Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out


Review in Al Ahram Weekly

Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out

Fawzia Afzal-Khan, ed. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2005; 338 pp., $20 (paper)

With the proliferation in the aftermath of 9/11 of popular, and sometimes injudicious, volumes on Islam and the Middle East, the present anthology, edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, is a welcome addition in that it is an academically well-informed project that addresses the general public. That the task of responding to neoconservative disparagement of Islam should foreground gender issues, as does this volume, is eminently justifiable. The way in which the construct of “Muslim Woman,” whose perceived oppression is allegedly evidenced in the veil, is made to metonymize the backwardness of a whole region, hence justifying neocolonial incursions, is what motivates endeavors such Shattering the Stereotypes. Yet, the paradox of this anthology is that it largely succeeds in modifying stereotypes against the grain of one of the terms proposed in the title, namely, Muslim Women. Although the plural in the title does suggest a contestation of the monolith Muslim Woman, the anthology nevertheless risks operating from within the terms of discussion dictated by Western neocolonial discourse. Nawal El Saadawi, that arch-secular feminist, does well to sound a note of skepticism-cum-apologia in her foreword. She writes that the “word Muslim or Islam on the cover of any book makes it a bestseller. I am critical of religious languages, or turning the political-economic and social conflicts into religious conflicts. But this book . . . corrects the distorted image of Islam in the Western countries. It clarifies that Islam is not the cause of terrorism or backwardness or oppression of women” (x).

While reservations can be made about some omissions, the anthology’s ambition is clearly to attest to as much heterogeneity of identities, positions, and genres as possible. In addition to the foreword and the editor’s introduction and afterword, the anthology comprises some forty-seven texts in six sections: “Non-Fiction,” “Poetry,” “Journalism,” “Religious Discourses,” “Fiction,” and “Plays.” The sound inclusion of two texts by African-American Muslim women—Eisa Nefertari Ulen’s essay “Tapping Our Strength” and Atlanta-based Nadirah Z. Sabir’s columns written in the wake of 9/11 (together with reader responses)—serves to nuance the nexus of Islam, gender, and power by exploring the specificity of the double oppression experienced by African-American followers of the faith. Moreover, the inclusion of a text by a non-Muslim Middle Eastern woman—Christian Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh’s “Chocolate in Heat,” a powerful series of interconnected monologues of Arab women and men resident in the United States—is justifiable not only “because it shows that the issues that are so important in the work of the Muslim women included here are not ‘Muslim’ issues alone [but] are rooted in the conditions of global injustice and oppression,” as the editor puts it (16), but also because it hints toward the often occluded religious diversity of the Middle East.

It is possible, of course, for a specialized reader to navigate the anthology in longitudinal sections, tracing, for example, articulations of the Afghan predicament across such texts as Nadia Ali Maiwandi’s essay “9/11 and the Afghan-American Community,” which delineates the shifting schisms in the community and its growing activism as a result of 9/11 and its consequences for Afghanistan; Zohra Saed’s “Fragments from a Journal,” in the genre of firsthand testimonies about 9/11; Wajma Ahmady’s “My Earliest Memories,” about the experience of exile from Afghanistan; and, if in a different register, Bina Sharif’s one-woman play “An Afghan Woman,” an eloquently anguished monologue on the complex plight of Afghani women at the colonial crossroads, critiquing the uses and abuses to which the burka has been put. In the same vein, one might trace articulations of American-Palestinians’ plight across Rabab Abdulhadi’s “Where Is Home? Fragmented Lives, Border Crossings, and the Politics of Exile,” which deftly brings out the interconnections, through a pastiche of diary entries dispersed across time and continents, between their dispossession after 9/11 in the United States and their experience in the Occupied Territories, Israel, and Lebanon, and in some superb American-Palestinian poems such as Suheir Hammad’s “first writing since” and Nathalie Handal’s “Baladna,” “War,” “Rachel’s Palestinian War,” and “Detained,” among others. But such a longitudinal reading practice would miss part of the cogency of assembling these texts by different women from the region, whereby the specificities of their experiences, once set alongside each other, bear witness to and oppose the broader picture of American hegemony. This is the condition of “economic lopsidedness of a top-down, winner-take-all globalization . . . [the] egregious example [being] the state of Israel—supported unequivocally by the USA militarily and economically to serve as its watchdog and policeman in the Middle East whose oil resources continue to fuel . . . its imperial interests,” with the unwitting co-optation of patriarchal Muslim discourses, as Afzal-Khan puts it in her essay “Unholy Alliances: Zionism, U.S. Imperialism, and Islamic Fundamentalism” (20).

The polyphony that an anthology brings makes, in this case, for a fine-tuning of constructs such as “Muslim Woman” or indeed of simplistic reading of feminism as articulated by women who are Muslim. For her part, Minoo Moallem provides a thoroughly subtle interrogation of the category/label of “Muslim Woman” as it operates within the Enlightenment’s legacy of civilizational binarism that continues in neocoloniality, and in the attendant slippages of complicity in postcolonial orientations within the academy. “Am I a Muslim woman?” she asks in conclusion. “Even to answer this question is to enter the discursive spaces of race and gender in the conditions of postcoloniality . . . I am faced with the impossibility of transgression since either I am required to submit to the ‘itinerary of silencing’ by refusing to answer the question or to adopt a subject position that makes me ‘pass'” (55). In the afterword, the editor sounds out the playwrights she has anthologized on whether anyone of them would identify herself as “Muslim Woman Playwright” and elicits a range of responses that are virtually consonant in their “desire to distance themselves from what they perceive . . . as the confinement of labels, while being aware of the need for representation” (327).

Despite their different stances, one distinction compellingly made by the three contributors to the section “Religious Discourses”—Azizah al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, and Mohja Kahf—is between the basic precepts of Islam regarding women’s rights and their culturally articulated (mis)interpretations that have privileged patriarchy, this being the starting point for feminist reinterpretations. Al-Hibri gives a rich reading of Islamic law that demonstrates “that problematic jurisprudence was often the result of a misunderstanding or misapplication of the Qur’anic text resulting from . . . patriarchal bias” (160); nevertheless, the way she positions herself is problematic. She suggests that being “an American Muslim woman” she is “unburdened by patriarchal assumptions, [hence having] a distinct advantage over earlier interpreters [of] the Qur’an” (164) as well as an interpretive edge over “Muslim women in other countries” (meaning in the Middle East) who are “being hindered . . . by patriarchal forces in the name of Islam . . . [and] by an authoritarian structure of governance” (163). She thus elides various historical trajectories of feminism located in the Middle East (the network “Women Living Under Muslim Laws” being just one source on contemporary examples) about which one would have liked to see an especially commissioned article in this volume.

As it is, however, the anthology does gesture toward such trajectories and suggests connections between Middle East–based and diasporic feminisms among Muslim women. There is Maryam Habibian’s “Forugh’s Reflecting Pool,” an adaptation for the theater of the life and work of Iranian feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–67). There is Anisa Mehdi’s account of the variegated ideological stands on Islam and gender among Muslim women and men—including the Malaysian Zainah Anwar, who challenges entrenched patriarchal interpretations of the Koran and advocates a reinterpretation that brings out women’s rights and advantages—met while she was preparing TV documentary work, such as “Muslims” for the PBS program Frontline. And one should mention the spectrum of Pakistani positions suggested in an interview with Pakistani-American Riffat Hassan concerning her critique of Pakistan resident Dr. Farhat Hashimi, a conservative who espouses veiling, and Asma Jehangir, a secular human rights activist, in favor of what she proposes as a renewed hermeneutics of the Koran that proceeds from the “ethical criterion” (186) that God is just and hence calls for a rejection of interpretations that have perpetrated injustice.

Finally, this book deserved closer proofreading and would have benefited from a glossary and an index. Also, in view of the anthology’s orientation toward a general readership, a list of further references to consult on issues raised here would have helped. That said, however, there is no doubt that the texts assembled in this volume make a valuable contribution toward countering reductive hegemonic images of women of the region, moving them from being objects of a neocolonial gaze to being subjects of their own resistant discourse. A number of the texts are likely to make their way into courses on topics as varied as autobiography, Near Eastern studies, gender studies, transnationalism, and globalization.

Al-Ahram Weekly

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 26.1 (2006) 146-147


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