A shot from Outlandish’s video for their cover of “Aicha.”
Last year, I got a call from a young cousin who informed me, with sheer glee, that the new One Direction music video featured a young Muslim in hijab. Those few seconds in the video that highlighted a giddy, veiled teenager were a breakthrough for young identifiable Muslimahs in the world.
I think this meant that I was supposed to embrace the boy band that I had successfully been trying to avoid. I must admit I checked out the video. OK, I can’t lie. I watched it on repeat about ten times. (It’s a catchy song). And yes, from 1:20 to 1:23 in the video may seem like young eager Muslimah pop fans have been well represented. No inferences of weakness, oppression and need of immediate liberation. There isn’t race. There isn’t creed. There isn’t blatant stereotyping of women; there is just 1D fangirling – which unites us all.
For many years now, Muslimah Media Watch has worked hard to problematize, counter, question and critique depictions of Muslim women in a variety of media outlets, as a way to provide new perspectives to looking at the “Muslim woman problem” (starting by questioning this statement).
Since Ramadan 2013 has arrived, I would like to first wish you all a wonderful and blessed month. During this month, I am hoping my fellow MMW writers will have a break from horrid portrayals of Muslim women both in many mainstream media sources and in some Muslim communities. With Muslims immersed in the spiritual and cultural practices of Ramadan and everything else that is happening in the world (from sexual attacks on female protestors in Egypt to halal nail polishand Iranian officials refusing to recognize Elham Ashgari’s swimming record), I think it is important to reconsider the ways in which we speak about Muslim women.
So, I have come up with some suggestions, along the lines of Ramadan resolutions – that I would like other people to follow.
Tip #3: Acknowledge race, culture and privilege.
It may come as a surprise, but Muslim women are not a monolithic group that can be easily lumped into one category. The mainstream media is well-known for extrapolating their assumptions on Muslim women based on countries with “bad” reputations like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Yet, we do the same within Muslim communities. We preach equality but point at other Muslim groups when there is something we do not like (female circumcision anyone?)I belong to a predominantly Arab Muslim community where black abayas and hijabs are expected, the Arabic language is praised and pushed on everyone else, and Arab standards of beauty apply. There is little acknowledgement of South Asian and African communities, and racism prevails. [light]-skinned Arab women rank first in beauty lists, followed by white converts.
We talk about racial equality in the mosque, but the reality is completely different, as explored by Amina in a recent post. So, this Ramadan we should be looking at our own biases and privileges.
Changez (Riz Ahmed) falls under the tutelage of Jim (Kiether Sutherland) in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Image via IFC Films.
When Mira Nair set out to make a film about post-9/11 New York City, her aim was simple, though her approach was not. The India-born director already had several noteworthy titles under her belt, including 1991’s Mississippi Masala, 2001’s Monsoon Wedding, and 2006’s epic coming-of-age story starring Kal Penn, The Namesake — and yet, she was still finding trouble getting the industry behind her latest project.
“When I approached people with my idea, I was told that I would have to make the film at most for $2 million because I had a Muslim protagonist, and I should just shoot it in Rockaway [Queens],” she told the audience at a Tribeca Talks event opposite Bryce Dallas Howard at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival. “[So] I didn’t go to the studios. And the trouble is, we only think there’s one way. But there isn’t. There are many other ways. But they’re damned difficult.”
“I have this weird thing with rejection,” Nair continued with a laugh. “I just want to prove them wrong.”
I was on Mass Ave. and Boylston yesterday when the bombs exploded. You’ve heard more than enough to add the details of what it felt like to be there: panic, chaos, helping, screaming, running, falling, being helped up, mass confusion.
As I’ve been feeling the adrenaline pulse its half-life through my veins, I’ve been thinking steady on the need to grieve. How very important it is for us to stop and to share in moments of trauma and loss with each other. Many of us had the supreme luxury to do just that, and the grieving will continue. But I believe our collective need to grieve, to feel difficult feelings, may actually contain some answers to the questions roiling in our heads and bodies. The need to grieve and our lack of ability to grieve may have everything to do with the cycles of seemingly more frequent and deeper violence.
Muslims face prejudice, but Muslims from the Caucasus face a particular kind of prejudice – the kind born of ignorance so great it perversely imbues everything with significance. “There is never interpretation, understanding and knowledge when there is no interest,” Edward Said wrote in Covering Islam , and until this week, there was so little interest in and knowledge of the Caucasus that the ambassador of the Czech Republic felt compelled to issue a press release stating that the Czech Republic is not the same as Chechnya.
Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaevs’ motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time. Journalist Eliza Shapiro proclaimed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “named after a brutal warlord”, despite the fact that Tamerlan, or Timur, is an ordinary first name in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her claim is equivalent to saying a child named Nicholas must be named in honour of ruthless Russian tsar Nicholas I – an irony apparently lost on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who made a similar denouncement on Twitter (to his credit, Kristof quickly retracted the comment).
Other journalists found literary allusions, or rather, illusions. “They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons ,” explained scholar Juan Cole, citing an 1862 Russian novel to explain the motives of a criminal whose Twitter account was full of American rap lyrics. One does not recall such use of literary devices to ascertain the motives of less exotic perpetrators, but who knows? Perhaps some ambitious analyst is plumbing the works of Faulkner to shed light on that Mississippi Elvis impersonator who tried to send ricin to Obama.
Still others turned to social media as a gateway to the Chechen soul. Journalist Julia Ioffe – after explaining the Tsarnaevs through Tolstoy, Pushkin, and, of course, Stalin - cites the younger Tsarnaev’s use of the Russian website VKontakte as proof of his inability to assimilate, then ranks the significance of his personal photos.
Boston Bruins Dennis Seidenberg observes a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings before the start of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts April 17, 2013. This is the first sporting event to be held in Boston after the explosions that killed three and injured more than one hundred at the Boston Marathon. Image via Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/Landov
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.