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Muhajabats in America: Over-Exposed?

MONDAY, APRIL 21, 2008

This was written by Maytha, originally published at KABOBfest.

Why does every Western representation, photo-essay, primetime special feature on Muslims in America exclusively focus on the muhajabat when portraying the American Muslim woman experience?

Time magazine's online photo-essay
"Muslim in America" features 16 pics of "ordinary" Muslim activity in New York. Ironically, I have a good amount of friends featured in this pictorial account of Muslim life in NYC.

The only scene with a hijab-less Muslim woman is one in which girls who look to be between the ages of 5-8 are playing in elegant dresses at a Muslim wedding reception.

[image]And this is only a small ounce of the super-sized meal America has been fed of muhajabats doing "ordinary Western things." From Jordanian boxers profiled in a article titled "Muslim women head to head, hijab to hijab," to a little covered Pali girl getting surfing lessons from world-renowned surfer (and Arab!) Kelly Slater, and lastly to a muhajaba fashioning a rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" on the oud, there seems to be an implicit campaign to prove that "Muslim women" too "can be all they can be."

Within this context of a monolithic representation of female Muslim American identity, where does that leave me and others like me don't choose to veil? Where are our voices and images? And why you ask, is it important to include us in the Muslim American narrative?

Well, for one, I am tired of ignorant-ass, non-Muslim people CONSTANTLY coming up to me judging my Muslim authenticity based on the fact that I don't wear a hijab. The overall perception in my experience with those unfamiliar with the religion and culture is that a Muslim woman's obligations are to:

1. Veiling: to cover one's head and body.
2. Abstain from eating pork and drinking liquor
3. Subordination to men: obedience towards one's husband/men in a woman's life.

For them, Americans unfamiliar with Islamic religious and cultural practices and expressions of faith, these outward performances become primary indicators of a woman's level of devotion to her Islamic faith. Although I shouldn't and don't necessarily care how dominant culture perceives me, what I am concerned about is how we as a Muslim community encourage and accommodate this monocular exoticism of our women. Islamically, it is acceptable to cover, and it's permissible not to.* But, have our Muslim American marketing strategies failed because we follow suit with how the West wants to represent what appear to be "exotic" religious practices, instead of pushing for a more diverse representation? I am awaiting the day when a Muslim female public intellectual/talking head/pundit or sitcom/drama character who does not veil makes it onto our flat and silver screens.

Understandably, post-9/11, Muslim groups and organizations worked overtime on publicity campaigns to alter America's perception of muhajabat. Very visibly, these women, empowered because they "can do anything a Muslim man or independent, modern American woman can do," became the poster-child of the American Muslima movement, and I dare say, the face of Islam in America. I feel like in pre-emptively tempering hostility towards muhajabat, the suffering of our un-veiled sisters has gone unaccounted for. Besides the fact that our devotion to our faith is constantly questioned by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, our experiences are regarded as invalid in the discourse and visual representation of what it means to be a Muslim in America.

All I'm asking is to include our voices and experiences in the construction of this narrative.

Editor's Note: The point of this post is not to discuss whether hejab is required in Islam-- please don't get stuck on this. There are Muslim women who wear wear hejab and who do not wear hejab; this article focuses on how media attention is unevenly divided between these two. The point is to discuss the exclusion of Muslim women who do not wear hejab in media representations of Muslims and the negative effects this has on Islam and Muslim women.

An excellent example is the original publishing of this article. Several commenters ignored the point of Maytha's post and focused on attacking her knowledge of Islam, her faithfulness, and even her modesty in her personal Facebook pictures. Why is this acceptable? Allah alone is our judge.

For our critique of the
Time piece that Maytha talked about, click here.




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