The Modern Muslim Woman is Who She Chooses to Be

Hijabi Surfer
Photo by: Sadaf Syed

My Life: the modern Muslim woman is who she chooses to be

By Maryam Ismail (The National)

Where did this image of the oppressed Muslim woman come from and when will this battle against it stop? Growing up on a diet of Saturday TV matinees, every “Muslim woman” I saw in the movies was a belly dancer with a lot of chiffon wrapped around her. Mata Hari, who was actually a Dutch divorcée who recreated herself as a Javanese Hindu princess, changed the world of exotic women forever. In the films of old it was the dance of the seven veils that would woo a man into revealing secrets of war. Today, it seems there is the idea that under one’s hijab lies some mystical inner working, one that needs to be covered up by another layer of normality.

This seemed to be the idea at a recent panel discussion called “The Role of Muslim Women in Society”. This discussion was part of the ICover photograph exhibit by Sadaf Syed at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. This exhibit is a sort of official debut of the new American Muslim. This newly christened, hybrid identity is one that hopes to erase all ties with Muslim cultural, ethnic and linguistic history.

The exhibit tries to show Muslim women breaking the boundaries of so-called tradition. Muslimah rockers, surfers and boxers are some of the examples of the “modern Muslim woman”. OK, that may be well and good, but I am so tired of this conversation. Muslims are people and by virtue of this essential fact, they are going to do what they want. Perhaps some might wag a finger and proclaim this is un-Islamic. Others will argue that traditional (Islamic) ideology is a thing past and shout: “Come on now, get over it.”

iCoverPhoto by: Sadaf Syed

I am so over hijab hysteria.

Standing on the sidelines of this discourse is like watching a dog chase its tail with the sincere hope of catching it. And if he does, what will happen? More than likely, he’ll yelp and bite himself again for being so stupid. Why should it be a special event if a woman who wears a hijab decides to be a fencer or a ballerina? Is it out of the realm of faith? Some may not think so and others may not care. Then, there may be another premise: that wearing the hijab will show the world that Muslim women have arrived. However, I think that if this is the case, they may end up being the oldest debutantes at the ball.

This was the case during the panel discussion sponsored by the US Consulate in Dubai. On the panel were the fashion designer Rabia K, the media consultant Wafa KBR, the artist Najat Mekky and the US foreign service officer Marwa Zeini. The first three are Emirati women who have been successful in their fields despite their covering Islamically and came to discuss their experiences. I don’t want to steal my sisters’ thunder – they deserve their applause, because their journeys have not been easy – but they were managing their lives as they see fit, within the context of their circumstances.

“Muslim women should wear clothes that they can run and play in,” Zeini said. Was she trying to tap into my unconscious and force me to do battle with my former self? Just then, I got an uneasy feeling that someone was going to kidnap me the moment I stepped into the streets, and then announce the next day that I was miraculously freed by Brad Pitt and American values.

If anything, I wish someone would rescue me from this endless notion that a woman is nothing unless she aspires to run with the big boys or tosses her Muslim soul into the sea and declares she’s free at last. Can we please talk about something else?

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

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