(Attempting to) Go Beyond the Stereotypes

The headline of a recent series about Muslim women of the community in the Utica Observer-Dispatch reads, “Behind the veil: Stereotypes can be frustrating for Muslim women.”  Major groan.  You know what else can be frustrating for Muslim women?  Headlines like “Behind the veil.”

But for the most part, this article, and its related stories of four Muslim women, reflects some degree of openness and honest curiosity to know more about Muslim women on their own terms, not simply to regurgitate stereotypes.  It doesn’t always succeed; the reporter quotes one person as saying that “the vast majority of Muslims are just like you and I,” implying that “you and I” are not Muslim.  The word “but” in between “doesn’t wear hijab” and “identifies as Muslim” is also annoying.  That said, the reporter seems to actually care about Muslim women’s experiences, saying about the women she interviewed that:

Inaccurate information and an overall lack of knowledge about Muslim women and their lives can be frustrating for those who practice Islam, these local women said.

Local Muslims have been mostly insulated from discrimination, they say, but knowing their faith has been linked to terrorism and oppression, particularly of women, overshadows Islam’s primary teachings of love and peace, the women said.

Kendel Lopez.  Image via Utica Observer-Dispatch
Kendel Lopez. Image via Utica Observer-Dispatch

The women interviewed are described individually in articles linked to the main one.  The article on Kendel Lopez (warning: this link includes graphic descriptions of abuse) looks at the violence she experienced in her first marriage, and the gentleness of her current Muslim husband; Lopez also discusses the sense of protection she feels while wearing hijab.

An article about Adaleta Mujkic tells of her family’s experience coming to the United States from Bosnia when Mujkic was very young, and the differences of being Muslim in both countries.  A third article looks at the disagreements between Maysoon Otaibi and her 14-year-old daughter on issues of hijab, speaking Arabic, and the daily prayers.  The last article describes Nadia Mohamed’s efforts to raise her three sons as good Muslims who will respect women.

Adaleta Mujkic.  Image via Utica Observer-Dispatch
Adaleta Mujkic. Image via Utica Observer-Dispatch

Of course, three out of the four headlines are still veil-related (if we include that the disagreements referred to in the headline of Otaibi’s article are discussed with particular emphasis on the hijab), which makes me wonder whether we’ve really gone “behind the veil” at all.  Even so, the headscarf is discussed with much more complexity than is often the case.  In Lopez’s experience, the hijab represents a feeling of protection.  Mujkic talks about being judged if you wear hijab publicly in the United States, but she also talks about wearing it in certain contexts (like at the mosque), and suggests that she would wear it if she was in Bosnia.  Her mother, on the other hand, wears hijab and explains that the greater number of Muslims in her community (compared to how it used to be), makes it “more comfortable.”  In Otaibi’s case, Otaibi understands the hijab to be a requirement and part of being a “good Muslim,” while her 14-year-old daughter sees it as unnecessary.  Although hijab seems to be a strong source of tension and frustration for both mother and daughter, it is still described in the context of being a family disagreement where mother and daughter “can disagree,” and an issue that the daughter is actively resisting, rather than a situation of scary Muslims forcing their daughters to wear headscarves.

The women depicted in these stories reflect a wide range of experiences and backgrounds: they look different, come from different countries, and disagree with each other.  They are active in their communities and professions, and this is depicted as normal and unsurprising, not one of those nauseating stories where active Muslim women are seen as unusual or exceptional (reinforcing the norm of the passive, oppressed Muslim woman).

Refreshingly, it is actually the stereotypes themselves that are depicted as problematic and worthy of attention and critical thought, instead of the women themselves being seen as noteworthy because they defy the stereotypes.  So, while it would have been nice if the writer truly had gotten further past “the veil” while writing about these women, and while it would be really nice if these “Muslim women are normal” stories didn’t need to be news at all, there’s still something to appreciate in a set of articles that calls out the frustrating stereotypes and acknowledges the diversity of Muslim women’s lives.

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