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.


Lecture at Loyola University (Chicago)

Islamic World Studies Lecture Series Spring 2013

“Muslim Students on American College Campuses”

Shabana Mir

Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Global Issues and Anthropology, Millikin University

Shabana Mir received her Ph.D. in Education Policy Studies, with a minor in Anthropology and a concentration in Comparative and International Education from Indiana University. Her research was awarded the 2006 “Outstanding Dissertation Award” by the American Anthropological Association’s Council on Anthropology and Education. Her book “Constructing Third Spaces: American Muslim Undergraduate Women’s Hybrid Identity Construction” is forthcoming (2013) from the University of North Carolina Press.

Monday April 8, 2013
4 PM | Life Sciences Building 142 FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Sponsors include Theology, Political Science, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, the School of Education, Sociology, and Anthropology | With funding from the CAS Dean’s Special Events Fund

Inward struggles of an academic researcher

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.

Meat, slaughter, and death

My abbu (father) loves meat and absolutely hates the slaughter on Eid-al-Adha. In Pakistan, we would buy a goat a few days in advance of Eid, care for it and feed it until that day, and hear it bleating the day before slaughter. My father loved those goats. I remember his face, darkened into a miserable scowl, on the day the butcher came by to slaughter the goat. My mother insisted that fondness for the goat was a good thing; after all, you sacrificed what you loved, not what you didn’t care tuppence about. She demanded that my father pat the goat’s head before it was slaughtered, and he stalked around the house trying to hunker down someplace while the ghastly deed was being done.

I never had the stomach to watch the slaughter. I still like my meat packaged and washed clean, food, but not animal, entirely dead. Back in 1995, when I was cooking some meat in a shared London house – our landlord was Yusuf Islam – I shivered in disgust when I saw blood in the cooking pot. “Why is there so much blood in this meat? Isn’t there something wrong with it?” My saucy roommate, Sanella, a Bosnian refugee, sneered at my hypersensitivity and countered, “It’s made of blood!”

It is, I know. I just don’t want to know. I don’t want to know, in the front of my mind, about death, killing, cutting, knives, terrified bleating, blood spurting, and a cow that was calmly grazing now lying dead upon a blood-drenched floor. I’d like to keep the grazing cattle image separate from the image of meat, sort of like a fast forward.

We scream in excitement when we watch slasher movies, we wage our wars like video games, and we buy our meat packaged and plastic and covered in transparent wrap. We shudder and squirm when we speak of cutting an animal’s throat and letting the blood flow, as if the animal was any less dead when a hammer is used, or the animal is stunned by a machine rather than held and cut by a fellow living being. If the animal must die, surely we owe the courtesy of contact to the animal whose life is to flow into ours.

Lives must not be taken lightly. Like Ned Stark in ‘Game of Thrones,’ if we kill, surely we must experience a shudder in our souls for the lives we take. There should be some realization of the horror of death. Maybe the butcher should cry, as in this report of an organic halal slaughterhouse.

Years ago, Riaz picked him up from college and asked what he wanted for dinner. “Chicken curry,” Imran replied, without a second thought. Father and son went to the poultry market where Riaz nudged him to choose a chicken. At home, in the kitchen, he handed him a sharp knife. “Here son,” he said, “if you want to eat chicken tonight, you have to take its life.” “I was very young, just seventeen or eighteen,” Imran swallowed hard. “I still get really emotional talking about that. I didn’t eat the chicken that day but the memory’s always stuck in my head.” –
Humera Afridi, “When the Butcher Cries”

Griping about the ‘One Billion Rising’ video

I have tears in my eyes after watching the One Billion Rising video by Eve Ensler and Tony Stroebel. Like most women, I am viscerally aware of the physical violence that girls and women are subjected to worldwide.

Yet this video rubs me the wrong way.

Why is the black woman being raped, the olive-skinned woman being beaten bloody, the Middle Eastern woman a victim of an acid attack while the White woman suffers a gentle caress from a White colleague/boss in the workplace?

This is wrong on so many levels: European and American women are being beaten, raped, and killed, mostly by significant others. To erase the violence in White people’s lives while playing up the Scary Black/Brown/Asian Man image is irresponsible.

We have come too far in our analytical awareness of the power of images to be clueless about this construction. I would expect better of Eve Ensler.

For a more fundamental critique of Ensler’s approach, see this. And this is Rafia Zakaria’s critique of “happy feminism.”

Interfaith marriages are here, but.

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.

So have we made it to gender equity? Ask the family

Until we raise boys and men who want to and know how to be full-time caregivers and parents – rather than mere aides and assistants – gender equity at home/work remains both a dream and a joke – in the form of women doing double duty.

By and large, while women parade their professional careers in the day-time, they remain full-time parents, and by and large, fathers remain relatively part-time parents. For childcare: women are organizers, researchers, supervisors and employers of any child-care arrangement that they can find. For most social classes, such childcare is poor to mediocre in the US if you happen to be one of the unfortunate multitudes who do not have grandparents, relatives, stay-at-home fathers/mothers, etc. that you can rely on. It entails the time-consuming labor that ensures such childcare is effective and nurturing (as a parent who used a few daycares, I know of what I speak). It entails, too, the edge-of-your-seat manuevers that are necessitated by sudden babysitter emergencies – the slack for which is usually picked up by mothers (women still make less money than men, overall, so it costs the family less when women lose wages or jobs.) By and large, the default parent in charge is still the mother. By and large, the individual who takes it for the team is still the mother. By and large, it is the mother who ensures that the home is clean and livable, that the children’s education is supervised, that laundry and dishes are done, and that children’s emotional needs are met.

This is why I say again: Until we raise boys and men who want to and know how to be full-time caregivers and parents – rather than mere aides and assistants – gender equity at home/work remains both a dream and a joke – in the form of women doing double duty.

Women do not need ‘help’ in the kitchen and with the children. Women need mature co-parents and domestic co-workers who can work unsupervised to ensure quality of life for the family. Women’s caregiving remains time-consuming in comparison to men’s. Women do not need someone who can microwave mac-and-cheese if she is not there: they need someone who can prepare healthy dinners, check if a bath is needed and administer that bath, while ensuring that homework is completed and garbage taken out.

Are you raising a boy to be that parent/husband? Or are you raising a part-time family member who is incapable of being centered around care for others? I do not say, one who can love. Wild animals can love and provide for their offspring. Caregiving is not love + paying bills. Caregiving is not buying gifts on Caregiving is time-consuming, sometimes draining, often boring.

Caregiving is a full-time job. Which brings us around to the capitalist economy which seeks to own the individual, whether parent or son/daughter, who has personal needs and relationships that work threatens more than ever to attack from their central positions. The American workplace as it is now threatens equity of any form (including gender), personal centeredness, and connectedness with others. There is an urgent need to contemplate the basis of our economy, and to reflect on the competitive urge that seeks to be bigger yet the expansion of the economy fails to benefit (I’ll say it) the 99%.

Where people in general are dehumanized to mere workers and spenders/buyers, happiness and harmony remain out of reach – for men AND women. And until men and women can all learn to nurture, give, and transcend the self, men and women remain in a tug-of-war that cannot conclude. You can bring the woman into the boardroom, but until you can bring the man into the diaper-changing bathroom – and the diaper-changing setup into the men’s bathroom – you will not truly succeed in achieving gender equity.

PS: This post refers to the majority of American families, not to exceptions for which anyone may provide anecdotal evidence.

Representing Muslims: ‘All-American Muslim’

After the first day, the new TLC show ‘All-American Muslim’ raised quite a few Muslim hackles in my social circle. Among other things, some were offended by its focus on liberal Arab Muslims. ‘What about the rest of us?’ some religious Muslims asked. ‘Why do we have to be assimilated, almost-Whites for us to be on TV? Why can’t our exemplary Muslim lives [er] be represented so we can show how we can be normal AND religious?’

Many Muslims’ desire to have good Muslims (not in Mahmood Mamdani’s sense of moderate, palatable, liberal Westerners who eat falafel) represented on TV was frustrated. Many like myself simply desired a diversity of images; in the case of minority groups, images are few and far between, and most such images are politicized.

Representation is fraught with complexity. Who represents? The bellydancer or the hijabi physician? The Pakistani college student or the Somali taxi-driver? The beer-drinking football fan or the mosque imam? And who is the audience? Liberal secular America, with its fears of all forms of religiosity? For such, their fears might be assuaged by Muslims who behave almost entirely like them.

Perhaps the audience is the right-wing person who donates to Church missions to Muslim lands, fervently believing that the presence of Muslims in America (rather than among the audience of international missions) is a cancer, an offense to the Christian character of the American nation. For such, neither positive nor neutral form of representation or visibility will be either acceptable or palatable. Representation of religious Muslims (whatever that is) will be infuriating, and representation of irreligious Muslims (whatever that is) will be perceived as an insidious attempt at normalizing Muslims.

Then the Facebook page calling for a boycott of TLC was born. And now, under pressure of such organizations as the Florida Family Association, Lowes has pulled its advertising from the show. “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” the Florida Family Association claimed, also saying “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”

Essentializing, it appears, is a desire shared by both Islamophobes who want bad Muslims in the show and some religious Muslims who want only good, observant Muslims represented. Both sides wish to represent Muslims in a specific way. Since there is no such thing as ‘reality’ in Reality TV, the choices are important. The Florida Family Association would prefer TLC to feature Muslim hijackers in training, or Muslims on death row for rape and murder (preferably for honor killing) – extraordinary rather than ‘ordinary folks,’ Muslims who threaten American values of liberty. Perhaps the opposition of ‘All-American Muslim’ would like to feature a dark, bearded Muslim father with a strong accent, who mandates black veils for his wife (wives?) and daughters, and will not permit his family to drink or to date.

But I wonder where the right-wing Christian organizations would ally themselves on the issue of sexual freedom. Perhaps a Muslim father who forbade his wife from getting an abortion on her seventh pregnancy? Would that help or hinder the cause of representing really bad Muslims? Or would it unnecessarily complicate the picture and cause confusion?

Images are inherently confusing. They never really do what we want them to do.

The ubiquity of visual technologies and our ability to share images globally has rendered the gaze central to our religious and political lives and identities. How people are represented in entertainment media galvanizes individuals, organizations, churches, mosques, corporations, and large quantities of monies. At the heart of most religion, however, is the Divine – the human being alone with God. This aloneness is an uneasy bedfellow, embroiled in an unwilling orgy with our anxieties – indeed, our obsessions – with showing, representing, seeing, preventing-from-showing, adamantly-not-seeing or preventing-from-seeing in the media.

Wanted: a single moment of self-congratulation

I’m not complaining about being a productive citizen. I buy into the work ethic as much as the next Protestant-flavored Muslim. The nuns (at the Catholic school I attended in Lahore) ensured that I possessed, along with several O Levels, a haunting, perpetually self-deprecatory desire to appease the next teacher/administrator/mentor/adviser/editor/blog reader that came along. So work is welcome. It fills the bottomless pit. It generates value. And it creates opportunities to escape the dishwasher.

I don’t complain about work per se. I have been working since I was 6, truly. The only thing I have to come to dream of is work which arrives in the form of manageable, reasonable chunks. Not small ones. That would be wimpy. Big, impressive chunks that generate adrenaline and allow you to appear busy enough to escape long conversations in the hallway. But still big chunks that can be completed before the next avalanche arrives.

As I slowly, very slowly, inch closer to my mid-40s, I dream of occasionally savoring a single moment of transition. I yearn to hold half a second in my hands, so that I may dust my hands in a satisfying manner, and exclaim to no one in particular: “Done! Grant proposal / article/ chapter/ grades/ service/ committee work/etc. – Check!” or any such triumphant remark of self-congratulation. Nothing excessive. That would smack of joy and complacency. But, in this era of speed, multiple roles, information explosion, and so on, is a moment of accomplishment and satisfaction far too much to request?

The Gay Damascus Girl Blog-Hoax

In the good old days, charlatans had to perfect a performance. The routine had to be complete with artifacts and props, ointments and sheep-heads. Frauds had to learn how to face their challengers, and respond to them. You would have to look in the eyes of your dupes and earn their conviction.

No longer. Today, frauds and charlatans only need a computer and internet access. Or just a trip to the library to use their computers. Voila. You have a persona. A whole new life. A political cause. You can BE a beloved political and personal cause. Have your face splashed on placards and flyers, your words in the hearts of your supporters – except their your lies. The expense of fraud has gone down so terribly that the miracle today is that there are still plenty of people in the world who tell the truth. People who are true to themselves – somewhat.

The case study of Tom McMaster the Syrian Lesbian demonstrates any number of issues: try the Western fascination with Muslim women’s victimhood; or the gullible eagerness to buy into Middle Eastern brutality and human rights violations; perhaps the ease of easing into new personae; the nature of human connection in this era, the fragile hold on reality – the revision of the very nature of ‘reality.’ I’m supposed to be working on a book manuscript, so I’ll let you continue to develop the list of issues that the Gay Damascus Girl blog-hoax generates.

And you may either continue to reflect on that hoax in the virtual corridor, or you may go back to your own job, family, or online shopping. Enjoy.

Details on the “Syrian Lesbian” here, here and here, thanks to Fatemeh Fakhraie.