Are “Latina” Muslim Women The New Face Of Islam?

By Guest Contributor Eren; originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

What do you think when you hear the word Latin? Or Latina, to be more exact? Spicy? Or perhaps “loud,” “flamboyant” and “sexy”? Maybe the word just inspires images of women like Salma Hayek and J-Lo. Many of us are, sadly, very familiar with the image of what “Latinas” are supposed to look like. Just think of bombshell Gloria from Modern Family, hyper-sexual Gabrielle Solis from Desperate Housewives, or Michelle Rodríguez, the sexy tomboy, from Fast and Furious.

Sofia Vergara vs Eva Longoria – via Flickr.com

As a Latin American woman, these stereotypes have always bothered me, especially because, in some cases, the stereotypes surrounding “Latinas” are often perpetrated by some high-profile Latin Americans themselves who tend to abide by the sexualized stereotypes even outside their TV or movie characters.

Personally, I prefer the term Latin American to “Latina” which I see as a Western creation that conjures up these stereotypes.

Several things bother me about how Latin American women are portrayed in the media. It is not only that most of us look nothing like the women mentioned above, but also that I hate labels. I do not see myself as a bombshell, let alone as a hyper-sexual woman looking to please Western men. I do not see my self in the “Latina” image, which I see as a creation of the patriarchal Western imagination. Instead, I like to think of myself as a plain and simple Latin American woman… no one’s fantasy or stereotype.

This image of the hypersexual “available” woman can be parallel to the way Muslim women were represented in Orientalist depictions of the odalisque. Nowadays, of course, this has changed. While both Muslim women and Latin American women are seen as coming from communities with close family ties, cultural religiousness, and with an attachment to the traditional gender roles of women as mothers and wives, their images are very different.

Henri Matisse’s Odalisque. via It’s About Time.

Today, a common depiction is that of the niqabi, all covered in black, who represents a mystique that is not present in the Latina imagery. Apparently, Latinas have a lot to show and are happy to do so. They leave nothing to the imagination as opposed to Muslim women that “make” Western men work for it.

MMW has discussed, in several instances, the continuous attempts to portray Muslim women as mysterious figures underneath black robes and sheer face veils. One example that comes to mind is woodturtle’s piece on Sebastian Farmborough’s work depicting niqabis emerging from the water. I cannot help but thinking that if his work showed Latin women, they would be wearing skimpy bikinis and showing a lot of skin. Apparently it is either one or the other…either we show everything or we cover everything up!

Now, keeping that in mind, what happens when Latin women (sexy, voluptuous Latin women) become the new face of Islam?

Although Islam is not new to Latin America or immigrant communities in the West, in the past few months Latin American women have been depicted as the “ambassadors” of Islam.

The articles talking about them do not only describe their conversion to Islam, but also their important role in spreading Islam in their native countries. This task is always arduous as Catholicism is shown as a predating force over religions in Latin America. Latin American women’s conversion stories in the media are often dramatic…full of broken pastsfamily rejection and religious epiphanies.

And always, beyond the spiritual side of the women’s conversion, there is the hijab…with many articles invariably trying to show that Islam, as expressed by clothing, has provided these women with a self-worth and appreciation that they cannot expect from their communities.

Muslim Marriage in Mexico- via Trade Arabia.

Wendy Diaz, the author of one of the articles, paraphrases Wilfredo Ruiz’s (a convert to Islam and an imam) comments:

“Latina immigrants, [...], often feel exploited in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, [...] offers a sensible alternative.”

Whether hijab actually gives Latin American Muslim women a “better” status is up for discussion as patriarchal practices remain in any culture. And while much of the coverage on Latin American Muslim women only shows those who wear hijab, some Latin Muslim converts find that not wearing hijab eases the connection to their Latin American background and avoids tension with non-Muslim family and friends. Similarly, some women feel that hijab is an Arab import. In the Daily Star, Khadija, a Mexican convert explains:

“I kept my culture; [...] I did not adopt any dress from the Middle East.”

Many of the articles describe Muslim Latin American communities as “unique” and different. But becoming the “new face of Islam” doesn’t mean that these Latin women escape the usual pigeon-holes. Instead, a big question mark seems to hover over them.

So what is it going to be? A bombshell in hijab? A spicy niqabi? Or a mysterious Latina?

Being a Latin American convert I find myself lacking options…And I wonder is this what I signed up for? A hijab, a Muslim name, a sexy figure, and the responsibility of representing a “unique” Islam?

  • http://bellavidabyletty.blogspot.com/ BellaVida

    Great article, interesting perspective. Thank you so much for linking to my article on Latino Rebels.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kurdm Kurdish Midya

    loved your article

  • Zara

    Whilst I completely understand the desire to set boundaries insofar as an
    onlooker is able to view a person’s body and its inherent sexuality, I’d
    like to point out a couple of things. First of all, it is possible to
    find a middle ground between wearing revealing attire and covering to
    the extent of wearing a hijaab or a niqaab. I think that to feel
    pressured to wear either mode of dress due to the actions, behaviour,
    opinions, reactions or judgements of others still means that you are
    being controlled. Wearing revealing clothing can be very uncomfortable
    physically (in cold weather, for example), and so can wearing a
    headscarf (in hot weather, for example). I think true freedom comes when
    a woman feels free to walk to her wardrobe and pick out clothes that
    she feels are comfortable and fit for the purpose she intends to wear
    them for. This could mean a revealing outfit, or one that covers every
    inch of her body. The key point is that the woman’s mind is free to pick
    without consideration for how society might regard her.

    My second point is that, having been through the experience of wearing a
    hijaab for four years, I have seen firsthand that men can still
    objectify a woman sexually even if she is covered in a hijaab and
    wearing ‘modest’ clothing. This taught me, after several years of
    reflection, that you cannot control how a man chooses to look at you,
    and you should not limit your own comfort, freedom or happiness in order
    to try and achieve that aim. You will fail, and you will only feel
    angry as a result. Some men have respect for the bodily integrity of
    women, and some men do not. Instead of taking personal responsibility
    for the actions of disrespectful men, we should be requiring the men in
    society to re-evaluate the way they regard and judge women based on
    their clothing. I think this begins with the new generation, so the key
    here is making sure you teach your sons and daughters that it is NOT
    acceptable to expect females to sacrifice their own comfort and freedom
    in order to compensate for the choices certain men make to disrespect
    them based on something as insignificant as a piece of cloth.

  • latte_search

    Signing in to say not all Latin American Muslim women are converts. Born Latina & Muslim.

    • Emmeaki

      It’s always as if you are not an authentic Muslim unless you’re from the Middle East. I know many African-American people who were born Muslim, but people always think they converted and/or don’t consider them to be “real” Muslims.