Posts Tagged ‘stereotypes’

Girls Who Wear Hijab

August 13, 2012

Girls who wear hijab, as opposed to girls who don’t, are more likely to make me feel self-conscious, insecure, and critical of myself. Generally, they are composed, polite, widely accomplished, and (most importantly) articulate, of which I’m particularly jealous.

They are usually (generalizing again here) successful human beings, and the fact that they possess the extra grace and security to express it visibly with hijab fills me with envy. It might be surprising and in some cases totally inaccurate for me to say this, but a lot of hijab-wearers I know exude a “devil-may-care” attitude about society’s demands on their lives and bodies. It’s very attractive.

The running theme here is self-confidence. In my limited experience of friends, family and acquaintances, girls who wear hijab value themselves more highly than their similar-aged counterparts. Sometimes this translates as arrogance, which is an unfortunate byproduct, but usually that’s not the case, because these self-confident hijabis are also—incredibly and unbelievably—good people.

Girls who wear hijab love their parents and their siblings, and they show it in ways I could never imagine. They serve their communities while everyone else is too busy running around; they’re running around, too, meaning they get more done than the rest of us. They can be shortsighted and judgmental, but more often they’re generous, forgiving and kind. They are effortlessly sincere.

Girls who wear hijab are by no means perfect and, like I said, they do sometimes make me feel inadequate. But a few that I know are some of my favorite people in the whole world, and I’m grateful to have every one of them in my life.

Hijab and Race

April 18, 2011

This past weekend I attended a conference in Boston where I got to spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism in the U.S.

Contemplating the topic alongside this blog, I’m back to questions of public perception. What is the hijab’s power to racialize (i.e. to give a racial character or context to) one’s identity?

Note: I’m using the word “race” in this post as what we think of regarding physical characteristics, NOT biological clusters or national/cultural groups (which would fall more closely to “ethnicity”).

There’s zero question that racial and visible religious identifiers intersect, making it really hard to come to any real conclusions. In my own case, my race is decidedly non-European*; my skin tone is medium-brown and I have fairly South Asian features.

*I chose to identify this way (first as what I’m not, then as what I am) only because it’s a relevant detail in the United States. Hijab or no hijab, my experience would be different if I were white.

So, I’m interested in the ways my hijab might interact with my perceived race. Some possible options:

  • Accentuation of race: This is probably most often the result given my particular racial appearance. Though my other clothes betray me not at all (they come mostly from the Gap and its sartorial cousins), the hijab really adds a “foreign” look to my style. (How exotic!) I’m willing to bet that the headscarf, more than the color of my skin, leads people to believe (as many do initially) that I’m an immigrant.
  • De-emphasis of race: It’s also possible that the headscarf is so distracting that it overpowers any racial signifiers I would set off with my skin color/physiognomy. It’s pointless to try and measure, but it’s worth mentioning because the two don’t totally go hand-in-hand, either. For example, when I meet new people of my own race (a situation where race would be less of a glaring indicator of difference/individual identity), the hijab sends off signals of heightened religiosity (sometimes more than I’d like). So, maybe it shifts people’s attention in general from one kind of categorization (racial) to another (religious).
  • Contradiction/counteraction of race: This doesn’t really happen to me, but it might if I looked Irish or Norwegian.

New question: does it matter? Why is this important?

Maybe it’s not, but I think it’s worth calling attention to the fact that so often, hijab is just incorporated into race (e.g. when hijab-related hate is called “racism”). Neither can operate independently, but they don’t exactly equal the same thing.

What Would Bill Maher Do? Start an Arab Sexual Revolution

March 1, 2011


Thanks to Muslimah Media Watch for the alert about Bill Maher’s latest cause: the plight of Muslim women. Specifically, calling for a sexual revolution in the Middle East because The Men Have Got It All Wrong.

If you have a few minutes, watch this conversation between Maher and Tavis Smiley on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. (I couldn’t embed the video, but isn’t this screen shot a gem?)

In short, this is the argument:

BM: We (American men) treat our women better than they (Middle Eastern men) treat theirs.

TS: Okay. But should we be telling them what to do?

BM: Yup.

It’s easy to get caught up in Bill Maher’s logic, I’ll admit. But he’s simplifying like nobody’s business, and Tavis Smiley impressed me in standing his ground. Sara Yasin blogs about it nicely as well:

“While the Western world has made wide strides for women, acting as though it is a finished project ignores the work that we still have to do as American feminists and treats feminism and equality like a video game.” (Read more: MMW, “Knight in Shining Armor or Idiot in Tinfoil?”)

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.

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?