MMW Highlights from 2012: Part 3

As 2012 draws to a close, we’ll be posting some highlights from this year’s posts.  We published way too much to be able to go back through all of it in detail (that’s what the archives are for!), but these highlight posts will include some posts that stood out from each of our writers over the past year.  See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

How Are Muslim Women Doing in Political Cartoons?” by Eren

“When it comes to Muslim women as represented in political cartoons catered to non-Muslim Western audiences, a few prevalent themes can be easily identified.  I tend to collect political cartoons of Muslim women, posted on Facebook and elsewhere online. The themes I mention in this post are pretty representative of many other cartoons out there, and the images included here are just a sample.  Muslim women seem to look the same, and usually wear hijabs, niqabs and/or abaayas (the blacker, the better!)  When it comes to the niqab in political cartoons, it tends to serve the purpose of deleting the women’s presence, voice and agency. This resonates with the idea that niqabi women are already oppressed, so why depict them with an agency that they do not have?

Another theme present in political cartoons is the prevalent attention to Muslim women’s bodies. While Western women (such as female politicians) tend to be hyper-sexualized through sexy clothing, over-done makeup, and high heels, Muslim women are hyper-sexualized through the cartoonists’ obsession with their “exotic” way of covering. This reflects the “covered vs. uncovered” dichotomy that is often discussed in the Western media where uncovering is equated with freedom and covering with oppression (see Sex and the City 2). It is also commonly expressed that Muslim women’s bodies are not their own, but someone else’s (like the state, their male relatives, secular and religious institutions, or the media).”

Zarifa Qazizadah: Afghan Supergran” by Lara

“All the above does sound super indeed, but hidden in the media coverage, a question arises: if Qazizadah lost the election in 2004, but was then elected two years later in 2006, this means she has been in post for six years, so why is it only now we are hearing about her achievements? A Google search brings up nothing prior to last week.  Why is this? It not as if she is unknown outside of her village, since she has won 18 awards from the Afghanistan Government.

A strong possibility is that with the imminent NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the media is trying to construct a positive narrative of the NATO invasion. Another recent BBC story, this time praising the Afghani Army, would also indicate that this narrative-building is occurring. Interestingly, in the original article, Qazizadah was not asked her opinion on either the NATO invasion or its upcoming withdrawal, which again seems a rather odd omission.

Not that this lessens the import of Qazizdah’s story, which is one of not just overcoming adversity, but also of using situations to her advantage. Earlier in life, her family relocated to the regional capital and it was there that she was able to begin community organising, first with a vaccine programme and then helping girls receive an education in secret, as by this time, the Taliban had seized power. She continues this community organising in her current role, as she head of the local women’s council and encourages them to be educated. Meanwhile she also has other aims, hoping to gain a seat in the national parliament.

So while Qazizdah definitely is super, it is possible that the timing for this story is for less than heroic reasons.”

Motherhood and Islam: The Revered, the Bad, and the Mystical” by Tasnim

“The problem I find is that often discussions about the representations of mothers in Islam get caught up in the familiar argument about whether this overwhelming reverence for the mother is potentially empowering or reductive essentialism. What about women who are not mothers? It’s a legitimate and important question. Another question that might be asked is what happens when this Islamic narrative of revered motherhood collides with the pervasive narrative of the Bad Mother?

A couple of months ago, I came across a story about a Muslim mother in Australia who had taken a photograph of her young child holding up a sign that said “Behead all those who insult the prophet.” The mother insisted that she did not know what the sign said, that she was “not a bad mother” as she had been labelled. There was a dissonance to this that went beyond the chasm between a recent immigrant, apologetic about her ignorance of English, and readers who saw this ignorance as a disingenuous performance to disguise her crime. At the root of the story was the trope of Muslim motherhood teaching children to hate, a “savage love” that is the ultimate unnatural perversion of the natural bond of love between mother and child. So ideologically, Muslim motherhood becomes the other of the cultural-religious symbolism of motherhood as love identified with Western discourse.”

 “Playing on Old Fears: Coverage of Iran’s Female Ninjas” by Diana

“While the Atlantic’s coverage was, for the most part, relatively sound and impartial, this statement hints at the notion that hijab and chador are indications of “subservience” and weakness. The shocked tone taken in the last sentence suggests that there is, in fact, some justly perceived incompatibility between autonomy and religious ideals. There is also an implied deception here: as if the government of Iran is quietly and systematically training militias of women and waiting for the right moment to expose and thrust these stealth fighters upon an unsuspecting “West”—a  very scaremongering-esque move by Max Fisher.

In addition to the obvious fatuous manner in which these articles are written, the commonplace rhetoric, political undertones, and exoticising descriptions make these articles seem like an exercise in demagogy. Choosing to cover this subject in this manner, during a time of heightened skepticism towards the Muslim world, and amidst discussions of nuclear advancement, makes it seem like a strategic attempt by media to play on the prejudices, fears, and emotions of a gullible public. Using Muslim women as political pawns in the muscle game between “East” and “West” has become an oldie but a goody—but, we are not that unsuspecting. Obviously, someone doesn’t “got the moves like Jagger.””

Malala Yousafzai: A Story of Education, Drones, and Foreign Policy” by Merium

 “Why are we surprised that the photogenic image (and story) of a young, Muslim victim of terrorism is being exploited by media outlets everywhere?  In addition to news stories that, more often than not, portrayPakistani women and girls as victims, it is not impossible to suggest that highlighting the Malala incident was, in part, important in view of the previous media scrutiny resulting from a damning report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which underscored how very “un-surgical” drone strikes actually were.  The attack on Malala thereby providing the requisite justification for its usage.  In the same vein, the media blitz surrounding Malala at home (it has since waned) may be construed by some as a move to improve Pakistan’s soft image abroad – as if to suggest “hey, we apologize for our overzealous response to the irresponsible use of the Prophet’s image, and guess what, we can rally behind a young woman.”

As a Pakistani, I’m not sure if our “Malala moment” is over yet, but perhaps we as a nation may require several “Malala moments” before its impact drives the message home: education is everything.  And not just a feeble 10 percent rise in literacy rates over several years but a fully educated and empowered populace, where men and women are able to contribute to nation building, side by side and where due process is guaranteed.  But first, let’s give Malala her due.  For once she is everyone’s hero, her bravery transcending both geography and religion.  Why mar her achievements with comparisons that undermine her effort as a self-possesed and empowered individual (in her own right)?  There is no doubt Malala’s bravery and determination is (and will continue to be) a source of inspiration for girls and women the world over, and this doesn’t have to take away from the number of other issues that also deserve attention.”

Jellyfish Fantasies: The Creature with the Black Niqab Fetish” by wood turtle

 “According to the artist this photograph is “extremely symbolic of Muslim women’s increasing prominence in the world, despite a continued mystery that surrounds their veil” — and is a part of his valiant effort to counteract negative portrayals of the niqab, saying that “[it] in no way hinders their progression or their amazing personalities.” While that’s true, nothing says progression and amazing personality more than sexy bedroom eyes shining through a veil.

You know, I probably wouldn’t have such a problem with this photograph if the motivations behind it weren’t so terribly sexist and misguided, and if the piece wasn’t framed as something truly evocative and, ugh, liberating. Especially when it’s literally the same old Arab/Muslim stereotype of the exotic, veiled beauty. Only this time instead of belly dancing or being oppressed, she’s a contestant in a strangely suggestive wet-burqa contest. Unfortunately, I have no doubt this image will join the hundreds already used by media to unimaginatively represent Muslim women going about their daily lives.

Thankfully there are many real examples of niqab-as-art being used provocatively – in edgyoriginal and critical ways — by artists who are actually working toward dispelling myths and stereotypes by highlighting the fact Muslim women are not a monolith to be essentialized.”


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