Erasing the Dichotomy: Positive Portrayals of Latina Muslims

Erasing the Dichotomy: Positive Portrayals of Latina Muslims September 8, 2009

Melinda wrote a while ago about negative media representation of Latina Muslim women.  She described a lot of the common one-dimensional assumptions attributed to Latina women who become Muslim, such as the idea that:

in Latino culture, men are macho jerks and women are sex objects. In Islam, they are covered up and immediately respected. The author retells the woman’s decision to leave Catholicism for Islam, her experience putting on hijab, and the sad reactions of her family. If the journalist tries to dig a little deeper, there may be some theological reasons for choosing Islam, but they’re usually an afterthought. Some articles will note that Latina women like the strict gender roles of Islam because that’s what they’re used to.

Latina women and Latino culture in are often reduced to only the most simplistic stereotypes, and Islam being reduced to a similarly simplistic solution to Latina women’s problems.

Photo via Brooklyn Rail by Lyndsey Matthew.
Photo via Brooklyn Rail by Lyndsey Matthew.

A recent article in the Brooklyn Rail about Latina/Latino Muslims presents a much more nuanced picture of the members of one Union City, New Jersey mosque with a growing Muslim population.  Although focused on the Latino Muslim community at large and not specifically on the women, the article does give us glimpses of the lives of a few Latina Muslim women, and some of their experiences with juggling those identities in the United States.

The first mention of Muslim women does involve the word “hijab,” which is no big surprise, and the first detailed description of a Muslim woman also focuses heavily on clothing:

Before Fatimah Vargas discovered Islam in the years before 9/11 she said she “did not know the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu.” Born into a Dominican family in New Jersey with the name Marleny, Vargas was a single mother by the time she turned 18. A group of former Pakistani co-workers provided her first exposure to Islam. “Their character amazed me,” she recalls, because they did not look at the scantily clad women going to the beach during the hot New York summers. Eventually she checked out a copy of the Qur’an at the public library and read it in secret in the middle of the night. When she read the first few lines she said she knew immediately, “This is it.”

When she told her brother, “He was very upset,” she said. Her mother noticed a change in her daughter when Vargas started dressing more conservatively but did not initially understand why. “I used to dress very inappropriate—to say the least,” Vargas said. These days she conceals her hair behind a hijab and the only skin she shows is her delicate hands and face. Eventually she told her parents about her conversion. “That was horrible,” she remembers. Her parents had preconceived misconceptions about Islam and her mother warned that if she converted she would become a terrorist and marry Osama bin Laden. “I couldn’t hurt a roach, how could I kill a human?” Vargas protested. When she married her husband, a Puerto Rican Muslim, she did not get her parents’ approval. […]

When September 11 occurred, Vargas knew that it wouldn’t help others accept her new religion. She struggled to convince others that being Muslim was something very different than being a terrorist. These days, her parents have accepted her choice to be Muslim, which she thinks is the best thing that could have ever happened. They are actively involved in her life now, as she and her husband rear their three children, ages 9, 8, and 4, as Muslims.

Later profiles of women, however, go into more detail about other elements of their lives.  Faiza Ocasio is a Latina woman who became Muslim and whose children and grandchildren have been raised with strong ties to their Puerto Rican cultural heritage and to their Islamic faith.  The article goes into more detail about Ocasio’s daughter, Sultana, who was raised Muslim:

Many of Sultana’s childhood classmates and friends called their dads “abby,” a slang term for father in Arabic. One time she tried calling her father this. “You call me papi,” he shot back, reminding Sultana that his family did not need to change who they were as Puerto Ricans because they were Muslim too.

Though Sultana felt different from her black counterparts in grammar school, she encountered a whole new sense of not belonging when she joined the Muslim Student Association at Baruch College, from which she graduated with a degree in political science and sociology in 2008. There she went through a culture shock interacting directly with Arab and Pakistani classmates who were often more reserved than her “more colorful” Latino friends. Many of her peers assumed she was Egyptian “until I opened my mouth,” she said. She had to adjust once more to being a minority within a minority. […]

Many West Africans “transform” themselves, Sultana said, to symbolize their adherence to the faith, dressing in traditional Arabic dress. They’re adopting cultural traits, not religious ones though, Sultana pointed out. It is important to her family to separate religion from culture. They do not need to be one and the same. “Being Puerto Rican is important to me, but not as important as being Muslim,” Sultana said.

Today Sultana works in the Bronx for the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, coordinating ESL classes. The Institute also runs a halal food pantry open to the entire community, in addition to many other services. Working in social services runs in the family. Her mother used to be a social worker in the Islamic Family Services before she became a teacher.

Sultana also has experienced bewilderment from non-Muslim Latinos about her religion. When some Puerto Rican immigrants find out that Sultana is both Puerto Rican and Muslim, they ask her, “Why in the world are you Muslim?” she said. They find her choice radical, but she tells them, “I like this—this is something I feel is right.”

I liked this description of some of the many ways that Sultana does and doesn’t identify with both her religious and cultural communities.  Unlike the kinds of stories mentioned in Melinda’s piece that I linked to at the beginning of this post, Sultana Ocasio’s experiences suggest that, rather than swooping in and saving Latina women from the oppressive elements of their culture, Islam can exist alongside a vibrant Latino culture, and that even when negotiating the two identities can be complicated at times, neither one replaces or cancels out the other.

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