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Stephanie Kurlow: Muslim ballerina defies “haram police”

Appearing in a light blue ballerina outfit with her matching hijab tightly wrapped around her head, fourteen-year-old Stephanie Kurlow’s aspirations of becoming the first hijabi (veiled) ballerina captured national and international headlines earlier this year

After the high, Kurlow has found herself at the centre of a storm of public debate about faith and gender. At issue for the moral police who seem to be driving the debate is how Muslim women should and shouldn’t dress.

Kurlow set up a crowd funding initiative to raise funds for ballet school in January. She has raised over $5000 and landed a scholarship from Swedish sports brand Björn Borg worth $8000.

Yet, almost as soon as Kurlow went public with her dream, hundreds of people began commenting online about how she should dress and behave.  

“I know I am not perfect and I have long way to go. I am going to strive hard to become a better ballerina and a better Muslim. This isn’t just about me becoming the first hijabi ballerina, it’s about young people who often miss out wanting to become ice skaters, journalists and actors to pursue their dreams because of their faith or beliefs.”

– Stephanie Kurlow

“The anti-Muslim comments make me more determined to change the world for the better and make people more educated about the beauty of Islam. I really look forward to a time where wearing a hijab isn’t front page news because having different beliefs or clothes shouldn’t be deciding a factor as to whether you pursue your dreams or not,” Kurlow told The Point Magazine.

While she expected backlash from far-right elements from outside her community, Kurlow said she was surprised and disappointed to discover that many of the critics actually came from within the Australian Muslim community.

One Facebook user commented, “I honestly don’t think this is right! Isn’t Islam and the hijab about covering up and guarding your modesty?”

But Kurlow remains committed, both to her talent and her faith.

“I know I am not perfect and I have long way to go. I am going to strive hard to become a better ballerina and a better Muslim. This isn’t just  about me becoming the first hijabi ballerina, it’s about young people who often miss out wanting to become ice skaters, journalists and actors to pursue their dreams because of their faith or beliefs.”

The moral policing of Muslim women’s dress is not a new phenomenon. The problem is all too familiar for Amna Kara Hassan, the President of Auburn Giants Australian Football Club.  Hassan told The Point Magazine she’s had her fair share of criticism, especially concerning how she dresses while playing AFL.

Stephanie Kurlow.

“The systemic injustice did not disappear because I put on my hijab. Everyone’s a critic based on their perception. Some perceive me as oppressed and need saving so they criticise and resent the hijab.  Some perceive that I’m culturally inappropriate in my expression of hijab.”

Hassan said those who cast judgment on how Muslim women dress fail to acknowledge the diversity of the women who wear the hijab.

“Some of the players prefer to wear pants because they can’t reconcile playing in full length skins and shorts. Many wear full length skins with shorts. Regardless of how the girls dress, they are free to negotiate the ethical and moral dilemmas on their own terms.” 

Anisa Buckley, a PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne who is researching Muslim women and divorce, told The Point Magazine that many people within the Muslim community assume a type of moral authority over young Muslim women and what they should wear.

“I feel there is an ongoing trend of policing how Muslim women dress, through a variety of forms for example, community 'surveillance' by older members of the community who feel they have license to talk to parents about their daughter's dress and actions. Also peer pressure from other women who have decided to dress in longer/bigger hijabs and abayas and comment on other women, such as among university MSA [Muslim Student Association] spaces.”

Buckley said Muslim women’s dress is closely scrutinised by what she refers to as the ‘haram police’(haram means “forbidden” in Arabic).      

“Women's dress is a reflection of Muslim identity, and some believe the bigger the hijab the more pious one is, particularly in Western countries where Muslims are a minority. Hence there is a tendency among the 'haram police' to restrict the definition of 'proper hijab' to their interpretation of 'bigger is better', and any other types of hijab such as turbans or contemporary sports hijab designs, or clothes in general, is seen to threaten the Muslim community's sense of identity,” she said. 

Hassan said the obsession with how Muslim women dress is all about power and control over Muslim women..

“Focusing on external factors such as what women wear is a form of control. There is an obsession with preserving the power dynamics as they exist. All the critics are cloaked in the perception of righteousness. They’re consumed with what they think is right for Muslim women. In reality, they have no authority to criticise.”

Despite the community backlash, Kurlow said she won’t stop pursing her dream and educating people about her faith.

“I understand some people might be upset by the concept of me wearing hijab and dancing, but as Muslim women we are diverse and we love to participate in a variety of things and this needs to be understood and respected.”

“I want to be ballerina and I don’t want to take my hijab off just because I want to be a ballerina.  You don’t need to sacrifice your beliefs and your way of life to do something you love. You can combine both. It is difficult but it is possible, she said. 

The Point

Aspiring first veiled ballerina captures the nation's attention but faces community backlash.

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