Gender activism: within the system or without?

wadudAt times, I hear some Muslim women scholars sniff at activism. I hear people say that the activists who educate young women in conservative seminaries and teach them wifely obedience are superior to such scholarly activists who rock the boat, jettison baggage, and demand new gendered frameworks. I hear people say that such activists could have continued to be highly regarded scholars in “mainstream” religious circles, and that it was their own fault that they demanded too much, made too many big statements, and demanded – for instance – prayer leadership, the right to divorce, and so on.

This is an age-old debate of course: work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change? Or demand more, and turn large numbers of mainstream community members against yourself – and potentially get them to dig in their heels even further?

I disagree with such claims – that working within the status quo is the only true path to reform. With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.

HIJAB? AGAIN?

I didn’t bother to read Nomani’s Washington Post piece. Judging by the title, I assumed it (as my brilliant student @zaynabshahar put it) “deconstructed hijab solidarity as a rising trend” and critiqued the commodification and consumption of hijab. It didn’t do that. Asra Nomani says we have to fight hijab, and abandon hijab solidarity practices. Why? Because some women are forced to wear headcovers.

It is true that some women are forced to wear particular types of clothing. (Some people, who remain unnamed, have sensory issues and are forced to wear fitted suits and uncomfortable shoes). Some women in Muslim settings are forced to wear headcovers. Does this mean hijab is always an oppressive force?

Nomani’s argument is flawed. If some women are forced into marriage, do we call for a solidarity boycott of marriage? The freedom to practice is essential, but hijab itself doesn’t create mandatory headcover practices and associated shaming.

Some choose to practice it, others don’t. I do not. Many of my friends do. I support all of them. I talk about pluralism of practice within Muslim communities in my book, and I talk about how some imams, some scholars, and some writers throw dynamite into this pluralism, pitting hijab-wearers against non-hijab wearers.

All these discussions of hijab are so old & done. Seriously: did we just roll back to the 80s and 90s? Wear it or not. And now, instead of discursively attacking women with headcovers, or attacking visibly Muslim people in the street or the school playground, let’s move on to attacking and dismantling racism, oppression, poverty, hunger, genocide, and exploitation.

And here is an important reminder to avoid essentializing & distilling Muslim identity, difference, & courage in the form only of a headscarf:

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#JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux

frenchI awoke to the hashtag  #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux because a 15-year old French Muslim student was sent home for her long black skirt. Apparently her skirt proclaimed her religious affiliation too “loudly.”

The Twittersphere wants to know if Elsa is Muslim and why do Cinderella and Ariel get away with their long skirts, when a Muslim girl infects a long skirt with Muslimness? Since when does feminist empowerment demand controlling female bodies and their clothes?

At the end of the day, France – as in the Charlie Hebdo affair – falls prey to racism. They think we can’t see the silhouette of Islamophobia through their sheer laicite, but everyone else knows the emperor is naked.

Oh, France! we all cry out.

But Americans need not jump to judgement too fast. In Muslim American Women on Campus, I discuss how even non-hijab-wearing U.S. Muslim college women were othered for such attempts at modest clothing as long sleeves and long skirts. See below: 

 


An excerpt from Chapter 4: “You Can’t Really Look Normal and Dress Modestly: Muslim Women and Their Clothes on Campus” follows:  

Religiously observant non-hijabis typically seek a midpoint between normal American and Muslim dress: this usually involves wearing no hijab; modest necklines, long sleeves, and long pants to cover skin; and clothes of a loose fit to cover one’s bodily contours. Stylish layers such as jackets were in common usage to cover the chest and buttocks, but also to counteract the single baggy layer appearance. Hijab certainly is not the measure of modesty or dowdiness. As the trends of “hijab chic” and “sexy hijab” have grown in popularity, I have observed, on the one hand, hijabis wearing daringly skin-tight jeans and shirts, even low-cut necklines, coupled with minimalist headscarves, and non-hijabis, on the other hand, wearing loose clothes and bulky hoodies.

But even non-hijabis who wore modest “American” dress could not escape othering. It was no surprise that for Heather, a recent convert, “the biggest thing”—the greatest challenge—was her Muslim wardrobe.

Heather: Because you can’t really look normal and dress modestly. . . . You can pull it off to some degree. But you’ll never—[trails off]. . . . There are definite barriers between being religious and being normal in society. And you can make up to a certain degree with personality or knowledge of popular culture—or being interested in having a fun time that’s not necessarily haraam or something, but—[trails off].

[…]

On a summer day, Heather stood among her peers in their short skirts and lacy tank tops. In a woven long-sleeved shirt and an ankle-length Gap denim skirt, Heather’s skin was conspicuous by its absence.

[…]

Heather tried to prevent such encounters by strategically planning outfits, though she remained dissatisfied with the partial conformity that resulted.

peasantHeather: And so, definitely this summer I’m a lot more inclined to wear, like, light-looking things or things that might fit in a little more—like, skirts that don’t look like they’re hot, or pants that just look like khakis. Because you can sort of get away with wearing khakis in the summer and nobody’s going to ask you “Are you hot?” for the most part. Because at least you’re like–you know, it’s a legitimate thing to wear. The problem is when people wear long skirts or long pants they normally wear, like, a tank top on top.

Heather could “get away with” khakis and long skirts but when not paired with tank tops, this alternative to skin-baring summer fashion marked her as hot, weird, and oppressed. With her modest attire, Heather would never be perfectly normal or free from the pressure to defend her clothing choices.

Home movies that destroy lives

While interviewing Pakistani women academics in 2012, I learned how technological advances offer freedoms as well as snares for women. My research participant “Tahira” told me how some Pakistani young women are lured by secret lovers into making  amateur “sex films,” but these men then proceed to share these films publicly on the internet. Reputations, lives, and families are ruined in the process.

There are, however, relatively innocent films that are posted publicly and cause similar devastation in conservative families.

I know that for many, the solution is for young women to do absolutely nothing that might bring shame upon their families. Perhaps, indeed, young women must wear chadors at all times and never get caught in a private moment where they appear erotic or attractive. I am, of course, being sarcastic.

In the unregulated jungles of the internet, there does not appear to be any available strategy that might protect people from the damage of being caught by strangers engaged in fun that does no one (else) any harm.

But perhaps, in our families, schools, colleges, and madrassahs, young men can be educated to think and speak of women with respect, as agents and not as objects, as persons who can speak and act, and not as things that can only be seen and spoken of. Muslim religiosity and conservative cultural norms certainly contain the seeds of compassion, humility, and understanding of human sexuality, complexity, and diversity. It’s time those seeds bear fruit. 

The book is here!

Photo on 11-16-13 at 5.36 PM Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity – my first full-length book – is here from the University of North Carolina Press.

This is a big day. I was struck by the fact that my editor, Elaine, reminded me in her letter to celebrate properly. I suspect Elaine knows academic authors too well. We see every accomplishment, every book, every journal article, and every award in the context of academic productivity.

So in this photograph, I am taking the time to celebrate “properly” with my esteemed co-author, my seven-year old daughter. It is Raihana’s sacrifice of a good deal of quality time as well as her raising of questions about being Muslim, American, Pakistani, and White all at the same time that have resulted in this book. I owe her big time.

The book is available at the University of North Carolina Press.