On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West

On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West

A MUSLIM WOMAN WRITING in the West in these times enters a commercial book industry that on one hand has begun to treat her texts as a hot commodity, and on the other hand has a limited repertoire for placing her work, especially if her fiction or nonfiction is related to Islam and gender. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s mostly cluelessness. The existing “spectrum” consists of two Eurocentrically slanted slots for Muslim women’s stories: Victim and Escapee. No matter how much a Muslim woman may have something different to say, by the time it goes through the “machine” of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either a “Victim Story” or “Escapee Story.” Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes. Between an ignorant industry and an ungenerous homebase community of readers, how can a Muslim woman write and publish in the West and do her best to dodge the machine?


The biggest Western stereotype there is about Muslim women is The Victim. It goes way back to the era of Romantic literature, and the Byronic plot of a white man saving a harem girl continued to thrive in the heyday of European colonialism, feeding a white Christian supremacist hero complex.’ The U.S. book industry today loves a good read about oppressed Muslim women.

Mix and match these ingredients and you too can make a Muslim- Woman- As- Victim story:
Mute Marionnette. Portray the Muslim woman as powerless to speak, but for the Westerner giving her a voice. Think Jean Sassoon, giving her poor oppressed Saudi subject a voice in Princess. Theo Van Gogh’s film Submission gave voice to “oppressed Somali woman” Ayaan Hirsi Ali – that he was reprehensibly murdered for doing so does not make the bigotry in this modern replay of the white hero complex less reprehensible. Egyptian feminist Nawal Elsaadawi’s extensively translated oeuvre consists almost entirely ofVictim stories; her books that don’t tellVictim stories don’t stay in print in the West.2

Meek Mother. Make the mother figure in the story powerless. Eliminate the vibrant subcultures of Muslim women from the picture, all empowering relationships with sisters, grandmothers, friends, and turn them into harem slaves. Ignore homegrown non- Western feminisms. The English translation of early Egyptian feminist Huda Sharawi’s memoirs leaves out the strong personality of her Circassian mother and makes it seem as if Sharawi’s sense of gender equality was birthed by European mentors.

Forbidding Father. Make her father figure tyrannical and motivated only by an inscrutable patriarchalism, not by the feelings of a human father to protect his daughter, not by love. Include no kindly brothers, uncles, or grandfathers, and no Muslim men who champion women’s rights.

Rotten Religion. Make sure there are no nice imams in the picture. Make the mosque a nasty-smelling place. Have the adhan called while she is beaten by her husband, like in the movie Not Without My Daughter, explicitly linking Islamic symbols with misogyny. (By contrast, Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Days shows a protagonist who takes comfort in learning the Qur’an from her mother-in-law.)

Cruel Country. Cast her entire society as rigid, homogenous, and utterly woman-hating, without redemption, so that help can only come from outside – from the West. Bonus: deploy this story during a U. S. war against a Muslim country so everyone gets the message that Muslim women need to be liberated from their evil heritage by those nice clean-shaven Marines.3

Vile Veil. Cast veiling as the most oppressive thing since the rack. Never mind that forced unveiling, a trauma almost unrecognized in Western publishing, has been a more prevalent experience than forced veiling for masses of Muslim women in our times. Veiling is different from how Western culture says women should dress, so of course it is appalling.

Stifled Sexuality. Include lots of sexual oppression. Female genital mutilation and honor killings should be a prime focus, because the West has nothing comparable (never mind date rape and child molestation statistics) to these “Muslim” forms of sexual oppression. Here’s the thing: Muslims do have sexual oppression and are as flawed as any other human. Honor killing is a real problem. It is a crime, and Muslims need to redress it (and maybe what happens when we don ‘t address it is that other people will take up the cause on their own terms). It just becomes extremely difficult to speak against it as a Muslim without your voice getting stolen for other, Eurocentric agendas. This is a terribly secondary thing to have to worry about when your time should be spent fighting honor killing itself

That’s how stereotypes distort us as human beings; they take our energy away from real spiritual development and make us defensive, reacting instead of acting. When we say that Muslim women do not fit the Victim stereotype, we must not deny that there are real Muslim women who are victims, or that Muslim sexism exists, and we must not step away from our moral obligation to change those realities. It’s just that we do not accept the way these injustices are presented, tinged with anti-Muslim bigotry, made into insupportable monolithic claims about our faith and our communities.


Last season’s attempt to package another Victim narrative was the U.S. media’s handling of Mukhtaran Mai’s story. What happened to her is horrible: A woman was gang-raped in a remote Pakistani village by members of a feudal clique that bullied the local populace. Her father tried to get into the house where the crime was being committed and later threw his shirt around her and walked her home; the village imam expressed outrage about the crime from his pulpit; a Pakistani journalist publicized her cause. They and other Muslims helped her to bring the perpetrators to justice, and death sentences were meted out thanks to Shari’a’s capital punishment for rape. Because a higher court took into consideration the legal checks and balances built into the country’s judicial system, the death sentences were overruled and lesser sentences imposed, causing many in the Pakistani society, including feminists and other supporters of women’s rights, to stir public debate about the handling of her case and the injustice of the lighter sentences. She was awarded punitive damages and with the money, opened a girls’ school in her hometown, surviving the horrific ordeal with her dignity and strength of soul.
A New York Times columnist broke the story to U.S. readers in September 2004. In his version, the woman had no supporters in her family, there was no concerned mullah on her side, and her entire society only wanted her to commit suicide. Readers were told that Mai’s entire village watched her walk home “naked” and did nothing to assist her. The columnist did not acknowledge his fellow journalist whose work helped bring Mai’s cause to the public, or if he did, an editor must have dropped the reference.4 The support of Mai’s father and other family members and the advocacy role played by the small-town imam were also left out. A photo that accompanied one early Internet report of the story showed only a veiled Muslim woman with her head bowed, weeping. Mukhtaran Bibi’s strength was left out of the story, and she was turned into a mute marionette needing Western rescue. Her faith was left out. The positive role of Shari’a – yes, Shari’a in punishing the rapists was left out. The existence of many people in the Pakistani society who were outraged at what happened to her was left out, as was any mention of the fact that there are laws against rape in Pakistan and a judicial system that is willing to enforce them within the limits of rules of law, which exist in the U.S. and should exist in any democracy.

Thank God for alternative media such as Islamica, whose interview with Mai set the record straight on some of those missing elements (see Issue 1 5, 2006). It was incomprehensible, if you only read the Western story, how Mukhtaran Bibi had the fortitude to found a girls’ school with her reparations, how townspeople in a culture that values modesty would watch a rape victim walk home naked, or why she would want to continue living in her country after her trip abroad, if it is such a dungeon for women. My office-next-door neighbor, a white American feminist theory professor, came to me questioning the story as reported in the Times, saying “something seems to be missing here,” asking intelligent questions, and seeking alternative media sources.


Victim stories continue to fill U.S. bookshelves. But wait – if you buy that package, Western media are willing, at no extra charge, to throw in another one: the Escapee package. Aren’t we diverse? There are Muslim women who are too strong and articulate to fit the Victim stereotype. So how does the massmarket deal with them without having to change its stereotyped thinking? By letting Muslim women “tell their own stories,” but only as the flip side of the Victim stereotype. Here are some tips on how to shape a Muslim woman’s story into an Escapee Package:
Brave Battler of a Bad Birthright. Make much of calling her “brave,” but in a condescending way that only proves her to be the exception to the submissive Victim woman, which still holds as the rule. This specific construction of “brave” only applies to Muslim women. A story about American women seeking liberation from unfair gender constraints will not pat them on the head condescendingly, or see them as locked in battle against their national identity or cultural heritage.5 An American feminist is not seen as having to be anti- American to be a supporter of gender justice.

Religion Still Rotten. Erase from the story any comfort she receives from the Qur’an, supportive imams, and any other positive concepts or figures from the religion. Cast her reform as rejection, even when it’s not. Cheer her while unable to perceive her continuous connection to the resources of the religion.

Uncle Sam Will Set Her Free. Assume that any liberation will come from the West. Erase any homegrown versions of gender consciousness that are wedded to challenging racism, imperialism, and Islamophobic bigotry as well as sexism. “She could only have demanded her right to pray in the mosque because she was raised in America.” Not because Islam itself gives her the expectation of access to the mosque.

Veiling Still Vile. Hooray, make our Escapee free-free-atlast from that Root of all Evil in Islamic gender relations: veiling.

Sold on Sex. Put, in place of Muslim sexual oppression, a sexual liberation that tends to look very much like assimilating to mainstream Western sexual values. Rather than search for a third place, an ethical sexualityfree of both kinds of oppression, the kind that disrespects sexuality and the kind that untrammels it over everything.

Zionist Zinger . For extra punch, throw in some Zionist sympathies for our newly minted Escapee.


People outside the writing world often do not realize how much of this is “the machine” and not always the author. The trade book industry operates under time and money pressures very different from those in my own world of academe, and its organizations have the normal range of human ineptitude and habitual practices that are inconvenient to change. An author typically has no control over her cover, for example, and little say over other marketing devices such as jacket blurbs and catalogue copy used to sell the book. And the industry likes to put authors into niches such as “women’s literature” (read: chick lit) and “brand” their work according to the “platform” they see a writer as having. All these are massmarket practices, understandable because it is a profit-driven industry like any other, but the result is that a book’s reception, the meaning assigned to it by readerships, can be shaped by these factors.

Make no mistake, a Muslim woman writer can whip out a Victim or Escapee story, and a non-Muslim writer can avoid those molds when writing about Muslim matters. It’s about the content of our writing, not the identity of the writer. The Victim /Escapee are well-traveled ruts, easy to fall into. Every stage in the publishing process seems, wittingly or not, to push the writer into those packages. It’s usually couched in reasonable terms having nothing directly to do with Orientalism – it’s about craft, or technique, or marketability, or other such objective factors. It’s always about anything but the unwillingness of white people to depart from stereotyped thinking, from the moment her writing group says, “Yes, you must write about your experience of child abuse/marital rape/forced veiling/honor killing [insert Muslim oppression of choice here], because that’s the story we need to hear from a Muslim woman. Give us more like l hat, never mind those other topics you also write about,” to the editor saying, “Can you make this more rebellious? We think that’s where the heat of your story really is. The other stuff you write is a trifle boring, and when you talk about loving your faith, it’s preachy it’s not as accessible to the general reader.”

It is possible for the author to push against the rut of expectations. The Muslim woman author of a recent debut novel told me she was offered a million dollars for her book if she would slant it against Islam. She did not accept, and held out and got another publisher (the prestigious Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) who offered a smaller advance but allowed her to keep the integrity of her writing.7

Another author produced a collection of essays by Arab women who are neither victims nor escapees, but the publisher put an exotic niqabi (face veiled) woman on her cover, having nothing to do with the book’s contents. The image of an inscrutable niqabi, an army of identically hijabed (covered) Muslim women looking sullen, and a Muslim woman staring from behind a barred window, are some of the most clichéd visual expressions of the Victim stereotype. The author happens to be a Christian Arab and still the publishers put the stereotypical Muslim woman on the cover – with black minarets sticking out of her head, I kid you not. The author objected, but the contract allowed the press “sole discretion” over the jacket – publishers insist on this. I called her to offer support and to say, “I know the cover wasn’t your choice.”

The bizarre thing is that even when a Muslim woman writer doggedly carves a different shape for her narrative, the publishing industry, with its limited institutional intelligence, will still try to squeeze it into a Victim or Escapee package. Interviews given by Iranian Nobel Laureate Shireen Abadi, for example, can be read as an indication of what’s right with Iran. Her choice to live and work in the Islamic Republic as an activist and professional woman is an affirmation of that system’s elasticity and strength and openness to reform. Yet in the mainstream U.S. media, she was constructed for us, inexplicably, as an Escapee (and then, predictably, you had Muslims reacting against her for that).

Of course, some authors are all too happy to be eaten by the machine. There are those who are naive about its workings. There are those who are – very understandably – reluctant to question the gift of publication. It is unfair to dismiss the financial motivation as base, either. Writing is a profession, after all, not just a hobby, and Muslim women who work as writers deserve, as much as engineers or schoolteachers, or male Muslim writers, to make a living (and to pay their children’s rising college tuition!).


Many Muslims, meanwhile, have no mercy. Critics in Muslim institutions tend to equate the Muslim woman writer with the machine, even if she is trying to keep her work from being mangled by its gears. “Brown memsahibsl” they call Muslim women writers who have “made it” to mainstream trade publishing, seeing them as in bed with the stereotypers’ agendas. Often they begrudge a Muslim woman writer any success she experiences outside the mosque-centered community, somehow impugning a woman’s success as a selling out to “the world.” Muslim men writers can attain semi-celebrity status in mosque communities (a status, by the way, not available to Muslim women in the mosque community because it hinges on being able to preach at the minbar, or pulpit) without that rise being construed as a deen versus dunya (spirituality versus worldly) slide on their part. In a way, the reading patterns of Eurocentric readers and Islam-centric readers unwittingly collude against Muslim women writers, the first by welcoming us for the wrong reasons, the second by rejecting us based on wrong suspicions.
A century ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that black people in America have “double consciousness”: how they see them- selves and, because it is necessary for their survival, how they perceive themselves being seen by white people – a split per- spective that affects every black writer. Many Muslims don’t even seem to bother with the first of these, with “What does this Muslim-authored work containing Muslim content have to say to ws?” Instead, there is a tendency among Muslims, if they read trade fiction and nonfiction at all, to go straight to the second, painfully defensive level, where every bit of writing by a Muslim is judged only by “how it will make us look in front of non-Muslims?” We read to “media watch” what others say about us, not for our own education or delight. We have such an inferiority complex that we cannot give our own writers support without reference to this powerful outsider looking over our shoulders.


My perspective on this scene is colored by my experience as an immigrant woman. Black American women, Muslim and non-Muslim, face a version of this dilemma multiplied by, among other things, “The Color Purple” syndrome – the debate raised by the 1982 publication of the eponymous Alice Walker novel over whether and how a black woman writer will address the sexism of black men in the midst of a racist mainstream climate. Walker was criticized for portraying abusive black men in a novel affirming the dignity and survival of black women. A lot of water has gone under the bridge among African American readers and critics since then and, guess what? The best answer turned out not to be attacking black women writers who take out the black community’s “dirty laundry,” but accepting that this “laundry” is going to be aired, one way or another – so isn’t it better to do the airing on our own terms, to enter a dialectic of self-critique on our own initiative?

Jewish American writing, especially a few decades after the great influx of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century, is another instructive example. Anzia Yezierska and other writers weathered, in their emergence in the 1920s from the immigrant Jewish neighborhoods of New York into mainstream publishing, some of the same issues of inside/outside that Muslim women writers face today. A generation later, Philip Roth irked some Jewish Americans with his hilarious, humane portrayals of neurotic aunts and insecure young men from Newark, N.J., and was charged with promoting antiSemitism in his writings (now embraced as classics that enrich Jewish American culture and American literature). Contemporary novelist Amy Tan speaks of keeping her novel out of the hands of screenwriters who came to it with “dragon lady” stereotypes about Chinese women. Immigrant Muslims can learn from these experiences.


Just because the West has its stereotypes does not mean that fear of what the West will think gets to determine everything we write. That is self-crippling. It is a reaction to a reaction. You can’t live that way: second-guessing how the West will read every move you make and tiptoeing around your community’s dirty laundry. Nor is it an ethically sound position. “Do not let the mischief of a people swerve you from doing justice,” the Qur’an says (Al-Maidah, verse 8). You do not avoid truth-telling because it makes your tribe uncomfortable, and then create a rationale for that swerving based on the whine of minority victimization.

Muslim writers, men and women, are sometimes going to tell a story of Muslim child abuse, sometimes of a Muslim doctor saving the impoverished ill; there is good and bad in Muslims, as there is in every people. We get to tell both sides, and a third, fourth, and fifth side too. And some writers will be better at telling stories from the dark side and others will be better at telling the upbeat stories. We aren’t required to stay away from writing about sex in Muslim lives just because sex is on the agenda of the stereotypere. There are other ways to write about it besides the victim-and-vamp stereotypes. The fact that a Muslim writer tackles one of the sensitive subjects on “the stereotype list” is not a red flag that she is adopting the Victim or Escapee package. How the writing proceeds is what matters.

Yet there is no forgetting that the stereotypes – and the bigotry behind them – dog us. They are real, and malign. They have real-life repercussions, often enough, on Muslim lives, on the safety of our mosques and the Muslims in them and the Muslims who are not in them. How can that not be on the mind of a conscientious Muslim writer in the Western book industry? Are there strategies that can counter the Packaging?


How can a Muslim woman writer publishing in the Western book industry avoid being sucked into “the machine?” I’m not entirely sure because I’m at the beginning of my journey, but here’s what I think so far: “Women’s wile is great,” as the Qur’an says (Yusuf, verse 28) – and we need it all, for this task!

Change the Scene. A lot of exciting, funny, sad, fascinating issues out there among Muslim women never get expression because we allow Western media to set the dial at “Islam and Women – YourVictim and Escapee Station.” Mix it up. Don’t keep rewriting the same script. Keep moving. Don’t let them pin a label on you. Booby trap your writing against anyone trying to drag it down Stereotype Lane (your chapter goes BOING! and they end up hanging upside down from your lariat – or something like that).
No Sugar. On the other hand, don’t pander to those Muslim readers who can’t tell the difference between a satire written by a lover in the mirror of the mosque and an attack by neocons or others who bear no love for your kind. Don’t be “a-skeered” of such Muslim critics. Even if they vilify you personally (forgetting that a Muslim is one from whose tongue and hand other Muslims are supposed to be safe). Sugar coating’s not good writing. Examine your Selves, before ye be examined.

Make a Middle Way. Keep a running critique of what’s wrong with both sides, the West and the Muslim world. Do it from a “third space” of your authentic values. Double critique dodges cooptation. It won’t make you popular with either side, but then truth-seeking, which is what writing is at its best, has never been a popularity game.

Cultivate Your Crowd. Seek the authence you want, not the authence someone else wants to primp you for. You build a core. I have learned this from my poetry work over the last 1 5 years. You read locally; you do readings for a pittance, for free, for gas money; you e-mail poems to friends, you build a base of people who like your poetry and respond to it. You work up to wider circles of readers. Hooray, you get a publisher for the first book. Now you work on the second. But you don’t forget your base. Who’s in your head when you’re writing, to whom are you talking? That’s your core authence. Don’t let your writing become a tour guide for the powerful, and frown and turn away from your loyal reading base.

Cover Yourself. Every step of the publishing process requires vigilance: editing, finding an agent, accepting a publisher, the contract, and then book design, jacket, blurbs, publicity. If you have misgivings about why an agent or an editor wants your work, investigate, and leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt. Find an agent who “gets it.” Educate your agent and editor. Don’t take “That isn’t standard practice” for an answer. Push for changes to what’s standard if it’s important to you. Consult a lawyer. Shape your book reception before they shape it for you.

When I signed the contract on my upcoming novel (my first), I asked for control over the cover. “No,” came the answer. So I beefed up the cover clause. Did it help? No. They still designed an offensive cover featuring a “Muslim girl meets Britney Spears” hijabi with a bare midriff and her eyes cut off. I wanted a cover that featured praying, not navel-baring. They did not seem aware that cutting off part of her face was a clichéd image and that the bare skin was out of character with my story. And they didn’t want to hear it from me. From the house’s perspective, it wasn’t Orientalism, it was just inconvenient they’d already expended the budgeted resources for graphic design. I scrounged through the contract with a lawyer. I wanted to withdraw the book, wondering if this was a sign that they weren’t the right publishers for it. We finally compromised, on a hijabi with no bare midriff and no hidden eyes. (The compromised cover still does not appeal to me, but at least it is no longer deeply offensive.)


What are the alternatives to the mainstream trade book industry? University publishers, because they are subsidized, tend to worry less about how respecting your integrity might hurt their bottom line. There is self-publishing (one of the best Muslim poets writing today, Daniel Abdal Hayy Moore, has chosen this route). Perhaps the best of available alternatives are small presses founded by people critical of the Eurocentric mainstream – Before Columbus, Aunt Lute Press, and other Afrocentric and minority publishers. Even so, a Muslim woman writer going there cannot assume her concerns will always dovetail with their concerns. There are Muslim publishers. So far, however, they have not established a record of having an eye for fine writing – for adab, in its classical Arabic meaning of a broadminded appreciation of writing for its inherent aesthetic quality, beyond its strictly religious value.9 Their emphasis is on making khutbas (sermons) and other religious texts available. Muslim presses concerned with literature as much as with religious instruction will, inshallah (God willing), emerge, and soon there will be a whole new array of options.

The bad thing about the mainstream U.S. book industry that it is market-driven, not truth-driven – can also be a good thing: If broad new readerships decide they want to hear more than Victim and Escapee stories, they may push the book world to develop new, equally profitable habits. Non-Muslim editors and publishers ready to question their unexamined assumptions and learn something new no matter how hardboiled and worldly wise they consider themselves are out there in mainstream publishing, as are Muslim readers willing to read more generously and intelligently. Their presences can create space for alternatives to the current dilemma facing Muslim writers. Because, let’s face it, what gives you access to the most readers right now is the mainstream commercial book world, and we need to strategize for our survival beyond the grinding gears of its stereotypes.

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