“Hijabi Experiments”: Are They Enough to Change America’s Perception on Hijab?

Every time we think this discussion about hijab and burqas has ended, the internet surprises us with new horizons on the issue. I was checking my Facebook the other day, and a video caught my attention because of its title. It was called “Hijabi Experiments.” I am not a big fan of watching such videos, but this particular one, originally posted in December 2013, had about three million views, so I thought there must be something different with it.

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I have to say: I was disappointed. The video itself was poorly made, and its message was not very clear. According to the video’s creator, “the intent (of this experiment) was to educate (people) about why women wear hijab. The goal was to not only erase the ignorance towards ‘hijabophobia’ but also to raise awareness as to why it’s so important to intervene in these types of scenarios.”

The producer also stresses on the fact that “women in hijab can defend themselves, but it doesn’t hurt to know that her brothers and sisters in this country and other countries are by her side.” [Read more...]

The First Saudi Woman to become Editor-in-Chief: New Achievements and Challenges

On February 16, 2014, Khaled Almaeena announced his resignation as head of the editorial team of the Saudi Gazette, and appointed Somayya Jabarti as the first woman editor-in-chief in the history of the Saudi press.  In a tweet, Almaeena said: “For 25 years, I have been looking for the best journalistic skills and qualifications, and today, my dream comes true in appointing a qualified woman to head the editorial team of a Saudi newspaper.”

Somayya Jabarti. [Source].

For those who don’t know Jabarti, she started her career as a journalist in 2003 at Arab News, and in 2011, she became its deputy editor-in-chief, before she joined the Saudi Gazette a year later, according to an articlepublished by CNN last week.

The appointment has been hailed by many as a landmark development in Saudi women’s engagement with the media industry. In an interview with CNN, Journalist Essam Al Ghalib said: “This is a totally new step for Saudi Arabia. She is very qualified, and it’s about time. But how will people react, we’ll have to wait and see.”

In an article published in the Saudi Al Madina newspaper, Aisha Abbas Natto, a trade consultant in Jeddah, and a columnist for a number of Saudi newspapers, said:

“News about appointing Somayya Jabarti as the first Saudi editor-n-chief pleased me. I believe our country has started to witness success stories by Saudi women. There is always room for faith, which makes us believe more in our women, and proves to those who doubt women’s abilities that they are wrong.”

For other people, however, appointing women in such leading media positions may be no more than a symbolic attempt to show off Saudi determination to empower women in all walks of life, including media. In a tweet on February 16, 2014, Saudi journalist Kamal Abdul Qader wrote: “One year has passed since women were appointed in Al Shura Council, and what changed? It is either a symbolic step, or a proof that women failed to do anything.”

But I see this development from another perspective. In a country like Saudi Arabia, dramatic social change could not be expected to happen overnight. In a nation defined by what some perceive as a conservative religious brand of Islam and by official bans on women driving cars, there is much significance in the appointment of Jabarti in such a leading media position. Social transitions in Saudi Arabia have been taking place in the past two decades through state-sponsored education and other social initiatives. Those changes have always been explained as gradual and evolutionary to avoid any possible traumatic consequences in a society ruled by complex tribal and religious norms and traditions.

In this context, even symbolic change is good. It is important for the Saudi younger generations to grow up seeing women as politicians, journalists, film makers, pilots, and social workers. Growing up in such an atmosphere makes change more acceptable and tolerable. The appointment of women in this kind of leadership position is likely to put a brighter spotlight on women’s issues and pave the way for greater social accommodation of women as central players in national development. [Read more...]

Book Review: “Reclaim Your Heart” by Yasmin Mogahed

A number of initiatives have been launched in the last few years to engage Muslim women in public discussions of issues related to Islam in general. In her post “Reviving the Spirit Without Recognizing Half The Audience?“, Sumaya, a guest contributor to MMW, suggested a list of women who should be invited on such events. One of them is Yasmin Mogahed (who has since spoken at the same conference that Sumaya covered), an internationally-renowned writer and speaker who launched her book, Reclaim Your Heart, in 2012.

The cover of Yasmin Mogahed’s Reclaim Your Heart. [Source].

In her book, Mogahed shares her thoughts on liberating the soul from all materialistic attachments, and on how to enable greater connection with God, as He is the only source of strength and inspiration for us as human beings. She talks about human relationships, love, dreams and life challenges, relationship with God, women’s status, and the state of the Muslim world at large.

Using examples from the Quran and Hadith, Mogahed presents the spiritual journey people go through, with all its success and downturns, in order to reach their goals. Mogahed says that people usually attach themselves to materialistic objects in their lives, forgetting about God, and the life hereafter. She suggests mainly that we, as human beings, should “free our hearts from this slavery.” This book will teach readers how to live in this life without allowing life to own them. In this sense, the book looks like a primer on how to protect their most prized possession – the heart.

Towards the end of the book, Mogahed discusses in details the status of women in Islam. She talks about empowerment of women, arguing that mainstream Western feminists erased God from the scene. The result, according to Mogahed, is that they were left with no other standard, except for men. She writes:

“What (women) did not recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not in their sameness. When we accept men as the standard, suddenly anything uniquely feminine becomes by definition inferior.”

In her book, Mogahed clearly stands against the concept of feminism. She says “Western feminism erases God from the scene, and in that case, there is no standard left, except men.” She suggests that instead of following the ideas presented by feminism, which according to her, consider men the standard, a woman should discover her distinctiveness given to her by God. In Mogahed’s argument, a woman should be looking for privileges given to her and not to men.

The problem I have with Mogahed’s point of view about feminism is that it is looked at from a narrow angle. [Read more...]

Honor Diaries: A Real Conversation on Women’s Rights or a Scratch on the Surface?

In April 2011, Faleh Hassan Almaleki, an Iraqi immigrant to the United States, was sentenced to 34.5 years in prison for killing his 20 year-old daughter for becoming “too westernized.” The case was deemed an “honor killing” because the daughter, according to the dad, dishonored the whole family.

This story is one of many presented by the film Honor Diaries, a recently launched film project directed by Micah Smith, and produced by Paula Kweskin, Heidi Basch-Harod and Alex Traiman. The film highlights the discussion on honor in “Muslim-majority societies” through a dialogue that takes place among nine female activists, who come from different backgrounds. The nine women talk about different issues that get linked to ideas of “honor,” including gender apartheid, forced marriages, honor killings, and female genital mutilation. The inclusion of real-life examples, in addition to facts and statistics by international organizations, has been instrumental in supporting claims about issues related to honor in Muslim societies.

The first concern I had with this film how it positions its main topic: honor in “Muslim-majority communities.” The film does not specify the components of these communities, and it also involves Muslims from communities that are not Muslim-majority, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. There were some examples brought up from those two countries, although these examples involve people who came from Muslim-majority countries, such as Iraq and Iran. So, the problem here is, are we talking about honor in Muslim communities? Or honor of those people coming from Muslim communities? In addition to that, it is really unfair to summarize all Muslim communities in three words. If the project intends to talk about Muslim communities, then I think it is important to talk about all of those communities worldwide. For example, North African countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria were never touched by the conversation in the film. Countries in East Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, were also left out, as were examples from African countries such as Niger and Senegal, as well as communities in Eastern Europe such as Kosovo.  In other words, the film touches only on specific “Muslim-majority societies,” and it isn’t clear how widely its arguments apply. Communities are not just characterized by being “Muslim” or “non-Muslim”. There are so many other factors that shape the way a community treats its members, regardless of gender; these include culture, education, economic development, and many others. [Read more...]

“I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This”: A Documentary Exploring Hijab as a Choice

The concept of wearing hijab tends to stir controversy around the world, especially in the media. For some, hijab may be a piece of cloth that women wear as part of social traditions; for some others, it is a form of religious devoutness; yet, for others, it is a symbol of oppression and injustice towards Muslim women.

While some women are forced to wear hijab by their husbands, brothers, or fathers, others do it voluntarily. This is the central theme of the documentary I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This. Aiming to convey this notion of free choice, the documentary explores the experiences of three UK Muslim women who have chosen to put on hijab.

Director Betty Martins interviews three women in the 33-minute documentary, addressing mainly three themes: first, the journey that these three women have had to go through to make decisions on hijab; second, what hijab means personally for each one of them; and finally, how the surrounding community views those women as they opt to cover their hair, and in one case, her face. [Read more...]

“Torn”: A Tale of Tolerance and Doubt

After reading the synopsis of Torn , a film written by Michael Richter and directed by Jeremiah Birnbaum, I thought: Oooh, this might be yet another film on the post 9/11 era, blaming the Muslim community for all evil things that happened, and echoing  all sorts of stereotypes that have defined America’s perceptions of Muslims around the world.

Miriam and Ali in a scene from Torn. Via tornthefilm.com

But Richter and Birnbaum proved me wrong. After watching Torn, I believe cinema can still surprise us with bold ideas and out-of-the-box unorthodoxy.  I see this film as a liberating experience that would certainly make me re-think the very notion of stereotyping as it applies to Arabs and Muslims in American fiction films.

Torn tells the story of two American families whose sons are killed in a terrorist mall bombing. The two mothers, one of whom is a Muslim, find comfort in each other. Developments in the storyline show that the 16-year old Muslim boy is suspected to have played a role in the bombing, leading to a turbulent relationship between the two women. [Read more...]