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Defeating Stereotypes of Muslim Women

Dr. Leila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Woman’s Journey, pulses with a theme of many women’s stories: the struggle to define oneself in the face of social restraints. The 1999 book by Ahmed, the first professor of women’s studies in religion at Harvard’s Divinity School, came long before the recent wave of memoirs and other writings by Muslim women that have intrigued American readers.

“There is just a tremendous appetite for the books — a media-created appetite. And the voices are perceived as authoritative,” says Dr. Kecia Ali, professor of Islamic studies at Boston University, who teaches some of the writings in her courses. As memoirs such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and even Deborah Rodriguez’s fiction best seller Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, enjoy popularity here, Ali and Dr. Aminah McCloud, who also teaches Islamic studies, say it is important to consider how they affect the representation of Muslim women.

“I’m very attuned to these kinds of issues. … Issues of gender are very much on everybody’s minds [in Islamic studies],” says Kecia Ali, adding that the chair of religious studies at Boston University writes about Muslim women.

But the situation in her department at Boston University is an exception to the rule, Ali admits. And at a time when there is a growing scholarly body of information about Muslim women, the more popular memoirs such as Infidel, in which author Ayaan Hirsi Ali renounces Islam because she says it condones violence toward women, often reinforce rather than expand Western expectations about the women.

Kecia Ali says one must ask, “Who is funding the books, and how are they being produced?”

For example, Hirsi Ali, a Somali who settled in the Netherlands and is a former member of the parliament, has become the voice of secular Islam. But Egyptian-born Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi, a leading feminist and critic of Islam’s treatment of women as well as of patriarchy in all cultures, has not enjoyed the same publishing success in the United States as has Hirsi Ali. Her books include, Woman at Point Zero and The Hidden Face of Eve.

They are both vehemently anti-religion,” Kecia Ali says, but they come at their critiques from very different perspectives. Hirsi Ali reserves her harshness for Muslims, while El Sadaawi attacks patriarchy wherever it is, including the West.

Rather than just examining the books being published here, Kecia Ali says it is instructive to ask, “What voices aren’t being heard?”

“McCloud of Chicago’s DePaul University says no one is doing a “content analyses of these memoirs.” Are they a “new kind of Orientalism,” she says, questioning whether they continue to present Muslim women as exotic others.

“There is a certain type of story being published in the West,” says McCloud, echoing Ali. Also being left out of the dialogue, she says, are African-American women who are Muslims.

McCloud, the director of the Islamic World Studies Program and professor of Islamic studies in the department of religious studies, describes many of the works as stories about “victims.”

“After you’ve read about all this victimization, what do you have left?” she asks.

She also says that, in most cases, they fit a pattern: They are apologetic toward Islam and many of the authors are elites who have left their countries.

“They are either trying to talk about ‘it’s wonderful that I wear a veil and it’s very, very positive,’ or ‘my family has fought long against this sense of oppression,’” says Mc- Cloud.

Long before authors such as Ahmed, Kecia Ali, Dr. Fatima Mernissi, Marjane Satrapi and Shirin Ebadi, to name a few, had their memoirs published in the United States, Muslim women had their stories published elsewhere, says McCloud.

“They have been marginalized in America, not in Europe. I was collecting a bunch of women’s memoirs in India and Pakistan, and they date back to the 1920s,” says Mc- Cloud, among a handful of African-American women who teach Islamic studies.

Mernissi’s 1994 memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, is an exception to the pattern, says McCloud, who knows Mernissi, a sociology professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat.

“I found [the memoir] intriguing because it is one of the rare ones that doesn’t apologize … I used it in class,” says Mc- Cloud, who, unlike Ali, does not specialize in women in Islam. Dr. Leila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Woman’s Journey, pulses with a theme of many women’s stories: the struggle to define oneself in the face of social restraints. The 1999 book by Ahmed, the first professor of women’s studies in religion at Harvard’s Divinity School, came long before the recent wave of memoirs and other writings by Muslim women that have intrigued American readers.

But many of the books are by secular Muslims such as Hirsi Ali. Infidel, published this year, recalls her entrance into Dutch politics and her gradual estrangement from Islam. In the course of this transformation, she riles the nation’s Muslims by publicly criticizing the religion. Later, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was Vincent Van Gogh’s great grand nephew, was murdered by a radical Muslim for working on a documentary with Hirsi Ali about domestic abuse in the Islamic world.

A Diversity of Memoirs

Memoirs are significant and should be taught in Islamic studies, Kecia Ali says. “They are individual stories, and that is exactly as it should be,” she says.

Scholars who specialize in both Islam and gender — like any academic who has trained in a certain area — are better equipped to teach the popular literature in a larger historic context, she says. They can provide a “more sophisticated representation” of Muslim women, Ali says.

In her courses, she emphasizes the broader historic context in which the West has presented Muslim women going back to medieval times. At the same time, she says it is important to examine how Muslim societies depict Western women. “The gaze works both ways,” Ali adds.

That is not to say that all the memoirs published here by Muslim women are lacking in historical or even political context. Nobel Peace-winner Ebadi’s memoir, Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim her Life and Country, is deeply political throughout. It begins as Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, combs through judicial documents related to the government assassination of two intellectuals in the 1990s. In the thick dossiers, her name appears as someone targeted for death.

There are currently several books about and by Iranian women, including Persepolis, a graphic novel (similar to a comic book) by Satrapi, which begins when the author is required to wear a veil at school after clerics take control of the government in the 1980s. Satrapi, who left Iran as a teenager, published the two-part graphic in 2003. It chronicles her family history, which is intimately connected to the post-colonial history of Iran.

At the other end of the spectrum of memoirs — and written years before the new wave of books — are Ahmed and Mernissi. The scholars have written extensively on Islam, gender, democracy and the origins of the veil, or hijab. Their memoirs add to their body of scholarship. Mernissi is perhaps best known for The Veil and the Male Elite, which has challenged the religious origins of the hijab. Ahmed’s work, Women and Gender in Islam: The Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, has also scrutinized perceptions of Islam.

“They found a niche and a ready market and it was going to sell better than anything they did in their discipline,” says McCloud of Ahmed and Mernissi’s memoirs.

What is needed is more diversity in the stories being told, says McCloud, who taught a course at DePaul on the representation of Muslim women in text. She began the class with a short video about Hollywood’s depiction of Muslim women, from Cecil B. DeMille’s extravagant 1920’s epics to “True Lies,” the 1994 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stereotypes still have to be defeated, Kecia Ali and McCloud argue.

Ali recalls the frenzy surrounding Honor Lost, the 2003 book by Norma Khouri, which claimed to be a true story of a Muslim killed for marrying a foreigner. The popular book, it came to light, was fiction. But Kecia Ali says the reason the book initially succeeded was “in part because people were ready to hear this.”

While she acknowledges that the “popular, difficult” books about Muslim women are getting the most attention, she notes that there is more information available now than in years.

“I think it is wonderful that there are the resources there are … the information has flourished over the last two or three decades,” she says. “Everyone who wants to ground themselves [on the subject of Muslim women] has the ability to in an interesting and challenging way.”

–Susan E. Smith

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