As Muslim Americans are propelled into the public light more and more, mainly due to negative political rhetoric around immigration, national security, war and refugees, there is an even greater pressure for Muslims to always present their lives and religion in a positive light. Muslim women, in particular, face what Emma Tarlo calls in her book on Islamic fashion a “representational challenge,” as their modest dress often marks them as Muslim in public spaces, and there is an expectation that they are representatives of an entire religion.
Because of this relentless pressure, portrayals of Muslim women in digital media spaces have tended to focus on overly positive aspects of how Muslims easily fit into American society. On YouTube and Instagram, for instance, there are countless hijabi fashion gurus who share style tips, discuss their beauty routines, and post images of their perfect lives as hip college students or young mothers with adorable children. Other popular culture examples, like the short-lived All-American Muslim reality TV show, tend to focus on the novelty of Muslims engaging with American culture and hit viewers over the head with the normality and American-ness of these Muslim families.
This work to show Muslims as normal, everyday Americans tends to minimize the necessary political work for social justice and equal treatment. In her book, Islam: An American Religion, Nadia Marzouki discusses how Muslim Americans often engage with popular culture and media as a way to present themselves as “good Muslims” as opposed to the negative trope of violent terrorists. According to Marzouki, when Muslims claim that they are human beings who practice a faith, compatible with American public life, they tend to depoliticize their religion so it will fit in with the Protestant model of a private religion that doesn’t interfere with public matters.
The essential criticisms of American culture are often dulled when Muslim women show themselves as easily participating in Western spaces of neoliberalism and consumerism. Furthermore, these portrayals of Muslim women as perfect embodiments of feminine ideals also reinforce Orientalist and sexist stereotypes of Muslim women as exotic objects of the Western male gaze. Recently, Muslim writers have also expressed exasperation with the obsession over Islamic fashion and policing what Muslim women wear.
Amidst growing concern over the position of Muslim women in American society—issues of public harassment, physical attacks and sexual assault come to mind—Muslim women are using online spaces to address these issues in creative ways, while they organize and find solidarity with women from a range of backgrounds. These projects are not maliciously trying to air the dirty laundry of American Islam, but they demonstrate the need for American Muslims to recognize some significant problems within the community while also striving for equal treatment in American society. These projects also reject the binary of either good Muslims who don’t interfere with American public life or bad Muslims who destroy American values. As the creators of the aptly named #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast so clearly state, “We’ve decided to say – f**k it. We’ll define what it means to be a good American Muslim ourselves and through our #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. And poke fun at both sides of this margin. We’ll create our own narrative how we see fit, and with lots of satire and laughs.”
Formed as a Facebook group in 2016, Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America, or FITNA, now has over 4,500 members who circulate articles about feminist topics, resources on feminist scholarship within Islam, and information about upcoming political actions and collective events. The name is a play on the Arabic word, fitna, which has a negative connotation of temptation, corruption or trial. As the group description explains, the term fitna is often used to dismiss the work of Muslim feminists, but this Facebook group hopes to redefine fitna, “as a constructive disruption around gender issues in the Muslim community.” The group members are also active in current political issues, such as the Muslim travel ban, public harassment for wearing the hijab, and sexual assault and abuse within Muslim communities.
With the prominent tagline, “Muslim women talk back,” MuslimGirl.com features articles about intersectional feminist issues and profiles female Muslim activists. Tired of the negative stereotypes of Muslim women in the media, Amani Alkhat began MuslimGirl to provide a space for young women to create their own narratives. The website explains, “We use our own voices to speak for ourselves.” But the writers on the site are not afraid of addressing contentious topics that arise in that complex spaces in between the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binary. Recent articles on the website address a plethora of topics like how to handle a divorce, responses to Trump’s first State of the Union address, hijab bans, Muslim fashion and make-up models, undocumented immigrants, and the imprisonment of Israeli teenager Ahed Tamimi. While the site features articles about lifestyle topics and religious reflections, a large portion of the stories fall under the #woke tag and feature political topics that affect Muslim women but also intersect with others issues of race, ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality and class.
Other Muslims use creativity and visual styles to break out of this “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomy. In 2017, amateur rapper Mona Haydar released two music videos: “Hijabi (Wrap my Hijab)” with over 2.8 million views, and “Dog” with over 1.2 million views. At first glance, the “Hijabi (Wrap my Hijab)” video looks like a typical fashion video with groups of women showing off their styles and dancing to the music. But on deeper examination, the song lyrics, body gestures and compositions present a message of female empowerment and unity against racism and male aggression. The opening lines recreate the insensitive things that men say to Muslim women on the street: “What that hair look like? Bet that hair look nice.” But Mona’s response calls out the Orientalism in those catcalls: “Not your exotic vacation. I’m bored with your fascination.” As Mona raps, groups of women sit up straight with serious expressions; they make little eye contact with the camera. As opposed to the come hither look that invites the male gaze, the women refuse to return the gaze, challenge the gaze by staring down the camera, or dance and perform for the enjoyment of each other.
The lyrics move into a celebration of the diversity of Muslim, with the repeated hook, “All around the world, love women every shading,” and women from a variety of cultural backgrounds dance and sing. This song addresses the concern that Muslims of African origin, either immigrants or American-born, often face discrimination or judgment within Muslim communities. The rap concludes with Mona name-dropping a plethora of ethnic, cultural and religious identity markers of Muslim women, but the message of this video is that Muslim women should unite because of their religion and interest in feminist causes.
Mona’s second video, “Dog,” is even more biting in its criticism of Muslim men who try to police how women dress and act, but these same men commit graver sins “on the DL,” like flirting, cheating, harassing and even assaulting women. As Mona raps, “Sheikhs on the DL, sheikhs in my DM, begging me to shake it on my cam in the PM.” Another repeated line points out the hypocrisy of these men, who claim to be pious religious leaders but harass women online, “Say you can save my spirit. But you’re a dog at night.” Other lines point out how women are silenced in Muslim circles, such as, “Panel on women, only dudes. Um, excuse me. Really? Rude.” Mona addresses how some Muslim men claim that what women are doing is “haram” by trying to have a voice in the Muslim community.
This video itself demonstrates that Muslim women are coming together to speak out against harassment and assault. Most of the video features Mona by herself or with the video’s guest star, Jackie Cruz, an actress from Orange is the New Black. Towards the end of the video, there are scenes of Mona with a crew of other women, not all hijabis, behind her. This video fits in perfectly with the wider social conversation around sexual assault and harassment, but Mona actually released this song before the momentum around #metoo and #timesup got moving. The video ends with stats about how many women are assaulted or abused as a call to take action.
In the months since this video was released, acusations of assault and harassment have been levied against several prominent Muslim leaders, most notably Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan. In an Atlantic article, Jalal Baig explains why the pressure to be “good Muslims” makes it difficult for Muslim women to talk about abuse within the community, “Anti-Muslim sentiment has made Muslims balk at publicly airing their dirty laundry; nobody wants to fan the already raging flames of Islamophobia.” When these issues are brought up, real concerns about women’s rights are lost in the negative rhetoric that demonizes Muslim men and the entire religion of Islam.
These few examples showcase that Muslim women are tired of being voiceless icons, wearing their hijab and representing to Westerners the oppression of Islam and to Muslim leaders the perfection of piety of the religion. As Muslim women come together across a variety of backgrounds in terms of culture, class, race, sexuality and interpretations of Islam, they are becoming more vocal about oppression within and outside of Muslim communities. They see the intersections of injustices around issues like racism, colorism, classism, sexism and homophobia.
We can look at how the developing #metoo movement relies greatly on solidarity across boundaries, created to divide women. Recent examples, such as Kesha’s emotional Grammy performance surrounded by a choir of women, the devastating testimony of the “army” of young women who were abused by USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, and the Time magazine cover story of the “silence breakers” from many walks of life, illustrate how women (and male allies) must do this work collectively. Muslim women use websites like FITNA and MuslimGirl to collectively organize and share information. Furthermore, Mona Haydar’s music videos creatively display pride in the diverse identities of Muslim women, “every shading,” and they illustrate how women are collaborating across these divides.