Go to the University of North Carolina Press and check out my new book, Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity.
I am speaking at the University of Illinois this week:
CSAMES Brown Bag Lecture: “Muslim American Undergraduates in College Leisure Culture: Conformity, Resistance, Self-Essentials, and Third Spaces”
Speaker: Shabana Mir, Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Global Issues/Anthropology, Milikin University
Date: Mar 12, 2013
Time: 12:00 pm
Location: Lucy Ellis Lounge, 1080 Foreign Languages Building
Pizza and soda will be served!
I am in one of my pre-creative stages of academic writing. Unless you are one of those horribly prolific academic authors – in which case, stay away from me because I will be unable to control my envy – you know what this means. I have data from a pilot qualitative project that I conducted in Lahore during 4 hot and frantically busy weeks of teaching and advising at a public university. Since the methods were exploratory, the data are, naturally, messy. I know that as a qualitative researcher I should relish the messiness of data, knowing that life is messy and complex and that if the data were tidy and immediately classifiable, red flags and warning bells should go up/off. Still, when I am trawling through transcripts of intense conversations that are widely dissimilar from each other, I do sometimes wish for a closed-ended survey. When you’re grading a large stack of papers, the closed-ended exam is what you’d have, ideally. But it tells you little, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and the survey effectively targets that goal. Hence the pilot study.
So at this time, I am staring, through my data, at a variety of paths leading out in a variety of directions. It is also difficult that I am doing international research and that I am woefully ignorant of the work that has been done in Pakistan on the reforms in Pakistani academe. A lot of such work is government documents which is, let’s be honest – yawn. There is so much reading between the lines to do in government documents. And when I come across Pakistani officialese, I find myself completely befuddled. Maybe my training in informal American academic-speak has left me grievously inadequate to the task of formal jargon. This is not to say that I am, like – stupid or linguistically impoverished. I think.
I am looking forward to doing another round of interviews and observations at the university this summer. But since life is complicated, and I have a family which won’t accompany me this time, I cannot spend more than two weeks there. I do sometimes wish I was one of those fiercely independent academics who deal, efficiently and productively, with long periods of time away from their families, and build their research careers on such stints. I am told that when my child is older, this will become easier. As of now, my daughter gazes at me in relief when I return home after a couple of hours’ absence. So the guilt is overwhelming.
The mothering guilt is another problem with the pre-creative stage of academic writing. When I was immersed in finalizing my book manuscript (it is on its way, thanks for asking), the work was simple (well – I mean -), I knew what I was doing, by and large. Actually, I had so much to do, I had no time to feel lost. Right now, I am stuck, staring at the different paths. I am at risk, while productively contemplating my choices and the literature, of wasting (well – “waste” is an ugly word) wasting abundant quantities of time wandering in directions that will ultimately prove worthless (another ugly word). I know there is no such thing as waste in the research process. After all, as I stroll into studies of academic climate, and then gaze over into studies of work-life balance, I can only benefit from a wide-ranging appetite for contextual knowledge. But there is no category in my resume that says “Academic Appetite” or “Desultory Wanderings.” If they didn’t result in a tangible artifact, they don’t really count for much. When I am a tenured professor, I can be the expert whose musings and wanderings will be of value – someone who scatters academic value on her way as she ‘wastes’ time.
As I pointed out some time ago, interfaith marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are definitely here to stay in the Muslim diaspora. While Muslim religious leaders have not generally come out endorsing interfaith marriages, a small trickle of leaders have begun supporting and counseling interfaith couples (and no, supporting and counseling doesn’t always mean converting the non-Muslim spouses). The fact is, it’s time to accept interfaith marriages, both for Muslim men and women. Sociologically, there is no alternative.
This is not to say that interfaith marriages are a simple matter, both theologically and socially, as Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl points out, or that general rules may be applied to all. Each individual must consider her individual circumstances in such decisions. For example, she must consider the question: how important is my faith to me? How ecumenical is my disposition? How much do I care about transmitting my faith to my offspring? How likely is a prospective spouse to be generous in the socialization of offspring? A few years into interfaith marriages, when children start elementary school, a spouse/s often experiences religious change, so that all bets are off. This, of course, can easily happen to a couple that professes the same faith, but I would bet that the chances of conflict on matters of raising children religiously are statistically higher for interfaith couples. In other words, individuals entering upon such a marriage ought to consider every possibility, including the possibility that the beloved will, a few years hence, become an intransigent opponent of his spouse’s faith. What then? Is the resulting compromise acceptable to her?
Consider this: according to Dr. Abou El Fadl, the rationale for the juristic consensus against Muslim women is based on potential religious coercion by the husband and on fact that traditionally, offspring inherit the father’s religion and last name. Today, while Western nations are patriarchal without a doubt, as are Muslim societies, what if such patriarchal lineage were to be disrupted? What if father and mother had equal power to socialize their offspring and pass on their respective faiths? Within such contexts, would the juristic consensus be different? For such individuals, even those within patriarchal societies, could a juristic alternative be imagined?
By and large Muslims do not seem overly concerned about Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women. In Western societies, where legal frameworks favor women in some cases, ought this juristic consensus (in favor of Muslim men marrying non-Muslim women) to be revoked?
For those who approach the debate in a de-contextualized fashion, a rule is a rule is a rule, no matter where it is being applied, and social realities are irrelevant. Islamic law does not function in this way. Still, scholarly consensus can be a useful tool for gendered fears and identity insecurities in non-Muslim majority societies.
Of course I enjoyed this movie. But I had to work hard not to think too hard about the plot. That’s how most movies are now, it seems. As a nostalgic postcolonial (and partially-British), I enjoyed how the Brits self-exoticized in this movie: I half-expected Potter and Poppins to appear from the helicopters. The whip-up-fear-and-go-to-war talk was disappointing -why do I expect Judi Dench and Helen Mirren to be politically astute and anti-conflict? The politics in bang-bang movies is *supposed* to be disappointing – liberal minister drones on stupidly about peace and diplomacy while all the cool people go bang-bang and boom-boom because come on, the evil foreigners are coming to get us and we have to get them first.
We have moved to Champaign, Illinois. I am now working in a new faculty position at Millikin University, teaching Global Studies and Anthropology. Much has changed for the better. It is a great relief to make a fresh start, working with good people.
Today, Svend, Raihana and I went for jum’ah prayers at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center (I sometimes type the abbreviation COMIC by mistake). The khutbah was a snoozer, not at all likely to make you sit up and weep for spiritual delight (Zogby poll results on Americans’ impressions of religious groups, anyone?) But we sat in a large hall, and when I stood up to pray, the imam was visible straight ahead. When I glanced to my left, I saw Svend standing up next to Raihana in the men’s rows, just a few feet away. We finished the prayer, and then we got a mosque meal, and created our own little pocket of ‘gender-mixing’ as we ate together.
It feels very strange to be at this mosque now in 2012. I was here in the late 1990s a few times. At that time, a prayer hall where women prayed along with men was very rare, in my experience. I visited Champaign-Urbana from Indiana University, seeking a connection with Muslim student groups. Then I was invited, as one of a very few female speakers, to speak to the annual convention attendees. I was a hijabi, very MSA; my Sufism was downplayed because Sufism was, at that time, still a little dangerous in North American Islamic circles. I was single too, and at this mosque, I was suddenly reminded of how naive I was. Every scruffy young man, trailing into the mosque with his backpack and looking for a plate of food, was a prospect (though my behavior was entirely above reproach). Ah, youth. It is nice to be such an old married woman that I barely notice any man except Svend who is trying very hard to get Raihana to pray properly in congregation.
If I look back, like Daenerys in ‘Song of Ice and Fire,’ I am lost. I wonder why I am no longer youthful, naive, expectant, and always in a state of emotional turmoil, vulnerable to every sight of beauty and majesty.
To be static seems a kind of death. But being 44 instead of 29, married and a mother instead of single, having surmounted a variety of obstacles and having NOT changed the world or achieved dizzying heights of success — all of these things must perforce make you wiser and calmer. Now we look ahead calmly, feeling that instead of strange mysterious mountain peaks, what lies ahead is a landscape more akin to the flat lands of Illinois. I can see exactly what lies around me. I cannot be sure what lies ahead, but I know that the skies I behold now are clearer, the landscape older and well-trodden. This makes for a slightly less exciting journey, but a less fearful one as well. This year, when I hit 44, I felt that I truly grew older as never before.
Many academics love to champion underdog causes, especially those in different time zones. In their own workplaces, academics are extremely conservative, preserving of the status quo, and preferring glacial rates of change. I would like to caution fellow junior academics who are under the impression that all academic fighters for social justice walk the talk in their everyday lives.
Academic fighters for social justice are frequently just that – academic fighters. As long as it is pure talk and no skin off one’s nose, it has little relationship with the everyday reality of the workplace. It is a rare academic who will stand with the underdog against injustice in, say, tenure and reappointment cases, or the everyday negotiation of small perks, course allotment and course schedules.
As a young woman, I found myself completely inept in the cut-throat world of women’s social politics. I simply couldn’t simper, smile, serve food, dish out sarcasm and get my way at the same time. I thought that once I had my Ph.D., I could commence speaking my mind. I have learned, however, that the same skills I observed in Pakistani women’s social lives are at play in academic workplaces. No one need truly speak their minds. What concerns me deeply is the disconnect between what people are and what they project. I suppose I am still an idealistic academic at heart, when I yearn for people of the mind to be opposed to that disconnect. I still want academics to walk the talk, and to have one face.
As an academic in a set of fields which, by and large, have a rather explicit commitment to social justice, I’ve been fortunate to know individuals who have been unafraid to be the same persons in their everyday lives as they are in their rhetoric and publication. But for new academics, I want to caution them not to expect too much from their academic idols and from authors of fiery journal articles who “represent” downtrodden women and wronged ethnic groups. The liberal, the conservative and the radical are often quite congenial bedfellows, and will amiably band together against the underdog, unfazed by the fact that the drama of injustice is playing out under their very noses. As long as there isn’t a grant or a publication in it, it can go hang.
I confess I am not athletically inclined. I come from a family of tennis players, but I never played. This lack of interest is one reason I am perhaps the only person I know who isn’t following the London Olympics. For that, I apologize in advance. But the second reason is that I do not have cable at home: it’s my one act of self-denial and spiritual discipline.
Another reason I do not watch the Olympics is the provincialism that it seems to bring out in people. The Americans I hear from appear to be barely aware of the existence of talented non-American athletes. Those other folks seem to serve the purpose of bringing Americans to the top, or giving us a few hours of cheering for ourselves. Aren’t the Olympics at least philosophically supposed to open us up to the whole world, and make us more aware of their existence? If the event just makes us more provincial and self-absorbed, what’s the point? As freshmen going for beer-soaked study abroad trips, what purpose does international exposure-and-connection serve if it does not broaden us, stretch us, and open us up?
I am also uncomfortable with competitive sporting events just as I am uncomfortable with the notion of competition in education. The field is not level. Some competitors have state-of-the-art facilities, endless opportunities, coaches and time to train (and salaries as athletes). On an individual level, competition has become extreme. There is far too much money and commercialism involved in sports. The consequences of winning/losing are far too serious for participation in sports to be benign. The pressure on competitive sportswomen and -men is excessive.
That said, I don’t enjoy following sports, so what do I know? Back to your regularly scheduled programming, where you gnash your teeth at the Russian gymnasts’ attitude and cheer Gabby or Aly.
Svend was on the phone with AT&T customer support for almost 2 hours this evening. I was struck by how each one brought up the weather. The funny thing was, they were in Arizona and we are in Oklahoma, but the weather we were discussing ours in relation to was the Northeastern cold front. Small talk, particularly about the weather, helps us all by creating spaces of fake interaction, lubricating the harsh angles of everyday conversation.
What would we do if we hadn’t figured out how to create safe spaces of meaningless-communication around weather-talk and other impersonal contextual events? What if we actually conversed about what really lies within?
A: I need to see the doctor for my pancreatic cancer.
Receptionist: Sure. [Can't say 'and how are you feeling today?'] … So how is your spiritual constitution today?
Patient: I’m fine. I’m still agnostic and fearful about impending death due to the uncertainty of what may or may not happen e.g. eternal damnation, total obliteration. What about you?
R: I’m snug in my confidence that I will be in a culturally comprehensible Heaven only when I am quite prepared to depart from this rather enjoyable earthly realm in search of an improved set of pleasures.
P: My own humble meta-awareness of my ignorance compares quite well with your complacency, despite the fact that your inward tranquility is better than my own. Still, the latter is simply owing to the fact that I am dying and you appear to be in relatively good health, despite your obesity which may be related to diabetes and poor cardiac health.
R: The nurse will call you in a few minutes. In the meantime, may I attempt to salvage your soul prior to its imminent departure from your body?
P: I’m fine, thanks. I’ll just wait for the doctor. I’d rather speak about spiritual matters to an individual with a more well-rounded liberal education and stronger critical awareness of their own flaws.
R: As you wish. I’ll let the nurse know, and when you’re calling from the flames, I’ll be smiling with the angels. Insurance card, please.
Restaurant customer: Table for 2 please.
Waiter: Certainly, sir. It’ll be 10 minutes. … And what are your political inclinations at this time?
C: Oh, I’m leaning left of center, and highly critical of those who buy into the myth that working harder will improve the economy.
W: Ah, I’m glad to hear that. Personally, I’m a graduate student working to pay my bills, and working harder is not an option but a necessity. The more of your kind that come to dine at this ridiculously expensive restaurant, the harder I have to work.
C: Though inclined to be generous in spirit to service staff, I find I feel kinder toward those in poverty in distant lands since they whine and talk back much less than people like you do.
W: Dealing with whiners is one of the hazards faced by those who live lives of relative luxury, sir. I believe we have your table and I am definitely brimming over with disgust for your hypocritical politics, so please follow me.
C: A corner table would be best, thanks, and I certainly won’t need to interact with you outside of this restaurant, since, hard as you may work, you won’t make it beyond academe and about $50K for the foreseeable future.
Feel free to contribute your own big-talk scenarios.