The Western Muslim Woman, Part II: Visual Presentation and Interpretation

Having thrown out the idea of identifying with a race in part I, I feel I should make something clear: as much as I see the social construct of race to be problematic, I am not interested in ripping race away from other people. I know that others identify with race for reactionary reasons, or because it gives them in a sense of community in a country that is mostly white and won’t stop reminding them, or because the cultural practices tied to race make them feel closer to their families. Quite frankly, I don’t care about the reason: it is anti-feminist to forcibly remove things that are so close to people, on which they have built their identities, and that on an individual basis aren’t contributing to the oppression of others. And it would be no different from an anti-religious feminist attempting to convince me to leave Islam, or a radical feminist attempting to convince me that my performances of femininity are destructive. Furthermore, as I mentioned in the previous part, not identifying with a race does not allow one to opt out of racism, and from a practical approach, pretending the construct doesn’t exist or coercing others not to identify with it is at this point only a convenient way of ignoring the problem. I’ve frequently encountered people who don’t identify with a race and believe that they therefore are incapable of racism.

But we can still be both agents and victims of racism, because race is something others interpret, most often from our appearances—especially as women. And these judgments are based on poorly “recognized” common attributes, and on stereotyping that erases the individual. To illustrate, I had a rather unpleasant reoccurring experience these past few days. With finals approaching, I’ve been wearing my hair in a simple high ponytail; although, my hair is so abundant that hardly anything is simple: I had to keep the long wavy raven locks up with pins and clips to hold it in place—and to ensure it stayed it had to be straightened. It normally flows down my waist, but held up ended mid-back, just below the band of my bra.

“You look so beautiful with your hair like that!” a woman exclaimed.

“Thank you,” I smiled.

“You look like Princess Jasmine!”

I felt my smile falter a little, but knowing she was attempting to give me a compliment, I held it fast in its place and half-heartedly thanked her again. Maybe it wasn’t racial, I assured myself, maybe I really do look like Jasmine. I even passed by a mirror quickly to check, giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Nope.

Nonetheless I chose to believe she wasn’t being racist. It is much easier to not be offended. Offense is not enjoyable. She just meant the hair; she meant the hair looks like Jasmine’s, and not all of me and that’s why I don’t see it, I told myself, pushing away questions like But would she have said that to any woman with long dark hair?

And then it happened three more times with three different people, and just as I was thinking Well, I guess I really must look like Jasmine… the last one added, “You and [name redacted] both remind me of Princess Jasmine.”

And the woman to whom she was referring and I looked nothing alike, except that we had a similar skintone.

And we’d both mentioned being Muslim.

Her hair wasn’t even long.

“…Except, I don’t know if Jasmine was Muslim,” she added.

If you’re talking about how close I am to looking like her how the hell is that even relevant? I thought irately. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to say anything. The notion of comparing real women to Disney princesses itself was already disturbing, and what was more disturbing was that for these observers who assign me a race in my refusal to disclose one, “Muslim” had become a personality type that was conveyed and identified through an iconic—and cartoon—appearance. I don’t share most of Jasmine’s actual personality—but although I find her one of the least interesting of Disney princesses, she does have one. Friends who know my actual personality have said consistently, “You’re more of an Ariel or a Belle. And maybe a little Megara.” But it doesn’t matter who I am, or who Jasmine is, because she’s possibly Muslim, and we have the same skintone.

The title of this post is an archetype, but this post is really about me. And I must emphasize this, because I am not representative, and because this terrible inclination people have to group minorities together is so destructive to the point where several people of color feel uncomfortable sitting next to someone who resembles them in appearance, because any observer walking by would immediately assign a race or assume some relation.

One of the beautiful things about hi’ jab is that, at least in the privileged West, it is association by will, an act of choosing one’s community rather than being assigned. I don’t wear the headscarf, but I’m quite possessive of my faith—it’s who I am. But it’s not who I am the same way it is who another Muslim woman is, and it’s incredibly discouraging that such an obvious thing need be said. When you’re in a position of disadvantage, like being a religious minority and a woman of color, the balance between the erasure of your individuality by stereotyping and the show of your solidarity with your sisters is delicate.

In defiance of the misogynistic contention that menstrual blood is unclean, I apply nail polish when I’m on my period to shamelessly announce that I’m menstruating. It is, essentially, an act of rebellion and a recognizable practice of freedom under the circumstances of my religious community. And it is truly reactionary, considering I’m not as enthusiastic about having my nails done as I am with other performances of beauty. It is an act in which a couple of other women have begun participating, and it’s a deliberate show of solidarity demonstrated by an actual practice rather than assigned race, and—in a state of the Islamic community where women who practice femininity are viewed as unruly—it is not oppressive the way it is in a white narrative, but (at this point) rather liberating.

I wear kohl because I think it’s beautiful, but also because it’s a valuable cultural preparation for me, and one that has been a great deal separated from race miraculouslywithout becoming white—if there’s any feminist who rants against performances of femininity and cannot see how that alone is independently significant, I would question her legitimacy in the movement. It reminds me of old movies, and in not having a race and in reclaiming my right to influence American culture so that it isn’t only white people who are privileged to define it, it is just a little alleviating in making me feel that I belong somewhere.

I wear red lipstick because it is beautiful, and also because my mother often wore it when she was young and naïve, and a little happier because she was so full of hope. And I want to hold on to her, because I love her, and because I don’t have an ancestry. And so it’s aggravating when white radical feminists, who most certainly can trace their ancestry and from the perspective of others are fairly imbedded in their culture and thus are privileged enough to feel so, want to strip away these performances of femininity.

At a fundamental level, I identify as a radical feminist (namely, I’m anti-pornography [still pro-sex]), though I disagree greatly with some of the proclamations of radical feminists, the most outrageous of which is the assertion that my performance of femininity reminds “marginalized” women—“marginalized” because they have chosen to defy patriarchy by not participating in conventional performances of beauty—that they are considered “undesirable”, and actively alienates them by reinforcing these societal beauty standards, erected as survival mechanisms, in which they do not partake.

You’re kidding me right? You—a feminist, and a woman, specifically a white woman—are telling me—a feminist, and a woman, specifically a woman of color—that I am contributing to your marginalization. That I am doing this by oppressing you with my body. That I am doing this specifically because I am participating in an act of rebellion that your white narrative does not recognize, and one that enables me to practice my own freedoms and retain my bodily autonomy rather than falling over for you. That when I wear makeup in attempt to achieve the standards of beauty that are centered around YOU—to which YOU, with your platinum blonde hair, will always be closer without makeup—I am wearing blackface.

Very often, radical feminism in all its racist, slut-shaming glory is the patriarchy.

I’m not the kind of woman who has to wear makeup whenever she leaves. And I can tell you that when I’m not wearing it, I really don’t give a fuck about who is. I don’t see a woman who is wearing makeup and think, “OMG SHE IS SOOO OPRESSING ME RIGHT NOW!” And anyone who does has her narcissistic head up her ass. What’s most enraging is that this is the ideology claiming that feminism doesn’t oppress women, patriarchy does—when they are the ones asserting that feminists wearing makeup are oppressing women who don’t. (Oh it’s insufferable.) Feminism doesn’t oppress women, but feminists sure as hell do. And when you are telling a woman that when she practices her right to her own body she is oppressing you, you sound exactly like the rape apologist who tells her she deserved it because she was oppressing him with her cleavage! When you tell her that if she really cared about women she’d surrender her bodily autonomy for your cause, you sound like the obnoxious dudebro who insists that if you really loved me you would sleep with me.

And when you rip away meaningful things from women because you don’t understand the significance from your white narrative, you are the patriarchy. It doesn’t matter if it’s mascara, religion, or a surname. You are erasing their cultures and the practices that are just as rightfully women’s—practices that that have been seized by patriarchy and should be reclaimed—and, by judging them sexist, validating the framework men have established to define these institutions instead of allowing women to represent them.

I understand what expectations of beauty do to women. Books have been written. It has been covered, over and over, and it is still in need of more coverage. But please be aware of imperialist, dehumanizing attitudes and white centrism.

9 responses

  1. Yes. I utterly agree.

    As if “Muslim” is an appearance, anyway. There are Muslims who are Arabic, Asian, black, Hispanic and even pale-ghost-types like me. Most of these groups look absolutely nothing like Jasmine.

    It’s like saying I ought to look like Temperance Brennan from Bones, because we’re both atheists. (Protip: I look nothing like Temperance Brennan.)

  2. My education, thanks to you, continues. For the last several months, reading several blogs concerned with feminism, race as a social construct, and intersectionality — yours among them — has provided me with a learning experience I could never get in any classroom or book. Thank you for your willingness to be who you are, without apology. And for reminding me why I became a feminist in the first place. Long may you write!

  3. Me loves. Would you be ok with me taking some excerpts and posting them on my blog? I wish more white radfems would understand these truths.

  4. I <3 this article so much.

    So many white radical feminists think that they are being transgressive and busting down patriarchy by looking at what patriarchy expects of women and doing the exact opposite. It completely escapes them that they are still letting themselves be controlled by patriarchy. If some day, the powers that be decide that women have to wear green to be proper women, will radfems stop wearing green?

    • GallingGalla,

      I agree with your statement wholeheartedly. I think dogma is rife in white radfem circles, and it becomes a bit ridiculous. I also think people believe being militant will somehow change the culture, but all it really does is create another patriarchy – as Nahida so passionately spoke on. But, I love hearing what lesbian radfems have to say about a patriarchy that they are a little more removed from in their personal/social lives, if they so choose. I think the hetero world could stand to hear what lesbians have to say about the craziness that informs heterosexual women’s lives. It really is an onslaught that we have normalized so completely that it takes stepping back into a different subculture, and viewing it from someone else’s reality, to see it.

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