If the name in this title was unfamiliar to you, you won’t be forgetting it again very soon after reading this. This is the story of the great Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, an important figure of resistance against French colonial invasion in Algeria.She was born Fatimah Syed Ahmed, later given the term “Lalla”, a title given to women of noble standing, and she lived from 1830 to 1863.
Fatimah was was born in 1830, the year the French invaded Algeria. Her father ran a Quranic madrasah, and she would often partake in these, even though it was predominantly for boys. She began her memorisation of the Quran at this time and completed it at an early age, becoming a hafidha and a student of knowledge.
When marriage was arranged for her in her late teens, she refused, choosing instead to dedicate herself to Islamic knowledge and worship. It…
Although geek culture in general is more popular than ever, certain aspects remain little known to mainstream audiences. Larping, or live action role-playing, is inspired by tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and firmly rooted in genre fiction. Players portray specific characters in a fictional setting, and act out their characters’ actions in a series of events. Although it is a mainstay component of geek culture, larping is often the object of ridicule and mockery. Seen as the geekiest of the geeks in the overall geek hierarchy, Larpers must contend with their fair share of stigma both inside and outside the culture.
To be a Muslim larper comes, of course, with its own set of difficulties. Look, prancing around the house in your wood elf regalia will probably not do wonders to abate you mother’s fears that you will remain single forever, but an elf’s gotta do what an elf’s gotta do. So, whether it’s trying to prove your sanity to your increasingly concerned family and friends, attempting to devise a hijab-friendly costume, or finding ways to impeach your larping from encroaching on your daily prayers, being Muslim while larping will undeniably have its challenges. But, despair not fellow Muslim geeks. Where there’s a will, there is a way.
Here are 5 essential steps to facilitate one’s path to larping bliss:
STEP ONE: FIND YOUR NICHE
So, here you are. Ready to enter into the wonderful world of larping, engage in epic fantasy battles, destroy your enemies on the battlefield, and feast on their tears like the sweet nectar of victory. Except, you have no idea where to start. Well, the first thing you must do is to find your niche. Larping encompasses everything from fantasy, to science fiction, to horror…. yes, even vampires (hopefully not the sparkling type though).
As an avid D&D player in my youth, fantasy larps were for me almost a natural progression. High fantasy is where it all began, but it is certainly not the only larp I’ve tried. It is crucial that you figure out what you are looking for in a larp. While some enjoy the physical challenge of battles and quests, others prefer stories revolving around character development. For some, the experience is all about amusement and having a good time; for others however, it is about something more than entertainment. They are looking for an opportunity to engage in meaningful stories that allow them to explore the multiple facets of their personality.
Once you’ve figured out what genre interests you, it is time to search for existing larping groups in your city or region. Depending on where you dwell, finding a group might prove itself challenging. Once you get in touch with a group, ask for as much information as possible about the story and the venue. It is important that you feel comfortable with every aspect of your larp. If you feel that the story, or the character, or even the venue, are not compatible with your general religious ethos, then keep searching for a better fit.
STEP TWO: CREATE YOUR CHARACTER
Let’s be honest, you’ve always known that the heart of a warrior resides within you. A pox on your frail exterior and a rather dull career that hide so well your true nature. But you are ready to leave the mundane behind and unleash your inner Kraken.
Now, depending on the larp you are partaking in and the chosen method of character creation, you might get a chance to create a brand new character, or end up with a pre-written one by the game master. Whether you become a warrior, a mage, a bard, a merchant, a chamber pot servant, or agent Mulder from the year 2525, every character is important and an integral part of the story. Don’t get too caught up with becoming a hero. Larping is about enjoying yourself and meeting new folks. The golden rule of larping is to never get too attached to your characters. This is larping guys, and bad things are bound to happen to your beloved characters. Much like the beheading of Ned Stark, it might be painful but it is part of the story. Be stoic, and when the time comes…….
STEP THREE: REMEMBER, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE COSTUME
Most larps require a costume. While some might buy their costumes or have them custom-made, others choose to make them themselves. Whatever option you opt for, if you are a Hijabi, finding a hijab-friendly costume is a must. Whether your larp is high fantasy, Steampunk, or science fiction, striving to devise creative, authentic, and unique costumes that embrace the Hijabi ethos is part of the experience for any Hijabi larper. Medieval clothing and steampunk costumes especially tend to offer a variety of dresses, long skirts, coats, cloaks, and veils that could easily go hand in hand with your hijab. One of the best larping attire I’ve ever seen remains a fellow hijabi’s take on a steampunk pilot costume. So, go on with your bad self Lady Arwen, and show them how it’s done…. Hijabi style.
STEP FOUR: ASSUME YOUR GEEKY HOBBIES
While larping is rumoured to be mainstream in Nordic countries, there is still unfortunately a great deal of stigma surrounding live action role-playing in North America. The idea that adults could embrace and commit with gusto to what is essentially a fantasy is often met with social ridicule and shaming.
According to popular culture, the “typical larper” is often an individual riddled with social anxieties, incapable of forging real relationships, and desperately trying to escape reality.
But what this rather dubious portrayal of larping in movies and TV shows often leaves out is the sheer diversity of the participants’ background. There is no such a thing as a “typical larper”. While most embrace it for entertainment purposes, those individuals that gravitate toward larping in order to experience a sense of community often credit this activity for helping them overcome isolation and find confidence in themselves.
As a Muslim, deciding to partake in larping—casually or more seriously—is often met with bewilderment within the Muslim community. While some might see it as a waste of time, others might perceive in it the sign of something far more ominous going on with you. It is not unusual to have your sanity or maturity questioned by those who never experienced larping. This is where one needs to put on their big girl/boy pants and assumes their geeky hobbies.
Look, not everyone will understand or even approve of your choice of hobbies. Not everyone will cheer you on as you beat a fellow larper senseless with your foam sword. And yes, you will often get concerned looks as you proudly stride around in your body armor on your way to your larp. But like many other hobbies, this is an experience that is profoundly personal. Feel free however to use questions as an occasion to introduce larping to the uninitiated, and who knows maybe one day we larping Muslim ladies could end up with our own larping community…Oh the possibilities.
STEP FIVE: EMBRACE THE LARP
You are done with all the preparations and are now ready to head out to your first larp. First of all, congrats on boldly going where…some people have gone before. Since larps can last from a few hours to a few days, make sure you put aside the necessary time to perform your daily prayers.
Now that you are all set to go, there is one last thing you must remember:DON’T FORGET TO ENJOY YOURSELF! It can be a tad bit intimidating for first-time larpers to find themselves amongst veterans. Larping in more ways than one is an immersive experience: everyone is there to partake in the story and play their part, no matter the size.The hardest part is getting over one’s own hang-ups, and giving in completely to one’s character. Forget about looking ridiculous or making mistakes. Don’t be bogged down by all the rules, focus instead on becoming your character. Play, frolic, and fight to your heart’s content – it’s time to leave the mundane behind and embrace the larping bliss.
Since the tragic events of 9/11, many discussions have taken place in the Western world pertaining to Islam. Muslim politics particularly—from the appearance of transnational networks dedicated to militant agendas, to the endurance and transformation of traditional Islamic political parties—have become a recurrent subject in contemporary global politics. However, as the renowned political scientist Olivier Roy pointed out, the study of Islam as a sociopolitical phenomenon has always been challenging. According to him, “there are serious methodological difficulties in analyzing an Islamic phenomenon taking place on a global scale” (Volpi, 2010: 1). One aspect that always lent itself readily to analysis was the political dimension of Islam. The political element of this phenomenon offered a component susceptible of “being analyzed separately from the other processes” (Volpi, 2010: 1). This focus on the politicized nature of Islam gained traction in Western academia, and Islam came to be described “as a political religion, a religion in which politics and religion are difficult to separate” (Mutman, 2014:1). This exclusion of all the other features of Islam in favor of its political characteristics, led to the prevalence of Political Islam as a favorite topic in the study of Islam within Western academia.
“It is commonplace, particularly in Western analysis, to associate the emergence of Islamism with an “Islamic revival” that began to gather force in the 1970s, reaching its zenith with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.” (Mandaville, 2007:58). Western literature devoted to Political Islam or Islamism often reiterates three major assumptions. “These are, first, that the intermingling of religion and politics is unique to Islam; second, that political Islam, much like Islam itself, is monolithic; and third, that political Islam or Islamism is inherently violent” (Ayoob, 2008:1). Western thinkers writing on the subject have frequently been accused by their critics of reducing Political Islam to a “despotic oriental foil” to Western liberal democracies, as well as modernity itself.
One of the main reproaches leveled against this body of knowledge is its reliance on an Orientalist Grand Narrative. An essential Orientalist bias central to these contemporary readings of Islam is the “binary opposition between Islam and the West” (Volpi, 2010:32). In this rather Manichaean worldview, the West represents modernity, secularism and democracy, while the Muslim world embodies stagnation, orthodoxy, and despotism. This idea of a cleavage between a Christian West and a Muslim East is not only one that defines Orientalism, it also introduced amongst Western notions about Islam the idea that an Islamic civilization can only inspire undemocratic governments. While we often attribute the rise of Islamophobia to the post 9/11 context, this ideology predicated on an intense hostility toward Muslims, Islamic cultures, and Islamic politics has a pedigree of many centuries in Western thought.
When in 634 Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, for many Christians the very status of Christianity as the “universal religion of a universal empire” (Kalmar, 2012:36) was being challenged by the newly expanded Muslim Caliphate. While Edward Said argued that the European encounter with the Orient resulted in the depiction of Islam as the ultimate outsider in the Western world’s collective imaginary (Said, 1979:70), Ivan Kalmar posits instead that when Islam was born, Prophet Muhammad (saw) “was widely regarded not as an alien but as an “impostor”, a heretical Christian with pretensions of being a new Christ” (Kalmar, 2012:38). Hence, the advent of Islam was not interpreted as a schism between Europe and “its outsiders; but rather as a crack within a single, Christian-Muslim edifice” (Kalmar, 2012:39). This fragile status quo changed drastically when the Ottoman Empire won the battle of Kosovo and gained an important foothold in Europe by 1388 (Kalmar, 2012:40). The fall of Constantinople in 1453 exacerbated existing tensions and irrevocably altered the previous relationship between Islam and Christianity.
The capture of Constantinople by Muslims marked the beginning of Europe’s creation “as a continent with a distinctive religious and cultural tradition” (Kalmar, 2012:41). To ensure the integrity of what was now seen as a purely Christian realm, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella launched the Reconquista and expulsed Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. The conquest of Constantinople and the Reconquista allocated to each religion a solid geographic presence. In the Christian West’s Weltanschauung, Christianity found its abode in the West, while the Orient became irretrievably Muslim. During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther said of Islam the following:
“The Turk is the rod of the wrath of the Lord our God. … If the Turk’s god, the devil, is not beaten first, there is reason to fear that the Turk will not be so easy to beat. … Christian weapons and power must do it…”
He saw Islam primarily as a violent movement—closed to all reason—in the service of the anti-Christ, and that can only be resisted through equally violent means. In 1544 Bartholomew Georgevich of Croatia produced a best-selling work titled Miseries and Tribulations of the Christians held in Tribute and Slavery by the Turks. It was what we might call by today’s standards a graphic novel. This illustrated book showed Turks beheading prisoners, Turks spitting babies on their lances, Turks leading into slavery captured women and children. In Europe where illiteracy was rampant, this book reached a wider audience and popularized a virulent form of propaganda against Muslims.
In later centuries Islam continued to be presented as a foil for authors who championed Enlightenment in Europe. Western thought and literature produced an impressive collection of stereotypes and half-truths about Islam and Muslims. In these works Muslims were often referred to as Turks, Moors, Saracen, or Mahomedians. Whether it was Voltaire’s depiction of Prophet Mohammed (SAW) as an theocratic tyrant, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Moor’s inherent brutality and lack of reason in Othello, Hegel’s assertion that the Muslim civilization was devoid of Volkgeist or specific ethnic and national spirits, Montesquieu’s commentary on how despotism is likely to be the only means of establishing order in Islamic territories, or Ernest Renan dismissing Islam as incompatible with science, and Muslims as incapable of leaning anything, or of opening themselves to new ideas, these ideas about Islam were reiterated again and again. Scholars in Western academia to this day perpetuate these stereotypes of a static, irrational, retrogressive, anti-modern religious tradition. Luminaries of Western academia such as Bernard Lewis, Ellie Kedourie, Daniel Pipes, Gilles Kepel, and Samuel Huntington have given credence to this portrayal of Islam in their own illustrious careers.
To ignore the historical roots of Islamophobia, and how Western thought has been instrumental in not only manufacturing a narrative about Islam based primarily on stereotypes—but also in justifying and reiterating this idea of Islam as a civilizational threat to the Western World—would hinder our understanding of the many ramifications of Islamophobia in our society. Sam Harris, the popular American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist stated the following: “To speak specifically of our problem with the Muslim world, we are meandering into a genuine clash of civilizations”, and we’re deluding ourselves with euphemisms. We’re talking about Islam being a religion of peace that’s been hijacked by extremists. If ever there were a religion that’s not a religion of peace, it is Islam.” He belongs to the greater industry peddling the fear of Muslims and Islam. The phobia of a subtle islamization of Europe (and the greater Western world) is not solely found in the ramblings of bigots and fascists, but has rather been polished into a conceivable threat by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who use their academic credentials to lend credence to this supposed threat. If we do not address the structural nature of Islamophobia, we will never truly be able to challenge it effectively. Islamophobia is not simply the work of racists and bigots; it is rather part and parcel of the intellectual heritage of the Western world.
For us Muslim ladies when it comes to marriage, it is pretty much a family affair…and even at times a communal one. Most of us rely on family and community connections to meet potential future husbands. While I’m sure some Muslims engage in what is commonly known as dating, for those who choose to go the traditional/religious route there will be no random dates with some equally random dude. No Sir, the prelude to marriage is a carefully planned, well orchestrated process that requires nerves of steel, and a knack for diplomacy. While every community adds its own cultural flavour to the proceedings, in essence the precepts that shape the process of marriage by and large emanate from the same Islamic values.
I’ll be honest, the whole thing eludes me completely. I think that I’ve probably missed some crucial course on human interactions somewhere along the way. It is not that I don’t like marriage, I do. I love the idea of people coming together, creating families, finding companionship, and all that Jazz. What I don’t get is the underpinnings of most human pairings. The how and why most people choose to be together is always bizarre to me. Human intimate interactions are as mysterious to me as they would be to any visiting alien from another planet. I’ve had the pleasure of playing the role of the chaperone for my closest friends during their courtship, and I absolutely enjoyed being a confident, a counsellor, and a comic relief (when needed) for each one of them. I’m honoured that they trusted me as their friend and their sister in Islam. While I would gladly chaperone for anyone, when Geeky Muslimah is the object of said courtship things tend to….well….go awry.
While I’m a total science fiction geek, I also happen to be on the more orthodox end of the Muslim spectrum. THIS is often difficult for some brothers to reconcile. From my appearance, my opinions and practice of Islam, they often ascribe a certain personality to me. A personality that is unidimensional and bereft of depth. Most of the proposals I’ve received were made to me because apparently from afar I seemed like the “perfect Muslim wife”. This was of course based on my appearance and nothing more.
I’m so far removed from what most men would consider an ideal wife, it is quasi comical actually. If I could have my own personal coat of arms the motto on it would read “I do not cook and I barely clean”. I’m not exactly a hermit (yeah I am, who am I kidding?), but I’m not exactly the socializing type either. I prefer quite nights at home doing something useful like catching up on the latest episodes of Mr.Robot. Entertaining people (family included) is what I call cruel and unusual punishment; the small talk, the smiling, the constantly running around serving people and being a good host….please just put me out of my misery (Umm….maybe I have a problem after all guys, but that is a discussion for another post). I’m obsessed with reading, in fact if I could pretty much do just that, I’d be living in my own personal utopia. I’m not particularly affectionate, displays of emotion make me rather uncomfortable actually. If we could all just take up Kolinahr like the Vulcans, I’d be totally fine with that (Science fiction geek here, you’ve been warned folks)
Another problem is that I just don’t perform well under pressure. A certain prototype of Muslim woman is what is expected to make its appearance when the party making the proposal shows up at your place. I’ve been told more than once that this is when you put your best foot forward. What does that even mean??? Apparently I just do everything wrong. First of all I hate dressing up. There is a reason why my wardrobe is full of black abayas, I can’t be bothered with developing a fashion sense. But somehow now I’m expected to be Miss stylish Muslimah??? Not gonna happen folks, you’re lucky I’m not wearing my Doctor Who T-shirt on top of my black abaya (to accessorize 🙂 ), so just back off already.
Then there is the conversation with this person who could possibly become the one you will share the rest of your life with. Once you’ve depleted the obvious topics (family, profession, education) what else do you talk about? I love talking politics, science, literature, history, and religion (and yes I will totally judge you for having the wrong opinion), but apparently my eagerness to talk about these topics often comes off like an interrogation. I actually once rejected a proposal after a heated conversation about the role of the IMF and the World bank’s structural adjustment programs in the impoverishment of the Global South (I’m sorry but if we do not share the same basic Islamic values of social justice, and you see nothing wrong with the gutting of entire nations in the name of pure greed, you can just keep on trucking. I will not raise a guinea pig with you let alone actual little human beings). Of course it didn’t help that this brother actually worked for the World Bank, a detail that was mysteriously omitted from the description I was given of him (my family and closest friends know how I feel about certain institutions).
So when brothers find out that my ideal husband is a man I can grow with spiritually (I totally see us having our own Qur’an competitions at home….winner gets a chocolate mouse cake), who is willing to live a principled life according to the precepts of Islam, but who would also be willing to binge watch Star Trek with me, and go to Comic Con ( Cosplaying as Worf and Jadzia…#RelationshipGoals), they just don’t know what to make of it. And I don’t blame them, I am a hodgepodge of contradictions, and a patchwork of inconsistencies. So when the inevitable denouement of these situations arrives it always ends with the same phrase “Sorry it didn’t work out, but look I’m probably not the girl for you anyways. I’ll be making duas for you, please do the same for me“, usually followed by a nervous giggle.
Look at the end of the day what matters is that each and everyone of us finds happiness. I, Geeky Muslimah, found happiness and a sense of purpose in what I affectionately call the singlehood. I just wish we stopped looking at women as incomplete, depressed, or lonely if they are not married. Our personhood is not the byproduct of our marriage status.
Full disclosure here; I’ve never exactly been a social butterfly. I’ve always preferred the company of my books, and the few friends I have made over the past decades. So when I decided to venture into the blogosphere it was both an attempt to find an outlet to deal with the various trials and tribulations of my life, and a way of tapping into the greater Muslim blogosphere in the hopes of finding a community. Since I started blogging I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many other Muslim bloggers. Amazing, funny, insightful, and inspiring individuals whose posts I look forward to. I’ve learned much in the process, and enjoy living vicariously through their travels and adventures. They’ve made me laugh, ponder, and even when I don’t agree with their opinions, I nonetheless appreciate their candour. Blogging has also allowed me to take stock of the plethora of blogs, websites, podcasts, and magazines made by and for Muslim women. As someone who very often rants about the importance of narratives, and the necessity for Muslimahs to not allow others to narrate their existence and co-opt their voices, learning of the existence of so many outlets made primarily by Muslim women was a welcomed change. However, within this cornucopia of content lies serious problematic trends that we need to address.
Help me out here ladies. Is there a reason why almost every blog, podcast, website, or magazine by and for Muslim women focuses so heavily on fashion? There is nothing inherently wrong with the topic, but when it represents the overwhelming majority of the content destined for Muslim women at the detriment of everything else, it becomes a problem. Do we not have any other concerns or interests? Do we have nothing else to contribute to our communities and Ummah at large? Have we become so narcissist that our conversations begin and end with looking good and finding Romeo? The overwhelming majority of these outlets produce a narrative about Muslim women that is simplistic at best, but mostly insidious in its erasure of our complex and diverse realities.
It is true that the modest fashion industry has allowed many female Muslim designers to make a name for themselves, and build their own enterprises by catering to a growing Muslim clientele eager to be fashionable while remaining true to their Muslim identity. I can only applaud these entrepreneurs and recognize the hard work and dedication needed in order to succeed. In fact, they have been so successful at it that the mainstream fashion industry is now taking notice of their success. The new hijab and abaya lines by fashion heavyweights like Dolce & Gabbana, as well as the presence of the hijab on the runways of the famous New York fashion week is a testimony to the popularity and the lucrative nature of the modest fashion industry. Some would even argue that the presence of the hijab in venues ranging from the cover page of Playboy to the runways of New York represents, in and of itself, a victory against Islamophobia. They perceive the visibility of the hijab in mainstream media and cultural outlets as an effective way of challenging the stereotypes that alienate Muslim women from the rest of society. After all, what better way to combat marginalization and alienation than to prove that we are not so different from everyone else?
The idea that through fashion islamic values of modesty can be promoted is probably one of the main ideological underpinnings of the modest fashion industry. The popularity of the Hijabi fashionista phenomenon, which is as much a byproduct of the modest fashion industry as it is its main driving force, rests on a similar idea; conveying modesty through fashion. But can an industry predicated mostly on ostentatious displays be a vehicle for modesty? The phenomenon of the modern apparel industry based on the mass production of clothing, and “the establishment of designers as arbiters of taste” originated in Europe. Since the 20th century fashion has turned into an essential staple of Western culture. Throughout the decades it has gained traction in much of the rest of the world. While the Muslim fashion industry perceives itself to be a distinct and separate entity, one could argue that it is more an offshoot of the Western fashion industry than an alternative. This becomes particularly relevant when one takes into account the ideals of beauty promoted by the modest fashion industry. Other than the presence of the hijab, the ideals of beauty that are promoted by this industry—from skin tones, to phenotypes, to body types—adhere to eurocentric ideals of beauty and female desirability.
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The prevalent narrative in the modest fashion industry, while attempting to champion the ideals of modesty so dear to Islam, is inflicting a powerful blow to the hijab’s ability to empower women by liberating them from the vapid and hollow expectations of beauty thrusted upon them by society. Many Muslim women often explain their reasoning for wearing the hijab as a way of escaping the chauvinist and dehumanizing gaze of society by adhering to a different type of womanhood; one predicated not on arbitrary standards of outward beauty, but rather holistic ideals of personhood transcending the mere physical to embrace instead all that truly characterizes a believer: manners, compassion, piety, intelligence, and wisdom. Instead of promoting a different kind of womanhood and using Islam to advocate for the liberation of women from overtly sexualized femininity, the modest fashion industry reiterates the same expectations as the mainstream fashion industry when it comes to what makes a woman beautiful and desirable. The emphasis is once more put on outward physicality and artifices such as makeup and clothing.
In fact, I would argue that this is the reason why the hijab is so readily accepted in the world of fashion. Bereft of its own spiritual narrative the hijab becomes nothing more than a cultural signifier, much like a kilt, a sari, or a dashiki. In that context it is reduced to nothing more than an object of exoticism that exudes mystery and seduction. It harkens back to the age old Orientalist narrative—that has always fuelled the fantasies of Westerners—about scantily clad ladies submissively awaiting for the sexual favours of their husbands in their well-guarded harems. These images of beautiful hijabis gracing the pages of fashion magazines is more likely to foster pipe-dreams about forbidden fruits awaiting to be unveiled than to promote modesty or a distinct form of womanhood in Islam.
Granted one could say, upon taking a look at my moniker, that I am nothing more than a reclusive nerd hating on fashionable folks with actual relationship goals. I assure you however that my trepidations are not born of hatred or jealousy, but rather a desire to question the pitfalls of the current popular narrative shaping who and what a Muslim woman should be. We should applaud our sisters’ success and support them in their various endeavours. However, in Islam part of that support entails giving sincere advice to one another.
The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said: “Each of you is the mirror of his brother, so if he sees a fault in him he should wipe it away from him.” [Tirmidhi]
We cannot on one hand bemoan sexism and the hyper sexualization of female bodies in mainstream society, while at the same time reproducing the same patterns all over again in our own platforms. We cannot keep harping on about the liberating essence of the hijab, while at the same time stripping it of all that makes it a tool of liberation in the first place. We cannot profess our love and dedication to modesty, while taking part in the same process that imposes on women arbitrary standards emphasizing outward beauty. We cannot pretend to aspire to a different kind of womanhood predicated on ideals that transcend mere physical beauty, while at the same time reproducing a narrative that reduces women to nothing more than vain creatures existing solely to satisfy the male gaze. We cannot in the name of feminism promote women’s liberation but do it at the detriment of the very ethos of Islam.
Muslim women are as diverse as the Muslim Ummah itself. We come in many shapes and colours, and this diversity is part and parcel of our identity as Muslimahs. However, the current narrative championed by the modest fashion industry not only ignores this diversity, but also erases the complexity of our experiences. It gives credence to the erasure of anything deemed “imperfect”, it excludes those deemed to fat, to dark, to disabled, or to ugly. It embraces in more ways than one the mainstream narrative pertaining to Muslim woman which often vacillates between two extremes: the oppressed woman in need of liberation, and the Pinup girl in need of recognition. It is a narrative that alienates and disempowers the vast majority of us by stripping us of our humanity and complexity.
We are mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. We are nurturers and warriors. We are ulemas, scientists, doctors, writers, teachers, engineers, artists, maids, architects, nurses, farmers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists, and so much more. We are the inheritors of 1400 years of history and struggle. The mothers of the believers (may Allah be pleased with them) and all subsequent generations of Muslimahs have laid down for us—through their hard work and example—a blueprint to follow in order to succeed in this world and in the hereafter. At a time when the status of women in Islam is often used to attack our religion; at a time when Muslim women are often the primary target of the virulent discourse of modern day Islamophobia; at a time when our communities and Ummah at large are struggling with massive political, economic, social, and spiritual challenges, we—Muslim women—simply cannot afford to remain silent and let ourselves be erased by a narrative that strip us of our true identity, and robs us of our potential. We have much to contribute to the world and our Ummah. More than ever, our talents, knowledge, experiences, ideas, courage, and strength are needed to help our beloved Ummah traverse this difficult moment.
So, let your light shine through Muslimahs by remaining steadfast in the path of your Lord.
*****A previous version of this post was published in May under the title Politicizing the Hijab: How the Hijab became a political symbol. However, I saw it fit to make some changes and post it again as an introduction to the broader conversation we will undertake in the Trouble with Feminism series. Certain changes have been made to the previous version of this post, so feel free to check it out again if you’ve read it before.
Any Muslim woman wearing a hijab has at some point in her life come face to face with the politics surrounding what is primarily a religious symbol of piety and modesty. Whether defined as a sign of oppression or a political emblem, the agency of those women who choose to wear it is often ignored in the discourse surrounding the hijab. While many have already touched on the overt policing of Muslim women’s bodies that takes place in these discussions, very little has been said about the process through which the hijab has been politicized.
The explicit politicization of the hijab—in which the decision to wear it is framed as a political act—finds its roots in the colonial occupation of the Muslim World by Western powers. The imperialist expansion of Europe into the rest of the world during the last four hundred years created a dominant imperium expanding its control and influence over newly acquired territories. This relationship extended beyond military occupation and encompassed a social, pedagogical, economic, political, and broadly cultural project that reiterated the notion of European superiority and the ordained right of Europeans to spread “civilization” throughout the world.
Colonialism was constructed as a noble project, a mission in which the “white man” must take on the burden of ensuring that non-Europeans were civilized and Christianized. Such a system carried within it inherent notions of racial inferiority and exotic otherness. The colonial narrative in its rendition of Islam and Muslims adopted the broader description of non-Western people in colonial discourse as being fundamentally hostile to modernity, and by extension the very values of the West. This perception of Islam as being utterly foreign—and possibly even a threat, to the values of Christian Western civilization—explains the feelings of antipathy so prevalent in the West today toward symbols deemed to be carriers of Islamic values (Said, 1979:209).
Unveiling the natives
Muslim women in the colonial narrative were often described as exotic creatures hidden in harems. This fuelled the fantasies of Westerners—who for the most part had never seen Muslim women—about scantily clad ladies submissively awaiting for the sexual favours of their husbands in their well-guarded harems. This image of Muslim women became so pervasive in Western literature and art that it lead to the widespread proliferation of their supposed submissiveness and exoticness in the Western world’s collective imaginary.
In the Orientalist discourse that emerged from the colonial experience in the Orient, but particularly in the Muslim World, the entire Muslim civilization was said to be recalcitrant to embrace changes that have come to define the modern Western World (Said, 1979:123). Muslims were said to be opposed particularly to secularization and the transition of men and women out of traditional and archaic institutions. Here the hijab was deemed singularly problematic because it’s presence in the social landscape was seen as a rejection of Western values. According to Fanon, “the way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness, that is to say the one that is the most immediately perceptible”(Fanon, 1967:35). In the case of Muslim societies, the hijab not only delineated the genders by reiterating the differences between men and women, but it also helped to demarcate clearly the colonized from the colonizers. By refusing to remove their hijab Muslim women were not only reaffirming their attachment to their native cultural and religious identity, but also rejecting their assigned status as colonized subjects to be westernized.
Western colonizers sought to subjugate in every possible way those under their yoke. The colonized must not only be completely controlled politically, socially, and economically, but also inclined to be investigated, unravelled, and probed by their colonizers. The conquered cannot have secrets, privacy, or intimacy that eludes colonial dominance. The veiled woman however, remains an exception to this rule. Behind her hijab, she escapes the colonial gaze probing every aspect of native life, and in doing so frustrates the colonizers. There is no reciprocity between her and colonial society, since she evades their scrutiny. “She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself”(Fanon, 1967:44). The existing power dynamic between colonizer and colonized shifts in this context. The hijab creates a domain that remains out of the colonizers’ reach, where neither their values nor their authority have any dominion. In response to this defiance, “colonial society, with its values, its areas of strength, and its philosophy, reacted to the veil in a rather homogeneous way”(Fanon, 1967:37).
The hijab became the focus of an intense effort to wipe from existence any symbol that could evoke a sense of national identity, ethnic kinship, or religious belonging, distinct from that of colonial society. The roles of Muslim women as mothers, sisters, wives, and grandmothers were studied at length, catalogued, and defined by sociologists and ethnologists in an effort to identify the matrilineal essence of Muslim societies and understand its impact (Fanon, 1967:37). Colonial administrations deployed a whole new set of policies informed by this new found insight on the importance of women to the completion of the colonial project. They elaborated a political doctrine predicated on the idea of first winning over the women in order to win over the rest of society. Shattering any remaining pretences of nationhood and distinctive originality, demanded that women be made the standard-bearers of colonial values. In order to destroy the innate structure of Muslim societies and hinder their capacity to survive the consequences of the colonial onslaught, Muslim women had to be conquered first. They had to be brought out into the open and away from their veils where they were hiding from the colonial gaze.
Feminist discourse in the colonial context
This is where the narrative depicting the hijab as a sign of female oppression and a symbol of backwardness came into fruition. Muslim women wearing the hijab were described as victims of Islam’s deep seeded misogyny and backwardness who were simply unaware of their own oppression. The behaviour of Muslim men toward “their women” was said to be brutish and sadistic; after all their medieval and barbaric attitude consistently devalued and dehumanized women to the status of mere propriety meant to be hidden from view. Saving these humiliated and sequestered women become the newest project of colonial society. Charities and mutual aid societies intended to promote solidarity with Muslim women appeared in great numbers. Fanon notes that in the case of Algeria, “this was a period of effervescence, of putting into application a whole technique of infiltration, in the course of which droves of social workers and women directing charitable works descended on the Arab quarters” (Fanon, 1967:38).
The hijab was said to be the undeniable symbol of the oppressed state of Muslim women. Saving them required that they shall first be unveiled. Western feminists particularly took up the cause of these women’s emancipation and invited Muslim women to play a crucial role in the improvement of their condition. “They were pressed to say no to a centuries old subjection. The immense role they were called to play was described to them”(Fanon, 1967:38). Western feminists, much like the rest of Western society, were imbued with an imperialist consciousness based on a racial hierarchy reiterating the superiority of white women. The very existence of their feminist movement hinged in many ways on the racialized construct of the colonized. Their activism was ingrained with an imperial ethos framed around the idea of moral responsibility (white woman’s burden). Their actions espoused to the same goals than the broader colonial project. Saving the natives from themselves by civilizing them through Western values was an approach the feminist project had in common with the cultural assimilation promulgated by colonial administrations throughout the colonies. Both recognized the pivotal role women could play in bringing to completion the colonial project. Western feminists became the handmaidens of Western imperialism, embracing not only its principal ideological construct (white supremacy) but also its ultimate goal.
Every aspect of colonial society reiterated the call for the emancipation of Muslim women from the shackles of tradition and backwardness. Muslim pupils in schools were told of the evils of their native cultures and religion. In order to embrace the brilliant future awaiting them, they had to first shed away their native values susceptible of only hindering their greatness. The shortcomings of their native societies, in comparison to the greatness of their Western counterparts, were exposed to them in great lengths. Muslim women taking off their hijab were celebrated with great fanfare as examples of saved natives. These individuals adopting Western values were considered by colonial administrations as developed natives who would become part of the colonial cadre and facilitate the erosion of their native cultures. Colonial society expected the newly saved Muslim women, without the supposed stranglehold of the hijab, to support Western penetration into native society by helping them navigate the spaces concealed from their colonial gaze.
Those refusing to follow in the footsteps of their civilized sisters rapidly became the focus of a vehement and aggressive narrative portraying them as custodians of the very backwardness afflicting their gender. Colonial society reacted aggressively to what it perceived as resistance to civilization itself. These women continued to foster spaces that eluded the colonial reach, a world of native mysteries foreign to the European experience. By refusing to bare their secrets, they were unavailable to the scrutiny and influence of the colonizers. Breaking their resistance was the only way of putting them back into the reach of colonial society and making them objects of possession and possible assimilation. In the colonial context the hijab was no longer simply an expression of religious kinship but rather part of the broader anti-colonial discourse as a political symbol of resistance and counter-assimilation, whose bearers displayed a deliberate rejection of the colonial project and its Western values.
Feminism and the war on terror
While the discourse pertaining to the supposed primitive treatment of women in Islam so pervasively found in the West today can be traced back to the colonial context of the 18th and 19th century, it has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the context of the war on terror. This new framework rests on the manichean representation of the Muslim world as a barbaric and misogynistic entity that must be civilized by a liberal and enlightened West. Feminist discourse particularly played a major role in the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of Liberal imperialism. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was widely framed as a righteous war to liberate Afghan women from oppression. Shortly after 9/11, First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address in which she spoke of women’s oppression in Afghanistan as a matter of national import.
“Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” (Leila Ahmed)
“In 2012, ads appeared in public places of Afghan women in burqas with the caption: “Nato: Keep the Progress Going!” Amnesty further organized a summit that rearticulated through the voices of powerful women, such as Madeline Albright, imperialist feminist justifications for war.” (Deepa Kumar)
While feminist discourse was being utilized to justify and legitimize Western invasion of sovereign nations in the Global South, in the West the same discourse is often used to police the lives and the choices of Muslim women. The endless obsession with the hijab, the niqab, and lately the burkini stems from feminism’s “racist, patronizing attitude towards women of color who have been seen less as allies/agents and more as victims in need of rescue.” The events of 9/11 brought back into Western consciousness the colonial narrative about Islam, and by extension the hijab. Islam became once more an existential threat. The old European lore of Muslim armies at the gate waiting to take Western civilization by storm resurfaced, and with it old sentiments of antipathy toward an “other” conceptualized first as a rival, and later as a colonized subject. The hijab has become the focus of this fear. Seeing Muslim women in the West choosing to wear the hijab symbolizes for many Westerners a rejection of Western values. These women are in their eyes expressing their loyalty first and foremost toward Islam, and in doing so rejecting all that Western civilization stands for. This perception of the hijab as a symbol of opposition to modernity and women’s rights is one of the many tenants of the feminist narrative that feeds present-day Islamophobia.
It is true that feminist ideology encompasses multiple movements; some vehemently opposed to what is referred to as Western feminism. In the aftermath of the war on terror, many feminists criticized what they considered to be a “co-opting of feminism” for the purposes of empire building. It is also very true that in the Global South a postcolonial feminism has emerged, while islamic feminism makes its own forays into the Muslim world and Muslim diasporas in the West. Both are critical of the patronizing attitude of Western feminists toward cultures they barely understand, or are aware of. Both reiterate the need for women of colour and Muslim women to exercise their agency openly and to not let themselves be erased by the skewed vision of Western feminists.
However, considering the history of this ideology and its participation in the subjugation, domination, and exploitation of non-Western nations, one has to wonder if it can ever be a vehicle for the liberation of women of colour, and Muslim women. The ease with which it lends itself to a rhetoric of racial supremacy makes it a profoundly problematic ideology. What reigns supreme in Feminism is Western exceptionalism. This is an ideology that reiterates the centrality of Western civilization as a model to emulate in order to achieve the liberation of women from oppression. Even when it rejects the idea of white supremacy, it still operates through a pattern of Westernization, which alienates and marginalizes all other cultural systems. Despite their valiant efforts neither postcolonial feminism nor Islamic feminism have escaped the shadow of Western feminism. They continue to borrow much of their vocabulary and strategies from it. By adhering to Feminism, they—more than Western feminists—continue to cement and enhance the centrality of Western civilization above all else.
So the question remains, can Muslim women find within feminism means of advocating for their rights, or are they simply facilitating their own oppression and erasure while strengthening Western influence?