Are “Latina” Muslim Women the New Face of Islam?

What do you think when you hear the word Latin? Or Latina, to be more exact? Spicy? Or perhaps “loud,” “flamboyant” and “sexy”? Maybe the word just inspires images of women like Salma Hayek and J-Lo. Many of us are, sadly, very familiar with the image of what “Latinas” are supposed to look like. Just think of bombshell Gloria from Modern Family, hyper-sexual Gabrielle Solis from Desperate Housewives or Michelle Rodríguez, the sexy tomboy, from Fast and Furious.

Sofia Vergara vs Eva Longoria – via

As a Latin American woman, these stereotypes have always bothered me, especially because, in some cases, the stereotypes surrounding “Latinas” are often perpetrated by some high-profile Latin Americans themselves who tend to abide by the sexualized stereotypes even outside their TV or movie characters.

Personally, I prefer the term Latin American to “Latina” which I see as a Western creation that conjures up these stereotypes.

Several things bother me about how Latin American women are portrayed in the media. It is not only that most of us look nothing like the women mentioned above, but also that I hate labels. I do not see myself as a bombshell, let alone as a hyper-sexual woman looking to please Western men. I do not see my self in the “Latina” image, which I see as a creation of the patriarchal Western imagination. Instead, I like to think of myself as a plain and simple Latin American woman… no one’s fantasy or stereotype.

This image of the hyper-sexual “available” woman can be parallel to the way Muslim women were represented in Orientalist depictions of the odalisque. Nowadays of course, this has changed. While both Muslim women and Latin American women are seen as coming from communities with close family ties, cultural religiousness, and with an attachment to the traditional gender roles of women as mothers and wives, their images are very different.

Henri Matisse’s Odalisque – via It’s About Time

Today, a common depiction is that of the niqabi, all covered in black, who represents a mystique that is not present in the Latina imagery. Apparently, Latinas have a lot to show and are happy to do so. They leave nothing to the imagination as opposed to Muslim women that “make” Western men work for it.

MMW has discussed, in several instances, the continuous attempts to portray Muslim women as mysterious figures underneath black robes and sheer face veils. One example that comes to mind is woodturtle’s piece on Sebastian Farmborough’s work depicting niqabis emerging from the water. I cannot help but thinking that if his work showed Latin women, they would be wearing skimpy bikinis and showing a lot of skin. Apparently it is either one or the other… either we show everything or we cover everything up!

Now, keeping that in mind, what happens when Latin women (sexy, voluptuous Latin women) become the new face of Islam?

Although Islam is not new to Latin America or immigrant communities in the West, in the past few months Latin American women have been depicted as the “ambassadors” of Islam.

The articles talking about them do not only describe their conversion to Islam, but also their important role in spreading Islam in their native countries. This task is always arduous as Catholicism is shown as a predating force over minority religions in Latin America. Latin American women’s conversion stories in the media are often dramatic… full of broken pasts, family rejection and religious epiphanies.

And always, beyond the spiritual side of the women’s conversion, there is the hijab… with many articles invariably trying to show that Islam, as expressed by clothing, has provided these women with a self-worth and appreciation that they cannot expect from their communities.

Muslim Marriage in Mexico- via Trade Arabia.

Wendy Diaz, the author of one of the articles, paraphrases Wilfredo Ruiz’s (a convert to Islam and an imam) comments:

“Latina immigrants, [...], often feel exploited in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, [...] offers a sensible alternative.”

Whether hijab actually gives Latin American Muslim women a “better” status is up for discussion as patriarchal practices remain in any culture. And while much of the coverage on Latin American Muslim women only shows those who wear hijab, some Latin Muslim converts find that not wearing hijab eases the connection to their Latin American background and avoids tension with non-Muslim family and friends. Similarly, some women feel that hijab is an Arab import. In the Daily Star, Khadija, a Mexican convert explains:

“I kept my culture; [...] I did not adopt any dress from the Middle East.”

Many of the articles describe Muslim Latin American communities as “unique” and different. But becoming the “new face of Islam” doesn’t mean that these Latin women escape the usual pigeon-holes. Instead, a big question mark seems to hover over them.

So what is it going to be? A bombshell in hijab? A spicy niqabi? Or a mysterious Latina?

Being a Latin American convert I find myself lacking options… And I wonder is this what I signed up for? A hijab, a Muslim name, a sexy figure and the responsibility of representing a “unique” Islam?

  • Amna

    Wouldn’t you say you signed up for a religious framework with an emphasis on social justice through which to practice your faith in God?
    Just because these stereotypes exist, does not mean you must work within them.

    • Maria

      I love your comment. LOVED it.

  • Eren Cervantes

    Thanks for your comment Amna! Right, many of us do that. But media depictions do not help. The same way depictions of Muslim women as oppressed and silent affect the way they are perceived and treated in a variety of context, these stereotypes do too. In addition, these depictions exclude those that do not fit the stereotype… I find it quite disturbing that these are the options presented to female Latin American converts. Beyond our religious beliefs, identity is important. Thus, I am hoping for more options being presented or for Muslim Latin American women to have to struggle in between the “whore” and the “saint” discourse.

  • Nasreen Amina

    Eren I am bit surprised about your article. Groups of Latin american muslim women organizing and promoting women rights and making effort to beat Patriarchy both in or root culture as well in our Faith communities are well known these days.

    • Eren Cervantes

      Nesreen Amina… no where in this article I have said that Latin American muslim women are not fighting patriarchy. This article is strictly in relation to the media articles published in recent weeks about them. In this articles Muslim Latin American women are presented as orthodox figures more concentrated in hijabs than in gender equality OR as finding in hijab the respect that doesn’t come from their communities.
      I feel that’s a strong assumption.
      You probably know that hijab may not do anything for gender equality and it doesn’t necessarily define one’s faith. Thus, it is either the Latin bombshell or the one in hijab? Are those the options? are those even the relevant issues?

      I hope I clarified my points.

      • Nasreen Amina

        Eren, please I don’t want you take this like I am saying your statements are wrong because is true what you describe on stereotypes, even when the assumption that the hiyab make the muslim woman is general towards all muslim women not only latina american. My surprise come from this “Being a Latin American convert I find myself lacking options… And I wonder is this what I signed up for?” Lacking options? I personally don’t feel I am trapped in hiyab or bombshell and I know many women Latin American who don’t feel like that too. I think there are not lacking options when we recognize the voice of every woman to explain herself. And I think this last point is missing here.

  • Nasreen Amina

    Is curious to me also that Muslimah Media Watch put attention in this way to Latin Muslim women considering there’s no Latin american muslim women, living in a latin american country as part of the contributors and writer so, still we are “those objects far far away” to build assumptions and develop discourses on, but never allowed to speak up for themselves about their own and particular experiences with Islam and the construction of the media and the mainstream social discourse in societies that know nothing about or religion but what’s imported from imperialist ideologies.

    • Eren Cervantes

      I do not consider my self “far-far away” I was not born in the West and I transit between my place of residence and my country of birth. Similarly, local papers in most latin american countries rarely even talk about Muslim communities in Latin America. A lot of the coverage comes from the West in regards to new immigrants to the U.S., Canada or Europe where I feel the stereotypes regarding “Latin” women are more prevalent.

      • Nasreen Amina

        Exactly, stereotypes are always prevalent because Patriarchy is prevalent. And they will be as long we stay stuck in reproducing those stereotypes like the only posibilites available for women. My sensation in general about discourse on exclusion of muslim women or any other vision out of the mainstream, is it doesn’t encourage the searching for another options. They present stereotypes like the only thing a woman can expect to be said about her from the society and in this attempt to describe a situation, the voices of those women and their agency to elaborate a discourse of identity by themselves are missing. I know my point is clear.

  • Amna

    I really like your article and maybe I’m missing your point, because I find it a little disturbing that your agency in choosing or forming your identity is based off preset stereotypes. Where you say you find yourself lacking options- why not yourself formulate your identity as a Latina Muslimah? As a convert myself, I feel that lots of converts undertake a huge identity shift, to fit the prevalent cultural group they are around (e.g. Pakistani/ Arab) or else just to be a ‘Convert’. I think this is misleading because Islam is for all people and all identities, and your identity does not have to change, but also because it creates what I see as unnecessary struggles within the person who may later struggle with their newly adopted identity and confuse this with being a Muslim, when being a Muslim is, as I said above, simply operating within the religious framework of Islam as a reflection of faith in God. Just my thoughts, anyway :)

    • Amna

      Sorry, Latin American Muslimah*

      • Eren Cervantes

        Thanks Amna, I think it is a process for all converts. Sometimes we find ourselves in between multiple identities, which sometimes happens to me.
        Now, you are completely right when you say some converts undertake a huge identity shift. That’s exactly what I have been fighting. Now in addition to that, I do not live in my country of origin right now. Thus, I live in between the stereotypes and then struggle with my identity as a Latin American Muslim. This piece is a call to stop pulling women one side or the other… not because I am Latin American I am a bombshell, and not because I am a convert I feel “safer” with a hijab or my life is better with it. Similarly, I am not the “new” face of any religion. My relationship with Allah in my own and it is independent of stereotypes and clothing choices. Thus, I feel media coverage is not only inaccurate but also misleading in that sense.

  • Wendy Diaz

    As salaamu alaikum (Que la paz esté contigo/Peace be with you),
    I find your article interesting and since you have used both my name and my work as a reference, I believe it is appropriate to leave a comment to clarify any misconceptions. I am a convert to Islam, as well, and I welcome any challenges and blessings that have come with it. I love the fact that I have left behind the negative attention and stereotypes about my background by embracing the faith that welcomes people from all races and all walks of life. My differences only make my contributions all the more significant. As the women in my article have taken their talents and backgrounds and used them to shine within their communities, taking them from beyond being simply Latina Muslims to being proactive Muslims, so should we. If we have been guided to this way of life, then we should embrace it and focus on being the best that we know we can be and forget what anyone thinks or says about who we are. It is not a matter of proving ourselves to anyone, ultimately what is important is our relationship with our Creator and what we have done to please Him.
    This is not a club or a fraternity where we “sign up” and then expect something out of it, what you receive is what you, yourself, choose to make of it.
    Peace and blessings be with you.

  • Eren Cervantes

    Thank you for all your comments! Nasreen Amina just to speak to your point, most of the articles speaking about Latin American converts to Islam can be found in Western sources. In addition, despite the fact that I currently do not live in Latin America, I have lives most of my life in there and have strong ties to Muslim communities in my city of origin.

    As far as the identity thing, I think it is important for me to clarify that it is not about me forming out an identity out of stereotypes. However, I do feel that media depictions curve the way we experience our identity.

    I feel proud to be a Latin American convert and sometimes struggle to reconcile certain aspects of my identity, my culture and my religious beliefs as I think most converts do. IN that sense I find it interesting that in a lot of the coverage the issue of hijab (or lack of it) is mentioned as a strong part of the identity of Latin American women. Why not look at other things? Is it only that hardship, immigration and stereotypes push us to Islam? Or is it rather the heritage of community, struggle and liberation that many of us carry along as Latin Americans?

    Similarly, I feel that pre-existing stereotypes regarding “Latin” women will impact how Latin American Muslim women will be seen as the media presents them as the “new” face of Islam.

    At the end of the day, I think most of us try to follow what we consider the best path for us. And that path should be respected despite stereotypes, use of hijab, etc.

    Thank you for your comments!

    • Nasreen Amina

      That’s a good point my dear Eren. What is important is women feel entitled to choose their own path and if this is not available, to create it.

  • Nasreen Amina

    Salam. Would like to know Wendy where in Latin America are you developing Dawa and in relation to this approach to women and stereotypes issues What’s yours regarding women in Islam?

  • Sebastian Farmborough

    Hi Eren,

    I would just like to say that I do not photograph stereotypes. The image you mention was based on an actual experience. Yes, Saudi women do swim like that and yes they do wear make up. It shocked and intrigued me and I knew it would shock and intrigue people around the world.

    For me, there is little sense in photographing a Latin woman in a bikini. it has been done so many times before. I now live in Chile, so I have plenty of opportunity to do that, but I am an artist, an image like that just does not motivate me. My search is always for something new, something different.

    The problem muslims face is that Islam and culture are so intertwined in each and every country, there are so many interpretations. It really makes me wonder, who is actually on the right path?

    • Nasreen Amina

      Sebastian I am glad to know you’re currently in chile, how long you will stay? I live in Chile too and I would like to have an exchange regarding your photography work.

      • Sebastian Farmborough

        Hi Nasreen, I´m not sure really. I´m thinking about leaving to be honest. I´ve had such a hard time with the people. I find them so cold and rude. Sure, if you speak English to them, they treat you like a god, but I enjoy speaking Spanish. It´s dissapointing, because I once lived in Spain and that was a wonderful experience.

        Where are you from? Your name doesn´t exactly sound Chilean haha.

  • Nafisah

    It was very difficult to read this article with the wrong use of quotation marks.

  • Aqeedah

    Interesting article but I wonder what’s up with the hicab=arab association. Hicab is a fard(obligation) as stated ın Quran, people shouldn’t think it is a middle-eastern dress-code or something. It is not “culture”, it is a simple test of modesty for both men and women who wants to be “in” Islam

    • Nasreen Amina

      For fard I think you mean modesty as an ethics as well as behaviour related to a given context and not precisely clothing because that silly link fabric=ethics is what dammage the possiblities of muslim women both in muslims and non muslim societies

  • chris

    Very interesting article. I can relate to the quest for finding one’s way, being puzzled with what to keep from one’s culture of origin, where to adapt, what choices to make and that all in a framework where clearly we are not free as birds, but constrained by what society and societies confer upon us (media, especially). More power to those who feel they can build their identity themselves, but how others perceive and treat you will inevitably be shaped by what discourses are dominant. On all sides, in a “born Muslim” context, and there differences will be between Arabs and other ethnicities, in a Western context etc.

    I have always read articles on Muslim Latin American converts with interest because they seemed to focus so much on a willingful departure from hypersexualization. And for those I have read, Hijab seemed to be taken for granted indeed, probably because of the strong focus of those presentations on how Islam would allow women to dive out of the “exotic curvaceous beauty with long dark locks” corner.

  • Aqeedah

    No, by fard I mean “fiqh related final decision based on Quran ayats and Hadith. Loose clothing that shows hands and face only…Everyone can interpret Quran ayats related with the issue differently based on their own ego or perception, still the hadith about this matter is simple and very clear…No fiqh scholar is forming a link between modesty and fabric or ethics…

  • Améstie N Abercrombie

    Assalam ‘alaikum Eren, I liked your article. I’m mexican, and I just wanted to point out that latina means a female Latin American inhabitant of the United States. The origin of the word is spanish/ spanish american, so saying Latin American, is just like saying latina. I don’t think hijab is an arab import, I understand some women may feel that way, but many women, muslim and non-muslim, wear hijab. For example catholic nuns, indian women, jewish, and amish women wear hijab or something similar to it, it is modest and it does make you think about what you do and what you wear, it’s kind of the point. It’s like wearing a hijab and leggings doesn’t make sense, you can see her hair but you can see her legs. If it makes some women feel they don’t have to reveal their bodies to be heard then that’s fine. I am a very cultured women, and I have kept my culture and still being a muslim women who wears niqab. No you can’t see my face so it is mysterious, but it is an act of faith towards Allah swt. Spreading Islam is a part of the five pillars of Islam, and when most people convert it can be dramatic. I understand the portrayal of spanish women, I understand that this is what this article is solely about, but the portrayal of all women being stereotyped I think would have been a good topic. Blond women have the title of “dumb blondes”, women with red hair are “wild”, black women are “too independent” “ghetto” or “baby mommas”, white and asian women are submissive, so it is not just one race of women but a lot of women are stereotyped. I personally think women are women, we go through a lot of the same problems, and its not just latinas. Anyways it was a good read a lot of interesting information, jazak allahu khairan! Fi Aman Allah. Peace and blessings.