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  • A Phenomenological Reading of Gendered Racialization in Arab Muslim American Women's Cultural Productions
  • Alexandra Magearu

Sara Filali is a young Muslim American artist based in Florida whose paintings employ pop art and comic book conventions in their representation of iconic, celebratory, and empowering images of Muslim women. In her 2016 series, Hijabi Women, Filali represents different women in bold colors and sharp lines, often surrounded by Arabic script, printed on their clothes or inscribed on their faces. In one painting, a woman, emerging from the midst of a surreal landscape, part desert, part urban sprawl, is adorned in colorful flowing garments and wears a niqāb on which the Arabic reader can decipher the word ālḥurrīa (freedom). Filali also references the media commodification of women, and Muslim women in particular, through her self-conscious appropriation of pop art styles and themes, yet she turns these representations on their head by foregrounding the revolutionary agency of Muslim women.

One painting in particular draws my attention. In a piece titled What I Can't See, a hijabi woman appears to have been abruptly stopped in her tracks as she turns her head over her shoulders and stares at the viewer. Her red-rimmed sunglasses display what we, the viewers, cannot fully see: a dazzling and unsettling array of Islamophobic insults reflected in the lenses of her glasses, printed in bold letters as if they were newspaper headlines. Her reaction, crystallized in the question mark in her thought bubble, appears to be one of confusion, bewilderment and disorientation. We do not know what the woman sees on her horizon, beyond the reflections in her sunglasses, nor do we have access to the context of the quotidian process of racialization. In this moment of hesitation, captured so vividly by Filali, there is a sort of indeterminacy to what is to follow: Is the woman in physical danger? Will she simply brush off the comments and walk away? Will she engage in a response? The tension, the uncertainty, and the disorienting aggression of the racializing encounter emphasize the woman's vulnerability. She is the object of an anonymous collective hostile gaze and, still, her own gaze is shielded by her black sunglasses. The image conveys an ambivalent and contradictory existential position of bodily precariousness and strength. We cannot see the woman's eyes, but her arched left [End Page 135] eyebrow gives us an indication of the fact that she actively refuses the identifications projected upon her.

Filali's painting skilfully captures the everyday experiences of many Muslim American women today facing the burden of stereotypical representations of Islam in U.S. politics and the media, an intensified assault on their bodily integrity and their well-being in hate crimes and other articulations of Islamophobia, as well as the surveillance and policing of the state. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion 2004), Sara Ahmed argues that cultural objects "become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension" (11). The hijab is one such cultural object saturated with multifarious meanings, attachments and affective intensities. Veiled women participate differently in U.S. geographies structured by discourses of war and Orientalist imaginaries so that their movements, their postures, their gestures, and their attire become objects of intensified surveillance. miriam cooke has argued that the Muslim veil functions similarly to race, as "a marker of essential difference that Muslim women today cannot escape" (104). Several other critics have claimed that September 11, 2001, although not the originating moment, represented a historical turning point in the racialization of Muslims in the United States and the "racing of religion" (Cainkar 2009; Naber and Jamal 2008; Bayoumi 2008). These studies mark the connection between the racism mobilized against Muslims and the intricate histories of racialization articulated to domestic U.S. racial hierarchies as well as the growth of U.S. empire, while emphasizing the transformations in legislation, the functioning of state sovereign power, and the intensification of hostile affective dispositions towards Muslims throughout the "war on terror." In this context, critics have employed the term cultural racism to refer to the manner in which the othering of Muslims in the United States and Europe has...