Archive for February, 2011

The Unexplainable Appeal of the NBC Show “Outsourced”

February 27, 2011

Have you ever seen it? It’s still in its first season, and (from what I can tell) it’s doing pretty well via ratings.

The premise: a cute American white guy (totally devoid of personality, though in an endearing way) moves to Mumbai, India in order to to oversee his company’s outsourced call center. The ensuing culture clashes, amplified by an Indian office staff chock full of crazies, make for a reasonably funny sitcom script.

The show is rife—RIFE—with generalizing and often offensive (racist) cultural stereotypes. I won’t go into it here, but watch an episode and you’ll see. It’s impossible not to cringe at least once very three minutes.

Last fall, though, whenever I was around and it happened to be on, I couldn’t help myself. Like being hypnotized, almost. The feeling I got from watching it was (astonishingly) GENUINE ENJOYMENT.

This doesn’t directly have anything to do with Muslims—though a few appear on the show, and some of the actors are Muslim—but rather people who look like they could be. Or, religion totally aside, just people who don’t look white-bread American!

Being of South Asian descent, I don’t generally get to see a lot of people who look like me on TV. And until I stumbled on the show Outsourced, I didn’t realize how important that representation really is. Before its premiere, I’d never seen a show (on prime time television, no less!) displaying such a very high concentration of Desi people; it made for a fantastically pleasant surprise.

I can, of course, take the initiative myself to find appropriate media representations. I can do research and read books written by people like me, listen to music produced by people like me, watch shows and movies portraying people like me. (Another TV show that’s far superior in quality but more of an effort to watch is Little Mosque on the Prairie.) But there’s NOTHING like seeing yourself represented on something so now-antiquated as live television, smack-dab in the hot middle of popular culture.

Sometimes I worry about the potential for Outsourced—and viral YouTube videos like “Club Can’t Handle Me (Indian Style)”—to send the wrong messages about Indian (or any group of) people, especially when accessed by much larger masses of the population. Artists with wider audiences most certainly bear a greater responsibility to represent their identities well… but sometimes the representation alone is enough.

I haven’t seen much of the show since it got moved from the spot directly after The Office. If I’m ever in the same room as that catchy theme song, though, I guarantee you it’ll have me hooked.

Why My Women/Gender/Islam Class Sometimes Makes Me Uncomfortable

February 24, 2011

For the standards of this school, it’s a pretty large discussion class, with over 20 people sitting around a sort-of-pretentious boardroom table. Though I’m only auditing and don’t have to turn in any written assignments (which is GLORIOUS), I’ve been trying my best to keep up with the readings, of which there are a lot!

What makes me uneasy sometimes is that our discussions force me to confront some really, really bad stuff about Muslims. Not about Islam—and the professor is fantastic at pointing out this distinction as well—but about the people all over the world (and the history of the world) who profess to profess Islam.

Today, for example, someone brought up the story of Faleh Hassan Almaleki, the Iraqi man who ran over his daughter with his car, then called it an “honor killing.” Which led predictably to the topic of religiously justified honor killings in general, naturally causing me to SUIMS.*

*Shift Uncomfortably In My Seat. (Duh. A GOOD ONE, RIGHT.)

Something else I can’t forget, probably the worst thing that’s happened so far, is what I overheard a girl say to a classmate before class one day:

“I just don’t see how, based on what we’re learning, you can be a feminist and religious at the same time.”

Yikes!

But I keep reminding myself:

  • The preconceived notions of smart, informed, cultivated liberal arts college kids are SO hardly the worst of what’s out there. Their opinions are a good window into what kinds of misconceptions exist in general, giving me a better idea of how to communicate on the subject.
  • This type of confrontation is EXACTLY what is healthy in the realm of identity study; it’s an excellent thing, even if I don’t speak up every time. The Bad Stuff isn’t going to go away if I just don’t think about it.

There’s also my self-consciousness about being an obvious Muslim female perspective in a “Women & Gender in Islam” class. I’m always worried about representing Muslims poorly or unjustly, but I do think it’s mostly self-consciousness (and that I’m distorting my own authority in my head). Working on it!

Overall—and I’ll tell anyone who has a half-second to listen—I am madly in love with the class. The readings are great, the professor is great, my fellow classmates are great, the discussions are great. The 75 minutes whiz by every time.

Essay Collection: “I Speak for Myself”

February 24, 2011

Just got wind of a book of essays called I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, due to come out this summer. According to the book’s website, the women were born and raised in the U.S., and they’re all under the age of 40.

In addition to having a like perspective, it turns out that I know a couple of the contributors personally. Awesome!

Looking forward to its release (June 1st).

Hijab and Submission vs. Subversion, part 2

February 19, 2011

The word “Islam,” translated from Arabic, literally means submission or surrender (to the will of God). Accordingly, the name for the submitter/surrenderer is a variation of the same word: “Muslim.”

Both words come from the same root as “salam,” which means peace, so that’s pretty cool (haha) and something to be proud of. It makes sense, too, for a religion to emphasize the importance of yielding [one’s individual self] to a greater good/deity/community.

Despite all that, and as was hinted at in the last post, I’m infinitely more interested in subversion, what we might consider to be a directly opposing idea. Not necessarily subversion of God, but more broadly of structures and society (conceivably, the ones God allows to exist).

It’s because I’m still young, probably.

The act of hijab itself can fall easily under both categories. The ritual veiling that’s been passed along for ages is certainly a form of submission—to cultural tradition, to religious convention, and (arguably) to a global legacy of patriarchy.

At the same time, hijab subverts another entire set of norms, especially where and when I am. Rarely in the United States is a hijab-wearer not in the minority, so if we take for granted that [at least in the U.S.] hijab is a choice (as opposed to skin color, for example, which isn’t), doesn’t that imply subversion?

In this context, the subversion would be directed at a specific set of assumptions in Western culture (dominant ideology, master narrative, whatever). It works against normal American expectations for a few different reasons, including:

  1. Islam isn’t the dominant religion. (Let’s pretend the link between hijab and Islam is obvious.)
  2. Religious expression is also rare, and faith is considered largely a private matter. (Hijab is a visible, near-blinding example of religious expression.)
  3. There is a standard of what basic items make up women’s attire, and hijab isn’t among them. (As far as head-covering is concerned, anyway.)
  4. There is some level of consensus about which female body parts are appropriate when bare in public, and which aren’t. (Hijab overshoots the mark here in designating hair, among other things, as inappropriate.)
    …and the list can go on.

The real point is trickier to articulate. If you believe that the dominant ideology objectifies women’s bodies—not exclusively, and not always, but in general—then you can see how one MIGHT imagine hijab to be an act of subversion (/rejection) of that culture. (By “dominant ideology” here I mostly mean pop culture media, past and present. For examples, refer to: anything. ever.)

Is the subversion effective? I think so, but it’s not enough to just say that. I’ll keep thinking about how to express the ways that it works.

Hijab and Submission vs. Subversion, part 1

February 17, 2011

When I was in New York a few months ago—not that New York had anything to do with it—I flirted with the idea of getting an eyebrow piercing. The impulse sprang from a conversation about first impressions and expectations based on appearance, and what impressions/expectations people have of me.

Disillusioned by the stereotypes associated with hijab (meek, quiet, submissive), I felt the urge to rebel, to appropriate a form (piercings/tattoos) that’s often used for that reason.

My nose is already pierced, but that’s different. My perceived (and real) ethnicity makes it NOT weird and not rebellious that I have a nose piercing; it would be different if I were white. I don’t remember where I heard this, but clothes and accessories are not worn on a blank canvas!

My already pigmented “canvas” is complicated further, of course, by the head covering. And so, I need (or I feel like I need) to offset or negate some of the messages it involuntarily sends.

While I didn’t end up getting pierced—too chicken—the idea of nonconformity still appeals. (Should I pin this on the American individualist values I was instilled with? Maybe.) The appeal is dangerous, though. It has everything to do with context and conditions, and is that not the slipperiest slope you’ve ever seen?

Is it worth it to try subverting blanket stereotypes, or does making the effort to do that let them win?

From NYFW: Victoria Beckham’s Fall 2011 Collection

February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

A superficial-but-happily-indulgent post for a superficial-but-happily-indulgent day.

On left, a sample from Victoria Beckham’s collection for fall 2011—I thought the whole thing was pretty cool when I saw it.

Minimalism and loosey-goosey silhouettes (she’s preggers, after all) are RIGHT up my alley. How awesome is this and this and this, and even this?

Photo credit (and more from the whole collection): here and here.

Auditing: “Women and Gender in Islam”

February 10, 2011

I have the good fortune right now of being able to audit a college class called “Women and Gender in Islam.” It wasn’t specifically in the plan, but after only a couple of sessions I can see that it’ll provide plenty of blog fodder: the professor is phenomenal, and since it’s a discussion class, it’ll be great to hear others’ perspectives on a set of highly related topics.

It’s like a turbocharged jump-start of topics to think about, which is SO convenient.

The reason I bring it up is to explain that my experience in the course will give my posts an inevitably academic bent, at least for the next few months. Its syllabus includes a whole bunch of relevant and valuable texts, so I’ll likely be referring and responding to them throughout. While I don’t want to rely on the class too heavily, I can’t pretend it won’t affect this blog.

More than anything else, this is me forcing myself not to plagiarize, because I know I’ll want to!

Good and Bad Questions to Ask the Hijabi You Know

February 8, 2011

I could get into big trouble for this. What right do I have to call some questions stupid? None. What follows is my opinion only.

1. “Why do you wear the hijab?”

A complicated one, to be sure. On one hand, I’m inclined to say that the construction of the question is less than ideal. Clearly, the answer to that is more complex than it would seem; the hijabi in question could probably write a whole blog about it!

If you’re here, you’re likely familiar with the stock answers that many women are likely to give, if only because they know going into more detail would take forever. (To be honest, they are probably also skeptical of your ability to fully understand, as somebody who doesn’t live the identity 24/7.)

ON THE OTHER HAND, this question has been the single mode of entry into a topic of conversation that I wish I had more with non-Muslims. Most people, I think, are too nervous to even broach the subject. If you’re interested, and you know the woman even a little bit, do ask! To deal with the issues above, do some research, so you’re equipped to understand and respond with a little more sophistication.

Even without the research, though. Ask anyway. Most Muslim women will be glad you did.

2. “Do you shower with it on?”

This is a SILLY QUESTION, so please don’t bother asking. Do you shower with your clothes on? What’s the curtain for, anyway?

3. “Did your family (/father/husband) make you wear that?”

Also not so great. For me, the answer is absolutely not, and I’m slightly offended that you suspect MY family to be capable of such tyranny. Unfortunately, for some women around the world, it is true, but unless you know the woman well, she probably won’t want to talk about it with you.

I would rate this question as around the same level of rudeness as “how much money do you make?” or “what’s your sex life like?”

4. “Where do you get those things?”

Pretty harmless. If she answers really nicely, you could go buy her one.

5. “Will you show me your hair?”

If you’re male, forget about it. If you’re female, it’s still not a good idea to ask. People’s preferences on this vary, so unless you know the hijabi really well, just refrain, because let’s face it: you’re just curious.

6. “Doesn’t it get hot in the summer?”

This is a funny one, because the two available answers are both obvious. Yes, it gets hot, because it’s the SUMMER. The sentiment you’ll receive, though, is usually no, no more than usual, because we get used to it (just as with clothing). Everyone is different, however, so if you’re truly interested in your friend’s natural ability to cool off effectively in August, ask away.

7. “CAN YOU HEAR ME OKAY?”

YES I CAN.

… I feel a little silly now, well into writing this post, because I certainly didn’t intend to come up with a bunch of do-nots to discourage the inquisitive. You’d do better to follow this general rule, then:

If you want to get to know the woman better as a person, you’ll have much more freedom asking questions than if you view her as some foreign creature. Know that one person’s experience is far from representative. Be genuine, and it’ll come through that way.

To reiterate what I said on #1, it’s better just to ask, even if you’re afraid of sounding stupid. Being candid in your interest is better than taking great pains to pretend you don’t see difference, any day.

Hijab and Trying to Define Modesty

February 2, 2011

Late last spring—two days before graduation, in fact—my four beloved roommates and I went to brunch to celebrate the end of our era.

This far north, there’s an abundance of charming little breakfast diners, and that day we hit a particularly endearing one. The food tasted great, the atmosphere was pleasant, etc.

As we were leaving, the cheerful older woman settling our checks complimented me on my headscarf, as sometimes happens. I thanked her and took my change as she whammed me unassumingly with The Question.

“Uh,” I distinctly remember saying, being caught off guard; unprepared, I mumbled off something about modesty.

“Modesty?” she said, surprisingly sassily. “Hon, that’s great and all, but believe me, you don’t have ANYTHING to be modest about.”

I grinned—she’d clearly meant for it to be a compliment—and thanked her again. She didn’t quite phrase it right, but I think she was trying to say I shouldn’t be hiding my looks (though the harder I think about even that, the funnier a remark it seems). She was very nice. We all walked out snickering.

Clearly, I’m having trouble finding an adequate answer to the question, even beyond the repertoire of stock responses to keep ready for more casual exchanges.

“Modesty” is such an interesting concept. In this case, the idea is that a woman’s hair contributes directly to her beauty, and so veiling it represents a deliberate concealment of that allure. There are several problematic implications of the fact that, though hijab as a concept still exists for Muslim men, it is carried out differently and (obviously) less conspicuously for the other gender. But those subjects (the blatant, heteronormative distinction between men and women; and the respective value placements in that system) are a discussion for another day.

What’s so funny about modesty is that by choosing to cover something up—to not be extravagant about your income, or to be humble about your achievements—you are at the same time admitting that you’re kind of awesome. I mean, the hijab can be straight-up presumptuous, in a sense, because wearing it for reasons of modesty implies the idea that the world can’t handle your stunning loveliness unfiltered.

It’s hardly the main reason, of course, that I or anybody else truly takes up hijab—nobody is that narcissistic. So I think it’s worth exploring other ways to define modesty that don’t assume that a woman’s beauty is simply a treasure so worth guarding.

The definition of modesty that I like better has more to do with discreetness. Most women don’t sail around topless, for example, not because their chests are so innately gorgeous, but because we’ve all decided that the female breast is more sexual than the male one. So, gem sweaters and other tops for women exist in part to avoid indecency and distraction. (The notion that sexual = indecent and distracting is also maybe for another day.)

Following that logic: woven into the practice of hijab is the assumption that female hair is inherently sexual. While the headscarf itself may be distracting for people forming first impressions—it definitely is sometimes—the point is that the distraction isn’t sexual by nature.

Up for debate: whether body parts, male or female, can be “inherently” sexual, or if it’s all a process of cultural socialization.