Revisiting Miriam Cooke’s “Muslimwoman”

Shirin Neshat, Women of Allah.

Miriam Cooke has described her use of “Muslimwoman” in one word as a reference to embracing and performing a singular gendered and religious identity, a way of reflecting the intertwining of gender and religion and describing this erasure of diversity. In 2008, in her essay on deploying this term, Cooke explained:

The neologism Muslimwoman draws attention to the emergence of a new singular religious and gendered identification that overlays national, ethnic, cultural, historical, and even philosophical diversity. A recent phenomenon tied to growing Islamophobia, this identification is created for Muslim women by outside forces, whether non-Muslims or Islamist men. Muslimwoman locates a boundary between “us” and “them.” As women, Muslim women are outsider/insiders within Muslim communities where, to belong, their identity increasingly is tied to the idea of the veil. As Muslims, they are negotiating cultural outsider/insider roles in Muslim-minority societies.

As the drama around the rediscovered visibility of the Muslim woman in the modern world takes another manifestation post-2011, Cooke’s use of the ”Muslimwoman” is worth revisiting, particularly her argument about its deployment as a tool of political consciousness. As she points out:

Some women reject The Muslimwoman identification and others embrace it. Its uniformity across gulfs of difference intensifies an awareness of the global community in which they participate, a cosmopolitan consciousness that connects strangers who recognize an unprecedented commonality in terms of religion and gender. Their political consciousness qua Muslimwoman affirms the inextricable bond between gender and religion.

In combining these two words used to evoke a singular identity, Cooke follows Islamicist Sherman Jackson’s use of the term Blackamerican and Joan Martin’s term blackwoman. In Cooke’s case, however, there’s the danger of slippage between Arab and Muslim, which relates to Cooke’s own background in Arabic literature, including her co-edited anthology of Arab feminist writing, Opening the Gates, and War’s Other Stories: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. [Read more...]