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  • Deploying the Muslimwoman
  • Miriam Cooke (bio)

In Paris, Istanbul, Jakarta, Amsterdam, and Cairo, Muslim women are recalling anxieties that go back to the colonial era, when Muslim fundamentalists, Orientalists, and Muslim and non-Muslim states were arguing about what was right or wrong for Muslim women. So extreme is the concern with Muslim women today that veiled, and even unveiled, women are no longer thought of as individuals: collectively they have become the Muslimwoman.

I combine “Muslim” and “woman” into one word, Muslimwoman, when these two words are used to evoke a singular identity. In so doing, I am following Islamicist Sherman Jackson’s use of the term Blackamerican, which connects race and citizenship, and womanist theologian Joan Martin’s blackwoman, which links race and gender.1 The veil, real or imagined, functions like race, a marker of essential difference that Muslim women today cannot escape. The neologism Muslimwoman draws attention to the emergence of a new singular religious and gendered identification that overlays national, ethnic, cultural, historical, and even philosophical diversity. A recent phenomenon tied to growing Islamophobia, this identification is created for Muslim women by outside forces, whether non-Muslims or Islamist men. Muslimwoman locates a boundary between “us” and “them.” As women, Muslim women are outsider/insiders within Muslim communities where, to belong, their identity increasingly is tied to the idea of the veil. As Muslims, they are negotiating cultural outsider/insider roles in Muslim-minority societies.

Some women reject The Muslimwoman identification and others embrace it. Its uniformity across gulfs of difference intensifies an awareness of the global community in which they participate, a cosmopolitan consciousness that connects [End Page 91] strangers who recognize an unprecedented commonality in terms of religion and gender. Their political consciousness qua Muslimwoman affirms the inextricable bond between gender and religion.

Some Muslim women are strategically deploying the Muslimwoman identification in order to change it. In the process, it is becoming what sociologist Manuel Castells calls a “primary identity.” New information technologies have shaken old certainties and compelled new allegiances. In the network society, “meaning is organized around a primary identity (that is an identity that frames the others), that is self-sustaining across time and space. . . . The search for meaning takes place then in the reconstruction of defensive identities around communal principles[,] . . . religion provides a collective identity under the identification of individual behavior and society’s institutions to the norms derived from God’s law, interpreted by a definite authority that intermediates between God and humanity.”2 In other words, new media produce radical connectivity across the globe and foster a new kind of cosmopolitanism marked by religion. Cosmopolitanism is at once unifying and diverse because the more people identify with and connect to each other the more their identities will be hybrid and split among the multiple groups in which they act and want to belong. Those threatened by such hybridity in Muslim women may try to cage the proliferating identities. The sign of the cage is the veil (whether mandated or forbidden).

Veiled or not, the Muslimwoman has become the cultural standard for the umma, or collective Muslim society worldwide. Whereas before it was men who represented the umma, today the Muslimwoman stands in for it. The religious and gendered exemplar confirms and highlights the morality of a God-fearing patriarchy where men protect and women are protected. In such a moral economy, women define the border between pure and polluted. The logic of the argument is that women are the potential outside whom insiders must keep pure or purify in order to save the purity of the inside. To uphold this moral regime, insiders must cooperate in maintaining and monitoring the Muslimwoman’s appearance and behavior.

Since the 1990s, the politics of covering has become highly contested, especially when the state intervenes either to ban the veil or to impose it. In secular Turkey and in Europe, women are claiming the right for the Muslimwoman to cover, and they are being persecuted for their demands to wear the symbol of their religion in public. Secular societies are not the only places where the veil has become a weapon in the war among women, Islamists, and the state...


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pp. 91-99
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