On Al-Jazeera’s “Muslim women breaking stereotypes”: the obsession with the Muslim woman’s body as a site of resistance

Can we end these discussions that claim to “prove” that “Muslim women” are challenging “stereotypes”? (Apologies to reader for the constant quotation use – I clearly have a lot of problems with this sort of discussion.) It’s the same reason I find the idea of viewing the Muslim woman’s body as a constant site of resistance unaccrptable. That is, this profound idea goes, Muslim women constantly seem to be resisting something or another, and the Al-Jazeera discussion on their breaking stereotypes is a part of that resistance conversation I find so troubling and frustrating. And old. (See the comments under the Al-Jazeera linked post. I like what Amina Wadud says there in a comment: “Fabulous…as long as you don’t start ANOTHER false stereotype, that only young Muslim women are breaking barriers. Or maybe it’s just because these ladies are so attractive as well. Good on them.” Someone named Danya Shakfeh also writes some thoughts worth reflecting on.) Instead of challenging the underlying reasons because of which these assumptions about Muslim women exist, we’re actually and ironically reinforcing the stereotypes when we give the Muslim-women-haters examples here and there of why they’re wrong.


k, so. (Click the image for source.)

I don’t think people realize how patriarchal–and how colonialist–this is, either, this idea of seeing everything the Muslim woman does as resistance or as some way of breaking stereotypes. You see, by encouraging or even expecting women to resist, we’re setting standards about what it means to be a good or a bad woman, or a strong or a weak woman; we’re reinforcing the stereotypes by not expecting the “unlikely” modes of resistance that we see displayed by these women. We’re telling women they’re strong if they stand up to whatever it is that we think they should be standing up to (i.e., resisting), and we’re telling them they’re weak if they’re not. Who gets left out in this discourse of the women who are “shattering stereotypes”? The women who are not shattering the stereotypes that we think they should be shattering the way we think they should be shattering them.  What is this message telling us to do or think about those women who instead either embody these stereotypes or, well, aren’t doing anything with or about them?

Any efforts that claim to prove why someone’s breaking stereotypes is flawed from the onset because it is filled with assumptions of what the stereotypes are and how they are to be broken. And who can break them. The standards we set are unfortunately inexorably informed by western assumptions, expectations, and desires to see a very specific kind of “empowered” Muslim woman. It’s okay, for example, in this projection of the empowered Muslim woman, to wear the hijab – but that hijab must be worn for specific reasons, a specific way, and you must be able to do specific things while wearing the hijab. If you can’t or choose not to do those specific set of things with the hijab on, you are not empowered, you’re not resisting anything (and are obviously therefore useless), and you’re sadly not breaking any stereotypes (and also therefore obviously useless).

It’s as if anything and everything a Muslim woman does can be and is subject to scrutiny and analysis by–make no mistake–the researcher or whoever (originally the colonizer), something that can be viewed as resistance to something or another. Not exactly A Muslim woman’s wearing a hijab? Great! Let’s classify that as empowerment, resistance; if she’s a hijab and does things like, oh I don’t know, go to school, have a job, make money, do other things we don’t think a hijabi girl is capable of doing, yes, that’s even more resistance right there. A Muslim woman not wearing a hijab? No worries: That’s another level of empowerment/resistance/breaking stereotypes, too. (Which reminds me: In her only hijab post, The Fatal Feminist attacks this idea that she must have some “complex, introspective explanation” for her choice not to wear the hijab. But instead, everyone’s heart is broken when she comes with a totally simple: “For me not wearing hijab in general is not a sign of rebellion, or a proclamation of my womanliness, or an act of reclamation–There is no reason I don’t wear hijab.” She does have some deep reasons for wearing lipstick at the mosque–and in general–and wearing nailpolish while on her menstruation, however.) Muslim woman wearing the niqab? Sure, that counts as empowerment, too. A Muslim woman writing poetry, blogging, making videos, singing, thinking, heck even existing? All of the above is sure to be some form of resistance by some researcher out there.

It’s not that any of these groups of women are not empowered–or are, whatever the case may be according to their understanding of the term–but it’s that I’m suspicious of why we’re focusing so much on Muslim women. It seems to me that anything we don’t understand and are not willing to understand, we’re going to simplify it and declare it some form of empowerment, some form of resistance to some system of power, usually to Islam or the horridly patriarchal Muslim cultures across the world, but sometimes also to the stereotypes about them.

None of this is to deny the Islamophobia that Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, experience, many of us on a daily basis. Neither is it to deny that something needs to be done about the problems accompanied by Islamophobia/racism/patriarchy. As a Pakistani Pashtun American immigrant female Muslim feminist, believe me – I understand. And as someone who’s written on the blogging and social networking of Pashtun women as a form of empowerment, I understand the academic temptation to seek “cracks” of resistance in everything an otherized, and a formerly colonized, group of women do. But I think I’ve reached a point, at last, where I’m starting to wonder why everything a Muslim woman does must be read as some form of resistance. Where did we go wrong with our understanding of empowerment, resistance, agency, etc.? Times like these, and some other times too, Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety is a remarkable resource to be grateful for.

In a feminist anthropology class last year, I pointed out that I find problematic the idea that Muslim women are constantly “resisting” something or the other. No one, including my two professors, understood what I was saying – but that was because I didn’t at the time have the words to express clearly what the issue was. It’s not so much that I think Muslim women should just be let free to live their lives without the scholar, the anthropologist, the activist, whoever else attaching some sort of a meaning to their actions. There’s a disturbing history of the West’s/Colonialism’s giving names to the actions of the communities and nations it otherizes without actually understanding and appreciating the context in which the Other is doing whatever the Other is doing. This is most manifest, I believe, in Religion discussions, where we learn that the word for “religion” didn’t exist in most languages the western scholar was studying until during/after colonialism, some of the religions not even having a name for themselves in their own sacred languages. This is a conversation to be had another time, though. I must avoid distractions as exciting as this religion topic is for me these days.

So I want to clarify that it’s not quite that I believe Muslim women’s efforts, daily lives, choices, etc. carry no meaning or that they’re engaging with their lives in some vacuum–or that they just … “are.” I don’t believe anything is ever “in and of itself.” It’s that the way we talk about empowerment, resistance, freedom, agency, “breaking stereotypes,” etc. seems to suggest that an individual is demonstrably powerless and helpless unless she is resisting something or another – that the West thinks she should be resisting (like Islam, or Muslim men).

Let me give an example. For the above paper I just mentioned that I’ve written on Pashtun women bloggers and social networking and whatnot, the scholarship I had to read for it was very much aligned with this conventional idea of resistance when scholars wanted to show that Muslim women bloggers were empowered. An Iranian blogger is empowered “because” she writes and talks openly about love- and sex-related topics, or other taboo subjects. An Egyptian blogger is empowered because she’s revealing the secrets of her home to her readers. As though that should be the be-all and end-all manifestation of empowerment. And there’s nothing wrong with seeing empowerment in these ways – but there’s something wrong with it when we choose to limit empowerment to such representations. I know many Pashtun women bloggers, more so now than I did for the study, and none of them write about sex.  Heck, I‘m not comfortable writing about that! Where, then, is the person’s actual comfort and preferences in our understanding of her empowerment?

I’m still not sure how to articulate my thoughts against this (initially academic but now also popular) trend of  interpreting a Muslim woman’s every act and choice as some form of empowerment or resistance. But let me try to see if Saba Mahmood and a couple of others can help me explain.

Saba Mahmood.

In Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Saba Mahmood challenges the liberal tendency to equate agency with resistance or understanding the display of agency as the same as recognizing one’s potential. She shows that agency doesn’t require resistance to any domination and can also entail the embodiment of norms. This is a huge book with many different issued raised all throughout it, but I appreciate it specifically for forcing us to critically look at our understandings of agency and at the way we talk about Muslim women. I have my problems with some of her main points–and some of her own assumptions, too. I recommend Sadia Abbas’s At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament for some counter arguments to not just Mahmood’s but also Lila Abu-Lughod’s–but Abbas’s book, too, has major problems, and she speaks of Mahmood’s arguments in rather dismissive ways and I frequently wondered if she chose not to understand Mahmood’s argument. I find it difficult to believe that a scholar would be so dismissive of another scholar’s attempt to show how and why a something (like “conservative” Islam, or “resistance” or “progressive” Islam) are more complex than often believed. I don’t read Mahmood’s work as advocating a patriarchal Islam – I think her objectives were too deep to be reduced to such an understanding – but Abbas seems to disagree.  (Also, unfortunately, both Politics of Piety and At Freedom’s Limit are difficult to read. Take several tries, so it may be a mistake to expect to understand them on the first read. I personally can’t stand books like that, actually. I mean, you’ve got such brilliant information to reveal – why limit your audience!)

Quoting from Politics of Piety, on page 8:

… even in instances when an explicit feminist agency is difficult to locate, there is tendency among scholars to look for expressions and moments of resistance that may suggest a challenge to male domination. When women’s actions seem to reinscribe what appear to be ‘instruments of their own oppression,’ the social analysis can point to moments of disruption of, and articulation of points of opposition to, male authority–moments that are located either in the interstices of a woman’s consciousness (often read as a nascent feminist consciousness), or in the objective effects of women’s actions, however unintended these may be. Agency, in this form of analysis, is understood as the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will, or other obstacles (whether individual or collective). Thus us the humanist desire for autonomy and self-expression constitutes the substrate, the slumbering ember that can spark to flame in the form of an act of resistance when conditions permit.

Both Saba Mahmood and Sadia Abbas also discuss–and Abbas critiques–Lila Abu-Lughod’s arguments. Let me quote from Abu-Lughod then.

Lila Abu-Lughod.

In her article “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women,” Abu-Lughod writes, on page 41: “Despite the considerable theoretical sophistication of many studies of resistance and their contribution to the widening of our definition of the political, it seems to me that because they are ultimately more concerned with finding resistors and explaining resistance than with examining power, they do not explore as fully as they might the implications of the forms of resistance they locate.” She then criticizes her own earlier work: “In some of my own earlier work, as in that of others, there is perhaps a tendency to romanticize resistance, to read all forms of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated. By reading resistance in this way, we collapse distinctions between forms of resistance and foreclose certain questions about the workings of power.”

To be clear, I want to note that Abu-Lughod is not entirely helpful to my argument against resistance because she doesn’t find anything wrong with identifying signs of resistance in Muslim women’s (or anyone else’s) actions; she still looks at forms of resistance among the women of an Egyptian Bedouin community known as Awlad ‘Ali (e.g., women’s poetry, or, in the case of young women, wearing lingerie in defiance of cultural norms and parental authority, or otherwise signs of resistance to women’s freedom of mobility, and so on) to argue that these forms of resistance “indicate that one way power is exercised in relation to women.” For instance, the resistance through lingerie case is fascinating because it “pits young women against older women and indirectly against their fathers and uncles, while putting them in alliance with young men of their generation” (p. 49).

So Abu-Lughod not so much interested in “the status of resistance itself” but with “what the forms of resistance indicate about the forms of power that they are up against” (p. 47). But the quote above, I hope, helps articulate my own contention.

I’ll stop here. But for more on complicating this resistance debate, I also recommend Marianne Kamp‘s book The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism and Iman Bibar‘s Victims and Heroines: Women, Welfare and the Egyptian State. Christine Jacobsen‘s article “Troublesome Threesome: Feminism, Anthropology, and Muslim Women’s Piety” is also worth reading on the subject (if you do not have access to this article, I’m happy to email it to anyone interested).

P.S. What a delight that all of the sources above are by women ❤ May we continue to rise and think. And challenge and encourage each other. Aameen.

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