By Zainab Karim
I was eight the first time I saw Pam Grier naked.
My father — battling his usual bout of insomnia — was up late watching television while I feigned sleep on the love seat. For over an hour, he shuffled through our collection of VHS movies looking for something to watch. He settled on “Coffy,” aBlaxploitation film starring actress Pam Grier.
Grier’s unapologetic afro and undeniable sex appeal blazed the screen — and her willingness to be totally nude without objection held my attention. Nudity, outside of bathing, was a concept not spoken of or allowed in our Islamic household. We were to be draped in the proper garb daily: scarf over our hair, backside covered, and skirts well past our knees.
Yet, that memory of Grier — loose breasts, brown skin and ample backside — played in my mind often as I grew into puberty and my own womanhood. I had not seen Grier’s dominion in any woman I came across in real life. Her character served as the antithesis of what it meant to be a Muslim woman in the 90s, and I knew I wanted that for myself.
The awkward trampling of puberty led me into a shell, though. I was about 12 when my breasts began to grow and show more visibly through my clothes. I was blessed with my mother’s body, so that meant my backside was high and round as well. My body was now transformed from tomboyish to beautifully feminine, but no one gave me any indication of what it meant to have this new body.
The only message I continued to receive had to do with the importance of covering up. I was becoming housed within myself unable to understand the growing sensations that bubbled endlessly.
As a young Muslim girl, I had to disengage from the personal pursuits of pleasure — self or otherwise. I could only be engaged in servitude and acceptance. My duties revolved around being quiet and obedient. My fulfillment would come from being conjoined with one man who chose me; but I knew I wanted to be the one to do the choosing.
It wasn’t until I turned 16 and came across the prolific works of Black Feminist theorist Audre Lorde that I began to understand my sexuality and why Grier’s on-screen freedom immediately drew me in.
Lorde, like Grier, was unapologetic in her many works on Black female identity. She delved into the forceful essence of Black women, and even called herself the “Black woman feminist lesbian mother poet.” In her book “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches” Lorde wrote on the power and uses of the erotic. Lorde introduces the erotic as more than just sexual arousal. It involves the entire scope of emotion:
The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings,” Lorde wrote. “It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.