“On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West”

(Disclaimer: I’m sick as a dog and still at work today, leaving early though. So if I ramble on in this post, forgive me)

Ignoring the fact that I don’t want to keep writing about how my faith, my culture, my traditions are misunderstood (it can get a bit tedious at times), I feel obligated to spread the word about a really amazing Syrian-American writer named Mohja Kahf. If you read my post about the veil, then you’ll have read Nora’s quote from a poem written by Kahf. A particularly moving essay by Kahf titled, “On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West”is part of my motivation for this next post. I am Muslim. I am American, born and raised. I am about a million different ethnicities, so trying to negotiate my own space within my faith, my culture, my society, etc. etc. is…well, beyond difficult, and something I’ve struggled with for a long time. In her essay, Kahf touches on a lot of these issues. I’m not a writer, but this essay spoke to me. Some of it I agree with, other parts I don’t.

A Muslim woman writing in the West in these times enters a commercial book industry that on one hand has begun to treat her texts as a hot commodity, and on the other hand has a limited repertoire for placing her work, especially if her fiction or nonfiction is related to Islam and gender. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s mostly cluelessness. The existing “spectrum” consists of two Eurocentrically slanted slots for Muslim women’s stories: Victim and Escapee. No matter how much a Muslim woman may have something different to say, by the time it goes through the “machine” of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either a “Victim Story” or “Escapee Story.” Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes. Between an ignorant industry and an ungenerous homebase community of readers, how can a Muslim woman write and publish in the West and do her best to dodge the machine?

Kahf goes on to categorize the different “ingredients:” Muslim woman as victim, mute marionette, meek mother, forbidding father, rotten religion, cruel country, vile veil, stifled sexuality and on and on.

On meek mother, Kahf writes:

Make the mother figure in the story powerless. Eliminate the vibrant subcultures of Muslim women from the picture, all empowering relationships with sisters, grandmothers, friends, and turn them into harem slaves. Ignore homegrown non-Western feminisms. The English translation of early Egyptian feminist Huda Sharawi’s memoirs leaves out the strong personality of her Circassian mother and makes it seem as if Sharawi’s sense of gender equality was birthed by European mentors.

Now, wait, wait, wait. I’m in no way trying to assert that “Western feminists” are wrong for doing what they do. I consider myself a Western feminist. I think Kahf is trying to assert that there are plenty of “homegrown” feminists as well that we I tend to forget about. When I read this specific excerpt it reminded me of my mother. My amazingly wonderful and strong mother, who has lived in a stifling, pseudo-conservative house since she got married, but always regales me with stories of my grandmother (who I only knew for 10 years), a single parent, teacher, and strong feminist, who moved from Iran, to Ethiopia, to Pakistan, to England (eventually settling there). And when I dig deeper, I discover stories of my aunts, and great-aunts, etc. who were all strong women in their own right. They may not identify with the type of feminism that I have studied and am steering towards but, in their own way, were all strong feminists.

Kahf writes on forbidding fathers (and I love this part, especially):

Make her father figure tyrannical and motivated only by an inscrutable patriarchalism, not by the feelings of a human father to protect his daughter, not by love. Include no kindly brothers, uncles, or grandfathers, and no Muslim men who champion women’s rights.

Here’s where I tend to disagree with Kahf, probably because I grew up in a moderate, edging closer to conservative household. My father was and is a bit of a dictator. I love him. He’s my father, and I respect him for everything he has given me and my two sisters and brother. But he’s very much a controlling human being. He wants to make my decisions for me: every single one of them. Everything from: what I wear to what career I go into (medicine is the profession of choice) to where I live to who I marry. Yet, he’s raised me to believe that women are just as intelligent as men. They can do just as well in anything. I should be strong and independent. I shouldn’t rely on my (future) husband (there’s that pesky little assumption that I’m going to get married in the first place…or that marriage is a priority at all). As soon as I hit the age of 20, my father’s tone changed. I was still expected to do well, graduate with honors, etc. etc., but I was also expected to learn to cook, clean, and in general be a really good mother-to-be. When I’d argue wit him about why I had to do all the housework, why, at the age of 21, I still had an 11 pm curfew when I came back from school, and why my brother, who is 18, was allowed to stay out drinking all night long…I was told “don’t argue with me.” Yes. My father loves me. I have absolutely no doubt about that, but I’m starting to feel the clinch of the double standard…because I’m a woman. I’m a daughter. And good Muslim girls don’t wear low-rise jeans. Good Muslim girls don’t stay out late. Good Muslim girls only read about feminism and human rights as a hobby, not as a career. I have no doubt that there are plenty of (Muslim) fathers out there who are kind and loving and liberal and there are plenty of (Muslim) men who do champion women’s rights. I guess it’s hard for me to see through my own experiences. That’s probably the pessimist in me, though.

More below the fold…

And on Islam:

Make sure there are no nice imams in the picture. Make the mosque a nasty-smelling place. Have the adhan called while she is beaten by her husband, like in the movie Not Without My Daughter, explicitly linking Islamic symbols with misogyny. (By contrast, Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Days shows a protagonist who takes comfort in learning the Qur’an from her mother-in-law.)

Islam is a central part of my life. To some, I’m not really a “good” Muslim. I don’t veil. I date. I go to bars. I swear. The list could go on…for quite a while. But I’m a Muslim. And my faith is…well, probably one of the most, if not the most important thing in my life. To say it doesn’t define me would be a lie. (It’s not the only thing that defines me, though). In it’s *purest* (what is that anyway?) form, Islam is a really beautiful faith, just as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism are. I know those people who dislike organized religion tend to disagree. Fine. But to me, faith, in all it’s forms, is a really beautiful thing. And it’s frustrating to even be writing this post because religion has been distorted and manipulated so often that the Islam I find myself defending isn’t even the Islam that I necessarily believe in. It’s a warped version that has been tainted by cultural norms, etc. etc. And I find myself having to defend or explain or embrace a type of faith that…I still haven’t fully come to terms with yet. I digress.

Before we all jump on Kahf for hating on the “West” and making excuses for a lot of the misogyny and violence within the Middle East, she says this:

Here’s the thing: Muslims do have sexual oppression and are as flawed as any other human. Honor killing is a real problem. It is a crime, and Muslims need to redress it (and maybe what happens when we don’t address it is that other people will take up the cause on their own terms). It just becomes extremely difficult to speak against it as a Muslim without your voice getting stolen for other, Eurocentric agendas. This is a terribly secondary thing to have to worry about when your time should be spent fighting honor killing itself. That’s how stereotypes distort us as human beings; they take our energy away from real spiritual development and make us defensive, reacting instead of acting. When we say that Muslim women do not fit the Victim stereotype, we must not deny that there are real Muslim women who are victims, or that Muslim sexism exists, and we must not step away from our moral obligation to change those realities. It’s just that we do not accept the way these injustices are presented, tinged with anti-Muslim bigotry, made into insupportable monolithic claims about our faith and our communities.

Kahf brings in her first case: The Mukhtaran Mai Incident of 2004. She recounts the story of Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped in a remote Pakistani village by “members of a feudal clique that bullied the local populace.” She tells a story of the rape and after. A story that I had never heard before. I read the NYT piece on this, the one she references. And I…ignorantly…believed what I had read. I was horrified. Disgusted with my own “people.” Kahf writes about the incident:

A woman was gang-raped in a remote Pakistani village by members of a feudal clique that bullied the local populace. Her father tried to get into the house where the crime was being committed and later threw his shirt around her and walked her home; the village imam expressed outrage about the crime from his pulpit; a Pakistani journalist publicized her cause. They and other Muslims helped her to bring the perpetrators to justice, and death sentences were meted out thanks to shariah’s capital punishment for rape. Because a higher court took into consideration the legal checks and balances built into the country’s judicial system, the death sentences were overruled and lesser sentences imposed, causing many in the Pakistani society, including feminists and other supporters of women’s rights, to stir public debate about the handling of her case and the injustice of the lighter sentences. She was awarded punitive damages and with the money, opened a girls’ school in her hometown, surviving the horrific ordeal with her dignity and strength of soul. …The NYT reported: …the woman had no supporters in her family, there was no concerned mullah on her side, and her entire society only wanted her to commit suicide. Readers were told that Mai’s entire village watched her walk home “naked” and did nothing to assist her. The columnist did not acknowledge his fellow journalist whose work helped bring Mai’s cause to the public, or if he did, an editor must have dropped the reference. The support of Mai’s father and other family members and the advocacy role played by the small-town imam were also left out. A photo that accompanied one early Internet report of the story showed only a veiled Muslim woman with her head bowed, weeping. Mukhtaran Bibi’s strength was left out of the story, and she was turned into a mute marionette needing Western rescue. Her faith was left out. The positive role of shariah — yes, shariah — in punishing the rapists was left out. The existence of many people in the Pakistani society who were outraged at what happened to her was left out, as was any mention of the fact that there are laws against rape in Pakistan and a judicial system that is willing to enforce them within the limits of rules of law, which exist in the U.S. and should exist in any democracy.

Interesting. Also, disturbing. The whole situation. The rape and the hereafter.

Make no mistake, a Muslim woman writer can whip out a Victim or Escapee story and a non-Muslim writer can avoid these molds when writing about Muslim matters. It’s about the content of our writing, not the identity of the writer. The Victim/Escapee are well-traveled ruts, easy to fall into.

Another author produced a collection of essays by Arab women who are neither victims nor escapees, but the publisher put an exotic niqabi (face veiled) woman on her cover, having nothing to do with the book’s contents. The image of an inscrutable niqabi, an army of identically hijabed (covered) Muslim women looking sullen, and a Muslim woman staring from behind a barred window, are some of the most clichéd visual expressions of the Victim stereotype. The author happens to be a Christian Arab and still the publishers put the stereotypical Muslim woman on the cover — with black minarets sticking out of her head, I kid you not. The author objected, but the contract allowed the press “sole discretion” over the jacket — publishers insist on this. I called her to offer support and to say, “I know the cover wasn’t your choice.”

The bizarre thing is that even when a Muslim woman writer doggedly carves a different shape for her narrative, the publishing industry, with its limited institutional intelligence, will still try to squeeze it into a Victim or Escapee package. Interviews given by Iranian Nobel Laureate Sherine Ebadi, for example, can be read as an indication of what’s right with
Iran. Her choice to live and work in the Islamic Republic as an activist and professional woman is an affirmation of that system’s elasticity and strength and openness to reform. Yet in the mainstream
U.S. media, she was constructed for us, inexplicably, as an Escapee (and then, predictably, you had Muslims reacting against her for that).

I won’t try to pick apart Kahf’s entire article, because this post would be pages long. I, personally, think Mohja Kahf is a phenomenal writer. If you have the opporutnity, pick up some of her poetry or her book. It’ll change your life. I promise. I’ll let you all read the rest of her essay here.


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11 comments for ““On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West”

  1. Josh Jasper
    November 7, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for sharing. I know it can be hard to represent your culture as something you’re not ashamed of, but at the same time, acknowledge that it has flaws.

    As a non Muslim man, I can’t speak to your experiences, but as a bisexual man, I can offer a parallel in my own experience. the GLBT community, for example, is wonderful in so many ways. Members do great work in outreach, pushing for equality in law and in the public, etc…

    But at the same time, we’ve got problems. There’s racism, sexism, classism, biphobia, transphobia, and probably some religious bigotry as well.

    By acknowledging this, and working on addressing it, instead of dismissing the community as a whole, we can move forward and keep all of the great things we’ve done, and our unique and fun culture.

    I think it’s the same with Islam. There’s a lot there worth celebrating, but at the same time opening it up to internal criticism is important for growth.

  2. November 7, 2007 at 11:58 am

    I can think of exactly one exception to the kind of marketing that Kahf talks about: Marjane Satrapi. I already knew about Persepolis, but I stumbled across one of her other books, Embroideries, in my local library and took it home. Now I’m on kind of a Satrapi kick (my husband already has Persepolis and Persepolis II on his shelves).

    Of course, there’s a very specific reason for that: Satrapi is an artist who draws her own book covers. It’s hard to impose a weird photograph on a graphic novel.

    I guess technically Persepolis counts as an “escapee” novel, but it’s about her escape from a repressive government, not a religion or a society, and she’s careful not to conflate the two.

  3. prairielily
    November 7, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    I grew up in a moderate, edging closer to a conservative, family too, and my parents brought us up with the same beliefs about girls being as intelligent as boys. They never wanted me to have to depend on a guy for anything. (Heterosexist, yeah, but they did believe in me.) Anyway, my dad’s not authoritarian at all, and he really doesn’t care whether I can cook or clean. So they do exist.

    I date a white male, and I was talking to some friends about why I’m not dating a Muslim guy, and it was very strange. A few of them had dated Muslim guys in the past, and were commenting on the engrained sexism. On the one hand, I agreed with what they were saying, because there is an engrained double-standard. I know that my family is different from a lot of others. On the other hand, I felt the urge to defend, because it puts you in the same box, and it tars my brothers and fathers and cousins and all the supportive, non-sexist Muslim guys that I know exist. It’s an odd position to be in.

  4. Fauzia
    November 8, 2007 at 1:23 am

    I date a white male, and I was talking to some friends about why I’m not dating a Muslim guy, and it was very strange. A few of them had dated Muslim guys in the past, and were commenting on the engrained sexism. On the one hand, I agreed with what they were saying, because there is an engrained double-standard. I know that my family is different from a lot of others. On the other hand, I felt the urge to defend, because it puts you in the same box, and it tars my brothers and fathers and cousins and all the supportive, non-sexist Muslim guys that I know exist. It’s an odd position to be in.

    Prairielily, I know exactly what you are talking about. I have always, always for some reason dated white males. And now is the first time I’m dating a Muslim, and a full-blooded Egyptian to boot. He was born and raised here, albeit in a *relatively* liberal family (although, on the grand spectrum of liberalism, I wouldn’t necessarily call them the the most liberal)…but for Egypt…it is. I definitely encounter moments, very small, tiny little things that really bother me. Certain ways he talks to me, or things he says, assumptions he makes.

    I think some of my friends just always assumed I would never date a Muslim guy because to even to them I wasn’t exactly the stereotypical “Muslim.” In fact, in conversation once, a friend of mine was talking about where all the “white, ex-pats hang out” and then nodded to me and said, “ya know, where you’d hang out.” When I gave him a funny look he responded with, “what, Fauzia!?! I mean, come on, face it, you pretty much are white. So…

    yeah. It’s an odd position to be in.

  5. Bobthemole
    November 8, 2007 at 4:46 am

    Chiming in here. I’m female and grew up in pakistan in your standard moderate muslim family, and am now in the US. I too grew up with the message that girls and boys have the same rights and can grow up to do the same awesome things.

    I found it interesting (and yes, frustrating) that while my parents thought they held these egalitarian principles, they didn’t realize the full implications of the values they raised me with. Not until I grew up and said things like, “I’m going to grad school and not getting married.”

    My dad told me I was being selfish and irresponsible for delaying marriage and thereby increasing *their* stress. My mom insists she doesn’t want me to have an arranged marriage, but she still wants to background-check and vet suitable boys before introducing them to me as acceptable marriage partners. Add the complication that they want me to marry a nice muslim boy, while yours truly is quite disinterested in that species.

    It’s taken a lot of self-examination and negotiation (and a few dozen hours of therapy :) ) but I’m learning to set my boundaries and say no to them when their expectations conflict with my goals.

    That said, I understand where they are coming from. It cant be easy to grow up in a culture where their own parents were involved in their lives well into adulthood, and then learn to let go of their daughter as she makes life choices they have no roadmap for.

    In other words, although I may feel “oppressed” by things they say and try to make me do, they aren’t “oppressors” in the way the media and some of my acquaintances would think. And it is exhausting on one hand to negotiate my changing relationship with my parents, and on the other hand to defend them when strangers assume they are Evul Oppressive Mozlemz.

    And that conflict extends to islam and pakistani culture in general. I’m agnostic but I find myself defending beliefs and practices I disagree with, to people who are quick to stereotype some pretty nuanced stuff. And it’s bloody aggravating. I hate having to work overtime to compensate for other people’s intellectual laziness. And I wouldn’t even care except that the same people would squish me into a “Victim” box on the basis of their misconceptions.

  6. November 10, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    Prairielily, I know exactly what you are talking about. I have always, always for some reason dated white males. And now is the first time I’m dating a Muslim, and a full-blooded Egyptian to boot. He was born and raised here, albeit in a *relatively* liberal family (although, on the grand spectrum of liberalism, I wouldn’t necessarily call them the the most liberal)…but for Egypt…it is. I definitely encounter moments, very small, tiny little things that really bother me. Certain ways he talks to me, or things he says, assumptions he makes.

    Knowing this, could you marry him?

  7. November 15, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Why are the comments moderated? I don’t like it.

  8. November 15, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Sorry for the “spam”, but this looked great!

    # Manas Shaikh Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    November 15th, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Why are the comments moderated? I don’t like it.

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