Rahim Thawer, a social worker and activist in Toronto, was at Woody’s, a well-known bar in city’s LGBTQ neighbourhood, back on December 16th, 2012. His reaction to a racist, Islamophobic drag performance that night appeared days later in the Huffington Post. Donnarama, a famous Toronto drag queen, performed in a pseudo-burka and a bindi, with bombs attached to her abdomen, complete with choreography suggesting gun violence and explosions…
The media reactions that followed, a small handful at best, didn’t characterize the performance as seriously problematic. Instead, much of the commentary seemed to hide behind superficial arguments about freedom of expression, without any analysis of political, social, and structural contexts. Donnarama is not a poster child for the far-right in Canada. And the incident didn’t seem to sustain any broader, louder conversations about racism, sexism, and Islamaphobia in the LGBTQ community. While disappointing, this isn’t entirely surprising. Ultimately, the performance reflects how oppressive attitudes can sink deeply into communities that we otherwise may consider “liberal,” and become normalized to such a point that they may even be celebrated.
The second article, by Zev Chafets, offers an account of Maryam Basir, New York model and Muslimah, and a subtle view of sexism within Muslim communities. Basir’s experiences illustrate the tensions that exist between her firm, personal identity as a Muslim woman and others that don’t see her occupation as legitimate within the context of Islam.
I don’t think Hadiza was expressing an opinion that belongs solely to “radical, extremist Muslims.” In fact, the message smacks of the same long lectures I got from my mother in high school. “Those pants are too tight! That shirt is too short! What are the Aunties and Uncles going to think?! What impression do you want to give to the world when you’re on the subway?!”Fancy that my younger brother was never subjected to those same lectures or sunset curfews. Hadiza’s Facebook message to Basir carries a sexist subtext, alluding to the expectations bestowed upon Muslim women to always carry themselves as representatives of the faith and as models of purity. In other words, whether willing or unwilling, Muslimahs are being asked to live to a higher moral standard for the sake of upholding the Islamic identity and image.
Basir’s response to the sexism is sharp, unapologetic, and public…
Thawer and Basir offer snapshots into the subtleties of racism, Islamophobia, and sexism that help us think of oppression in bigger, broader terms. In contrast, much of the mainstream media discourse of oppression is limited to blatant, stark forms that also describe the perpetrators as extreme. The media, for example, largely identifies Trayvon Martin’s murder as racist but also describes the accused, George Zimmermen, as a vigilante. The perpetrator of the tragic Sikh Temple shooting in August 2012 is largely characterized as an “ex-Army, white supremacist” without any critical analysis of where his racist ideologies came from.
Khan’s article, the one which began this post, shares the same issues; If we focus upon the fact that the vast majority of anti-Muslim attacks upon Muslimahs are perpetrated by supporters of Britain’s far right, then we lose sight of the subtleties that Thawer describes along with understanding that Muslimah women likely experience Islamophobia daily, in a myriad of ways, across different contexts, and through their interactions with a range of people that represent the political gamete. If we attribute sexism in Muslim communities to the “extreme, fundamentalist” clerics, then we may be unable to identify the subtexts of sexism within the judgements we make about Muslim women like Basir.
My team doesn’t ask to try to wear a hijab. They are smarter and more respectful than that.
But, wearing a scarf while playing may give them COMPLETE INSIGHT into the lives of half a billion Muslim women. Right? RIGHT?!? *hijabdesk*.
My mates are also acutely aware that if they want to wear a head covering, they can get a scarf – yes, any random scarf – and put it on their head. No pixie dust, no blessing from an Ayatollah, no chanting or incense.
This is the part where I get to be thankful that my teammates don’t want to liberate me. They don’t insult and patronize me inquiring as to how my hijab “makes them feel”. It’s not exotic and interesting. It just is.
They don’t care about my hijab and what it represents to them. They are not that shallow.
Because NEWSFLASH: I am more, way more than my hijab.
They have realized that I am a person whose identity lies, not in a piece of cloth, but in the way I believe, speak, act and play.
This exercise reduces a Muslim woman to one yard of material. It is not an action that one can adequately educate and put another woman in their position. It’s completely disingenuous to think so.
Will having my teammates wear a hijab for a one hour match allow them to understand a lifetime of stares, barriers, “No, sorry you can’t play with that on” decisions, struggles and then my own strength and confidence to embrace it and keep going?
No. No, it won’t.
Just like wearing a hijab for one day will not provide a woman will contextual understanding of challenges and the realities that a woman in hijab may face: misogyny, cultural stresses, financial problems, prejudice, racism and even effects of war.
Does it realistically give people a glimpse of struggles faced by millions? Of a religion that is marred and scarred by stereotypes and assumptions, that is rife with misogynist practices? That has incredibly intrepid people working for the benefit of the world? That has kindness and millions of women who are Muslim who do not wear hijab?
Do we celebrate International Paghra Day with Sikhs? Or International Habit Day with Peruvian Nuns? International “Wear a Wig to Shul” Day with Orthodox Jews? Nope. Because that would be minimizing and politicizing their choice.
This dress-up activity is no more effective than having me wearing a firefighter outfit. I respect First Responders and love red. Does it give me full insight into their plight, intensity, committment, courage and years of training?
No. No, it doesn’t.
[Curator’s Note: I totally screwed this up! This was supposed to post last Friday, and I didn’t do it! So, I apologize to everyone, especially to our Crush, Ainee Fatima.
So, here I am, correcting it—please enjoy the second part of the interview with Racialicious Crush Of The Week, Ainee Fatima!—AP]
If you haven’t been following Badass Muslim Girl…what are you waiting for? Get to following, check out the first half of the interview, then come back and check out the rest of the interview that I did with the Tumblr’s creatrix, Ainee Fatima!
I love your response in your FAQ to the question asking if you plan to use your Islamic Studies degree to help American Muslim communities. What I love about the response is not only the “my community comes first” but the idea that you need to “teach” somebody else about Islam. Again, the idea of your existence is a walking classroom for others…thoughts?
I think it is a responsibility of being a Muslim to be a walking classroom, Islam is so strict on the preservation and need for knowledge and education that it expects us to be activists in every area of the world. I believe that being an activist means being and educator as well. At first, I used to get very annoyed when people came to me with questions regarding Islam in relation to race, feminism and politics but I had to step back and realize that I might be the only Muslim they have access too, which is a big responsibility but it is flattering that they do see my peers and I in a high manner when it comes to asking these questions. I feel as though there are not enough representations for young adult American muslims living in the United states and we’re beginning to see that change within our communities with people taking charge, even if it is by running a blog.
From your FAQ, you’ve been on the spoken-word scene for a while and your work has been recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. When did you start writing poetry and when did you get into spoken word? Are you still doing it while pursuing your degree?
I wrote short stories for myself and my friends throughout Islamic School for many years. Then when I got into high school, I focused more on poetry but I wasn’t good at all. It’s actually really embarrassing for me to read my old poems! But my English Teacher in Freshman year “discovered” me and encouraged me to try out for the school’s poetry slam team. In sophomore year, I preformed on a stage at the poetry slam competition, Louder Than A Bomb, for the first time and it was scary. I still get stage fright till this day even though I’ve been performing for 6 years now. When you have a skill or talent, it’s work…you need to practice to make it perfect and get better. No matter how good you are, you always need to practice and by writing all the time, I got better.
I haven’t been able to write anything new since I began university, but I get inspiration everyday and make sure to jot them down to save it for later use. My style had always been personal story telling but I think when I start writing again, it’ll change, especially now that I’ve grown up a lot since high school.
Following up on that, where do you see spoken word—and poetry—in the larger conversations about social justice, especially in a world of blogging, tweeting, and tumbling? I feel it has a special place in some communities as a bassline and a balm in the rough times…
Oh yes! Poetry and Spoken Word is so crucial to the discussion in social justice. Even if it taking a stab at it humorously like Kai Davis’s poetry, who is an amazing poet and some people might have seen her duet piece talking about white hipsters. Those people who haven’t been in the poetry scene might look from the outside with a skeptical perspective but in the Chicago spoken word scene, so many of the poems are real stories from Chicago youth suffering from unfortunate things like domestic abuse, gun and gang violence, racism, sexism and religious oppression. It is very much a platform that has been pushed away to the side but I see it making a huge comeback in the future.
The last question I try to keep light: what are you into nowadays? What are you reading, movies you’re digging, music you’re into, people/things moving your soul?
Well, recently I just became a columnist at MuslimGirl.net, where you can read stories and articles written by Muslim women about their experiences living here in the United States. So I’m busy writing up my latest article about menstruation which was inspired by Laci Green’s misquotation of the Qur’an in her latest video which is also about menstruation. I’m also currently taking classes about social justice issues in university. I’ve learned so much from tumblr but it’s good to go out and know that it is being applied and taught in university classrooms, so it’s helping me a lot in learning every day.
Anything you’d like to add?
Nothing else but to thank you for this wonderful opportunity to be featured on one of my favorite blogs. You do some amazing work and I’m looking forward to reading and learning from you.
As we at the R look forward to doing with you! ::hugs::
Fatwas have caught the fancy of the people worldwide and is popularly used by media, to project Islam as a misogynist religion with impractical restrictions. Zakir Naik, in his speech on the subject, explains why Muslims or Ulemas should not be giving so much importance to Sania Mirza’s dress code. Naik speaks about the importance of “diluting” the global effect of labeling Sania Mirza’s dress code as Haraam for the sake of a positive representation of Islam in the media. He further says that she is a “lesser sinner” than Muslim male cricketers who do not offer Salah at all. However, he also mentions her world ranking is “only” 34th and doesn’t deserve all the attention it is garnering.
In another related article, Dr Mookhi Amir Ali, while stating that he has better work to do than follow Sania Mirza’s career, goes onto say that she should have used her stature, as a successful Muslim woman, to question the short skirts and bring modesty into the game. She also should have worn a wrap right after the game was over, or chose not to wear the tennis dress, in all the advertisements she was featured in–the very advertisements which chose to feature her because she was a tennis star. The only attribute which will make her a good Muslim, according to him, is if she brought about any changes in the accepted “dress codes” for women in professional tennis.
Sadly, in the Islamic world, a Muslim woman’s piety is often closely related to her dress code. If she misses a prayer or a fast, not many go berserk as they would if she doesn’t wear a hijab. Does being a good Muslim woman begin and end with a hijab? Are Muslim women defined only by their modest dress codes alone? By mentioning that she is a “lesser” sinner, and by repeatedly saying that “at least” she offers Salah, Naik, while diluting some of the hype around her clothing, still suggests there’s a sense of shame in Sania Mirza being Muslim.
So, what the hell happened that seemingly led some of the top online media to rabidly become illiterate? The earliest instance of the story being reported seems to come from a RussiaToday article (August 10th), which consists of actually very little information (and substantiation) of the claim of an all-woman city. It seems to brush past that, but includes quotes female unemployment in Saudi Arabia and the need to have more women in the workforce, and then discusses Saudi women in malls, how much Shariah sucks and the Olympics. Other articles follow a similar suit; many cite the RussiaToday article or a Guardian article from August 12th or just the press release mentioned in those articles without bothering to read it and include the same quotes and stories about Saudi women …malls …Shariah …and the Olympics.
From The Atlantic to ABC News to the Huffington Post (although they at least had the decency to post an update) to Pakistan’s Aaj News, the story spread like wildfire, made all the more “authoritative” by being buttressed between socio-economic commentary on women in Saudi Arabia and changes to their social engagement under King Abdullah.
While mistakes in journalism and reporting are nothing new and part of the industry, the Amazonian Saudi Working Woman Haven story was not an innocent mistake. It was not an oversight. It wasn’t even an intentionally malignant attempt to something or other. What it was, however, was knee-jerk journalism cemented in orientalist perceptions and assumptions of Muslims. Predisposed ideas and conceptions of Muslims and of gender relations in the Muslim world and Muslim countries make it easy for sloppy and reactionary journalism to gain momentum. They love to publish it, and we love to read it. There’s something wrong with this equation, but we still continue to gobble it up every time it’s thrown in our collectively gawking face.