Breaking Glass Houses: Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Book Shattering the Stereotypes

It’s a common assumption that Muslim women don’t—or can’t—speak for themselves. Fawzia Afzal-Khan aims to break that idea into tiny pieces with a book: Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out (2005). The book is a compilation of works written by different Muslim women, with a forward written by Nawal El Saadawi.

In the introduction, Afzal-Khan explains that this books aims to counter the negative attitudes and ideas about Muslim women that are still proliferated post-9/11. It’s divided into works of non-fiction, poetry, journalism, religious discourses, fiction, and plays. Many of the authors in the book use 9/11 as a catalyst, writing about its effects on their lives or examining the effects it had on other Muslim women’s lives. Many of the non-fiction and poetry focus on this point. Suheir Hammad’s “first writing since” is a poignant reflection on being an Arab Muslim New Yorker in the days after the attacks (shameless personal bias alert: love Hammad).

Other works focus on what came after 9/11. Barbara Nimri Aziz’s journalism piece “Are you O.K.?” reflects on her work as a journalist trying to escape Iraq because of the impending U.S. invasion. Bina Sharif’s play “An Afghan Woman” features an Afghan woman talking to a western audience who sees her on television because of the U.S.’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan.

But there are works that focus on other issues important to Muslim women. Mohja Kahf’s poem, “Little Mosque Poems,” dismantles the problem of mosques that are not welcoming to women. Azizah al-Hibri’s “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities” that appears in the “religious discourses” section is a well-reasoned, well-researched treatise on how Islam is taken away from Muslim women, despite al-Hibri’s biased characterizations of men as inherently aggressive and false hypothesis that North American Muslims transcend cultural restraints when it comes to Islam.

Nor do the plays of Maryam Habibian and Betty Shamieh revolve around 9/11. Habibian’s Forough’s Reflecting Pool: The Life and Work of Forugh Farrokhzad focuses on the life struggles and achievements through poetry of one of Iran’s greatest poets (shameless personal bias alert: love Farrokhzad), and Shamieh’s Chocolate in Heat—Growing Up Arab In America breaks down the ideas that Muslim women are always “from over there” and are unaware of societal and institutional forces of discrimination.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen, in her non-fiction piece “Tapping Our Strength,” writes about the possibilities that await Muslim women who recognize that inter-ideological alliances can be helpful rather than exploitative:

“The last place we women of all faiths need to suffer the indignity of judgment based solely on outward appearance is in the company of other women. Right now, half of American non-Muslim women encourage other women to be free by being naked, and the other half desperately tries to get women and girls to cover up. Meanwhile, the men simply get dressed in the morning…Non-Muslim women need to stop telling Muslim women their traditional Islamic garb symbolizes oppression. Muslim women need to open themselves to coalitions with women in mini-skirts. Only then will we work successfully toward a world where all women can truly wear what they feel.”

The book is a powerful one, and it successfully shatters stereotypes that Muslim women aren’t American and aren’t willing to speak up for themselves.

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