G. Willow Wilson: On Women, the Media, and Islam

Editor’s Note: Readers, since this has been a busy week of travel for me, I haven’t been able to put together a regular Friday links. But we’ve got a treat for you! Enjoy Raaz’s interview with G. Willow Wilson!

In The Butterfly Mosque, G. Willow Wilson presents her own personal experience of her conversion to Islam and evolving understanding of womanhood, relationships, media, and culture.  I had a chance to review her memoir and interview her.  Here are my five questions with author G. Willow Wilson:

Raaz for MMW: There are relatively few contemporary novels or memoirs that provide an even-handed insight to the intricate facets of Islam.  I can’t think of any other books that offer an American Muslim woman’s perspective towards life in a cross-cultural context.  What inspired you to write your memoir?

G. Willow Wilson: Butterfly Mosque came out of the emails I wrote to family and friends back home after moving to Egypt. Several people suggested I turn them into a book. So the memoir really started out as more of a travelogue, but grew and refined as I thought about it and edited it. The final product is much more emotional and spiritual than my original draft–much more a Muslim coming-of-age story than a travelogue.

MMW: In your memoir, you attribute the lack of female leadership in Islamic hierarchy to westernization during a conversation with Sufi Sheikha Sanaa Dewidaar.  As there are increased opportunities for social interaction between men and women, “westernized” societies resort to Sheikhs to address concerns from both men and women, while fewer individuals seek guidance from Sheikhas.  Do you think that westernization of societies has also inhibited the voices of Muslim women (or even of women regardless of religion) to be heard in other spheres, such as the media?

GWW: It’s difficult to say. I think Sheikha Sanaa’s point was that you can’t just upend the norms that have existed in a society for hundreds of years and expect things to sort of magically get better. In the realm of religious education in Egypt, all desegregation has done is give men access to the jobs traditionally held by women, so according to Sheikha Sanaa the role of women in religious scholarship and leadership has actually deteriorated. On the other hand, women’s access to secular education and the job market has radically improved. So it’s a mixed bag.

MMW: On women’s defense of culture, you state: “When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded” (210).  While I agree with this statement, what happens when women want to change tenets of their culture instead of defending it?  When defending culture, isn’t there a propensity to point out strengths while overlooking flaws (while those who wonder why women defend their culture tend to see flaws while overlooking strengths)?  Is it possible to defend culture, or is it something that should remain free from defense?

GWW: These are very complex questions and I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer them with any kind of authority…at the end of the day, Arab women will decide what is best for Arab women. When I am in Egypt, I am along for the ride–I am a privileged outsider, but an outsider nonetheless. I think women who undertake any kind of cultural reform are disproportionately punished by their peer groups…look how many early feminist thinkers, both in the West and in the Arab world, committed suicide. Virginia Woolf, May Ziadeh, several other notables. Men seem to take far less heat for being unconventional, all over the world.

MMW: On a healthy romantic relationship in Islam: While reading the book, I particularly enjoyed your nuanced portrayal of a healthy, romantic relationship with Omar that included difficulties that any couple in a cross-cultural relationship might encounter—it seems too often that the media and public identify unhealthy relationships as the norm between Muslim men and women, where relationships are devoid of any romantic emotions, women face abuse from their significant others, or women are forced to accept arranged marriages (I look at Muslim relationships in some of my previous posts on the film Arranged and memoir Children of Dust).  How do you explain the connection between the (usually negative) perceptions towards romantic relationships in Islam and, subsequently, how the media perceives the religion itself?

GWW: One of the big differences between western and traditional Islamic social mores is the attitude toward gender interaction. It’s developed into an unhealthy fascination with the way “the other side” lives, and the result is a huge media emphasis on ugly relationships between Muslims. Abuse within Muslim marriages has become a form of pornography in the West. I think the media knows what its audience wants and gives it to them.

MMW: On the inaccurate portrayal of Muslim life in the media and public discussion: In the book, you state:

Yet there was so much about Islam and the people who lived it that was left unsaid in the media and in public discussion, and I could do something about it.  Staying silent when I saw news stories that were incomplete or religious issues that were poorly analyzed felt tantamount to lying.  Beyond that, I had to relearn how to talk to my own people. (227-228)

What advice would you give to Muslim women who want to break their silence on religious inaccuracies and further the dialogue about what it means to be Muslim?  How can we “relearn how to talk to our own people”?

GWW: I think every Muslim woman has to feel the world out for herself. This conflict is ultimately personal. I wish I had brilliant advice to give, but the fact is I take things one day at a time, one story at a time. We are not living in ordinary times–and that’s assuming there even is such a time as ordinary times. If you love things or ideas or people that contradict each other, you have to be prepared to fight for every square inch of intellectual real estate you occupy. The hardest thing in the world, I think, is to have to defend good people from one another, and if you’re a Muslim woman in the public eye you have to do a lot of that. It hurts, but God always feels very, very close.

Author G. Willow Wilson’s memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, is available now.

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