Learning and un-learning your own stereotype

When I was growing up, Islam colored almost every aspect of my life – from my clothes, to my social life, to the food I ate. It also motivated me to seek success, to get good grades, to focus on improving the world around me. When my parents taught me to pray five times a day, to fast, and to read the Quran, they did so not because of God-fearing dogma, but because they wanted their daughter to grow up to be a well-rounded, intelligent woman. They wanted me to strive for something bigger than myself. And my experience is not unique. Most Muslim women I know, living in the United States and abroad, can relate to it.

Why, then, does the world insist on seeing us as the exception and not the norm? Despite all the amazing and accomplished Muslim women throughout the world – from heads of state, to human rights leaders, to scholars, to athletes – the stereotype of the Muslim woman persists: voiceless, oppressed, and bereft of rights.

The stereotype is so far from my experience, that I actually had to learn about it. From Hollywood, in fact. Not Without My Daughter (1991) was my first introduction to the stifled, battered woman tyrannized by Islam. The effect of this film was so strong on me and my family (and, as it happens, on the entire Iranian-American community) that, to this day, we cannot bring ourselves to forgive Sally Field for her propagandist portrayal of Betty Mahmoody.

But before I ever knew Betty Mahmoody existed, I learned about Zaynab. She was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad and the daughter of Imam Ali and Fatemeh. The story of Zaynab’s courage, strength, and wisdom was told and re-told every Ashura when my family and I would go to masjid. After the Battle of Karbala, she and her family were taken captive and brought to the court of the ruling despot Yazid. Amid Zaynab’s protests, Yazid asked, “Who is this arrogant woman?” So began Zaynab’s renowned sermon, as she spoke against oppression, injustice, and bravely defended the rights of her family.

It took me years to realize that my feminism is rooted in Islam – that it is not at odds with, but nourished by my faith. In times of darkness or uncertainty, I will do my best to channel Zaynab. Especially now, when my identity as a Muslim woman has been twisted and bastardized, when I feel breathless explaining and apologizing for events outside of myself, when the hatred emanating from the highest levels of government hangs over me like a constant cloud, when my place in my own country is questioned.

Especially now, I will channel Zaynab.

Black and brown deaths – and the lessons that die with them

Today is Eid-al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But I cannot bring myself to wish my friends and family Eid Mobarak. I cannot stop thinking about what happened several days ago, two days ago, yesterday, today.

Istanbul. Baghdad. Medina. Jeddah. Qatif. Dhaka.web1_111210532-bf0c8bbfe49346c784007fb6854ceb3c

Baton Rouge.

We are breathless. We are exhausted. We are broken.

It is difficult to celebrate when the foundations of your faith crumble beneath your feet. No, not faith in God. Faith in humanity.

Daesh, better known in Western media outlets as ISIS, slaughtered hundreds in the Middle East – not unlike the horrifying attacks in Orlando, Brussels or Paris. And yet, there is no collective outrage. No red-faced TV pundits demanding justice. No screaming or filibustering politicians, no silent protests on the floor of Congress. Muslim grief is not collective grief. It’s deserved. It’s par for the course. They brought it upon themselves, says David Frum.

And this morning, we wake up to the news that police in Baton Rouge tackled, mounted, shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling in front of the convenience store where he worked. His crime? He was a black man with a gun. Like millions of other Americans, he had a gun. Like this San Diego white man, who was only injured and disarmed by police, Sterling had a gun. The owner of the convenience store said the gun wasn’t even in Sterling’s hands when he was killed.

I haven’t turned on cable news. It’s easier to live in the social media echo chamber that is Facebook and Twitter. Because the reality is much too disturbing. The justifications for why a 12-year-old black boy with a toy gun should be shot and killed in cold blood are much too painful to hear. The argument that a 17-year-old unarmed black boy with Skittles in hand brought his death upon himself is much too agonizing to process.

Blame the victims. It’s easier. Blame their religion, the color of their skin, the way they dress, the things they said. They should have, they could have. But what does it matter anyway? They’re dead. The lesson they would have learned died with them.

What is our lesson? In a world where people care little about black and brown bodies, where people have the luxury of absolving themselves of guilt or responsibility for deaths thousands of miles away, where empathy and remorse have geographical and racial limits, where people throw their hands up, shrug their shoulders, and casually mutter “All Lives Matter…”

What is our lesson?

Can Islamic Feminism Succeed?

Muslim. American. Iranian.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting identities. As I grew older, I realized that the hardest identity to reconcile was the one I had actually overlooked.

Woman. islamicfem

I have been reading a lot about Islamic feminism lately, mostly as research for my graduate capstone project, but also because I am fascinated by Muslim women’s efforts to have it both ways. Women like Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nayereh Tohidi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini have written extensively about the use of Islam – the essence of which is submission to God – as a tool for emancipation. They search for the theological basis for gender equality and freedom for women. They assert their right to engage in a major feature of Shia Islam known as ijtihad, which allows for the individual interpretation of Islamic law and the adaptation of faith to modern times. They negotiate and renegotiate what it means to be a Muslim woman in largely patriarchal societies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim woman living in Iran or the United States. Chances are, your life is dictated by rules set forth by men. Islamic feminists turn the tables, using the same tools that long justified their oppression to justify their liberation.

It’s an undertaking that, I suppose, many Muslim women (including myself) unconsciously perform on a daily basis. But to what end? I want to believe in the ability of Islamic feminism to transform the state of women throughout the Middle East. But as long as Islamic feminists pursue their goals within the confines of religion, specifically religious government, I’m afraid they are doomed to fail. For instance, Iran’s male-dominated clerical regime is not likely to accept the theological interpretations of women as the basis of law. The government prevents women from pursuing positions of authority. The Supreme Leader will always be male. No matter what, the efforts of Islamic feminists will only reproduce the same anti-democratic hierarchies.

The theories of Islamic feminists are just that – theories. This is not to say they lack significance. On the contrary, their endeavors to reinterpret Islam bring new, progressive and challenging ideas to the forefront. In so doing, they undoubtedly help countless Muslim women discover their personal sense of agency, which can be an important force for change. But, in Iran, the foundations are broken. Patriarchy inevitably wins. And women’s attempts at religious interpretation are destined to fall through the cracks.