to Speak for Us
This incident also brings into question Muslim representation in Western media and forces Muslims to look inward. If we make the claim, as we so often do, that Muslims speak for themselves, what happens when we, Muslims, are struggling with belonging and self-efficacy?
This question alone opens a rotting can of worms.
On the one hand, the West continues its legacy of misrepresenting the Muslim world. On the other, Muslims face their own intracommunity conflict, which today has much to do with our identity crisis in a post-9/11 era.
The variety of opinions on Tagouri’s decision are symptomatic of our community’s division at this time, wherein second-generation Muslims in particular seem to advocate for things that are misaligned with orthodox Islam.
Before we can “rewrite the narrative,” we have to clarify what our narrative is. We have to understand our own faith, what it teaches us, as well as its history. There is a lot at stake for us in the grand scheme of things, and how we choose to allow ourselves to be represented in the mainstream will have an impact on us for years to come.
Many have defended Tagouri’s decision as a strategic choice to gain Muslim representation in pop culture and mainstream media. Interestingly, the buzz phrase “unapologetically Muslim” seems to have ironically disappeared when Tagouri chose to feature in Playboy. However, the question then becomes, does the ends justify the means? Is collaborating with a publication known for its provocative content justifiable simply because it might offer Muslims a space in Western pop culture? Ironically, in an attempt to gain acceptance from others, we begin to compromise our faith. Pandering to Western misconceptions of Islam and Muslim women is a dangerously slippery slope, which with time will come back to haunt us.
Those in defense of Tagouri’s decision have presented a slew of contradictory claims. Weakest among them has been the claim that hers is a personal choice, whilst also being a commendable attempt at gaining Muslim representation in American mainstream media. Well, which is it? Is she representing herself or the Muslim community at large? Playboy is a public national publication, which means whether or not Tagouri may have intended to represent just herself, she has spoken for Muslims everywhere. This should come as no surprise, since public figures engaged in social activism face the same responsibility. Thus, those arguing in Tagouri's defense in the name of individuality and personal choice have failed to convince us.
Noor Tagouri (and every Muslim leader) Has a Responsibility to the Muslim Community
Tagouri’s peers spoke out shortly after the media backlash began. Linda Sarsour and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who say they, too, were approached by Playboy, were in agreement that while Tagouri may have decided to collaborate with the publication, they ultimately decided not to.
The fact of the matter is, community leaders always have a responsibility to their respective communities. Both Sarsour and Al-Khatahtbeh articulate this responsibility to others as the ultimate rationale behind their decision not to collaborate with Playboy. Consider their statements, and don’t bypass the ways in which they hold themselves accountable to their decisions, while absolving Tagouri of hers.
“I was contacted and declined the interview,” says Sarsour, “because for generations they made billions of dollars off the objectification of women and I couldn’t shake that off. As a woman, as a mother, as a Muslim, I couldn’t do it. The negative outweighed the benefits for me. At the end of the day, it was my choice.”
Al-Khatahtbeh made a similar statement about individual choice in a piece she published in her online magazine, MuslimGirl, entitled “I Turned Down Playboy and Still Support Women’s Choice to Do It.”
“My decision was a very different one, in that hers [Tagouri’s] was on her terms, while mine was not only representing myself as an individual, but also an entire brand that has been called a ‘cultural phenomenon’ for Muslim women’s empowerment,” says Al-Khatahtbeh. “I couldn’t help but notice in the top corner of the menu bar, a link to an online application where any woman could apply to pose nude for the website, or to be considered for a Playboy Bunny role. I thought of all the Muslim Girl readers that would be redirected to this page, that could potentially give a second thought to the acceptability of selling our bodies to a patriarchal society that profits off of them while simultaneously seeking to destroy them. I thought of how my body, covered or not, would be used to sell issues of a magazine that I fundamentally disagreed with on principle. I thought of how my participation could be perceived as an endorsement of an industry complacent in the ongoing sexual violence against women, a rampant problem that disproportionately impacts women of color today, especially with our country’s militarization in the Muslim world. I thought of the little girl I met this summer that saw me as an example that Muslim women could be anything, and wondered if this was the type of milestone I wanted her to be celebrating when she looked for Muslim women role models to consume.”
Why do both Sarsour and Al-Khatahtbeh share similar thoughts on Playboy and
the repercussions of working with the company, yet choose to ignore this
reasoning when it comes to their peer and friend?
Both Al-Khatahtbeh and Tagouri are young, Muslim hijabis who share the same following of young Muslim girls. If Al-Khatahtbeh believes her reasons for rejecting Playboy are compelling enough to protect her community and women everywhere, the same holds true for Tagouri. It’s unconvincing for her to claim that these reasons hold true for her, but not her peer, since both claim to serve the same community.
The public platforms through which a public figure chooses to speak are always an act of branding. (For the record, there is nothing malicious about this.) The power and success of any public figure relies on self-branding. Neither Al-Khatahtbeh nor Sarsour are scholars of Islam with expert knowledge about Muslims. However, by virtue of their positions on social and political matters, their voices are amplified by the progressive left that seems to have overpowered other voices today. This is often why both women are called on to speak as representatives of the Muslim American community. Furthermore, their visibility as hijabis makes them highly sought after speakers.
Similarly, Tagouri has been developing her own brand as a public figure. While she may not have an online magazine or a non-profit organization that pays her salary, Tagouri is a brand all her own.
She first gained media attention via the #LetNoorShine Twitter campaign and has since been working towards becoming the first hijabi news anchor, a mission for which hundreds of thousands rally behind her. Tagouri’s exposure and public appearances have allowed her to develop her self-brand. Her recently-launched clothing line, The Noor Effect, capitalizes on her self-brand in order to sell its products. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this business strategy. What is problematic, however, is arguing (as her peers have) that her interview with Playboy was done “on her terms,” representing only herself.
Her ability to claim a public platform has been made possible by the Muslim American community, which has provided her countless opportunities by which to build her brand and to lead the community. Thus, her public appearances are representative of the community to which she subscribes herself and to which she owes much of her success.
As a public figure, self-branding is everything. Tagouri’s self-brand relies heavily on the fact that she is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Thus, it is problematic when the very community to which her faith is tied, and on whose shoulders her success rests, is misrepresented by her public decisions. To add insult to injury, her peers have tried to pardon her choice as personal. Regardless of weak claims that Tagouri does not speak for Muslims, she, like every public Muslim leader, actually does get to speak for an entire group of people. And, let’s be clear, this is a choice, and it is a choice which, in turn, the Muslim community has allowed her and others to fulfill by supporting them in their endeavors.
Through Tagouri’s decision to collaborate with Playboy, and regardless of the content of the interview, she has affected the people who have uplifted her. When it comes to her public choices as a leader, she answers to a community outside of herself. This is true of all leaders.
Leadership is such a hefty responsibility, and those who recognize this fact are usually hesitant to commit to leadership roles. Public figures don’t get to choose which of their public choices are “personal” versus “for the people.” It’s an inevitable responsibility that comes with the role. It’s the trade-off for having voice and prominence. What a leader does and doesn’t do, what a leader says and doesn’t say, is critically important. Otherwise, why do leaders take great care in preserving their public image? Not only are they are aware of the impact of their decisions on their self-brands, but conscientious leaders agonize over inadvertently doing harm to others. So, immunity from responsibility to the community exists for no leader, Muslim or otherwise.
No public figure can agitate for change in the dark. Leaders demand to be seen, to be heard, to represent oppressed voices. As a budding journalist, Tagouri herself alludes to this point.
“I think being a hijabi Muslim woman helped me gain that trust. I know what it’s like to have the narrative of our community be skewed and exploited in the media. I was like, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like to be misrepresented in the media. I won’t do that to you. I want to tell your story because it’s important and deserves justice.'”
No respectable leader earns the trust of the people she claims to serve and then turns around and implicitly says, I owe you nothing.
The Muslim Community's Responsibility to Noor Tagouri (and all its leaders)
Let’s not forget for a single moment that we, the Muslim American community, are equally responsible to Tagouri as one of our leaders. If her fame is due to the support she has received from our community, then it stands to reason that we have accepted her choice to lead.
Both Tagouri's act and our reaction to it have revealed failure on both sides. As a community, we have proven through our online feuds that our judgement is clouded. This has prevented us from being a disciplined and united front on this and other controversial issues. The verbal warfare between Muslims across social media has pronounced the cracks that exist among us--and that is the real problem. We are in a state of confusion and only by learning our deen can we fix those cracks.
As a rising Muslim female journalist, Tagouri has a lot at stake appearing in Playboy. We can reject her for human error, or we can exercise integrity by not hypocritically shunning her. The ethical thing to do, the Muslim thing to do, is to forgive and learn from this experience. We are responsible for standing beside one another and helping each other do better.
Ultimately, what’s at stake here is neither Tagouri’s career, nor the Muslim community’s image in the West. What is at stake is our religious conviction as well as our collective ability to remain united. If we stand beside and support Tagouri in rectifying her unintentionally poor decision, we may really #LetNoorShine.