“Save the Muslim Girl!” Part III

“Save the Muslim Girl!” Part III March 24, 2010

This was written by Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall, and originally appeared in Rethinking Schools Online. Part I & Part II ran earlier this week.

Learning a Stereotype Lesson #3: Muslim Girls and Women Want To Be Saved by the West

For many in the West, the plight of Afghanistan is framed exclusively within a post 9/11, U.S.-led “war on terror.” While radical women’s organizations like RAWA have condemned brutality against women in Afghanistan for decades, their voices were absent, and are now muted, in a landscape of storytelling that is dominated by white Western women representing them. In an open letter to Ms. magazine, for instance, a U.S.-based supporter of RAWA notes that U.S.-centric women’s organizations such as the Feminist Majority fail to give “credit to the independent Afghan women who stayed in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 23-year (and counting) crisis in Afghanistan and provided relief, education, resistance and hope to the women and men of their country.” Novels like Broken Moon play on popular scripts in which the West saves the people of the “East.” These stories cannot be seen as simply works of fiction. They ultimately influence real world experiences of girls in the Middle East and (most relevant to us) of Muslim and non-Muslim girls in our schools in the West.

Deborah Ellis and Suzanne Fisher Staples gain legitimacy as authors because they have visited, lived, and/or spoken to real girls and women in the Middle East. The Breadwinner trilogy and Under the Persimmon Tree each include a map and an author’s note that touches on the “tumultuous” history of Afghanistan and a glossary. The history offered in the end matter and in the texts themselves glosses over the history of colonization in the region. The authors dilute what is an extremely complex history that has led up to the current violence in the Middle East, particularly the role of U.S. foreign policy and military interventions that contributed to the rise of the Taliban.

The authors fail to capture the complexities of U.S. involvement and intervention in favor of stereotypical lessons about educating and saving Muslim girls. As Sonali Kolhatkar, vice president of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and Mariam Rawi, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), argue: “Feminists and other humanitarians should learn from history. This isn’t the first time the welfare of women has been trotted out as a pretext for imperialist military aggression.” (2009) On one level these texts are part of a larger public pedagogy in which the United States and its allies are framed as fighting a good fight in Afghanistan and other regions of the Middle East. Readers are encouraged to continue to empathize with the lead character and the ideas that are associated with her: saving wounded children rather than critiquing U.S. policy, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” rather than organizing together, fighting against all odds—ideas firmly rooted in mainstream U.S. ideals of exceptionalism and Western values of individuality.

Teaching a More Complicated Truth

We support teachers using books like The Breadwinner with the pedagogical goals of critical examination. We are not advocating for the one “right” Muslim girl story, nor do we suggest that teachers avoid using these books in classrooms (for we recognize that in many cases, decisions about what books teachers have access to are made by economic constraints at the school and district levels). We would, however, like to offer suggestions for the kinds of questions teachers could ask in order to use these resources in ways that are critically minded:

  • How are Muslim girls visually depicted on the cover? You might ask students to generate a list of adjectives that describe the girl. The curriculum Scarves of Many Colors is a terrific resource for exploring the relationship between graphics and students’ ideas about people. Consider questions of accuracy, context, and motivation. For example: How accurate are the details in the image? When and how will this image be “made sense of”? Who produced this image and why?
  • Which parts of the novel are you absolutely certain are true? How do you know? Where did you learn this information? Students can try to pinpoint the resources they rely upon to get their “facts.”
  • Who is the author of this story? How do they legitimize themselves as an expert? What might be their motivations? Who are they speaking to and for?
  • How is the book marketed and what does it intend to teach Western readers? Students might examine the description on the back of the book, the author’s note, the map, the glossary, and book reviews to make observations about what kinds of readers are being targeted.
  • How does Afghanistan (or Pakistan) fit into the region? In the author’s note, Deborah Ellis points out that Afghanistan has been at war for decades. Often we study one country at a time. A more critical approach would investigate the relationships among countries. Students could explore the historical and current relationships (economic, political, cultural) between Afghanistan and other nation-states such as the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, and China.
  • Whose story is missing? Students can create visual representations of the social locations (e.g., the race, class, gender, education) of each of the characters. Given these details, whose story is this? Whose stories are not here, and where might we go to learn about their stories?

While these examples of young adult fictions do not offer much in the way of transformative education about the Middle East, they do offer the potential to educate us about our own assumptions and our pedagogical purposes when we teach the “oppressed Muslim girl” stories. It is in this capacity that we hope educators will take up these novels.

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