Teaching Notes II: “Muslim woman”

The infamous Foreign Policy "Sex Issue" cover.
The infamous Foreign Policy “Sex Issue” cover. (Source: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/node/1226781)

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

  1. Muslim women are oppressed. (6 students)
  2. Submissive (3 students)
  3. Hijab-wearing (2 students)
  4. They are meek. (2 students)
  5. They wear headscarves. (2 students)
  6. Muslim women are made to wear hijab.
  7. Headscarf stigma
  8. Veil
  9. Fierce (under the veil)
  10. Muslim women who wear headscarves are oppressed.
  11. Muslim women stereotypically make themselves oppressed.
  12. Muslim women are obedient.
  13. Harem girls
  14. Muslim women are uneducated.
  15. Quiet
  16. Passive
  17. Weak
  18. Voiceless
  19. Docile, strange, doctrinaire, arcane, conservative
  20. 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.

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.

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