Worth Reading: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

After our review of Boy vs. Girl, a couple readers asked for MMW’s thoughts on The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.  Having really enjoyed the book when I read it last summer, I was happy to oblige! Beware: minor spoiler alerts!

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Mohja KahfWritten by Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf tells the story of Khadra Shamy, a Syrian-American woman returning to her hometown of Indianapolis for the first time in several years.  Most of the novel looks back to her childhood and early adulthood during the 1970s and 1980s, as she negotiates questions of religion, identity, racism, and belonging.  Interspersed with this is her return to the community at the age of 28 as a magazine photographer doing a story on minority religious communities in America.

Covering a long time span and a variety of geographic locations, the novel follows Khadra’s religious paths, from being the daughter of a Dawah Center worker, through a “surge of religious austerity” in her early teens, a “neoclassical phase” of traditional learning as she gets older, a sense of disillusionment and uncertainty as she comes to question the monolithic image of Islam she grew up with, and ultimately a reconciliation of sorts as she comes to feel more comfortable in her own religious path while appreciating the community where she was raised.

The novel also ties in an impressive range of political issues, reflected in local community relations (Sunni-Shi’a tensions within the Muslim community, and KKK violence and other racism directed at the Muslim community from some others in the city) as well as international issues (the Iranian revolution, the occupation of Palestine, the dictatorship in Syria, etc.)

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Be Real About Muslim Women

This was written by Muse and originally appeared at her blog Between Hope & Fear.

It’s joyful to be a Muslim woman. So says Mohja Kahf. I agree with the sentiment and the substance of pretty much everything she wrote here, but her style bothers me. This is nothing new – I wrote about her earlier as well. But now I want to write out my thoughts on this article.

Starting with the title: “Spare Me the Lecture on Muslim Women.” The article immediately takes on a defensive tone and is off-putting to the reader, even one such as myself who’s “on her side,” so to speak. Who exactly is lecturing her? Most people don’t care who you are, what you worship, and what you wear so long as you come across as a decent human being who connects with them on common issues of importance. Not everything is about us and our scarves. Let’s dispense with the unnecessary self-importance. And if you’re about to represent Muslim women, stop acting like you have a chip on your shoulder.

She starts off talking about the joys of looking at her colorful hijabs and draping the beautiful fabrics on her head. I have to admit that there are days when I enjoy digging through my growing and colorful collection of hijabs and finding the one that looks the best for the occasion. But I find something unreal about her cheery tone. Is it always so fantastic? Can we hear a little bit more about any challenges it poses in this society? Even if hijab is not the linchpin of your spiritual struggle, surely wearing it means something politically significant in this country. What are her thoughts on that?

Ok, even if she wants to focus on the aesthetic and spiritual positives of the hijab, that’s her right, and surely those positives exist. But the article gets progressively more ludicrous. She goes on to say that “most Muslim women” experience God as a genderless Friend. Really? Can we be a bit more careful with the word “most,” especially when it comes to speaking about a topic as intimate, unreachable, and incomprehensible as one’s relationship with God? The whole point of the article is presumably to refute others who usurp the voices of Muslim women and tell them they need to be rescued from their religion and their men. In defending ourselves, lets not fall into the same trap and pretend we speak for “most” Muslim women. I’m also guilty of this – projecting my views on others, assuming that other people must think/feel/experience as I do – so I’ll try to take my own advice.

Alright, that’s not even that bad. But something about her discussion of marriage in Islam strikes me as dishonest. She talks about the mahr requirement, the flexibility of divorce and re-marriage in Islam, the legal right of a wife to be sexually satisfied, and prenups being standard practice. All valid points, surely, but all theoretical. The reality is far from woman-friendly, isn’t it? She briefly recognizes that misogyny often strips away these rights from Muslim women, but says (in the case of mahr) that these rules exist in the law. What good are they if they exist on the books but not in the home and in the courts? None really.

Also, in talking about our own traditions, there is no need to insult and belittle others. It smacks of insecurity, immaturity, and doesn’t win Muslims any friends and sympathizers. For example, in talking about how Muslim women get married, Kahf calls the Western dating tradition “nonsensical.” I can imagine our traditions being extremely nonsensical to others. It might not make much sense to others how a 17-year-old Saudi girl marries a suitor ten years her senior who comes “courting from half a world away.” Extend to others the same respect and understanding you expect.

Another thing that bothers me is the Muslim Martyrdom Syndrome (MMS). Boohoo, nobody gives us credit for having such fantastic rules in our tradition. She does it explicitly at least twice, saying in case of prenups that “Muslim never get credit” for drafting them as standard practice, and that “Muslims don’t get credit for having had that flexibility [in divorce] all along. We just can’t win with the Muslim-haters.” Maybe if we practiced what’s in our tradition, we wouldn’t have to beg for recognition like pathetic fools. The respect of the world, instead of its contempt, would flow naturally. And until we can get our houses in order, we have no right to act superior to others or demand their respect.

Kahf goes on to list a whole bunch of “Islamic law” rulings like little soundbites:

“custody of minor children always goes first to the mother. The Quran doesn’t blame Eve. Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Breast-feeding is a woman’s choice and a means for her to create family ties … Rapists are punishable by death in Islamic law … Birth control allowed in Islamic law? Check. Masturbation? Let’s just say former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders’s permissive stance on that practice is not unknown among classical and modern Muslim jurists. Abortion? Again, allowances exist — even Muslims seem not to remember that.”

There’s a huge danger in talking about Islamic law like bumper sticker slogans. Legal rulings occur in a context, applied to facts on the ground, taking into account the needs and times of society, and the rulings can be completely different in different madhabs and different situations. Kahf’s approach is the same one that allows others to ridiculously assert that “apostasy is punishable by death in Islam” and “Islamic law says to cut off the hand of the thief.” If one doesn’t understand the nuances of the practice of Islamic Law (as I surely don’t), the best thing to do is to remain silent (or at least qualify our statements) rather than wave our flawed understanding as the banners of absolute truth.

Of course, she closes with how Muslim women had the right to own property before the western world, the example of Khadijah, and Muslim female heads of state. The response to such arguments is to point to the dismal state of some Muslim women all over the world today and ask “What has Islam done for Muslim women lately?” Neither side is right and yet both are right. But this kind of facile score-keeping doesnt advance the discourse.

Editor’s Note: Read Sobia’s take on this same article from yesterday.

Talking Back – Mohja Kahf’s Response to “The Sermon”

The Washington Post ran an op-ed on Sunday by Mohja Kahf, author of The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Entitled “Spare Me the Sermon on Muslim Women” Kahf responds to those who insist that the Muslim woman is oppressed, repressed, monolithic, brainwashed, and worthy of pity. Using brilliant language, which creates colourful pictures in the readers’ minds, Kahf explains the role of scarves in her life as a source of happiness. She then continues to explain how the various religious rituals in which she engages as blessings and sources of security, comfort and tranquility in her life.

Throughout the piece, Kahf juxtaposes the Muslim woman with the Western (non-Muslim) woman as a means of contextualizing the position of women in Islam rarely depicted in Western media. She explains that Islam has in fact provided women with many freedoms including sexual, rights and value equal to men, and protection. In comparison she points out the ways in which the West, and even Christianity, expresses its misogyny.

Kahf (in pink). Image via Heidi Schumann for The New York Times.

Kahf (in pink). Image via Heidi Schumann for The New York Times.

Kahf was able to deliver a punch with this piece. Her point, which I read as “Muslim women are empowered and strong thank you – now stop telling us different,” came across loud and clear. Personally, I enjoyed how she depicted her scarves, her prayer mat, and her clothes in such a soothing manner. I also appreciated her message that the scarf is not central to a Muslim woman’s life and that in fact many Muslim women do not even wear it. Though I must admit I found it odd considering it appeared after her extensive focus on her own headscarves. Although I do know that Kahf does not wear the headscarf strictly. She has been known to wear it casually herself.

When Kahf spoke of marriage, I found myself getting a little uncomfortable. Kahf paints a very unidimensional picture of the married Muslim woman. Undoubtedly Kahf tells of a young and willing bride, pointing out the consent issue so as to refute the all to common and unfortunate belief that Muslim women (or for that matter all “non-Western” women) are forced into marriage. So at least the reader would know this is not the case, usually. However, what made me uncomfortable was that from this piece it would seem that all Muslim women get married before the age of 20. She does not even mention that there are Muslim women who don’t get married in their teens. Additionally, Kahf scoffs at the idea of dating. Surely Kahf must know that there are many Muslim women who do date. Why is she not depicting a more diverse image of Muslim women? She showed our diversity in regards to the headscarf, so why not marriage?

I also found myself squirming when she mentioned the mahr – an obligatory gift from the groom to the bride. She states that “a mahr has to have significant value – a year’s salary, say.” My point of mentioning this is not to get into a debate about the value of mahr, but my understanding has been that the mahr can be any amount, even intangible, not necessarily significant. My worry here is that this may present the Muslim woman as materialistic, not concerned with love and caring, but rather how much money she can get. But this may go back to my own discomfort with whole idea of a prenuptial.

I did have to smile a little when Kahf mentioned Islam’s comfort with sex. Islam does encourage healthy and pleasurable sexual activities between husband and wife. And yes, as Kahf mentions, this is in fact quite different than Christianity, which has strongly discouraged any pleasure be taken from sex within marriage or not. Additionally, her mentioning of how masturbation and abortion (with certain conditions) are permissible in Islam also educated the reader of an oft neglected guilt-free and individualistic picture of a Muslim woman.

As I was reading I began to think, “Yes, Mohja, but many of these wonderful privileges for Muslim women are not enjoyed by the women.” And I am sure many of her readers would be thinking the same. Therefore, I was glad to see that Kahf did mention deficiency in many interpretations of the rights and privileges of Muslim women. So she does acknowledge that although she may enjoy many of these rights and privileges, not all Muslim women do.

Kahf then gives through her argument the final punch when she informs the reader of some of the great Muslim women leaders in previous and contemporary times, reminding them that not even the U.S. has had an elected woman leader.

The overall feel of the piece was definitely one of vindication. She wanted to defend Muslim women against all the pity. And she did. Along the way she was also able to depict Muslim men as decent fellows, the few times she did allude to them. With a few exceptions such as marriage where she made us monolithic, a mistake on her part, she was able to paint a rather independent and even sassy image of the Muslim woman.

Editor’s Note: You can read another take on this same article by a guest contributor tomorrow.