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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out these awesome and interesting websites, posts, and videos online:
- The 99
- Elif Shafak: The Politics of Fiction (TED Talks Video)
- Mohja Kahf: Excerpts From The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (video on YouTube)
- Female, Muslim, and Mutant: A Critique of Muslim Women in Comic Books (part 1)
- Female, Muslim, and Mutant: A Critique of Muslim Women in Comic Books (part 2)
- Writing and Religion and Spirituality with Jill Carroll
- A Critique of Muslim Women in Comics — The 99
- Dismantling the Veils of Western Literature
- Through the Looking Glass: Muslim Women on Television
- There Are Not Enough Awesome Female Characters! (video on YouTube)