What does it mean to ‘break’ a stereotype? Does it mean acting contrary to what society expects? Does it mean to be the first to do something? Does it mean to do something actually ground-breaking? Or does it mean to abide by what some else thinks is news worthy?
A few weeks ago Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, a discussion program, featured an episode called “Muslim women breaking stereotypes.” The purpose of the show was to highlight the ways in which Muslim women are “challenging stereotypes.” Given the intro to the show, it seems that the whole thing stemmed from Richard Dawkins’ tweet about Islam needing a feminist revolution, and the backlash that followed on the part of Muslim women.
Al-Jazeera requested suggestions about the Muslim women their audience would like to hear from. The suggestions included Malala and Queen Rania, among others. In the end, they interviewed Alaa Murabit (The Voice of Libyan Women), Sakdiyah Ma’ruf (an Indonesian stand-up comedian), Edina Lekovic (Women’s Mosque) and Ibtihaj Muhammad (USA Fencing champion). A rationale for the women chosen was not given.
The group of women interviewed was not particularly diverse. Non-hijabis or niqabis were not featured, and to my knowledge no openly LGBTQ Muslim individuals were included. Furthermore, three of them had ties to the West, which is not particularly representative of Muslim women elsewhere.
The show opened with the question, How does it feel to be described as a Muslim…? To which the interviewees replied with a mix of responses about how people focus too much on veils, how both Islamophobes and extremist Muslims stereotype Muslim women and how Muslim women are often defined against “the stereotype.” After the initial question, the interviews focused on each woman’s work and accomplishments, from their daily routines to their political and religious activism. Much of the attention was directed to Lekovic, because of the controversies caused by the development of the Women’s Mosque of America and Murabit, perhaps because of the prominence of the Libyan revolution and “reconstruction” in the media, some of which has been covered by MMW (here, here and here).
The show featured some great topics like political empowerment, women’s space and role in mosques, structural and institutional issues that prevent women from acquiring rights, and how Muslim women can go about following their dreams and goals. But it also included cliché topics like hijab and what it enables or does not enable a Muslim woman to do…
Overall, the show was not bad. In fact, I think that it may be a good introduction to some of the issues that Muslim women face in particular settings (i.e. the West). Nonetheless, the idea of stereotypes got buried in fluffy conversations about how Muslim women break them… (confused? I know!). One of the things that was not dealt with and that, I think, is essential to the conversation is that stereotypes are power relations. They define “the other,” and they can be so powerful that actually result in their institutionalization through policy; for instance, the bans on niqabs that are justified in terms of gender equality. Therefore, the question is, can one truly challenge a stereotype when it is meant to be “othering”? And if so, what does that accomplish?
This is where the segment fell short. Having a group of Muslim women discussing their work in the context of breaking societal stereotypes points to the very assumption that these women are unique within the fold of their religion. The rest (or at least a pretty large number) must, therefore, abide by the “stereotypical” portrayals. Weird isn’t it?
What is more, the fact that this particular episode resulted from the very sexist, Islamophobic and patronizing words of Dawkins does not do much to challenge stereotypes or shake the power relations. All it does is try to prove him wrong. At the end, this man will continue to spread Islamophobic, patronizing sexism within very powerful spheres, and the four women interviewed will continue to live their lives in the context of their accomplishments… Will these women’s words inspire and perhaps even educate others? For sure, But the stereotypes, and power structures, are still embedded within the very context that led Al-Jazeera to create the segment… an invariable belief that Muslim women are overall oppressed not by others but by their religion, their choice to wear certain garments and the culture that surrounds their religious practice. Not to mention a belief that Muslim activists, comedians and sportswomen are a rarity across time and space.
While I think it is great that these four women are getting recognition for their work, I can not stop thinking about those Muslim women who are never recognized and continue to be stereotyped, whatever their context is. Muslim women should be celebrated because of their contributions to their area of expertise and to humanity, not because they challenge stereotypes. The stereotypes are in our education systems, institutions and in our heads. Challenging them and becoming “mainstream” does not make us any more empowered; instead, it makes us part of a system that is already oppressive and that is responsible for the “othering” of others.