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.

“The World Did Not Love Us”

Last weekend, Iran hanged 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari for the 2007 murder of a former intelligence officer, who, Jabbari claimed, had tried to rape her. Human rights organizations have described the seven-year investigation as deeply flawed and unfair and Jabbari’s execution has been widely condemned by the international community. In a final letter to her mother (full text here), Jabbari delivers a tragic and heartbreaking message reflective of the sorry state of women’s rights in Iran.

You taught us that as we go to school one should be a lady in face of the quarrels and complaints. Do you remember how much you underlined the way we behave? Your experience was incorrect. When this incident happened, my teachings did not help me. Being presented in court made me appear as a cold-blooded murderer and a ruthless criminal. I shed no tears. I did not beg. I did not cry my head off since I trusted the law … The world did not love us. It did not want my fate. And now I am giving in to it and embrace the death.

Rest in peace, Reyhaneh.