Month: February 2014

Is Yasmin Mogahed a Sexist?

In a recent article, a blogger by the pseudonym “Muslim Feminist” takes Yasmin Mogahed to task by exposing the subtle “sexism” in her online personality. “Muslim Feminist” claims that Mogahed deliberately reposted a “sexist” joke and wrote an article with a hidden “sexist” agenda — all of which provides ample ammunition to pierce the religious leader’s moral credibility.

“Muslim Feminist” is not off the mark in suggesting that a Muslim woman can promote gender inequality. Any person, regardless of sexual and religious orientation, can be a sexist. I would hesitate, however, to accuse Yasmin Mogahed of willfully propagating underlying sexist messages and religious beliefs. Labelling her work as “sexist” fails to comprehend Mogahed’s complex sensibilities and attachments that make up her worldview.

Mogahed would be regarded by many in the Muslim community as a da`iya or religious teacher who is either self-taught or has received some formal training. She instructs both women and men on proper Islamic conduct and urges them to greater piety. Her “self-help” book and articles are laced throughout with exhortations to developing a primary relationship with God.

The internal critique by “Muslim Feminist” is necessary. Religious public figures are not exempt from criticism as they engage the public discourse. In fact, they may be subjected to an even higher standard of scrutiny given their claim to religious authority. Constructive and meaningful criticism however, does not overshadow a person’s good works. Popular academic critique tends to entirely obliterate a person by exposing errors in a way that permanently taints the bulk of his or her work. This genre of critique dangerously impels us to forget the truth and good in another’s labor. What I mean to say is: Mogahed may have posted an indiscreet joke but by no means should this color her integrity as a Muslim woman role model and mentor.

In Mogahed’s view, traditional gender roles do not indicate inequality. Women and men are celebrated for their uniqueness. She criticizes women who emulate men in superficial ways like physical appearance and behavior. Notice she never says that women shouldn’t participate in the public sphere and pursue careers in politics, education, finance, and healthcare, etc. I highly doubt whether Mogahed, who spends much of her time empowering and uplifting Muslim women, would advocate less rights for her own sex. Moreover, some Muslim men are uncomfortable with Mogahed’s emergence in the public spotlight. Their particular religious view maintains that women should remain within the confines and seclusion of their own home. Mogahed disregards these religious gender boundaries, contradicting her supposed sexist ideology.

My point however, is not to ascertain Mogahed’s level of feminism. Mogahed appears to derive her gender notions from a deep sense of religious belief wherein women are equal, but not similar to men. Her rhetoric might appear outwardly inimical to our own ideals and values but a closer look reveals a similar desire for liberation and empowerment. This demands we show reluctance in labeling her with incisive antifeminist terms, lest we run the risk of projecting our own ideas and misinterpreting her intentions and sensibilities. In other words, this warrants an act of humility on our part.

Saba Mahmood, while researching the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, arrived at a similar conclusion. She eloquently writes:

“Rather what I mean to gesture at is a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty about how the world should process can remain stable. This attitude requires the virtue of humility: a sense that one does not always know what one opposes…”

After immersing herself within the rich and multilayered lives of Egyptian women, Mahmood was able to dismantle her own subjectivities. She recognized a religious force incapable of being translated into limiting definitions. There is a strong reflex in feminist discourses to mock a worldview like Mogahed’s. We consider it backwards and outmoded. We project our own assumptions which prevent us from critically engaging a work on its own merit.

I believe as Muslims first and foremost, we should exercise a degree of caution in deconstructing another’s worldview. We should critique with the hefty realization that we are not always experts in what we purport to know. This requires that we objectively interrogate our own assumptions and then proceed with circumspect and nuanced arguments. Our goal is not to obliterate a person nor is it to tiptoe nicely around his or her obvious errors in judgment. Rather, it is to modestly impart a balanced critique, always mindful of the sacred trope, “And Allah knows best.”

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Diversity for Profit: Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl Ad

The recent Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad spawned a deluge of tweets, Facebook comments, and articles expressing both praise and outrage. The short one-minute ad features people of multiple backgrounds and apparent religious affiliations singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. There are people of all colors. There are yarmulkes. There are also hijabs.

Now I’m not here to talk about the bigots. Should we really be shocked that racist retrogrades and right-wing pundits are uncomfortable watching this commercial when it aggravates their white homogenous perception of American language and culture? No we shouldn’t.

What should surprise us are those who laud Coca-Cola and its proclaimed ingenuous attempt to portray America’s rich diversity. Coco-Cola’s appropriation of diversity as a prop for corporate sales is an affront to the hard work, pain, and suffering of minority and immigrant groups in this country. Coca-Cola is a multibillion dollar corporate giant that like most massive conglomerates has contributed to critical health issues and ruthless environmental devastation. It has also employed unfair labor practices. We must remember that for corporations humanity is a mere detour on the roadmap to unlimited profits.

Adding insult to injury, Coca-Cola feasts on our naiveté to skyrocket corporate sales. No doubt, this advertisement works as a clever marketing scheme. It dips the company in the limelight just long enough to increase profit. Does this mean we should give Coca-Cola a pat on the back for using the songs of patriotism to make a mockery of our nation’s waning beauty? More importantly, do we really need Coca-Cola to tell us how diverse we are and legitimize our “Americanness”?

Here, I turn my attention, particularly, to my fellow Muslims. A couple of hijabis appear in a national Coca-Cola advertisement and suddenly we’re applauding the beverage company for representing us? Perhaps the advertisement dismantles stereotypes by presenting us Muslims as unequivocally American. Perhaps we feel a little triumphant by finally being accepted into a society and culture we belong to and identify with.

But we seem to be missing the larger point.

Impeded by our own insecurities, we have trouble understanding how problematic it is to feel valorized by a corporate company that, let’s be honest, goes against the grain of our Islamic ethics and values. In 2013, Gap featured a Sikh model in its “Make Love” holiday ad campaign. Many members of the South Asian community beamed with pride at having a Sikh man’s face plastered on billboards throughout the U.S. It seems we, as minority groups, look to multicultural marketing techniques as the benchmark for our arrival into society and in so doing, we divest our inherent beliefs and values of meaning.  

I don’t intend to underestimate the effect mainstream media can have in confronting racism and intolerance. But we don’t need capitalist corporations like Coca-Cola to recognize or reinforce our Muslim American identity. If anything, the beverage company’s exploitation of our identity should leave a sour taste in our mouths.

To support or boycott Coca-Cola is not necessarily the question. The question is: who do we seek to validate us?