The familiar strange

About 20 years ago, I left Pakistan and went to the UK for higher education. I did not know that I was permanently transitioning to immigrant status.

20 years prior to that I arrived in Pakistan for the first time, as a 6-year old. I have now spent more time in the Western hemisphere than I have in Pakistan.

Today, while praying namaz at the Shirley Gate Mosque, it occurred to me how much my life has changed over the years. As I walked back to my friend’s house, leaning on my husband’s shoulder, I thought how exotic this experience would have been for me when I was in Pakistan. Socializing with Tunisian and half-Turkish Muslims, White converts, making dhikr with them, praying together, and being eyed by first-generation Pakistani women at the mosque. How many cultural iterations I have been through, I can barely keep track.

As a young bookworm, I was fascinated by anything unfamiliar – Chinese Pakistanis, Anglo-Pakistani friends, international students, Sudanese medical students. Now I go back to Pakistan and I am fascinated by the everyday pieties and the cultural practices that were once normal, mundane, boring.

Anthropologists speak of rendering the familiar everyday things strange, and of rendering strange unfamilar cultures familiar. This has happened to me in my own lifetime.

I wonder what lies ahead.

Distilling Muslim identity into the headscarf

I said I was done with the subject, but then I realized I wasn’t. So here goes:

First: Culturally, non-Muslim Western discourse has a problem with distilling Muslim identity and difference into the one symbol of the headscarf.

This is why you’ll find a black person, a white woman with a nose stud, a brown person, and a hijabi laughing together in brochures for liberal arts colleges. Bam. Diversity: covered.

Sometimes Muslims buy into this distillation. We get excited when we see a hijabi stuck in a TV show. Yay, Muslim representation! But really, this thrusts the entire burden of Muslim identity, symbolism, and representation onto women’s head-covers. This is not fair. It is also – as we have seen in recent hate incidents – not safe for women who cover their heads.

A woman who decides she prefers not to be a walking banner of Islam – the day after the San Bernardino shooting for example – is treated as if she is selling out, a non-warrior, trying to be White, etc. The burden is too much.

Many Muslims, men and women, who do not visibly appear to be Muslim via clothing, beards, etc. are also rendered invisible by this discursive use of imagery.

Second: Whether Islamist over-emphasis on head-covers – that deprives women of agency – or Asra Nomani’s “jihad” against head-covers -that also deprives women of agency – both are problematic.

Asra Nomani’s attack on hijab-wearing and hijab solidarity is incredibly poorly-timed. When Muslim girls wearing head-covers are getting bullied at school and Muslim women attacked on the street, this is not a time to start a campaign against hijab-solidarity. This is actually a way to render the headscarf a target even more than it already is.

Third: The internal Muslim dialogue on clothing and women’s bodies is an ongoing one. A call for non-Muslims to abandon solidarity in order to protect Muslim women from body-surveillance is bad strategy, and is unnecessary. If anything, it is likely to increase political pressure on uncertain Muslim women to maintain a besieged practice. Internal dialogue and diversity of practice evolve on their own time and at their own pace, if and when practitioners desire. At present, such discursive strategies turn surveillance to Muslim women’s heads and bodies all over again.

Fourth: The divisive shift that focuses on the distinction between Muslim women who cover their heads and who don’t is unhelpful and unnecessary. We live in a pluralistic community where Muslims practice Islam in a variety of ways, in a variety of sectarian and denominational settings, a variety of flavors and types. We are okay with this. Coexisting within a diverse community of practice is a useful method to learn how to co-exist in a diverse world and society.

Fifth: I am responding to the vigorous rhetoric of Muslim males railing against Asra Nomani’s article. Some of these Muslim male responses use the occasion to ridicule even any justified critiques of over-emphasis on Muslim women’s clothing. Back off, please. The control of women’s bodies is still a problem.


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:




Shadowlake Village – cooperative housing in Blacksburg, VA

meThis winter break, we invited ourselves over to the home of our dear friends, Javed “Hijabman” Memon and Aida Rahim. We’ve also been very interested in exploring their cooperative housing setup, called Shadowlake Village. So here are some pictures and descriptions of the place. I haven’t shared pictures of Javed and Aida’s home – which is beautiful and amazingly well-designed, but I am profoundly inspired by the concept of cooperative housing.

playgroundConsider some examples: When our kid wants to play outside, it’s a production. One of us grownups must accompany her to a playground, or bookstore, or library. In Shadowlake Village, Javed and Aida know all their neighbors. What do they do? They tell their kid, “Go outside and play.” They know all the other kids. They know the older neighbors whose windows look upon the playground, and who have at times hurried down to the playground to help a kid who’s hanging from the bars.

homesJaved and Aida need not own a lawn-mower. A lawnmower is a shared piece of equipment. They eat together at the club-house two nights a week. It’s not mandatory, but it’s amazing. Two nights a week, they don’t have to plan or shop for dinner. That is heaven.

clubshareHere’s the club house. It can be reserved for special parties (like Eid or Christmas dinners).

There is a large, very pretty dining area, adjoining a meeting area.meeting

Next to the dining area is an impressive industrial kitchen, complete with industrial cooking area and industrial dishwasher.











Next to the dining area is a cozy library where you can check out books, and people who work from home can work or have meetings.

playroomAnd of course there is a cute little playroom for the children.


What Javed gets really excited about is the volunteer sign-up sheet and the workshare. Everyone signs up for tasks and duties, and gets things done around the village.







game room

In the basement, there is a game room with pool tables, table tennis, foosball, air hockey, and exercise equipment.

I had the good fortune of bumping into his neighbor, Donna, who was one of the first residents and founders of Shadowlake Village. We had a most informative chat. The basement includes a wall that records the history of Shadowlake Village.





lettuceJaved is czar of the agricultural area, and this is where he shines. He grows a variety of vegetables, and orders unusual seeds for the garden, such as red and burgundy okra.


There is quite a bit of open land. There may be goats here soon. me & Javedgrounds





Javed’s yard features a pond (with frogs and fishes) and a bee-hive (he has trained to become a bee-keeper – those box-like stacks are the hives).



Philosophically and politically, the concept of cooperative housing is extremely attractive to me. I recommend you check out your local cooperative housing and consider it for yourself. Shadowlake Village may have some available homes at this time.

“If you have a moment, can you give me your expert opinion?”

officeSome of my not-so-fond memories involve my lack of etiquette as a young student. I still blush when I remember sending lengthy documents to senior colleagues, requesting their feedback. I’ve learned now not to willy-nilly ask colleagues:

  • “If you’ve got a moment, please review my article/dissertation/letter & give comprehensive feedback” or
  • “I’m writing a chapter on XYZ. You’re an expert in the field. Would you please spend 30-60 minutes with me talking me through the field?” or
  • “Can you look over my paper and tell me how I need to rewrite it?” or
  • “I just scribbled a draft of a paper. Can you look over it now, and then again when I’ve actually written it properly?”
  • “I’ve done a paper that’s indirectly relevant to your work. Can you research a new area of your field so that you can advise me on it?”
  • “I’m thinking about doing a BA/ MA / PhD in X field. Can you talk to me 3 x 40 minutes and guide me in my choice of field?”

You get the picture.

When I am asked such questions, in some cases, I am happy to help. In some cases, I am inspired by the work I read. In some cases, if the work is directly in my field, I find it easy to review it.
But not always.
Unpaid/voluntary feedback/review is a serious undertaking. Requests require  appropriate etiquette. If it’s for an organization, compensation is useful. The big organization/universities etc often benefit from junior scholars’ need to flesh out c.v.’s so they exploit labor constantly. Know that when you step in, as an individual or organization, you are asking to join the ranks of persons and organizations that make demands on scholars’ time without paying them. And if you are not enrolled as a student at a scholar’s institution, you’re not even indirectly compensating them for it. They won’t get hard cash for reviewing you work, and they probably won’t be able to put you on their c.v. either.
Expert opinion and review is the academic/scholar’s bread & butter. It’s not “free.” We’ve spent years training in our fields. This means our resources aren’t goods or objects. *We* and our skills are our resources.  They’re much more valuable than goods or objects.
Imagine asking someone to voluntarily cook you dinner, or fix your appliance, or tutor them in a language, if they have time. Believe me, with the crap salaries we get paid, there is *always* something else we could do with our time. There’s almost never chunks of time sitting around, and we’re wondering, “Hm, I wish someone would send me their dissertation or policy document so I can make use of this spare time as it’s just rusting away here.”
So know that when a colleague offers free review/feedback, it is almost always a sacrifice. My kid, my job, my bank account, my own research do not thank the requester of review – so act accordingly. So when an expert/scholar/colleague reviews my document/work, I’m indebted to them for the time & intellectual work they voluntarily contributed. I credit them for it. If they’re unable to review my work or offer their time and expertise, I thank them for considering my request and do not take their refusal personally.
Update: After I tweeted about this subject, one of my mentors, Kecia Ali responded at length on Twitter. The conversation ended up being so valuable that I’m pasting it here.
Kecia Ali: Review/guidance is another sort of service work AND the lifeblood of scholarship. How/when/whether/for whom we do it matters. 
Shabana: VERY TRUE! And the degree to which we are able to do it also varies from scholar to scholar, stage to stage. 
Kecia: Yes. It also varies week to week, semester to semester, & depending on who’s asking. I’ll always read some colleagues’ stuff.
S: There’s also reciprocity. 
KA: Reciprocity is key. Doesn’t mean we each do exactly the same thing, but we rely on each other for various professional duties. There are some colleagues I’ll ask for comments on a syllabus or a blog post; others for a quick read of a draft translation. And I find that over time, my scholarship and teaching are enriched through these collaborations and forms of cooperation. 
S: Absolutely. Junior scholars are however at risk of one-sided requests for collaboration that reduce their scholarly work.
KA: This is a real danger. The desire to be helpful is praiseworthy, and at the same time, it can lead to professional stagnation. Similar issues arise w/ service work; women/scholars of color are more likely to have service curtail their research/writing. Some senior colleagues I respect do a nice job balancing, setting limits, while not dismissing all requests out of hand. One thing I do: requests for grad school advice, student journalist interviews: I tell them to call/visit during office hours. That’s three hours per week I’m available. Usually all first-come, first served; this semester a mix of open and by appt. When office hours are over/full for the week, I schedule for the following week. Keeps things manageable.
Update: Please find an excellent thread on “How to ask a Native scholar for resources/help on a project” from @NativeApprops ‘s twitter feed:

National No Bra Day

“Encouraging women to show off their braless chests in the name of awareness won’t save anyone, but its message to breast cancer patients and survivors is clear: Your disease is about your secondary sex characteristics, not about you” – Christina Cauterucci.

In my last blog post, “Dear breasts”, I talked about what it means to have “survived” breast cancer with a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Truth be told, though I’ve been commended for my courage in speaking out, it took me 6 years to do so.

Today, on “National No Bra Day,” I am sitting here facepalming at the sight of innumerable photos of women supposedly bringing “awareness” to breast cancer by letting the girls out. As with the share-bra-related-information-in-your-Facebook-status gimmick, I struggle at the edge of solidarity and the inevitable sensationalism of all campaigns. I must believe that there are at least a few well-intentioned individuals who have contributed to this “Fauxliday” as Cauterucci puts it. But I struggle.

Why? Because these twitter pictures of celebrities sharing their perfect breasts with the public are yet another slap in the face for mastectomy-survivors like myself. How is it that their flaunting their still-existent-nipples will help breast cancer survivors?


Dear breasts:

Dear breasts,
So, I wonder where you ended up, once the scalpel was done with you. In a lab? In a cosmetic company factory? Oh wait, was it a scalpel? Or did they use power tools? Was there a lot of blood, like the Jo Nesbo books I started reading recently? Or was it a clean, non-bloody removal of a sick piece of flesh?

Wait -were you really a sick piece of flesh? Maybe in a few years (or months) they will discover that you really didn’t need to be removed after all.

I’m speaking particularly to you, Left Breast, as I feel especially apologetic to you for my callous abandonment.


When the doctors raised one eyebrow each and said that it would be better for me to get rid of the Good Breast along with the Bad Breast, I didn’t really think twice. I come from a medicalized family. We trust our doctors. They tell us jump, we say “how high?” I am a compliant citizen.

But I wonder, often, when I am dressed, and I catch a glimpse of the unsightly dent in my reconstructed breast. Did I need to get rid of Good Breast? Did I get rid of Good Breast (GB) for Good Reasons? To be perfectly frank, I had two reasons for ditching GB: a) I wanted to have the lowest chances possible of having to deal with the misery, effort, and expense of having breast cancer again and b) I wanted a matching set. There: I said it. I did not want a “winky” pair of breasts, with one perky and gravity-resistant and the other a normal, saggy breast. But this means that I have not even one breast to have “breasty” feelings with.

Since I had picked a reputable plastic surgeon, I was told by a fellow survivor that I wouldn’t regret it. “My new body is better than the old one.” Unfortunately (?) my old breasts were fantastic. I had a pair of 36-38DD gazongas. Those girls entered the room and announced my presence before I’d had a chance to do anything remarkable at all. I elected to go down to a 38C, in hopes that the misery of backache would get off my – well, back.

It turned out that the promises of excellent reconstructed breasts were primarily related to breasts-under-your-clothes.

So I wander past a mirror while undressing. Maybe I should stop doing that. Those dented, roughly round, gravitation-free fake breasts with their tattooed, round, static, drawn-by-a-2nd-grader nipples stare back at me. There is no “winking,” to be sure. They are a matching set. Dead, unmoving. Well – except when I twitch my shoulder; then the muscles respond in unnatural fashion to the twitch, revealing the results of surgery. Not to mention, of course, that they are perfectly serene, insensitive to touch, disconnected from my heart.

When I was 12, I mourned the arrival of my breasts. In my conservative social setting, they heralded the arrival of a new regime of social control and shame. When I grew up and went to work, I continued to grieve that I couldn’t just be a great teacher, a great scholar, a good friend (to nice guys) etc. but that I was always, inescapably, the woman with the Breasts. Like dark clouds, they overshadowed my life and work.

So, dear Breasts: You’ll call me a crazy lady when I tell you I miss you. I spent much of my life complaining about you. I now wonder what makes me a woman. I wonder if you really had to go. I refuse to read scientific literature about new discoveries regarding breast cancer and mastectomy. I’m just going to keep trying to let you go. Leave me alone and quit haunting me.