Iranian woman in Car

Iranian woman in Car

As soon as I saw headline, I have to admit I was thinking “huh?” and “what!” I’m not too keen on products geared towards women because usually these products rely heavily on stereotypes. Unfortunately, this new feminine car does just that. It’s suppose to come out in a range of “feminine colors” and “interior designs” because we are just so keen on how our car looks. I guess those guys in my neighborhood who spend thousands of dollars on rims and getting their car waxed didn’t get the memo that they’re not suppose to car our their cars looks. Oh, and those women I see in big, black Escalades with spinning rims really didn’t get the memo that they’re suppose to be in more “feminine” cars but I digress. To make things even better the new cars will feature “automatic transmission, parking and navigation aids and a jack for changing tyres without getting grease on your chador.” Again, I wonder why this is special to women. I’m sure plenty of men in Iran would love to drive an automatic since they’re much easier to drive. My husband and most American men aren’t buying automatic simply for their wives to drive but to drive themselves since they’re less of a hassle than stick shifts. Same for the navigation aids. As for not getting grease on chador, who wants to get grease on their clothes. I honestly don’t understand why these products aren’t marketed to both genders since they would seem to benefit both men and women.

While that was annoying, that part of the article that “ground my gears” was the BBC’s little tirade about gender in Iranian society. After describing the features of the car the author writes “If that suggests a degree of sexist stereotyping in Iranian society, it is, just possibly, true.” Yes, definitely. But then we start to get in this little slippery slope of self righteousness with the author saying things like “Iranian men have yet to absorb fully the message of equality” or “‘As a result, the report concludes, Iran’s new generation of working women “are obliged to play the role of a superwoman to resolve their contradictions in handling all tasks.’ It says such women ‘have become increasingly frustrated with their life'”. Now I don’t disagree with these assertions but I did wonder why they were brought up in an article about a car for women and why the author was acting like these issues were exclusive to Iranian women. American women have to contend with this issue as well. American women spend more time doing household chores than their husbands. British working women also have to contend with juggling it all while getting little help from men. So this is an issue that affects women all around the globe. Next time, I think the BBC should just stick to the story.

Find out more at MMW’s Friday Links.

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What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Is she Arab or South Asian? White or maybe Afghan or Indonesian? Notice that I haven’t mentioned African American (and also Latina). The media depiction of Muslim women usually does not include African American women. Often, Muslim women are depicted as coming from the Middle East or South Asia, and occasionally sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there has been increasing focus on Muslimahs of European descent, especially converts such as Yvonne Ridley and Dr. Ingrid Mattson.

When African American Muslims are depicted in the media, it is usually a male face (Siraj Wahaj, Abdul Hakeem Jackson, Malcolm X, Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, etc.) that is presented to the public. There are exceptions such as Dr. Amina Wadud. However, the overall trend is rather disheartening, considering how much African American Muslimahs do for other black Muslims as well as the whole Muslim community. I have often wondered why the stories, needs and concerns of African American Muslimahs are not focused on and come up with a myriad of possible answers.

One is the sexism that black Muslimahs encounter in their own community. This is probably symptomatic of the sexism that black women as a whole face in the black community. Black Muslimahs still have a long way to go in gaining leadership positions in mosques and national organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America, which focuses heavily on issues affecting African American Muslims. When there are few of us in leadership positions, it is hard for us to become the faces of the community in the media.

There’s also the racism, both covert and overt, that African Americans face in the Muslim community. Often, we’re not on the boards of masajid that aren’t predominately African American and if we are, our numbers are insignificant. African Americans are also not well represented in national organizations like ISNA, ICNA and CAIR. Also, the issues that affect African American Muslimahs are often ignored by organizations like ISNA and ICNA. When these organizations are pushed as the voice of American Muslims but lack significant input from African American Muslimahs, then it is not surprising that representation of African American Muslimahs is seriously lacking in the media.

Lastly, there is the racism of the mainstream media. On MMW, we have often discussed how Muslim women are portrayed as victims and otherized. The face of this woman is usually brown. Fatemeh has a great post about the racialization of Islam up at Racialicious. I think that this racialization of Islam leaves little space for the representation of Western Muslim women and almost no space for the representation of African American Muslim women.

While this post thus far may sound bleak, I do think that there is slow progress in getting African American Muslimahs heard. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for many African American Muslimahs to speak to the world. Not too long ago, NPR did a piece on polygyny among African American women. About four years ago, a great ethnography of African American Muslim women titled Engaged Surrender was published by the University of California press. Additionally, there has been more focus on African American Muslimahs in the entertainment industry as well. So things have been getting better. However, there needs to be more coverage of African American Muslimahs, as well as Latina Muslimahs. We are Muslim women too and we’re not invisible.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a critique of a LA Times blog post about and Egyptian organization that is working to combat sexual harassment in Egypt. The BBC News has now has a piece on its website about Egyptian women and sexual harassment as well. The two articles are different. The LA Times story was written as a more traditional story that did a profile of Egyptians, male and female, working to stop sexual harassment. The BBC piece is a collection of stories told by Egyptian women exclusively in their own words. While I liked the first person perspective of the BBC feature, I found the feature to be a mixed bag. I’ll focus on the positive aspects first before offering a more critical critique.

One of the things that I liked about the feature was that the stories were told by a variety of women: hijabi and non-hijabi, middle class and working class, etc. (Posy Abdou, one of the women, is pictured left). Sexual harassment affects women of every social stratum in Egypt so it’s great that the BBC was able to get the perspective of women from different classes. Also, I appreciate how hijabis and non-hijabis are shown because it reinforces the point that sexual harassment is not about the clothes. The more focus that is taken off of women’s clothes, the more focus can be placed on men and how they use sexual harassment as a form of power over women.

Additionally, I appreciated the first person accounts of the women. Too often the stories of Muslim women are filtered and told through the viewpoint of some other party, whether it’s Muslim men or non-Muslim men and women. The women’s interviews were probably edited. However, it is still nice to hear first person accounts from Muslim women.

While reading the women’s account provided insight into the daily battle with sexual harassment in Egypt, what I found lacking was any stories of women who fought back and became activists against sexual harassment. Only one of the women profiled, Noha Wagih (pictured right), mentioned anything about activism. She mentioned that she wanted to make a TV program about sexual harassment. While the voices of victims need to be heard, I found it rather curious that the BBC didn’t have one profile of activists such as the one done by the LA Times. All of the stories tell us about women’s experiences with harassment, but that is the extent of the coverage. All of the stories reinforced the image of the oppressed Muslim woman who is helpless. It also reinforces the image of the aggressive, misogynist and violent Muslim man.

Also, the exclusive focus on women takes away the focus that should be placed on men as well. It makes sexual harassment seem like it is only a problem for women, when it is a problem that affects both genders. There’s no examination of patriarchy or ideals of hyper-masculinity that are affecting the perpetrators’ views of women. There’s no look at how twisted interpretations of Islam maybe affecting these men’s idea of women either. By just centering on the experiences of victims, readers are left with no context. They have no idea why this phenomenon is occurring and what is being done to stop it.

Thus, I was left wondering why the BBC did this particular feature. Was it to inform readers about this issue, was it to give the women a chance for their voices to be heard, and was it to reinforce ideas about the superiority of Western gender as compared to gender norms in the Arab world? I honestly was not sure. The only thing I was sure about was that I ultimately finished reading the stories with the eerie feeling that I had just read yet another Orientalist-influenced piece that only served to reinforce stereotypes rather that promote any thing positive.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Last year, the British program Dispatches went undercover in a Mosque in Britain to expose “radical” Islam functioning in Britain. I’m sure the main point of that program was to scare inform Britons about radical Muslims who lurk in every corner. The masjid in question is funded partly by Saudi (although many masajid around the world are) and at least some of the members subscribe to the Salafi form of Islam (erroneously called Wahhabism in the program). Coming from a city with plenty of Salafis, I wasn’t shocked by anything I saw in the Dispatches programs. I was actually disappointed and disgusted. The message seemed to be although Muslims talk about interfaith dialogue and living in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors, one can never be sure about that. The Dispatches program is definitely one of the worse in a long line of media programs aimed at increasing Islamophobia among the masses.

This year, Dispatches made a return visit to the mosque. For this visit, they used a female reporter as the undercover agent and had a more explicit focus on women, unlike the last episode. When the episode begins, we’re given the usual images of niqabis that are shown whenever we discusss “radical” Islam. I counted three shots of niqabis before we’re shown actual footage from the reporter (who also donned a niqab). Curiously enough, we’re shown footage, not of men speaking of the “need” to hate the kafir and be segregated at all costs, but of women doing this. Salafi women have propagated this separatist version of Islam for quite some time. You can see some of the remarks in the clip below:

This time, Dispatches reverses our expectations of gender norms for Muslims. Usually men are shown as active advocates for extremist Islam with women being the passive victims of it. However, in this show, women are shown actively advocating for the Salafi vision of Islam as well.

A few messages about Muslim women are conveyed in the Dispatches program. One message, which is common, is that Muslim women are complicit in their oppression and “brainwashed” by Muslim men. Most of the women in the masjid wear niqab, which is associated in the West with oppression. By showing these women in niqab preaching this extreme, separatist view of Islam, a Western audience will probably come to the conclusion that Muslim women are indeed brainwashed.

Another message was that Muslim women are just as dangerous as their male counterparts. This message has been propagated in the MSM a lot recently, with recent news stories on women suicide bombers and now the Dispatches program.

Dispatches promoted more negative images of Muslim women and Muslims as a whole. It will do little to help Britons understand their fellow Muslim citizens, including Muslim women, and only serve to make a wider gap between the Muslim population and non-Muslim population in Britain.

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch


Women suicide bombers have been receiving increasing coverage in the media in recent years. Just this past week, at least three articles have been written about women suicide bombers in Iraq. The coverage of women terrorists in the Western media is often colored by gender expectations and stereotypes of women as well as the usual fear of Muslims.

One of the most problematic aspects of coverage of women suicide bombers is the focus on personal motivations. News stories about women suicide bombers often focus on revenge for the death of a loved one and dishonor from rape or sex outside (thus, forcing them to become suicide bombers). In fact, the Times article that is linked to in the Friday Links for 7/1/08 is titled ” Love, blackmail and rape – how al-Qaeda grooms women as ‘perfect weapons’”. Some women suicide bombers are motivated by personal factors and some are coerced. However, there is hardly ever a look at the ideological and political reasons for why women become suicide bombers. I suspect this is because of gender bias. Women are seen as irrational and emotional and the reasons for why they become terrorists are portrayed as irrational and emotional. This is completely different from how male suicide bombers are portrayed. Coverage of male suicide bombers usually does not focus on personal factors and almost exclusively focuses on religion, ideology and politics. Coverage of male suicide bombers focuses on their causes and usually not the bomber himself. This leads to portraying male suicide bombers as having more rational reasons for becoming suicide bombers.*

There’s also the usual focus on clothes. The three articles linked to in this post as well other, older articles almost always focus on Muslim (usually hijabis) women’s dress . The assumption goes that the “robe” (jilbab) that Muslim women wear allows them to easily conceal bombs and thus makes them very attractive to extremist groups. The picture aboves is part of a slide show that accompanies a BBC News story about women suicide bombers in Iraq. I guess the focus on hijab is to be expected in just about any news story that focuses on Muslim women. However, I find it troubling that hijab is once again tarnished, albeit more covertly than usual. The “robe” explanation usually segues into the idea that women are attractive to extremist groups because they’re less likely to be searched by male soldiers. All of these reasons and motivations for the rise in women suicide bombers totally take the focus off of political circumstances (which Western nations definitely play a hand in) that also influenced the decision of both male and female suicide bombers.

Additionally, there is little focus on how women suicide bombers challenge gender roles. This does not mean that I endorse suicide bombing. However, women suicide bombers do effectively show that Muslim women can have multifaceted gender roles. Women suicide bombers show that women can be effective in military operations. Additionally, women suicide bombers have actually inspired feminist activism in various parts of the Muslim world including Egypt, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Suicide bombings are controversial and I imagine that it is hard for Western media outlets to put any positive “spin” on this issue. However, isn’t it the job of the media to show all sides of a story? This would include showing how women suicide bombers are affecting gender norms in their societies.

*Terri Toles Patkin’s essay “Explosive Baggage: Female Palestinian Suicide Bombers and the Rhetoric of Emotion” further expands on this idea.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Fashion designers are now starting to see head scarves as the latest hot fashion trend. In an Islam Online article, various designers were quoted about this new trend. Two words that came up often were”modesty” and “chasity”. Apparently fashion designers want to show that modesty, chasity and elegance are not mutually exclusive. Although the designers said that they weren’t focused solely on Muslim women, I’m sure that Muslim women are definitely a market that is increasingly being focused on by the fashion industry.

As a hijabi, maybe people think I would be elated by this article but I’m actually a bit cautious. For one thing, isn’t the one of the objectives of hijab to take the focus off of outer appearances? One of the most common arguments given by hijab apologists is that the hijab prevents women from only being judged by how they look. It allows women to be judged for who they truly are. If headscarves are suddenly made into the latest fashion trend, doesn’t it suddenly lose that purpose? Hasn’t it become the latest commodity that women must have? As Muslims, should we support that? That’s why I was a bit surprised that the article was featured on an Islamic website. The commercialization of hijab seems antithetical to what hijab is all about.

Also, the article brought up the issue of the definitions of modesty and chasity. As I read the article, I kept wondering how modesty and chasity are defined especially in this quote:

According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the headscarf resurgence is about a new sense of “chastity” in fashion. He affirms that the trend is not all new after all. “Women wore headscarves in medieval times to maintain their modesty,” he explains.

Is the wearing of hijab the sole indicator of modesty? What about women who do not wear the hijab, both Muslim and non-Muslim? Are they immodest? Isn’t modesty also related to our attitude? I don’t think hijabis who look down upon non-hijabis to be the most modest people around. Arrogance isn’t modesty at all. This isn’t to say that hijabis necessarily look down upon non-hijabis but it is to point out that modesty is about much than headscarves. Also, women who don’t wear headscarves are not necessarily immodest. Modesty is a complicated thing and I’m never happy when it’s reduced to our appearance.

That being said, I can’t deny that I do try to look nice and that it is rather cool for people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to realize that dressing in hijab does not mean dressing “Umar the tent maker’s daughter” (as my mother put it). Dressing in hijab does not mean that we don’t put any care into how we dress. So when I read articles like the one referenced, in a weird way I do feel a little happy.

I’ve decided that every week I’ll post a list of links to various articles on Muslim women, Islamic feminism, and Muslim women’s activism. It’ll be in the same vein as link lists seen on other blogs. So here we go: