- Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out
With the proliferation in the aftermath of 9/11 of popular, and sometimes injudicious, volumes on Islam and the Middle East, the present anthology, edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, is a welcome addition in that it is an academically well-informed project that addresses the general public. That the task of responding to neoconservative disparagement of Islam should foreground gender issues, as does this volume, is eminently justifiable. The way in which the construct of "Muslim Woman," whose perceived oppression is allegedly evidenced in the veil, is made to metonymize the backwardness of a whole region, hence justifying neocolonial incursions, is what motivates endeavors such Shattering the Stereotypes. Yet, the paradox of this anthology is that it largely succeeds in modifying stereotypes against the grain of one of the terms proposed in the title, namely, Muslim Women. Although the plural in the title does suggest a contestation of the monolith Muslim Woman, the anthology nevertheless risks operating from within the terms of discussion dictated by Western neocolonial discourse. Nawal El Saadawi, that arch-secular feminist, does well to sound a note of skepticism-cum-apologia in her foreword. She writes that the "word Muslim or Islam on the cover of any book makes it a bestseller. I am critical of religious languages, or turning the political-economic and social conflicts into religious conflicts. But this book . . . corrects the distorted image of Islam in the Western countries. It clarifies that Islam is not the cause of terrorism or backwardness or oppression of women" (x).
While reservations can be made about some omissions, the anthology's ambition is clearly to attest to as much heterogeneity of identities, positions, and genres as possible. In addition to the foreword and the editor's introduction and afterword, the anthology comprises some forty-seven texts in six sections: "Non-Fiction," "Poetry," "Journalism," "Religious Discourses," "Fiction," and "Plays." The sound inclusion of two texts by African-American Muslim women—Eisa Nefertari Ulen's essay "Tapping Our Strength" and Atlanta-based Nadirah Z. Sabir's columns written in the wake of 9/11 (together with reader responses)—serves to nuance the nexus of Islam, gender, and power by exploring the specificity of the double oppression experienced by African-American followers of the faith. Moreover, the inclusion of a text by a non-Muslim Middle Eastern woman—Christian Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh's "Chocolate in Heat," a powerful series of interconnected monologues of Arab women and men resident in the United States—is justifiable not only "because it shows that the issues that are so important in the work of the Muslim women included here are not 'Muslim' issues alone [but] are rooted in the conditions of global injustice and oppression," as the editor puts it (16), but also because it hints toward the often occluded religious diversity of the Middle East.
It is possible, of course, for a specialized reader to navigate the anthology in longitudinal sections, tracing, for example, articulations of the Afghan predicament across such texts as Nadia Ali Maiwandi's essay "9/11 and the Afghan-American Community," which delineates the shifting schisms in the community and its growing activism as a result of 9/11 and its consequences for Afghanistan; Zohra Saed's "Fragments from a Journal," in the genre of firsthand testimonies about 9/11; Wajma Ahmady's "My Earliest Memories," about the experience of exile from Afghanistan; and, if in a different register, Bina Sharif's one-woman play "An Afghan Woman," an eloquently anguished monologue on the complex plight of Afghani women at the colonial crossroads, critiquing the uses and abuses to which the burka has been put. In the same vein, one might trace articulations of American-Palestinians' plight across Rabab Abdulhadi's "Where Is Home? Fragmented Lives, Border Crossings, and the Politics of Exile," which deftly brings out the interconnections, through a pastiche of diary entries dispersed across time and continents, between their dispossession after 9/11 in the United States and their experience in the Occupied Territories...