What does a Muslim woman look like?

I am not “visibly” a Muslim female — in other words, I don’t wear a hijab, the headscarf worn by some of my Muslim peers. Because people cannot instantly identify my belief system through my physical appearance, specifically my garb, I have not been at the receiving end of the direct hatred and vitriol that has been spewed at those who do don the headscarf; I have not had someone snatch off my headscarf in order to taunt and humiliate me; and I have not been dismissed or ignored in a professional or social setting because of my “suspicious” appearance.
In truth, I have passed as a non-Muslim female, making my post 9/11 experience fundamentally different from that of my fellow hijabi sisters, but I still consider myself a Muslim woman, in every sense of the term.

Living in the United States, I have both been a part of and observed the transformation in America’s perception of my faith — more specifically its fascination of and fixation with Muslim women over the past 9 years. The term “Muslim” has its own narrative and impact on the world, but when you attach the descriptive “Woman” to “Muslim,” it stirs up entirely new sentiments, debates, and criticisms. This zoom focus on “Muslim woman” took flight when media and academia circles began to inquire into the domestic sphere of the Muslim world after 9/11, beginning, of course with the enigmatic and exotic place of women in Muslim countries.

At this time, we saw the reappearance of the famous image of a forlorn looking Afghani girl (Sharbat Gula) in the 1985 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Her haunting face captivated readers and the mystery that was her life story proved so alluring that seventeen years later, the National Geographic team tracked her down in Pakistan and took another cover shot accompanied by a feature story on her struggles in the last two decades. The research and narratives of women done in Muslim countries abroad soon reached the West, where comparisons began to shape the perception of Muslim women from China to Africa, and back to the United States. A few years later, the assassination of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto opened up the books on her life, which received a cautious wonderment of her by Westerners. Her western ideals mixed with her Eastern roots made her THE symbol of female identity politics in the modern era. In 2010, Arab American Miss USA Rima Fakih stirred up the anxieties of Muslim women around the globe; we all perched at the edge of our seats to find out how she would identify herself; waiting with bated breath for her to state whether she was Muslim was just as adrenaline-inducing as waiting to hear the winner of the pageant itself.

The notion of a separate identity of a “Muslim woman/female” has emerged through a complex matrix: the Orientalist framework, feminist philosophy, the lens of Judeo-Christian scripture, and of course media portrayals. Orientalist philosophy focused on using a Western lens to analyze Muslims and Islamic practices in the East, contributing to those exotic images that people are still amused by even in present day (See: Sex and the City 2 .) This philosophy also sustained itself on the false notion that the only Muslims in the world were Arabs, and so Arab women became the one-dimensional, monolithic image of Muslim women for more than a century.

Feminism, feminist theory and feminists alike have been engaged in “healthy debates” with the ‘Muslim Woman’ for ages. Whilst united on the essential struggle for women’s rights and equality, feminism’s changing philosophy has often disagreed with the definition of ‘equality’ and the ‘separate but equal’ role of Muslim women that is taught in the Quran. The distinguishing element between these “sects” of women’s rights groups has been the question of submission. The choice for Muslim women to submit to what they believe God has commanded of them (including ideas of modesty) is absolutely a factor that contributes to the notion of the separate and individual ‘Muslim woman’.

The Judeo-Christian view of women has also been an impetus for the rise of the ‘Muslim Woman’ in that it offers a fundamentally different view of women than Islam, going back to the idea of the Original Sin. The Quranic narrative teaches that both Adam and Eve were both equally responsible for their sins and were later forgiven by God, and the pangs of childbirth that are considered punishment for women in the Bible, are actually moments of reward and blessing for women in Islam.

These are examples of the way differences in scripture have given space and authentication to the ‘Muslim Woman’.

The concept of the ‘Muslim Woman’ arose also as a reactionary device on the part of Muslim women living in the West to the idea that Islam was violent both to people outside of the faith and to the weak within its fold. The ‘Muslim Woman’ had to stand up and define herself rather than be labeled oppressed or submissive by the West. All the while, she faced having to explain the very real cases of oppression, domestic violence, and genital mutilation taking place in Muslim countries, and attempting to distinguish these human failings from the teachings of Islam.

As the world moves forward in time and thought, we are witnessing how the ‘Muslim Woman’ is evolving into the champion of choice, the builder of the broken, and in some parts, the religious leader of her clan. Muslim women, like Suraya Pakzad, creator of the Voice of Women Organization in Afghanistan have stepped into advisory positions in the government, invested in charitable and entrepreneurial endeavors and have become star athletes, amongst a myriad of other accomplishments. In 2012, Muslim women boxers will be seen competing in Olympics, with their hijabs on. These roles and capacities have become vastly enriched and enhanced due to the unique narratives that the ‘Muslim woman’ has contributed to them, especially the narratives defying oppression, subjugation and lack of choice.

Muslim women have come to own the notion that we are spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally, politically, and influentially Muslim females. On a journey of both collective introspection and self-reflection, Muslim women also have been at the forefront in producing scholarship that deconstructs this multi-faceted identity. Asma Uddin (Editor-in-Chief of AltMuslimah.com), writes in her article, “The Difficulty of Being a Modern Muslim Woman,” “This self-reflection involves quite a bit of confusion, as it is hard to reconcile the heart-wrenching news of oppression with our daily experience of meeting, interacting with, living among – being – strong, confident, successful Muslim women.”

It is through these vehicles that we are helping to build the collective Muslim identity as well as our own Muslim female identity. Our pursuits are defined and amplified by virtue of these identities, whether conscious or unconscious. This movement to self-understanding has occurred in response to the need for alternative perspectives to improve and diversify the globe. In the future, whenever there is a forum discussing Muslims or Islam, we will naturally emerge as the female Muslim voices. We will retain an authentic and distinct voice that will mold and shape society and politics for generations to come.
Shazia Kamal is a contributing writer to Altmuslimah. This article was originally featured as the first entry in Altmuslimah’s new column Altmuslimah @ On Faith, hosted at the Washington Post/On Faith blog.

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