Muslim women are finally on prime time. With last Sunday’s debut of TLC’s All-American Muslim, five Muslim families joined the esteemed company of cat hoarders, toddlers wearing tiaras, and women having babies even though they didn’t know they were pregnant.
The second- and third-generation Lebanese-American families on the show serve to highlight a point that may have been lost with a more ethnically and racially diverse cast: even Americans of very similar backgrounds can have huge differences in religious outlook and practice. In a refreshing and important move, the show features characters who choose to manifest their faith in very different ways. Some are religiously observant and others are not – sometimes within the same family.
Some Muslim critics of the show have dismissed characters as not representative or “real” Muslims because they don’t adhere to strict religious norms. This includes tattooed bride-to-be Shadia, whose impending wedding to a non-Muslim man she met at a bar is the focus of the first episode (her husband, Jeff, converts to Islam before the two are wed). Nina, a tall blonde frequently attired in tight short dresses who wants to open a nightclub, is also subject to judgment.
As editors of the upcoming non-fiction anthology “well-funded anti-Muslim hate machine ready to take down any Muslim who appears to challenge the stereotype of the violent terrorist, or submissive and oppressed Muslim woman. But there are also Muslims to contend with—those who judge and criticize others within the faith community who do not fit their concept of what a Muslim should look like or how she should behave.
At the heart of the matter lies the question of freedom of choice, including freedom of religion. No one in our faith community has the authority to judge how another should conduct herself or question the decisions she makes. The choices the women of All-American Muslim make – to cover themselves (or not), to marry whom they love, to work in a given profession – are, as Shadia states, between them and their maker. Some Muslims may not always agree with the way in which these women practice their faith, but the authenticity of their beliefs and identity as Muslims are not ours to question.
In the most impactful scene of the premiere, Nina addresses the judgment and criticism directly when she states that other Muslims might say that she’s not Muslim enough, but she’s proud of who she is. Nina, Shadia and the other female characters are no longer waiting for permission from presumed or self-appointed religious authorities inside or outside of the mosque, but are making their choices and living their lives in ways that reflect the humanity and strength of their Muslim and American identities.
As American Muslim women, we welcome the show and its cast of characters as a breath of fresh air on television and a much-needed provocation for debate and conversation within and between communities. By telling our own stories honestly, proudly and openly, women are creating the space to claim their beautiful faith and identities across the full range of their experiences.
We support the women (and men) of All-American Muslim in sharing their perspectives on the similarities that bind us together, and the differences that enrich us, and look forward to watching the next episode on Sunday.
(Photo Credit: TLC)
Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi are co-editors of Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, to be published on Valentine’s Day 2012 by Soft Skull Press. Follow them on twitter @loveinshAllah.