Babes in Toyland: Stratton’s Fantastick Muhajababes

When I first saw the book Muhajababes by Allegra Stratton in a bookshop in Beirut, I was intrigued enough to buy it. The cover boldly claims to have found, “the new Middle East–cool, sexy and devout”. I happily forked out the $14.

MuhajababesOn closer inspection however, the cover of the book is quite problematic (featured left). It features a woman with hot red lips in a black headscarf. The rest of her face has been blanked out, spelling only one thing: generalization. An alternate book cover (pictured below right) provides no respite. It’s possibly worse, with 36 multiples of the same blank face, headscarf and red lips. The end of one face’s headscarf marking the beginning of the another’s, as if all women who belong to this so-called group are extensions of each other and identical.  Whoever said, “don’t judge a book by its cover” was so wrong.

The book spans six Arab cities, the author in search of “youth culture”. Instead, she finds

a massive video industry of airbrushed, heavily produced, scantily clad singers…many of the fans of these semi-naked popstrels are also very devout….these veiled but sexily dressed young women, then, are the Muhajababes.

The “muhajababes” are Muslim women who wear the headscarf, together with provocative clothing and lots of make-up. They pose a contradiction to the usual dour-faced, unhappy Muslim women clad in all-encompassing black garments. They also pose a dilemma to notions of Islamic modesty, but are as much a part of Islam as anyone who calls her/himself Muslim. I like the idea of Muslim women challenging the status quo while asserting their Islamic identities (even though I am not a fan of the provocative headscarf combination). However, I find it problematic that this then becomes another category to neatly box Muslim women into.

Muhajababes 2So, it would be safe to assume that the book is about young, trendy Muslim women…or not. It features so little understanding into the lives of young Arab Muslim women that any insight could easily be missed and takes at least two readings to decipher. The little analysis included is made up of broad generalizations based on second person narrations; and brief exchanges with a five “veiled” women. You do the math: five women + six cities = stereotype. In one instance, Stratton actually admits to doing a headcount of women wearing the headscarf on a busy Cairo street to validate her assumption that hijab is the new black.

It’s not that she says anything overly offensive about Muslim women; in fact, “oppressed” and “subservient” are thankfully not the part of the book’s lexicon. It’s more the way she goes about it, drawing conclusions based on minimal interaction with the so-called “muhajababes” and that the book is not really about what it claims to be. Though it’s not an academic research project, nor does it pretend to be, the essential depth and substance required of any book are sadly lacking.

So, what then is the book about? Well two names can sum it up quite well. The multi-billion dollar tycoon Prince Al Waleed of Saudi Arabia, and the smooth talking Egyptian scholar Amr Khaled. According to Stratton, these men are the reason for this new phenomena of “muhajababes”. But claiming that Al Waleed and Amr Khaled are responsible for the muhajababes only satiates the western appetite for believing that Muslim women are controlled by men. It is only well into the fifth chapter that we actually catch a glimpse of these “muhajababes”, when a colleague points out one out to Stratton from the car, saying “you are very lucky we spotted them.” They could very well be on Safari in Africa, looking for lions!

The book rambles in and out of politics, biographies and anecdotes, which me left me rather confused as to the point of it all. I think trying to tackle such a vast geographical space in such a short book was overly ambitious of Stratton. It would have been far more useful and insightful had she focused on one county, say Egypt or Syria, than try to squeeze them all in.

At first, I liked that young Muslimahs were described in normal language, portrayed doing every day things, like working, listening to music, following fashion trends and looking for love. On second thought – it’s rather patronizing, as if a Muslim women living a “normal” Western life is so strange that a whole book (supposedly) needed to be written about it. For instance, Stratton describes one “muhajababe”, Zina, whom she briefly meets in Cairo.

Though she had three books piled on her table including Death of a Salesman, she was reading, not very seriously, a local free paper. She was doing a lot of looking around – and chain smoking.

The question that remains, is why is it that Western writers find it so imperative to try to force Muslim women into a one-size-fits-all glove, be it a modern one? This book is yet another attempt to subtlety stereotype, under the guise of defining “Arab youth culture” and “a new generation of Muslims”.  I cannot deny that there does exist broad groups which people can belong to, but there is so little substantiation in this book, that I find it hard to believe Stratton’s muhajababes are a “new” sub-culture.

The conclusion of the book trails Stratton’s attempts to meet Amr Khaled, one of the men supposedly responsible for it all. The closing line claims that he has created the muhajababes, albeit unintentionally, and they in turn have spurred a revolution. A headscarf revolution, which is changing the face of the Middle East. There is very little backing for this weighty conclusion (not denying that many Muslim women are turning to the headscarf) and an unsubstantiated claim remains just that.

As a travel narrative, this book is interesting, but as a study of young Muslim women? Irrelevant.