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.

Check out these awesome and interesting websites, posts, and videos online:

Which Label Are You?

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۞ رمضــان كريـم

A♥ via Compfight

While researching for another post, I came upon a term I’d never heard before and that gave me pause.

Islamic Fiction.  What is that?

According to Wikipedia:
Islamic Fiction refers to creative, imaginative, non-preachy fiction books written by Muslims and marketed primarily to Muslims. Islamic Fiction may be marketed to mainstream markets, too. The content of these books may incorporate some religious content and themes, and may include non-fictionalized historical or factual Islamic content with or without direct reference to the Qur’an or the Sunnah of Mohammed. The stories may also include modern, real life situations and moral dilemmas.
Authors of Islamic Fiction intend for readers to learn something positive about Islam when they read Islamic fiction stories.
Islamic Fiction does not include Harmful Content: vulgar language, sexually explicit content, unIslamic practices that are not identified as unIslamic, or content that portrays Islam in a negative way.[2]

So, I began to question.  Is this what I write?

My stories do contain moral dilemmas and real life situations because, well…I write about people in a way that I hope seems realistic.

There is certainly the occasional reference to religion, but in all honesty, as most of my main characters happen to be Muslim this is bound to occur.

Nope, not preachy, I don’t think.

No vulgar language.

Hmm.  UnIslamic practices?  That’s difficult to say.  I mean, not all of my characters are Muslim, and some of them may do things a Muslim isn’t supposed to.  Also, as my Muslim characters are realistic and hence not perfect, they may on occasion do something they are not supposed to.  So, maybe….  If, by unIslamic practices, we’re talking specifically about religious practices, the answer is not yet.  Again, not every single one of my characters will be Muslim because that’s not the real world, neither is it the state of the imaginary worlds I write.  Whether or not the reader understands said practices, religious or otherwise, as being unIslamic is, I believe more dependent on them than on me.  When writing fiction, I try to relay the tale in an objective way, allowing myself to be the conduit through which the story arrives into this world.  I try to use a light hand, but I suppose the ones to judge that are my readers.

I wouldn’t write anything that portrays Islam in a negative way.

Sounds like I write Islamic Fiction, doesn’t it?

I want to say this, “I reject all labels.  I refuse to be pigeonholed.  I am NOT A LABEL!”  But the fact is, I am, or at least my novel is.  I have to be, or else how or where will my readers find me.  My book isn’t exactly featured prominently on a table by the front door of your local chain bookstore.

The potential connotation related to the term Islamic Fiction, much like the term Christian Fiction, is bound to be negative unless that is specifically what you are looking for.  I hate to admit that, but it is true.  Religion is a touchy subject for so many people.  By assigning certain labels, the author could lose potential readers.  That can’t be good for the author, who wants their stories read, or the story, which deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the reader who, in want of interesting and moving fiction, may have inadvertently passed up a gem.

I’m not suggesting that we dupe folks into reading stories they would be patently against reading, but I think we should be very careful about how we label fiction.  For example, I only just learned that The Lord of the Rings is labeled, among other things, a Christian novel.  Had I known that prior to reading it, I may have passed it up.  I absolutely love LoTR as a novel and movie.  That would have been my loss, for certain.

While I am a Muslim and while I strive to write characters who are Muslim, I do not want this to be the only thing I am known for.  I think it’s unfair and limiting.

I hope to reach a broad spectrum of readers with my words.  I believe in my novel and it’s deeper messages and I am certain that people from all walks of life can glean something meaningful from the tale.  I want my words to resonate with people because they can sympathize with a character or a situation, because they want to see the character beat the odds and overcome obstacles.  The faith of my characters only makes them deeper, more layered, more relatable, and more real.

Mo’ better.

*****

An Unproductive Woman tells the story of family, faith, and marriage, and above all else, hope.

Get A Copy For Your Kindle

Adam is desperate for a son, but after ten years of marriage he and his wife Asabe remain childless.  Despite the obvious heartbreak this causes Asabe, Adam marries a second wife, the very young and beautiful Fatima.  Double tragedy prevents the realization of Adam’s hope and Asabe stands firm with her husband to gather the broken pieces of their life.

But, Adam isn’t prepared to count his loses.  He compounds their difficulties by marrying the cunning and deceptive divorcee, Sauda.  This choice yields anguish and confusion, and Adam loses more than hope, but a piece of his spirit.
Neglected and living in the shadow of Adam’s desires, Asabe yet again proves her worth as the true bedrock in his life.  Asabe becomes the catalyst that brings Adam’s life full circle.
Read An Unproductive Woman to learn what secrets Adam has withheld that would explain his unreasonable longing and pursuit of a son at all costs.

 

Islam and Science Fiction

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My novel An Unproductive Woman can be categorized as literary or contemporary fiction.  Some might even call it religious fiction, though personally I would reject that term.  Over the past couple of years my reading and writing tastes and have changed.  I am currently on my own little Heinlein odyssey book tour.  I’m reading some of his earliest works and re-enjoying some of his stories that I’ve already read.  I’ve always loved SFF, but as a spectator.  I’ve developed an even greater interest and love for SFF and now, I am actively writing in this genre.  As such, naturally, I’m interested in finding other authors who, like me, are Muslim and who write SFF.  Guess how many there are?  No.  Don’t guess.  Just know that there are few.  Very few.

I know this because I’ve done some research.  While doing my research, I stumbled upon an interesting website, Islam and Science Fiction.

Muhammad Ahmad, the editor of Islam and Science Fiction was good enough to agree to an interview.  See what he says:

1.  Is there a specific term that you would use for science fiction by Muslims?  What I mean to ask actually is this: Is Islamic Science Fiction a valid term?  If so, how exactly is this defined and how is it unique?  Is it exclusive to a Muslim audience?

One should distinguish between Science Fiction produced by Muslims and Science Fiction with Islamic themes. The content of the former may or may not be religious and the later may have been produced by non-Muslims. The analogy that I like to use is that of Islamic Science in the classical age of Islam. Many of the scientists who worked and produced breakthroughs in the Islamic world were not even Muslims and yet their works are considered to be part of Islamic Science because of they were part of the Islamic cultural milieu. Thus any piece of Science Fiction literature which has some Islamic influence (not necessarily religious but cultural) is considered to fall under this category. A more appropriate term which is used in the academia is Islamicate which refers to the cultural output of the Muslim majority world.

2.  As a Muslim author, a woman, and a POC, it is important to me that I create fiction that is representative.  My argument being that I am the best person to write these representations as they are my experiences.  What are your thoughts about this?  How important do you believe it is to create representations of Muslims or work by Muslims in not only sci-fi, but other types of fiction.

I think there is some truth to this statement since the person embedded in a certain cultural context may be best positioned to do so. However I would add that a person who is not necessarily part of the group that he or she is writing about may still do a great job if he/she does their homework properly and gains an internal understanding of that culture.

A Mosque Among the Stars

3.  Tell me about your website Islam and Science Fiction and what you hope to achieve through this medium?  What made you develop this website?  Did you feel there was a particular need or is science fiction a special love of yours?

I have always been fascinated by Science Fiction as far back as I can remember. I especially like the aspects of Science Fiction which can be used to illuminate the human condition. I have been running the website since 2005 and it has its origin in my initial curiosity in trying to explore intersections of religion and Science Fiction. I was familiar with some excellent pieces of Science Fiction which rely heavily on Buddhist themes and I was looking for something similar with respect to Islam. After searching online and in libraries I realized that there was literally no material on this subject and thus this was a glaring omission that had to be fixed. This is how the idea for the website was born and it has greatly expanded since then.

4.  As a religion, Islam is one of few that clearly supports science even in its modern forms and understandings.  Do you think that there is something special about Islam that lends itself to science fiction?

Science and religion represent different ways of looking at phenomenon of the world. Philosophers of Science have described Science as an empirical system to understand the world. Thus given more evidence of some phenomenon Scientists will not ideally hesitate to change their minds with respect to an earlier theory. On the other hand religious claims are usually universal and timeless in nature. Thus the question of support is mute with respect to comparing two different systems of looking at the world. That said Islam can provide a source of inspiration to people, Muslims or even Muslims, with respect to themes that may inform their fiction. The rich tradition of fantasy in many Muslim cultures is a testament to this fact. In fact the largest fantasy book ever written (Tilsm-Hoshruba) actually comes from a Muslim culture.

*****

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

(As borrowed from his webaite): Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is a Computer Science researcher at the Data Mining Lab in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Minnesota as well as Senior Scientist at Ninja Metrics. His research is primarily focused on analysis of clandestine behaviors and networks, application of social science theories to generative models of social phenomenon and models of human behavior in Massively Mutliplayer Online Games (MMOs). He has authored or co-authored around 30 research papers related to these subjects including two best paper awards. Currently he is working on a book on the Analysis of Clandestine Networks and Behaviors with Brian Keegan which builds upon their extensive collaboration in this area.

Muhammad Aurangzeb received bachelors in Computer Science from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and master and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Minnesota (UMN). He is also part of the Virtual Worlds Observatory (VWO) project, the leading project on the analysis of human behavior and socialization patterns in online virtual environments. Previously he was also a research assistant at the Minnesota Population Center where he worked on the IPUMS project on the application of machine learning to population studies. During his undergraduate years at the Rochester Institute of Technology he was also research assistant at the Center for Advancing the Study of Cyberinfrastructure and received honorable mention for the best research by an undergraduate at the national level by the Computing Research Association (CRA).

Muhammad Aurangzeb’s source of inspiration are the Renaissance men and he aspires to be one in the at least the domains that he is interested in. His motivation in life is to understand how the world works and the recognition that one needs multiple perspectives to understand how the world work. He is also an artist who has exhibited his work. He works in a variety of mediums including calligraphy, graphic arts and photography. He also invented a new form of Calligraphy, Kordu, based on the Hangul and the Arabic script.

He is also the founder and editor of Islam and Science Fiction, which is the most comprehensive resource on this subject and has been widely cited in the relevant media. He has presented his work on this subject at various conferences and avenues. Muhammad co-edited the first anthology of short Science Fiction stories with Muslim characters called A Mosque Amongst the Stars.

Muhammad is also fascinated with the theological, anthropological, societal and naturalistic aspects of religion. He is also the editor of the website Islam in China and its companion blog of the same name. The later is a multi-award winning blog which has garnered more than half a million web hits. He has worked on two projects related to the oral history of Muslims in Minnesota.