REVIEWS: Shattering stereotypes?

Published on December 11, 2005 by Dawn Books and Authors

There were two types of Pakistani women that Americans got to see last month. One was empowered and educated, Asma Jehangir; the other was an illiterate victim who wanted due justice, Mukhtaran Mai. The stronger woman was less popular, the weaker one, a media celebrity. While Jehangir’s consistent lifelong struggle is seldom quoted by the Americans as inspiring, Mai managed to create quite a stir with her US trip.

To see why these two women get disproportionate attention, a timely book titled Living Islam Out Loud can be quite helpful. Edited by a non-apologist African American Muslim woman, Saleemah Abdul Ghafur, it is a collection of essays by first-generation American Muslim women and their journey on living the hyphenated identities of being American while being Muslim.

The audibility of these women depends less on the oft-celebrated state of casualty they faced as Muslim women and more on their foresight to pick the necessary battles and leave behind the clamour. Today the book is labelled as an anthology of “whiny Muslim women” by right-wing reviewers, who would rather read books like The Princess, or at least one with the phrase, “behind the veil” in there somewhere. Islamic bookstores alike have refused to carry it, and the book stands like another Asma Jehangir: bold, loud and faced by an indifferent West.

America inadvertently reinforces images of the stereotypical Muslim woman: the raped, the abused, the veiled and the illiterate. This image humours the American fantasy to play messiah and lead miserable women to the light of justice. Living Islam Out Loud is written by women who are anything but lost. This is why this book is a breath of fresh air; in it you’ll find articulate women who aren’t afraid of pointing to the demons in their narrow community conceptions and choose a different path. Their struggles are mostly inward-out and hence anarchist to the rigid setup of American Muslim communities. It is unfathomable that a Muslim woman dares to indulge in self-introspection and criticism of the community she grew up in.

The seventeen essays in the book imbibe diverse struggles — some women had to reconcile with their sexuality, some had to discover their rights as a human being before trying to be a good Muslim wife or mother, others spent their lives in triple minority complexes and yet all of them found the courage to declare their principles with originality. A common thread running though most of these women’s stories was the need to almost “break away from the tribe” to fully understand the utility of the values they blindly accepted through childhood programming.

They asked themselves basic questions about their identity, and what role their nationality, religion and gender plays in it. In reaction to their isolation in America, they flaunted the symbols of differences more profusely, and found comfort in the stereotype that they fitted themselves into. Their hijab, Muslim student activism and piety gorged deeper as the pressures of adult life enhanced.

Soon, the realities of life shattered many symbols in the face of larger tragedies, leaving these women and their ill-equipped immigrant Islam of no use. To cope with an autistic child, with an abusive and incompatible husband, a child out of wedlock or an issue of sexuality, these women needed a more understanding Allah to turn to for guidance.

The problem with great ideologies and good intentions is that they need boundaries that are divisible and real. Immigrant Islam and the Islam of these women’s parents perceived their global minority identity that one could only conjure through vague imagination. What these women needed, like Asma Jehangir, was a nation state to be loyal to. In order to change the system, they had to first define it and belong to it.

Muslim immigrants and African American Muslims live in an Islamic utopia in America. They consume ethnic and religious media, branded halal food, wear the Islamic dress, their activities both social and spiritual revolve around a homogenous group of people like themselves, and when they find none, they adopt a culture closest to Arabia. All in all it is a very ungrateful and undemocratic way to live. The daughters in Saleemah’s anthology embrace their American dream as well as their Islamic dream. They had seen expectations from both shattered while growing up, and have reconstructed an American-Muslim identity that their children can adopt without feeling choked.

Notable among all the essays was Inas Younis’, “My son the mystic”. Inas moved to America from Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule in the 80’s and is the mother of an autistic son. At first she copes with the stress by becoming more pious, more Muslim, outwardly and ritualistically at least. Unable to listen to her son’s cues, and his genius, she mutes her own intelligence, until she realizes how much depends on her ability to find solutions. As a cryptic answer to her sincerity, she realizes after a silent prayer that she must do what is best for her son, and embarks on a journey to take him to a specialist who helps to cultivate autistic children’s more egoistical side.

Interestingly, autistic children have very little sense of self-awareness, hardly any emotions of jealousy, betrayal, rage, envy, pride, etc. It is through the condition of her son that Inas realizes the mystic in him. He taught her that the self-asserting side of a woman is just as important as the self-sacrificing side of her maternal instincts. To help him cope with the world, she concluded she must cast away the cloaks of obedience and rely more on her God-inspired courage to deal with autism head-on.

Inas Younis’ prose is exquisite because her conclusions have the clarity. She is a woman who thought hard and battled difficult questions through the night. Like the dozen or so authors in the book, she relies on the intelligence of her own mind — a faculty that a religious devout may find too risky to be employed for fear of straying.

These women have lived Islam as boldly as Asma Jehangir has stood up for human rights; the difference they have made and will make to the future generations of Muslim women remains unmatched.

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