Of hijab, stereotypes and popular culture

This weekend, I gave a talk at a local church, on the misconceptions people have of Muslim women. The other two panelists dedicated part of their time to discuss hijab; why some Muslim women wear it, and why others don’t. They shared their personal experiences with it – one of the speakers doesn’t wear hijab; the other grew up in hyper-secular Turkey and began wearing it while attending one of the most diverse high schools in the US.

Since I was the last to speak, I didn’t spend that much time on hijab, but focused more on Western images of Muslim femininity – from the odalisque who needs to be rescued from the confines of her Ottoman harem; to the white woman standing up to Arab Muslim patriarchy in a way that Muslim women are unable or unwilling to do in Not Without My Daughter; to the mute but angry veiled woman of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. I juxtaposed these images with the stories I grew up with of women from the Quran and Muslim history: the pious Mary, mother of Jesus (peace be upon them both). Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba – described in the Quran as a highly intelligent and just ruler. Fatima al-Fihri, the 9th century woman who became the founder of the world’s longest-running university, Kairaouine, in Morocco.

After the talk, my co-panelists and I were accosted by a coiffed elderly woman, who obviously took much care to maintain her appearance. Soon, I realized we were engaging with a Second Wave feminist who genuinely cared about the plight of women and who genuinely was not a fan of hijab. From her perspective, covering for reasons of modesty only benefits patriarchy and cannot allow for female agency. I’ve heard this argument before so I told her that I abhor coerced hijab and agree with the Quranic injunction that there is “no compulsion in religion.” Most American Muslim women do have the choice to uncover, if they wish.

Minutes later, she remarked, “What you’re wearing is not our culture.” I pointed out that while I bought my sweater from The Limited, and I was wearing dark wash jeans – that most American of clothing – I would grant her that my scarf isn’t American. I bought it off a Senegalese street vendor during a trip to Amsterdam some years ago. She pressed on, “No, you – it’s just not part of our culture.” I frustratedly responded, “Well, I’m part of American culture, so what I’m wearing is part of American culture.”

Then, I let it go.

This woman had just spent 2 hours listening to 3 Muslim women share our experiences. We talked about our female faith heroes, our mothers, our friends. We broke all sorts of stereotypes. We answered a smorgasbord of questions during the Q&A period, ranging from “What is jihad,” to “Can there ever be a female ayatollah.” This woman listened to us, but did not hear us. To her, being American while being an observant Muslim woman is impossible and we were confused about our identities. I was discouraged by our encounter.

Having had a few days to mull over this incident, I stopped being discouraged. I feel compelled to share my experiences with even more people. I realize that while a lot of the stereotypes Muslims face in the West stem from politics, the images of Muslims in popular culture also play an exacerbating role. While there are a few pioneers in Hollywood and in the world of fiction writing, American Muslim voices are largely missing from popular culture (outside of the musical world, which has a healthy representation of American Muslim voices). I’m no expert in critical cultural theory, but I am quite the expert in  my own television and movie-watching experiences, having had a love-love relationship with my tv and Netflix subscription lo these many years.

So far in this blog, I’ve written mainly about my “thoughts on Islam and the West” and neglected the “pop culture” part of my tagline. I’ll continue writing about the social, political and other challenges facing Western Muslims, but I will introduce a new weekly series dedicated to my thoughts, analyses and sometimes irreverent take on current television shows and movies. So, be on the lookout for those posts and send in your suggestions of which movies are a must-see this spring.


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