Two years ago, Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation set an inferno across parts of the Middle East and North Africa, changing the course of the region’s assumed history. We know what happened and we know what has been happening since. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, despite having removed the bodies of dictators, continue to struggle to maintain control over the next phase of revolution. Yemenis and Bahrainis, albeit generally absent from headlines, are still fighting against authoritarian and oppressive governance and state violence. Syria, in perhaps the most precarious position, has descended into a bloody war with many local, national, regional and global fronts. As those of us with a privileged positionality of sitting spectatorship celebrate and commemorate – with some misplaced sense of entitlement – the two-year anniversary of the Arab revolutions, it is worth considering how we also have “celebrated” and “commemorated” the women of these revolutions and of these countries, who have received considerable attention. And it is further worth considering how we pick and choose which “brand” of Muslim women’s bodies, in particular, we’re interested in covering and how.
In a previous post, I quoted Lila Abu-Lughod on representations of Muslim women in political and advocacy rhetoric as well as, by extension, media when discussing certain regions and conflicts:
“Plastering neat cultural icons like “the Muslim woman” over messier historical and political narratives doesn’t get you anywhere. What does this substitution accomplish? Why, one has to ask, didn’t people rush to ask about Guatemalan women, Vietnamese women (or Buddhist women), Palestinian women, or Bosnian women when trying to understand those conflicts? The problem gets framed as one about another culture or religion, and the blame for the problems in the world placed on Muslim men, now neatly branded as patriarchal.”
It’s worth noting that while we will often find issues of “Muslim women” plastered all over our newsfeeds and television screens, these are almost always, with few exceptions, cavorted in narrow frames and with negative undertones. In these narratives, “Muslim women” face oppressions, and Islam and regional cultures play key roles in these oppressions. But when “Muslim women” are fighting against their oppressions, their religion and culture become irrelevant to their actions. The problem here isn’t the absence of religion and culture as positive tools – the problem is how religion and culture are selected for only one part of the story and ignored for the rest. The problem is how Muslim women’s bodies are swept into one shadow and made to single-handedly characterize an entire conflict and history. [Read more...]