Babes in Toyland: Stratton’s Fantastick Muhajababes

When I first saw the book Muhajababes by Allegra Stratton in a bookshop in Beirut, I was intrigued enough to buy it. The cover boldly claims to have found, “the new Middle East–cool, sexy and devout”. I happily forked out the $14.

MuhajababesOn closer inspection however, the cover of the book is quite problematic (featured left). It features a woman with hot red lips in a black headscarf. The rest of her face has been blanked out, spelling only one thing: generalization. An alternate book cover (pictured below right) provides no respite. It’s possibly worse, with 36 multiples of the same blank face, headscarf and red lips. The end of one face’s headscarf marking the beginning of the another’s, as if all women who belong to this so-called group are extensions of each other and identical.  Whoever said, “don’t judge a book by its cover” was so wrong.

The book spans six Arab cities, the author in search of “youth culture”. Instead, she finds

a massive video industry of airbrushed, heavily produced, scantily clad singers…many of the fans of these semi-naked popstrels are also very devout….these veiled but sexily dressed young women, then, are the Muhajababes.

The “muhajababes” are Muslim women who wear the headscarf, together with provocative clothing and lots of make-up. They pose a contradiction to the usual dour-faced, unhappy Muslim women clad in all-encompassing black garments. They also pose a dilemma to notions of Islamic modesty, but are as much a part of Islam as anyone who calls her/himself Muslim. I like the idea of Muslim women challenging the status quo while asserting their Islamic identities (even though I am not a fan of the provocative headscarf combination). However, I find it problematic that this then becomes another category to neatly box Muslim women into.

Muhajababes 2So, it would be safe to assume that the book is about young, trendy Muslim women…or not. It features so little understanding into the lives of young Arab Muslim women that any insight could easily be missed and takes at least two readings to decipher. The little analysis included is made up of broad generalizations based on second person narrations; and brief exchanges with a five “veiled” women. You do the math: five women + six cities = stereotype. In one instance, Stratton actually admits to doing a headcount of women wearing the headscarf on a busy Cairo street to validate her assumption that hijab is the new black.

It’s not that she says anything overly offensive about Muslim women; in fact, “oppressed” and “subservient” are thankfully not the part of the book’s lexicon. It’s more the way she goes about it, drawing conclusions based on minimal interaction with the so-called “muhajababes” and that the book is not really about what it claims to be. Though it’s not an academic research project, nor does it pretend to be, the essential depth and substance required of any book are sadly lacking.

So, what then is the book about? Well two names can sum it up quite well. The multi-billion dollar tycoon Prince Al Waleed of Saudi Arabia, and the smooth talking Egyptian scholar Amr Khaled. According to Stratton, these men are the reason for this new phenomena of “muhajababes”. But claiming that Al Waleed and Amr Khaled are responsible for the muhajababes only satiates the western appetite for believing that Muslim women are controlled by men. It is only well into the fifth chapter that we actually catch a glimpse of these “muhajababes”, when a colleague points out one out to Stratton from the car, saying “you are very lucky we spotted them.” They could very well be on Safari in Africa, looking for lions!

The book rambles in and out of politics, biographies and anecdotes, which me left me rather confused as to the point of it all. I think trying to tackle such a vast geographical space in such a short book was overly ambitious of Stratton. It would have been far more useful and insightful had she focused on one county, say Egypt or Syria, than try to squeeze them all in.

At first, I liked that young Muslimahs were described in normal language, portrayed doing every day things, like working, listening to music, following fashion trends and looking for love. On second thought – it’s rather patronizing, as if a Muslim women living a “normal” Western life is so strange that a whole book (supposedly) needed to be written about it. For instance, Stratton describes one “muhajababe”, Zina, whom she briefly meets in Cairo.

Though she had three books piled on her table including Death of a Salesman, she was reading, not very seriously, a local free paper. She was doing a lot of looking around – and chain smoking.

The question that remains, is why is it that Western writers find it so imperative to try to force Muslim women into a one-size-fits-all glove, be it a modern one? This book is yet another attempt to subtlety stereotype, under the guise of defining “Arab youth culture” and “a new generation of Muslims”.  I cannot deny that there does exist broad groups which people can belong to, but there is so little substantiation in this book, that I find it hard to believe Stratton’s muhajababes are a “new” sub-culture.

The conclusion of the book trails Stratton’s attempts to meet Amr Khaled, one of the men supposedly responsible for it all. The closing line claims that he has created the muhajababes, albeit unintentionally, and they in turn have spurred a revolution. A headscarf revolution, which is changing the face of the Middle East. There is very little backing for this weighty conclusion (not denying that many Muslim women are turning to the headscarf) and an unsubstantiated claim remains just that.

As a travel narrative, this book is interesting, but as a study of young Muslim women? Irrelevant.

  • http://luckyfatima.wordpress.com luckyfatima

    ” I like the idea of Muslim women challenging the status quo while asserting their Islamic identities (even though I am not a fan of the provocative headscarf combination).”

    Why is it that you are not a fan, or that you need to parenthetically tell readers that you are not a fan? Just curious.

    My thoughts on the so-called muhajababe thing… I see it a lot on both teens and adult women.

    I think it is hard to wear hijab anywhere, including in Muslim majority countries. People are wearing hijab for different reasons. Maybe some put it on when they were 13 and now they are 17 and don’t want to take it off, but find themselves wearing provocative clothing as part of a normal teenage exploration of identity and sexuality. Maybe the girl is forced to wear hijab based on the status quo, but the provocative clothing is a subconscious rebellion. Maybe it is weak deen and iman, which we all get, but she doesn’t want to give up the headscaf yet wants to appear sexy…maybe what she has on isn’t “sexy” in her opinion, it is just fashion…I mean, I have lived in a context where wearing colors and pants/jeans (since people can see the split in your legs) is considered provocative. Hahaha, I have a friend who used to wear an abaya until she lost some weight and now she has turned into a “muhajababe”…

    so it is as you say, there is not one box for this phenomenon. I know the orthodox will say “weak deen and iman, covered but naked” and the imperialists have won since fashion and hijab DO go together, especially Western fashion…we should all really be in abayas or jilbabs!

    A lot of us are so sexy that we still look hot in abayas, though :P

  • Alicia

    It gives me the chills to know that Stratton writes that two men, a tycoon and a ‘smooth-talking’ academic, are responsible for the muhajababe phenomenon. Y’know, I can understand the effects of global consumerist culture and pop culture on how young women dress around the world, but two men?.

    I won’t be reading this book anytime soon but I am interested in *how* these men “created” the muhajababes.

  • Tuesday

    I have this book on my to-read list — I’m glad to get another opinion before I crack it open.

  • layali

    “five women + six cities = stereotype”

    A good review of a seemingly bad book.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.safiyyahsblog.blogspot.com Safiyyah

    @luckyfatima – thanks for pointing all the diff reasons a women could choose to wear a headscarf with provocative clothing, its exactly as u say, u can’t box them into one broad package! As a muhajaba myself the reason I am not a fan is because I just don’t like how it looks, trying to mix “modesty” with “sexiness” is a fashion no-no for me, thats all, quite shallow of me, it’s not based on any self-righteous convictions…:)

    @alicia, apparently these men give women hope that they can be modern and religious at the same time…eye-roll! Al waleed produces the music clips mentioned above, and Amr Khaled says its ok to listen to music, as long as u veil…see where this is going?

  • http://abusinan-sayf.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    @Safiyyah,

    Why does the book point at bin Talal? I understand the Amr Khalid reference, getting women to wear the hijab who might not normally, but the bin Talal one gets me.

    The only thing I can think of is his massive stake in various music ventures in the Middle East. But even that is a bit of a stretch, as if the Arabic music and video scene wouldnt be a massive influence on the women of the area if he wasnt a part of it?

    Expect to see more of this type of stuff. Look at the USA after WW2, there was massive interest in German things. We tend to adopt, or at least become really interested in, cultures we are at conflict with.

  • http://buyhercandy.tumblr.com Kate

    “…the essential depth and substance required of any book are sadly lacking.”

    Agreed. I finished the book about a month ago, and frankly wished I hadn’t bothered to buy it. It’s a rambling tale that doesn’t really have much of a story to tell – there are few conclusions drawn, and Stratton appears to have spoken to only a handful of people on the ground, despite her aim of talking to any Middle Eastern youth she can. The title, too, is misleading, as you mentioned. There are only a few mentions of Stratton’s so-called muhajababes in the entire book. Which is a shame, as I think Stratton could have got so much more out of the topic.

  • Ayeshter

    Well, as a “Muhajababe” allow me to defend my self!

    I can see where Safiyya is coming from, yes, it dose look quite funny lol..I know my Scarf poses quite a contradiction with my skinny jeans, but you really have to keep in mind that firstly, expressing your faith takes alot of confidence which takes time to develop. Some girls and women just arn’t ready to kick it in the Jilbab yet. Some start to where it in time, others don’t. The way you express your faith is dependent on many factors really. This could be speaking out of the context in living in a mainly non-Muslim country, but I’m sure in some non practising families in Muslim countries, the situation is similar.

    Secondly, I just don’t think the Jilbab is really reflective of my personality and my relationship to my faith. I mean, for me, the Hijab is essential for my self expression as a practising Muslim (again, in a majority non Muslim country), but I’d feel that going any further would project a false piety. I’m not a super Muslim (yet..Inshallah) so I’d feel like a hypocrite dressing like one.

    I don’t know if this legitimises it, for I know alot of people could simply drop the “thats not really Hijab” or “thats how Muslim girls should dress regardless” bombs, but I just want to give you guys an idea of whats going through a Muhajababe when she chooses what to wear before school!

  • http://opinionateit.blogspot.com erica5aisha

    Sallam Sisters,

    I picked up Muhajababes on accident. Until I started reading it, I thought it said “muhajabies”. When I first head muhajababes, I believe it was under the name ho-jabies which really ticked me off. As in who can judge another woman’s piety because she’s wearing skinny jeans and a hijab? I liked that the author is non-Muslim and seems to not be judging hijabies, and the oh-so-stylish muhajababes.
    There was a lot of political clutter and tips-of-the-hat to globalization and specifically smutty Arab videos with suggestive lyrics and scantily clad women. I agree, it seems to likely be related pop-culture and sexy hijabis; however, the idea that Amr Diab influences women to wear hijab is not untrue.

    That said, not my favorite book and I enjoy your review.

  • Person

    Hmmm, I am beginning to feel that people in minority groups, especially women, are always going to be boxed into some category in an effort to erase indivuality and nuance of decision.

  • http://www.safiyyahsblog.blogspot.com Safiyyah

    @ayeshter – thanks for that contribution, I certainly agree with u, a women can and will decide to express her faith in the way she sees fit…but also, hijab does not reflect piety! Let me state again, I have no problem with “muhajababes”, it’s just not a look i like fashion wise! My problem is with the stereotyping of women under the banner of hijab!


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