When our class arrived to the cluster of assigned readings on Gender and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, as a similar exercise to another that I have described on the blog, I asked my section to write down the first thing they imagine when I say, “Identify a stereotype regarding Muslim women.” This time, I decided to ask directly to identify stereotypes rather than what first comes to mind when I say “Muslim woman.”
Again, I wanted them to be honest so I asked the students to submit their answers anonymously. As I expected, it was a much easier and faster exercise for them than the one about fictional Muslim characters. However erroneous the narratives about Muslim women may be, they are ample and accessible.*
I collected the slips of paper and read them out loud so the class could hear what their colleagues wrote. This is what they wrote, exactly how they wrote it:
First stereotype of Muslim women that comes to mind
- Muslim women are oppressed. (6 students)
- Submissive (3 students)
- Hijab-wearing (2 students)
- They are meek. (2 students)
- They wear headscarves. (2 students)
- Muslim women are made to wear hijab.
- Headscarf stigma
- Fierce (under the veil)
- Muslim women who wear headscarves are oppressed.
- Muslim women stereotypically make themselves oppressed.
- Muslim women are obedient.
- Harem girls
- Muslim women are uneducated.
- Docile, strange, doctrinaire, arcane, conservative
- Loyalty to spouse even if spouse does not deserve loyalty
While I read their answers out loud, several students shook their heads laughing (at themselves?) and one said, “Well, that’s embarrassing.” I was aware that the visual performance of a visibly Muslim woman — as their instructor and authority who holds power within the classroom and can affect destinies — reciting stereotypes about Muslim women did much of the work to underscore the irony and error so I did not comment much before proceeding with our discussion on the assigned readings for the week. I did ask them to pay attention to the association of Muslim women with oppression as self-inflicting — because their oppression is seen as tied to Islam and they have chosen Islam as their religion. I noted that this was key to understanding how tropes of Muslim women’s victimization do not necessarily provoke empathy — let alone sympathy or even pity — but an animosity, falsely located in a particular feminist discourse, which feeds the gendered and sexually violent manifestations of Islamophobia.
The following week, the students were assigned to read Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Among the texts they were assigned throughout the semester, this was one of the most-quoted and referred to text in their individual papers. There may be a number of reasons for this, but one was definitely made clear by these students — there is significant and often problematic interest in the matter of understanding Islam and Muslims with regard to gender and a more significant need for scholarship and informed opinion to shape public perceptions.
*A simple google search of images for “Muslim women” gives a good account of the stock visual imagery of Muslim women that is disseminated and accessed frequently.