When I volunteered to write a review of the monthly magazine Sisters for MMW last month, I had no idea how challenging it would be for me. Weeks passed with the PDF copies that Sisters had kindly sent waiting in my inbox, until my deadline finally prompted me to give them more than a skim-read. Sisters was founded by Naima B. Robert, whose book Boy vs. Girl was reviewed on MMW in 2011.
I’ve broken up my review in 3 parts, looking mostly at the September 2012 issue (and glancingly at the February 2012 issue) and focus on the following 3 aspects of the magazine: surface appearance, an analysis of some of the articles, and my overall thoughts about the magazine.
On the surface
The magazine itself is beautiful—the layout makes use of gorgeous, prominent photography. Articles aren’t super-lengthy (many are confined to a single page) and fall distinctly under several identified categories: Inspiration (religious-oriented), Self, Family, World, Looks, and Taste. The Self and Family sections have the highest number of articles, followed by World, Looks, and Taste, then Inspiration. At first glance, I wasn’t sure what about these categories was particularly “religious” or Muslimah-oriented. Aren’t these aspects of life many readers—regardless of faith— eagerly look forward to when they pick up their magazines?
Interspersed throughout are quotes from the Quran and hadith placed against nature-related photographs. The “About Us” page describes the magazine’s aim: “We are all committed to filling our magazine with uplifting, inspiring and enlightening material to help you become the best Muslimah you can be, from the inside out.”
There aren’t many advertisements in the magazine, and those that are in the magazine (primarily of Islamic charities and “Islamic”-related clothing) are placed unobtrusively towards the beginning and end of the publication. The individual price of a magazine is $9.95 in the US and a yearly subscription is $60.28 (their website converts prices to Euros and Pounds as well). Compared to, say, a copy or subscription to Cosmopolitan, the prices seem high. But when considering it alongside other niche literary magazines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Many of the articles make some connection back to faith, in ways I both agreed and disagreed with. The September issue had articles on depression, sexual abuse, divorce, stay-at-home-dads, domestic violence, Muslim artists, a book review for South Asian Culture and Islam and many more. If anything, I found the number of articles to be too many—I wanted some to be more in-depth, and found others to be rather superfluous. Again, though, I think that’s a challenge when reading any magazine, not a problem unique to Sisters.
Many of the articles had interesting themes on the surface, but as I read deeper, I was disappointed by many of the points made in the articles that were attributed to faith. In the article on depression, “Journey Through a Black Mind,” “causative factors” were associated with matters entirely associated with a religious reason (some examples: “grief upon not following guidance,” “Grief relating to religious activities”). The kicker though, came at the end, when depression was described “as any other test… a ‘blessing in disguise.’”
Mental illness, including depression, is often deeply misunderstood and stigmatized in society at large (yes, including the Muslim community as well, as I recall from some insensitive khutbahs), with the afflicted individual often blamed for their dejected mood. Explaining away depression as a result of a break in faith, a “blessing in disguise,” does little to promote healing and show compassion and empathy towards someone who suffers from the illness. The article doesn’t note the many treatment options available, from counseling to medication to seeking social support or exercising. The sole focus on (mis)understanding the causes of depression, attributing everything to religious shortcomings, was an incredible squandered opportunity.
Another article, which also appeared progressive on the surface, looking at stay-at-home dads, offered much reasonable advice before coming to the end of the article. The author concludes her advice to women who are the primary breadwinners with the following: “No matter how hard your day was, be the attractive, gentle, compassionate lady your husband married.” Don’t be the bright woman committed to building a better society—be concerned about how you look when you come home!
Earlier in the article, the author describes her understanding of a wife’s role and responsibility:
“if a woman were to pick up an Islamic book on marriage, listen to an Islamic lecture about the roles of spouses, or seek the advice of a local imam for her marital struggles, she is not left guessing: her primary responsibility lies in pleasing and serving her husband – period.”
Perhaps, as I’m still single, I don’t understand this concept (I have my doubts, though, about this).
Overall and Concluding Thoughts
I came to write for MMW a few years ago because I was committed to participating in a site committed to increasing our visibility as Muslim women. We promote and respect the right for Muslim women to speak their truth, even if it doesn’t agree with our own personal values or views.
Sisters was a challenge for me to read—I strongly disagreed with some of the editorial decisions and the opinions of the writers outlined above, while I enjoyed reading some articles and admired the photography. Would I choose to pickup a copy of Sisters for myself to read or encourage others to pick up a copy? Perhaps not. Personally, I believe that telling our stories across a wide array of different media, looking at a plethora of different subjects, in a way that promotes different viewpoints (even among Muslims!) will have a far more profound effect for everyone. Ultimately, this is what I seek in my own personal reading, as opposed to strictly defined media for Muslim women. But if there are other women who enjoy Sisters and find it brings them closer to their faith, who, at the end of the day, am I to judge their decision to do so?