It’s a bit sad that I’m ambivalent about writing this column. After voicing my critiques on the subject on Twitter, I was attacked as being ‘a hater,’ ‘catty,’ ‘jealous,’, ’emotional’, ‘judgmental’ and, my favourite one, a ‘feminazi with a political agenda.’
As if there’s any other kind of feminazi.
Why the attacks? Because I, like many Muslim men and, more importantly, women, feel really uneasy about a video released yesterday by the group (movement? cultural tour de force?) Mipsterz – Muslim Hipsters. The video, set to Jay Z’s Somewhere in America, features well produced shots of stylin’ hijab clad women strutting their cool in and around random urban areas. Aesthetically, it’s really hip, smooth, fierce and, for all intents and purposes, cool.
But that’s about it.
The video doesn’t really seem to have any purpose aside from showing well-dressed, put together Muslim women in poses perfect for a magazine spread. If anything, by stretching, its apparent purpose is to highlight the diversity of Muslim American women, as several comments under the video noted, as ‘normal’ and ‘fun’. One of the women in the video even mentioned that it was created to fight against ‘stereotypes’ by expanding the types of Muslim women we are shown and fuse the American with the idea of ‘The Other’. The purpose, she and some other argued, was to show the ‘Muslim rejects’.
If this video is supposed to be ironic, this 90’s kid from the generation that invented contemporary popular irony (you’re welcome) totally doesn’t get it.
The video, produced/created/directed primarily by Muslim men (oh hey voyeuristic-cinematography-through-the-Male-Gaze heyyy), doesn’t achieve anything to really fight against stereotypes: it is literally young Muslim women with awesome fashion sense against the awkward backdrop of Jay Z singing about Miley Cyrus twerking. The only semblance of purpose seems to come in with the images of Ibtihaj Muhammad who is shown in her element, doing what she does as a professional athlete. Those images are powerful and beautiful in what they are saying. Other than that, however, all we as the audience are afforded are images that, simply put, objectify the Muslim female form by denigrating it completely to the physical. Muhammad’s form as a unique Muslim woman is complemented by her matter – the stuff that makes her her; makes her Ibtihaj. As the credits below the video mention, the rest of the women (Muhammad is included in this) are merely “models” even though every single one of them has a central and important function and contribution to her respective community and in her field. Instead of showing what makes each and every one of those women Herself, they’re made into this superfluous conformity of an image we, as the audience, consume and ogle at because hey, they’re part of the aesthetic of the video. Ibtihaj is shown as a professional badass and the rest are shown as professional hot women who skate in heels and take selfies on the roof. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, in and of itself, but what a strange dissonance and incongruence in imagery?
And if that isn’t textbook objectification then I think I’ve been raging against the wrong machine since I was 14.
In the name of fighting stereotypes it seems we’re keen to adopt – especially for Muslim women who wear headscarves – tools and images that objectify us (either as sexualized or desexualized; as depoliticized or politicized) rather than support us where we need that support. We’re so incredibly obsessed with appearing “normal” or “American” or “Western” by way of what we do and what we wear that we undercut the actual abnormality of our comunities and push essentialist definitions of “normal”, “American” and “Western.” In that process of searching for the space of normalcy, we create ‘normal’ and through that a ‘good’ Muslim. And in all of this, we might just lose that which makes us unique: our substance.
The Elephant in the Room
The process of creating ‘normal’ is also stripping us, especially women, away from central parts of our faith. The Mipsterz video is hard to stomach for so many because it throws the increasing Islamofashionista culture into your face. Catwalk ready, catwalk strut and catwalk ‘tude seem so antithetical to what we know and expect, sometimes zealously, as Islamic modesty. This isn’t about policing what we wear and how or about casting judgment, but about the sort of culture we’re creating for Muslim women’s dress that is no diferrent than the images and lifestyles sans hijab we criticize. The superficial culture we critique and claim is why we wear hijab is becoming our hijab. It is an elephant in the room that is hard to ignore or swallow easily (well, it is an elephant) without offering a strong opinion and observation, wanted or not.
Sahar Ghumkhor opined on Twitter that what struck her the most about the video was that there was “something depoliticising about this video in how it reproduces a politics of sameness.” Kaouther Ferjani tweeted ‘promoting ‘palatable’ and cool hijab to show we’re not that different screams insecurity & not progress.’ Azizah Magazine’s Sana Rahim expressed her confusion by asking ‘Isn’t focusing so much on the exterior exactly what caused the trouble we face with the representation of Muslim women?’ When the purpose of the video was argued, another tweep – unimpressed – pointed out: “In the description they title the names of these women “models”. Fashion emphasis is not that subtle, really.” Journalist Ghazala Irshad, wrote elsewhere:
Why spend all this time and money traveling to different locations around the US filming these intelligent women only to not hear anything from them and hear a man rapping about a girl shaking her ass in the background? Why don’t we send a message about why we are different?
Again, this isn’t about the individual women in the video – the last thing they need is more body policing and if you’re spending your efforts on social media harping on them then you’re part of the ultimate problem. As far as I’m concerned, more power to them. What this is about, however, is the concept of this video that is built on particular mores that we’re beginning to accept as ‘normal’ and as useful for ‘breaking stereotypes.’ Is this video really going to break any stereotypes? Honestly? Not really. Despite being made for a non-Muslim audience, its primary audience has already been Muslim and chances are it won’t make much of a fuss elsewhere unless our Overlords Buzzfeed and/or Gawker decide it should. It will, however, help create new stereotypes about cool Muslims versus not so cool Muslims. It will, most importantly and poignantly, perpetuate existing stereotypes about Muslim women’s dress’ proxmity to their Americaness and coolness. Especially towards young and thus impressionable Muslim girls. And these stereotypes exist more so in our communities than outside. The concept behind this video misses the point that stereotypes, within and outside our community, aren’t fought with just well-produced videos that focus on consumptive and repetitive mainstream images (even if with a hijab twist), without any substance. Much like what the history of our faith has shown us, the greatest way to fight animosity and resistance is through our character – what it is that makes us us. Maybe in trying to ‘normalize’ ourselves, we’re losing ourselves?
I know it’s not easy. It’s not easy being a woman, a Muslim and especially a (covered) Muslim woman in the ambiguous West. As I’ve argued elsewhere:
A body clad in a headscarf is not a body liberated from social expectations and demands. From both within the Muslim community and from outside of it, women remain encumbered with pedestals for their looks, their personalities and their bodies. This isn’t a problem of religion; it is a problem of cultures and communities – often clashing.
Those of us who wear a headscarf – in whatever form and with whatever clothes and accessories – are constantly carrying a burden of representation and identity, a very public testament of faith and group belonging even if we’re not wearing it for religious reasons (I know, shocking, but this happens). We will always be critiqued for what we wear and what we don’t wear because women, by virtue of their ‘reproductive value’, carry the burden of judgment for their entire communities. What we as Muslim women don’t need in trying to own our spaces in our small and large communities is the use of our image for the purposes of fixing our image. More specifically: we don’t need to use a (“positive”) superficial representation of us to combat other (“negative”) superficial representations. The reason why stereotypes are oppressive and hurtful is that they dilute the diversity and power of our individual experiences by employing caricatures and images that do not allow, to any extent, for depth. The formula for creating stereotypes, mainstream tropes of assimilation and ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ should not be our formula for fighting against those very things. So, we need more than our image. We need us.
In this day and age, we are the image that we create and put out – so what are we individually and collectively putting out? Whatever our intentions maybe we need to recognize that art and representation are – at minimum- two-way streets where the eye of the beholder will ultimately frame the purpose more than the artist/creator him or herself ever can.
I leave you with these powerful words from Dr. Suad Abdul Khabeer:
Somewhere in America? Somewhere in America there is Muslim sister whose scarf is slipping slightly as she nods off on her train ride coming off the late shift. Somewhere in America a niqabi is frustrated in a Muslim clothing store because the “L” sizing on the jlbabs they sell is false marketing. Somewhere in America a Muslim mother tries to sooth a screaming baby while she debates whether the scarf on her head is large enough for an impromptu breastfeeding session. Somewhere in America a Muslim woman giggles with glee after finding the perfect shade of plum. Somewhere in America a Muslim woman is grateful that her headscarf style will cover the choke marks on her neck. Everywhere in America, a Muslim woman’s headscarf is not only some sex, swag and consumption, it also belief and beauty, defiance and struggle, secrets and shame.