American scholarly applicability in the global context

One of the challenges for critical scholars in the US is to remember that analytic frameworks developed in this specific economic, political, religious, & racial context can’t be automatically applied to issues in the rest of the world. Yes, even the theoretical frameworks emerging from the oppressed in the U.S. margins.

The encompassing privilege of America-centric media, publishing, and research can sometimes make us forget the enormous privilege of operating in this context. And this privilege and its accompanying egoism can sometimes make us think our applicability is wider than it is.

When I look at Pakistan- or South Asia-related issues, for instance, I’m stumped by just how difficult it is for brilliant American scholars to get a handle on those issues. And yet how difficult it is for many of them to realize their limitations, because they’re so brilliant on issues related to North America.



Via Eleanor Goldfield,

At times when I practice introspection, I feel as if my experiences in health, academic employment, and America have me frozen in place. Beached like a whale. It’s like I have something permanently stuck in my throat. I keep thinking I need to rise above the torpor; change my direction; jump upstream; let it go, jump on a boat, run away, go on vacation, find my head space … something.

But the day to day mundane keeps me on the hamster wheel of inertia, generating everyday inaction. Maybe all this everyday continuity will shake something loose. Then I look around, and realize this is a pervasive reality.

Is it like this for you?

A cousin once stopped praying namaz because, as she said, she wasn’t feeling anything. Her brother told her: “Just get marked present in class. Sometimes that’s all you can do.” And then, when the presence returns, you’ll at least be there. Lazzat or enjoyment, as my Sufi order members tell me, is not the goal. Allah is the goal.

So I keep showing up, right on time, for all my duties. But most activities blend into each other without differentiation. Grey. Most are 3 stars out of 5. It could be worse.

Some people throw up their hands, jump, try to find themselves. I’m not sure what there is to be found.

Maybe just showing up is enough.

Reflections on a proposed Icelandic ban on male circumcision

Here are some excellent (and brief) comments by scholars on the proposed Icelandic ban on male circumcision, with reflections on religious freedom, agency, race, religious belief and practice, immigration, difference, Islam, and Judaism.

30729796_1634271186619892_2824611205291704320_nI look, however, for some additional commentary on the shaping impact of Protestant Christianity on the proposed ban, and I’m not seeing it.

As I argue in Muslim American Women on Campus, in a section titled “Religion Unnamed,” Euro-American secularity thrives on the concealment of historical and deeply embedded Christian notions of religion, belief, and “appropriate” religious practice.

When unnamed, “religion leaks like radiation into cultural spaces” – such spaces as legislation on the bodies of infants born to Muslim parents. Though widely practiced in the United States, for example, circumcision is not a primarily Christian religious practice. Scholars must recognize, name, and correctly label the legislation against a non-Christian practice by legislators of predominantly secularized-Christian background. In such proposed legislation as the circumcision ban, Muslims and Jews become representatives of religion, while the lawmakers who draft the bill become the secular warriors protecting babies from barbarian heathens.Who can fault the humanitarian representative of the religion-free state for saving the individual bodies of infants from their individual parents of a religious background unnamed and unrecognized by the state census?

Secularity becomes a protective veil for cultural Christianity, behind which it operates, against non-Christian bodies, with the power and impunity of invisibility.


Foreign student in America, 1996

September 1996. This is me (on the left), a brand new foreign student in Amreeka, about 22 years ago. My cousin (on the right) dug up this photo from that Labor Day.

30708948_1629598497087161_5180798068802453504_nSee how hungry I look? I’m all crowded facial features. I was in Chicago for the Islamic Society of North American annual convention in 1996, days after flying into O’Hare from London to join the PhD program at Indiana University. I’d been accepted by the program a year earlier, but deferred because I had no money for tuition.

So I bided my time, worked part-time, editing, translating, and managing a Muslim women’s hostel in Brondesbury Park, London, and spending and eating only as much as I had to. I’d just earned an M.Phil at Cambridge University, and wondered if that was the end of my journey. Would I ever get a PhD? Would I ever get a real job? (I should have asked, where will that real job lead me?) 

In August, I got notification about a fellowship at IU (thanks to Bob Arnove’s advocacy). I flew over on a cheap ATA flight. I’d packed a single suitcase with a few nice clothes from Bond Street. They were too formal, it turned out, for America; a PhD classmate described me as exemplary for the jeans-and-t-shirt crowd, but that really just meant I stuck out like a sore thumb, attending an afternoon class in my long skirt from Dorothy Perkins and a moleskin jacket.

I’d yearned to find a home in this new Muslim community. That weekend, I felt adrift. The ISNA convention was sensory overload, and though surrounded by the Muslim American community, I felt terribly alone, because everyone I knew was busy enjoying the convention. I felt more foreign than ever, and really nervous about this new journey. If you look at my fake smile, you’ll see how sad and scared I was. 

Life is like cooking frozen okra

30709012_1629598313753846_7891426429810769920_o.jpgLife is funny.
You pour heart, soul, dreams, nostalgia, and homemade tamarind sauce into bhindi masala made from bags of frozen okra.
You fear that the water content of the frozen okra will result in the deadly disease of bad bhindi – gunky strings of blegh. Lais-dar bhindi. This is not gumbo. This is bhindi. It must be sizzling dry. So you work hard to dry it in paper towels before cooking it.
Then you lovingly shepherd it through high-heat frying and low-heat simmer. Your heart quakes as you wonder, “What if they packed overripe okra? And the bhindi ends up in fibrous strings in the mouth? Which is possibly even worse than gunky strings of blegh.”
But you work through the uncertainty and the doubt. Maybe all your effort will be wasted. Maybe you’ll be failed by the material you’re working with.
Such is life. Such are careers. Such is parenting. You have to work through it, and act like everything will work out perfectly.
PS: The bhindi turned out delicious.

Designing women’s prayer spaces: expansive, open, and front-facing

30414826_1623268484386829_1018598884915544064_nThis weekend I visited the Islamic Foundation mosque at Villa Park. I was attending a Qur’an reading for the soul of Dr. Arif Azam, father of my dear friend Hina. My husband and daughter and I entered the mosque and then separated to go to the men’s and women’s prayer areas. (Ah well, I thought.) When I went upstairs and looked to the expansive women’s prayer space, I thought, well, it’s certainly large.

Then as Hina talked with me and another friend, she said she would go down to say salam to the guys. I thought, oh okay, we now have to go down the stairs in the middle of the building and enter the men’s area via that journey. Instead, she stepped forward to the women’s balcony –

What? I thought, are we going to jump?

Suddenly I realized that the women’s balcony, which jutted forward proudly over the men’s prayer space, also looked outward as to share the light and the front-ness of the main area.

You see, most women’s areas have a back-ness to them. Hide in the back, separated from the main area. This prayer space is open to the glass front of the mosque. So it appears to share fully in the main space (even if it is above and somewhat in the back.)

My friend Hina kept walking. I confess I was disoriented. This is not a design I’ve encountered before. There is a staircase that leads from the FRONT of the women’s area/balcony. I can just imagine some of the people crying out ikhtilaat! danger! Again, there is a front-ness. A fearlessness. There is a defiance about this staircase. It flows down gently into the men’s prayer room, and makes for easy communication and a merging of the entire community. Kids can also go from parent to parent.

Where most mosques demarcate men’s and women’s spaces and block off entire areas, making separate directions and trajectories, this one connects, merges, creates a single direction. With its clever use of clear glass – clear glass – it also creates an illusion of total space, despite the separate areas.

We went down the staircase and our families joined together, we talked, our kids gathered around us. We were men and women and girls and boys in one space, and the world did not come to an end. When we were done, we returned upstairs to complete our prayers.

Oh, and by the way, I heard that the mosque’s award-winning design was the product of a woman’s mind. I’d like to give her proper acknowledgement but am still trying to track down the designer’s name. 30262032_1623268514386826_1558040485166055424_n.jpg

Malala visits Pakistan; here comes the hate parade

“I don’t cry often. But – I don’t know why today – Because – I’m just 20, but I’ve seen a lot in life. …”

“Today I’m extremely happy that after 5.5 yrs, I’ve placed my feet on my land, in my country. … I’m still unable to believe, I still can’t believe that this is actually happening. This is actual. In the past 5 years, I’ve dreamed that I would be able to set foot in my country. And I’ve always dreamed – if I’m in a car or plane, and I see the cities of London and NY, and I’d say [to myself], ‘just imagine you’re in Pakistan. Imagine that you’re driving in Islamabad. Imagine this is Karachi. It was never true. And now I see it, I’m very happy.”

Like NRA gun nuts who accuse Parkland kids of being paid actors, Malala-haters call her a “western stooge” because she almost died and now she’s in England.

I get it. When you’re desperate and struggling to make it in a dog-eat-dog world, and someone seems to make it (“woo-hoo, all she had to do was get shot and facial paralysis and exile? Gimme some”), the bile tends to pour out. But upwardly mobile city dwellers fighting to get their little girls in the private English medium-schools really should not be scolding Malala to shut up about girls’ education. And many of the little girls and boys who have grown up in those private schools have come to vent that bile on Twitter too. Check your privilege.

But Western imperialist power politics & terrorist politics are not her fault. The clumsy ratings-grubbing practices of Pakistani media are also not her fault. Sorry you’re sick of celebs falling over each other to fawn over her and get a picture taken with her, but that’s not her fault either.

This is the human cost of becoming a warrior for girls’ lives in the context of a global conflict, where the issues become entirely tangled with larger interests. Where your body becomes a symbol on all sides. You become a symbol of imperialist Westerners and their military adventures, and you become a symbol of the ‘good muslim fighting Our war against brown men.’ In this world where people erase girls, and there are only binaries, Malala has actually worked extremely hard against these binaries, to refine a balanced policy discourse, despite her youth.

Be safe, Malala. May God grant you a happy life.

If anyone posts crap in the comments, I’m deleting it.

Homeless and middle class?

So I just finished watching the latest episode of Speechless [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT].

And the last scene features cheery music as the DiMeos and Kenneth sleep on their furniture in the yard under the stars, as they are being evicted from their home. The DiMeos are now homeless.

It’s a supposedly funny scene, but it reduced me to a blubbering mess.

“They’re homeless,” I wept, running to my husband. “They’ve been evicted. It’s not funny.”

Normally, he would smile and shrug at my easy-to-tears tendency. But he did not.

We both know that though we work and have worked all our lives, this does not protect us – and our child – from a devastating downfall.

A single catastrophic event, or illness, can push us off the cliff with ease that is terrifying for me to consider.

Here in America, you can be working non-stop for decades, and a single event can reduce you to a downward slope, that can destroy you. With your kids, and your years of slogging away for a paycheck, homelessness is not a distant prospect for middle class people like me.

“When I think about how this is not that far from the realm of possibility,” he says, “it makes me want to leave this country.”

I saw what cancer did to my life. It reduced me physically on many levels to a state that I now wrestle with. I find little support for this at work. I dot every i and cross every t, but there are sharp eyes watching for the slightest sign that I might drop the ball. So I have found ridicule and impatience.

No matter: it’s just ‘business’ for a supervisor. They’re just trying to see if they can push me out and save a buck. Or put me on a part-time salary and save a buck.  They weren’t happy when they failed to do that.

I also saw what a first-time dysfunctional workplace did to my career trajectory. With radiant hopes, I started the tenure track, and slammed into an entire team of toxic employers and colleagues.

Perhaps cancer would slow them down, I thought. But it only fed their vampiric appetites. Like sharks, they only circled me faster in the water, and closed in on me faster.

I find myself now in a state of employment uncertainty. A scene like the DiMeos homeless in the yard is not something I can laugh about.

It is a scene from a nightmare.

We are at this moment living in an expensive rental apartment in Chicago.

Why don’t you live in a cheaper district, you ask. Well, it is in an expensive Chicago school district – because good CPS schools are hard to find – where affordable apartments are even harder to find. People don’t move out of this district until their children graduate from Grade 8.

And now, our landlord is selling his house, so we have to move within 5 weeks. We scrambled to find an apartment at short notice, and found one that’s even more expensive.

We keep spinning our wheels, hoping to put together enough to buy a house, and the money keeps going down the drain on rentals. Because we must live somewhere. And the choices are few.

Now, my employer tells me there’s no guarantee of employment past a year, or even a few months because of financial issues. Meantime, there is money for administrators’ large salaries, and even a new one.

“There are many other new PhDs who’d be happy to serve here,” I was told once.

I have poured heart and soul into my work and my students. Though I do say so myself – as do my students – no one can cast doubt on the excellence of my teaching and my contribution. I’m present for every meeting, every bit of service, every TPS report, every training – but I get the same precarity as I would if I did the absolute minimum and thumbed my nose at my superiors.

So if I lost this paycheck today, what would happen? I don’t know.

I’ve been relatively secretive about these struggles because, in this individualistic society, where success is worshipped, it’s embarrassing to show failure.

Yes, even though you’ve read quite a bit in this blog, I actually haven’t said much at all. 

It is embarrassing to be a faculty member who is treated as dispensable.

One thinks, is it my fault? And there is no dearth of tenured professors who say, Hmmm, could it be your fault? Could you have tried harder? Published more from the chemotherapy room? Negotiated a better teaching evaluation? Tried to get along with the racist coach-turned-department-head? Could you have put your foot down and said, I will not be laid off? Could you have been alert, and figured out that the poet-dean was lying to you when he told you everything was fine and you were doing great? That he actually knew he was going to kick you out to the curb within a few months? Could you have sued them? Could you have applied for jobs in WhiteTown, USA (again) and at least have job security – even though you’re much too brown and Muslim for this job security?

It is so easy for people to blame failure. Because it is comforting to think, I earned all this myself. 

At this moment, millions of us respectable middle class people live on the edge of homelessness and penury. We order peapod groceries, we drink organic milk, we send our kids to a good school, and we hope that next year, we’ll be in a house still. Next year, we’ll still be eating decent food, sending donations to Syria, watching the occasional movie.

With a single catastrophic event, we can fall into a terrible cycle of desperate poverty. No matter what we do. Because in this country, there’s no helping hand, no social net. Just ridicule and self-congratulation.

And there’s nothing funny about that at all.



Check out Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City. 


Critical Thinking cards


I don’t often back kickstarter initiatives, but I backed the Logical Fallacy card game. I have bought and used the Logical Fallacy poster before, and now I’ve got two sets of Critical Thinking cards. Check them out. It’s a good game, and a great way to teach your children, students, friends, and family the foundations of critical thinking. In their next edition, I hope there are women philosophers in the cards. 28168513_1580163162030695_1398027793386866266_n

The labor of academic job applications

The Passion of Creation
Leonid Osipovich Pasternak – 1892

In the past few years, I realized that one of my guilt-bundles comprises the guilt that I am not participating in the madness of job application season to the requisite level.

Why, you ask? Why wouldn’t you apply for the few academic jobs available?

Here’s why: because of the emotional labor of academic job applications. (Thank you for writing this, Andrea Eidinger.)

I hate to admit this to myself, but I actively avoid job applications. I still do them, but the very thought of going through the creation of a serious, customized document (many hours and days of work that really ought to be paid) renders me a huge lump of emotional garbage. 

The cover letter asks me to define myself. Redefine myself. Explain myself. Who am I? What have I been for the past decade? How have I re-invented myself, time after time, in the throes of the horrors of the job market? How have I turned academic tricks simply to remain relevant? How have I performed whatever acts needed, changing, morphing into whatever I was required to become? How have I plastered new posters over my identity billboards? How have I sold out everything I worked to become in the past? Really? I’m supposed to say all that, and then face myself in the mirror, rather than let the earth devour me?

Then you want a resume, or a curriculum vitae, customized to the length your committee desires. Because you want hundreds of us to commit hundreds of hours but you don’t even want to read, skim, or scan through my glorious fourteen page c.v.? Do you realize how many ways there are to organize a c.v.? Do you realize how much detail of font, size, paragraphing, and punctuation is required? You want me to re-do all that?

I get it. You’re on a committee. You want to reduce the work hours you spend. But you expect all of us – who are unpaid, unemployed – to spend those work hours? Just to prove we can perform as workaholics?

And then you want a separate document that says something about how I do diversity. How about just read my cover letter, which you barely skim through anyway?

In this market, it no longer makes sense to demand that hundreds of applicants perform hundreds of work hours to produce trash for the employer’s waste basket simply to make the first cut. The first step should be a simple industry standard of a short cover letter, a former reference letter, and a c.v. 

Yes, a former reference letter. Don’t overwork our referees. Please. We go through many seasons of job applications. We need that goodwill. Why would you destroy it? We’re academics: one of the few things we have is our networks and colleagues.

The process of job applications dredges up the depressive memories of dozens of previous job applications over the past decade. The dreams, the excitement, the potential, the promise, – it’s an enormous emotional investment. What will this teaching be like? What are the curricula? The majors? The departments? The new town? The cultural life? The institutional service? The colleagues? Their research agendas? It’s like preparing to get married. You have to imagine an entire life in an entire universe for it to work. You have to imagine being a whole person in that universe. 

Infographic-DossierWhile imagining several other universes (because you can’t just do one job application).

And then, just like that, the universe collapses around your head. And you’re supposed to pick yourself up, say thank you for not (reading) my materials and thank you for replying (with a form letter) (eventually, after I begged for a response).

Many potential employers don’t even bother to acknowledge your application. (Too much work, I’m guessing). At times, you end up in toxic and insulting exchanges with potential employers (professors who advocate social and educational justice are no exception at all), poor planning and communication by their administrative staff and committee chairs (while demanding that applicants perform, like circus animals, to perfection).

May I suggest sharing the workload?

In fact, perhaps employers could also be required to do some work, proportional to the labor job applicants perform? Here are some possible tasks that employers could do, prior to soliciting job applications: 

  1. Write a 10 page essay on the toxic dysfunction in the department (with a convenient bulleted list as Table of Contents). Perhaps at least 30% of your applicants might save themselves the bother of applying when they discover that 60% of the department don’t actually speak to each other, and 90% of them take turns shunning each other. Maybe this way, new employees know better how to survive.  
  2.  Provide a list of all the different roles all the different department members are expecting the new hire to play (with footnotes and details of all the tasks). This would help her prepare to politically and strategically dodge, bow, and scrape her way through the first 6 years until she gets tenured or (used up and) dumped. Or perhaps this way she knows in advance that she can have no semblance of a life once she lands in her office, and she can weigh the pros and cons of not having a baby versus having your shit academic position. Maybe 20% of your applicants would swipe left when they discover that Full-Professor doesn’t do anything ever, and that he doesn’t even recognize his doctoral student on the day of the defense (True story, guys. And he’s still flying high, using the labor of Fresh Academic Blood on a year-to-year basis). 
  3. Compose a historical narrative of all the passive-aggressive encounters in every department meeting, with warning signs on which professors and administrators to watch out for, vis-a-vis plotting together or with students. Provide a list of persons who must be avoided in the hallways at all costs, as they will try to drag you into their ongoing badal vendettas with the other tenured faculty.
  4. Along with a clear chart of all department faculty, provide notes as to which one is a only in the job because of his fundraising abilities (his former sports fans donate money to him for the department), and which faculty is there because she is a Collegial-Thug on behalf of FullProfessor (see above), so he can’t legally be traced as the source of Thuggery. (More true stories). This way, the new hire knows and can never be disillusioned about FullProfessor or Collegial-Thug, and can simply fake-smile his way through to tenure.
  5. Provide a organizational chart, showing which graduate students are really just going to get their Ph.D.’s in return for politicking on behalf of which faculty. For instance, Insecure-But-Tenured Faculty Member who is always looking for dirt on everyone else via graduate students. That way New Hire can avoid crossing Graduate-Student-For-Hire, or can avoid pissing off Insecure-But-Tenured by inadvertently applying plagiarism regulations to said Grad Student.

By providing a bank of such documents, academic departments can cut back on their hiring workload by simply weeding out any potential applicants who don’t have the stomach for skullduggery. Perhaps any real human beings, seeing the writing on the wall, can just tell you to shove your academic appointment up your own a***s. Perhaps such applicants can save their labor, and look for a position where they might work with actual human beings.