Muslim Women in Current Literature

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I recent­ly decid­ed to research and write a post about pos­i­tive diverse Mus­lim female char­ac­ters in fic­tion.  That’s a mouth­ful and appar­ent­ly a lot to ask because there are few.  Very few.

Rienn Lar­bray by The Artist

My daugh­ter, also known as The Artist, as her moniker indi­cates, is an artist.  I remind her every chance I can to rep­re­sent us in her art.  Rep­re­sent means not just Mus­lims, but women and POC as well.  I always say, “If not you (us), then who?  Who bet­ter to tell our sto­ries?”  She didn’t always get it.  When she was younger, she thought I was over­ly con­scious, too mil­i­tant, too polit­i­cal, trou­ble mak­ing.

Maj­nun by The Artist

As a young adult, she is far more aware than she used to be. Now she ques­tions why ani­me and man­ga char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly the women, seem to be cut from the same artis­tic fab­ric, long-legged, thin, fair-skinned.  She ques­tions the mind­less flesh bar­ing women in movies today.  She can’t under­stand why the default char­ac­ters in most games are white males.  She wants to know why no one in the games, and books, and movies, and ani­ma­tion she enjoys resem­bles her.  (I know that these exam­ples aren’t set in stone, but we are talk­ing about the major­i­ty here.)  I have the same ques­tions.

Now she under­stands what I’ve been say­ing.  I wish I was wrong.

BATINA THE HIDDEN
• Bati­na can blend into any back­ground and become near­ly invis­i­ble.
• She is very qui­et, and can only be detect­ed by super-sen­si­tive hear­ing like Sami’s.

A few months ago, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the cre­ator of The 99 comics, agreed to an inter­view with me.  Along with vet­er­ans from Mar­vel and DC Comics Dr. Al-Mutawa cre­at­ed a cast of super heroes and hero­ines whose reli­gious back­grounds, while not clear­ly expressed, it’s under­stood that many of them are Mus­lim.  They’re all from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and coun­tries and have dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics.  Not one of them is cook­ie cut­ter mold­ed.  But is it real­ly enough to have a few com­ic char­ac­ters?

Not to me.

MUJIBA THE RESPONDER
• Mujiba’s mind is a liv­ing library, able to read the Noor Stones and access all the knowl­edge of the books of the Dar Al-Hik­ma. She knows the square root of 363 and the engi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples behind the Pyra­mids of Giza.

Rough­ly 25% of the 7 bil­lion peo­ple in the the world are Mus­lim, yet when we fea­ture in any medi­um, more often than not, we are either the bad guys, the vic­tims, or the mod­er­ate con­formist.  (For many prac­ti­tion­ers of Islam the term “mod­er­ate” is redun­dant and some­what insult­ing.  It is redun­dant in that many of us believe that mod­er­a­tion is already an embed­ded and essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic of Islam.  For many, the term “mod­er­ate” is insult­ing in that, by the stan­dards of the media, this is in ref­er­ence to the Mus­lim who is will­ing to com­pro­mise their faith in order to con­form.)  Our women are oppressed, une­d­u­cat­ed and require sav­ing by the benef­i­cent West­ern­er from men who force them to__(fill in the blank)__.

To be com­plete­ly hon­est, this view of us isn’t com­plete­ly with­out fuel, espe­cial­ly if you are pay­ing atten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing over­seas but since Arab is still the erro­neous default def­i­n­i­tion for Mus­lim and few peo­ple are pub­licly speak­ing out to dis­pel stereo­types, few (Mus­lims includ­ed some­times) know the dif­fer­ence between region­al cul­ture and the real­i­ties of the faith itself.  There is a dif­fer­ence, but that too is a dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion alto­geth­er.

When the real­i­ty tele­vi­sion show All Amer­i­can Mus­lim first aired, a co-work­er of mine came to tell me how pleased she was about this show.  She talked about how one of the show’s par­tic­i­pants, I believe her name is Sha­dia, pur­chased a west­ern style wed­ding dress.  My co-work­er waxed elo­quent for sev­er­al min­utes about how “they’re not that dif­fer­ent from us”.  Sad­ly to me, for my co-work­er, Sha­dia was val­i­dat­ed by the fact that she dressed in a west­ern way and of course for all of the trap­pings attached to being west­ern.  This can mean many things, I sup­pose, but to me meant, West­ern, Chris­t­ian, and per­haps to a less­er degree, white. What about those of us who don’t “appear” west­ern?  I am an all Amer­i­can Mus­lim.  I was born to Amer­i­can par­ents who, if they could trace their lin­eage, have been in this coun­try as long as any oth­er set­tler.  (Unless Native Amer­i­can, we’re all set­tlers, aren’t we?)

Nev­er mind the fact that my co-work­er has been work­ing direct­ly with me for four years.  Has she all along believed cer­tain untruths about me and my faith but nev­er both­ered to ask?  Did I give the impres­sion that she could/should not ask?  Did my hijab make me seem too “oth­er”?  What?

I would have loved to see my co-work­er express that she’d real­ized that “they’re not that dif­fer­ent than us” because they too want to cre­ate lov­ing last­ing fam­i­lies, or because they too wor­ry about finances and find­ing a good job and edu­cat­ing their chil­dren.  I would have loved for my co-work­er to express how she was enlight­ened by the pro­gram or how inter­est­ing the cultural/religious dif­fer­ences are and how despite them we still have much more in com­mon.  But yet again, the super­fi­cial won the day.

Whether Mus­lim or not Mus­lim, I am des­per­ate for female char­ac­ters that I can relate to.  Women who don’t dis­solve into tears at every dif­fi­cul­ty and who don’t need a man or the West to save her.  Women who are more than their bod­ies and hot new clothes and their pret­ty made-up faces.  Women who unwit­ting­ly and often unknow­ing­ly stand against social con­ven­tion, not because they’re try­ing to buck the sys­tem but because they are what they are and for them that is good enough.  Women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to say it aloud.  Women who are brains over beau­ty.  Women who are women.  Diverse.  Real­is­tic.

Let’s be clear here, these women don’t need to be angry misan­drists.  They just need to have more depth.

There are exam­ples out there…I know it, but they are so dif­fi­cult to find.

*****

I thought this movie, Arranged was quite inter­est­ing and bal­anced.

Rochel is an Ortho­dox Jew, and Nasira a Mus­lim of Syr­i­an ori­gin. They are both young teach­ers at a pub­lic school in Brook­lyn. They also have some­thing else in common–they are going though the process of arranged mar­riages through their respec­tive reli­gions and tra­di­tion­al cus­toms. With both fam­i­ly pres­sure on the one hand, and the rejec­tion of tra­di­tion­al val­ues by the out­side world on the oth­er, Rochel and Nasira will have to rely on each oth­er and their friend­ship to pull through this dif­fi­cult time of their lives, striv­ing to be strong women in charge of their own hap­pi­ness, while keep­ing their deep reli­gious and cul­tur­al con­vic­tions.

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