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.

 

23 days, 8 hours, 3 minutes, and 5 seconds

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Ranoush. / Foter

Ramadan is in full swing now, which means no food or drink from sun up (0548) to sun down (2017).  For Muslims, the fast means more than no food and no drink (no, not even water), which to the disbelief of those who do not fast, isn’t as much of a hardship as it seems.  For the first three days, I was devastatingly tired, but only a tad hungry.  Now the fatigue has passed and the hunger is a distant memory.  I supposed that God intended it to be this way though, that soon the hunger and the constant thinking about what morsel of food or drink will come next in our overeating, over-processed, over-indulged life so that we might use that extra time to consider how and why we worship.

I work full-time and most of my co-workers are not Muslim.  It seems as if the moment Ramadan swings around, everyone has some yummy new food they’d like you to try, or that could just be me being hypersensitive.

mohammadali / Foter

 And as usual, when I decline by stating that, “No thanks.  I’m fasting,” the same people that I’ve worked with for the last five years are astonished anew.  I’m no narcissist but I’m pleased as punch to answer the many questions about myself and my faith.  There are enough erroneous and negative images of people of my faith circulating that I would like to be able to dismantle a stereotype or two.  Before converting to Islam more than twenty years ago, I had some of the same questions, all valid in their right, but I am struck by what appears to me to be and broad misunderstanding or unwillingness of commitment.

  1. I know it’s hot, but today it’s only 102°.  (laugh, wink, laugh)  This is southern Texas.  It is hot every summer, and none but the most unfortunate of us is without an air conditioner in our cars, homes, businesses, covered walkways that take us to the parking lots, public library, grocery stores, and so on.  I’m not really suffering in that regard and if I were, I wouldn’t be obligated to fast.
  2. I know that the day is long, albout fifteen hours, but what about people so poor they go longer than that without food?  I think of them instead of my tummy.
  3. I know that thirty days is an entire month, but I still have the other eleven to eat like I’m losing my mind, which quite frankly so many of us do without regard to the fact that we don’t need all of that food.
  4. As soon as the sun starts to set, food goes into the mouth and we are allowed to eat as much of whatever we like until the sun comes up.  Here’s the kicker though, after about three or four days of fasting, the stomach shrinks and everything you think you want to eat, you simply cannot.  No room at the inn.
  5. Sure, I lose a little weight during Ramadan, but a lot of people actually gain.  Remember the part about the incredibly shrinking stomach?  Well so many of us gorge even when our stomachs are splitting at the seams and we indulge in foods that are far richer than we’d eat normally.  In fact I recently read an insightful article about how in Egypt the sale of food during Ramadan increases by 60-100% (whoa!), and food wastage increases by about 60% (double whoa!), and the sale of antacids also increases exponentially (triple whoa!).  No kidding though, right?  Not quite the spirit of the fast, I think.
  6. The spirit of the fast.  It is easy for those of us who live in relative comfort to forget what a privilege our lives are.  Certainly we all have our own life difficulties, but for most of the people that I know, it could be a million times worse.  The most basic concerns aren’t usually ours in that we eat and drink what we want, when we want.  We take all of the basics for granted.  The fast is our time to remember those who can’t take anything, not even a single morsel of food, for granted, and to thank the God responsible for giving it to us.
Mrs Magic / Foter

So… it’s okay.  No need to apologize.  I’ve made a commitment to myself and God and I swear, I’m not suffering for it.  Really, I’m doing fine.  We can chat over coffee and a double dark chocolate chip cookie in 23 days, 8 hours, 3 minutes, and 5 seconds.  I’m not counting, are you?  For now, let’s just chat.  Your company will more than suffice, and my commitment will sustain me.

(This is a reprint from http://khaalidah.blogspot.com 2011)