Category Archives: Sexuality

Book Review- Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad have Changed the English Language

Fred Halliday, who died aged 64 in April 2010, wrote widely on many subjects related to the Middle East as well as the Muslim community in the UK, but Shocked and Awed is quite different to his other books. In fact, it’s not really a book but a political dictionary of words, turns of phrases and made up terminology which the general public were exposed to in the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arranged into twelve chapters, the book studies words that have entered our vocabulary, their meaning, their origins but also- and this is the important bit- they way they influence the way we think and subsequently act. As Halliday reminds us “those who seek to control events, people and their minds also seek to control language.”

The one thing that surprised me about this book was that although the chapters were simply a collection of words which were examined in depth, it was still a really engaging read. As the chapters are short you don’t need to read every entry and you are given a lot more freedom as a reader to dip in and out of the book without losing your thread. Even more surprising was although the chapters didn’t have conclusions, after reading a collection of entries you are left with a clear impression of what words must have enabled (usually war and terror) and how words are so skilfully manipulated by politicians.

See full book review at the Friends of Al Aqsa website.

Muslimahs in the Media Do It Themselves

Muslimahs in the Media Do it Themselves

by Arwa Aburawa

Not too long ago, if anybody wrote about Muslim women in the down-and-depressed, stereotypical manner then it would be left to some sensitive Muslim man to reply. Or more than likely, it would just be left. All that is changing due to a new generation of media-savvy Muslim women who are fighting back with articles, blogs and witty comebacks quicker than you

Asma Uddin of AltMuslimah

can say “oppressed housewife.”

“I think the hijab debate in France back in 2003 made us all realize that stereotypes we thought we had dealt with were still there,” explains Rajnaara Akhtar of Pro-Hijab, a UK-based campaign group which defends the right to wear the hijab. “Certainly in France, the view still seemed to be that Muslim women were oppressed and waiting to be rescued. We could not sit back in silence any longer and decided to engage in the debate.”

Rajnaara acknowledged that part of the problem was that until recently, Muslim women have been particularly reluctant to talk to the press. Fear and mistrust of the media meant the many were holding back and were consequently represented by Muslim men- something which proved rather counter productive. “I mean you can’t say ‘look at how free these women are’ but it’s a man saying it! It was high time that we used our knowledge and skills to represent ourselves.”

On a more global scale, the rise of the internet has meant that many Muslim women can now setup a blog or website and speak their mind without fear that their words are going to be misrepresented. News sites tackling inaccurate portrayals of Muslim women such as Muslimah Media Watch (MMW) and Altmuslimah are going from strength to strength. MMW which started life as a one woman blog in 2007 was recently re-launched as a website with a 21 plus blogging team hailing from places as far afield as Egypt to Switzerland.

Fatemeh Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch

Fatemeh Fakhraie, the US writer and founder of MMW, remarks that she was uncomfortable with the mainstream media’s tendency to portray Muslim women as either “exotic sex slave, oppressed woman, or dangerous terrorist” and so decided to setup the blog. MMW states that it tackles “one-dimensional and misleading” representations of Muslim women in everything from small-town newspapers and blogs to major news channels and women’s magazines-for example MMW questioned the consistently negative portrayal of Muslim women in Marie Claire.

Whilst this media intervention is certainly novel, it by no means reflects a sudden awakening amongst Muslim women. As Fatemeh explains, “Muslim women have been thinking and writing and participating since the beginning of Islam but I don’t think anyone’s been listening until now… I do think there’s been a wonderful influx of differing Muslim women voices in the last ten years in response to 9/11 and the fact that, as Muslims, we have been forced into a spotlight.”

This “spotlight” may also explain the success of these sites and organisations which, Asma Uddin of Altmuslimah insists, are taking issues that were previously restricted to academic circles and the masses and Muslim women are dealing with them in their daily lives.

The increasingly vocal reactions also reflect a new generation of Muslim women who are well-educated, smart and unafraid to question what they read in the news. As Asma explains, “As second generation American Muslim women we are a lot more concerned with civic engagement and dealing with the media than our parents, who were busy trying to make a living. We have more ownership and confidence to express ourselves.”

Rajnaara Akhtar presenting an award

Rajnaara, who lives in the UK echoed this sentiment stating that Muslim women identify themselves as British Muslims and are secure enough in their identity to stand up for what they believe.  “We feel part of this society, we see ourselves as British… We don’t feel apologetic for our particular religious affiliations, so hopefully our positive engagement and responses will make it much harder for people to depict Muslim women in a stereotypical manner in future.”

Keywords: Muslim women in media, AltMuslimah, Muslimah Media Watch, Fatemeh Fakhraie, Asma Uddin, Pro-Hijab, Rajnaara Akhtar

Veiled Threat at B*tch Magazine

Well, its finally here! The piece I put together for Bitch Magazine on Princess Hijab is on their website. It’s so great to see it published as it was a challenging one, not only in terms of content but also having to overcome language barriers (Princess Hijab is French afterall).

Thankfully, the people at Bitch were great and Andi Ziesler was so generous with her time and getting useful feedback to me. Being a young freelancer, the one thing I crave is feedback! Constructive, of course I am only human :)

Enjoy. And feedback anyone?

Veiled Threat

The guerrilla graffiti of Princess Hijab
Veiled Threat
Article by Arwa Aburawa, appeared in issue Art/See; published in 2009; filed under Art.

Since 2006, the elusive guerrilla artist known as Princess Hijab has been subverting Parisian billboards, to a mixed reception. Her anonymity irritates her critics, many of whom denounce her as extremist and antifeminist; when she recently conceded, in the pages of a German newspaper, that she wasn’t a Muslim, it opened the floodgates to avid speculation in the blogosphere. If her claim of being a 21-year-old Muslim girl was only partially true, some wondered what the real message was behind her self-described “artistic jihad.”

In her online manifesto, PH declares that she “acts upon her own free will” and is “not involved in any lobby or movement, be it political, religious, or to do with advertising.” The Princess insists that, like the ape-masked Guerrilla Girls and Mexico’s balaclava-clad Zapatistas, by being nobody, she is free to be anybody. But as liberating as this anonymity may seem, it does leave her work open to conflicting—and occasionally unflattering—interpretations. On the popular blog Art21, critic Paul Schmelzer points to Princess Hijab’s work as an example of right-wing street art, surmising that her motivation is to cover the “shame of omnipresent (and often sexualized) ads.” Another blogger, Evil Fionna, argues that if Princess Hijab were acting as a fundamentalist Christian, her work would be recognized as “religious extremis[m]” that demonizes women and makes them ashamed of their bodies. And a commentator on the anti-Islam site Infidel Bloggers accused the artist of urging women to submit to the “tyranny of Islam.”

These observers also allude to the uncanny similarity between the work of Princess Hijab and that of conservative religious groups that have historically used less literal hijabizing to police the female form. In Saudi Arabia, the 80-year-old government agency known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is tasked with, among other things, blacking out bare skin wherever it shows up. In line with Sharia law, women in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and in other public images are painstakingly covered up: Katy Perry may be sporting high-waisted hot pants and a tiny top on her cd cover, but once the Committee gets through with it, she’s garbed in a long-sleeved shirt with matching leggings. (The group, notorious for beating up men and women engaged in “immoral behavior,” have also made headlines for banning Valentine’s Day and restricting the sale of cats and dogs, lest they be used by men to attract women’s attention.)

And in the U.K. in 2005, the activists behind Muslims Against Advertising (MAAD) began daubing blobs of paint on the underdressed models in street ads for the likes of Dove and Wonderbra, and in some cases ripping down the posters altogether.

The ongoing conflict over hijabs in her home country does give Princess Hijab’s work an inescapable political context, or what she calls a “shade of provocation.” France’s hijab debates first erupted in 1989 when three high-school girls were suspended after they refused to remove their Islamic headscarves at a school in a suburb of Paris. Successive years of controversy led to former President Jacques Chirac passing a bill in 2004 banning “religious symbols” in schools on the grounds that they clashed with France’s cherished notions of secularization; more recently, President Nicolas Sarkozy upheld the ban on burqas and headscarves in public spaces, stating, “The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.”

But Princess Hijab insists that anyone confusing her work with that of either conservative culture-jammers or Muslims supporting freedom of religious expression is missing the mark. “My work supports right-wing radicalism like Taxi Driver support cabbies. I’m using the hijab for myself.” And looking through her catalog of work, neither label seems right. If her goal really is to cover up the skin-flashing women in ads, then why leave slinky legs on display underneath the painted-on hijabs? And if she’s aiming to make a statement about the dignity of Muslim women, why hijabize male models in Dolce & Gabbana briefs with shoulder-length chadors, leaving their tanned, oiled abs and legs even more preposterously exposed?

A Dolce & Gabbana ad featuring young men in underwear has been hit by Princess Hijab. Their upper-bodies have been spray-painted with black hijabs and headscarfs. The paint drips down their exposed lower-bodies.In fact, Princess Hijab asserts, her dressing up of billboards is a symbolic act of resistance meant to reassert a “physical and mental integrity” against what she calls the “visual terrorism” of advertising. Arguing that the human right of expression has been displaced by publicists, advertisers, and the machinery of capitalist, commodified culture, she offers that, “My work explores how something as intimate as the human body has become as distant as a message from your corporate sponsor.”

“Like that poster of Farah Fawcett,” she continues, “with her teeth clenched in fear above her perfect polyester swimswuit. When she revealed her cancer, we had to see her and her body as something capable of tragedy. It’s that sort of re-humanization that I aim for with hijabization.” Princess Hijab later admitted that this example, and equating wearing the hijab with physical suffering, was a clumsy one, but wanted the point to stand: Her work attempts to remove the hijab from its gendered and religious context and convert it into a symbol of empowerment and re-embodiment.

Equally central to her work is the goal of social equality. She notes that, in France, “You’re always being asked your origin, which religion you follow. It’s something that is very French, actually; you don’t see it in New York or Berlin.” Hinting that she is a racial outsider in France, Princess Hijab states that she is never taken at face value, but instead pushed into a homogeneous social group and then judged by a corresponding set of stereotypes. With stratification by gender, religion, place of origin, and sexuality, she asserts, comes groups that are closed off from one another’s experiences. Even during her time at university, she recalls her modes of expression being explained away by her origins: “I would be told [that it was] ‘natural,’ given my background, that I would work on [one] topic and not on another. I felt trapped.” But by highlighting everyone’s potential “outsider” status by imposing the hijab on public figures, PH asserts that she is “trying to create a connection with and between people.”

Another poster by Princess Hijab featuring the woman in the heascarf. Here her headscarf is black and the text beneath her face reads HIJAB-ADBack when Princess Hijab was believed to be a Muslim, blogger Ethar El-Katatney of Muslimah Media Watch noted, “I’d actually love it if it turns out she’s not a Muslim, because it lends credibility to the idea that the dislike of being exposed to ‘visual aggression’ is not necessarily rooted in religious belief. Fed up with women being used to sell products, hijabizing ads could be a way to ‘take back’ women’s rights to their bodies.” Indeed, in Princess Hijab’s marked-up art, the headscarf is an agent not of covering but of exposure—of the oppressive nature of the advertising industry, of the displacement and disempowerment of women who are repeatedly told that they are not good, skinny, beautiful, sexy, or rich enough. It’s work that owes much more to Adbusters or No Logo than to the Taliban.

Though Princess Hijab’s work has gained international notice, like much street art it still actively resists a simplistic reading. And that she uses such a contested icon to wreak artistic revenge on the dual constructs of advertising and social prejudice means her work is ultimately as much about the interpretation of others as it is about her own intent. “People are confused by me,” admits PH. “Some say I am pro-feminist, some say I am antifeminist; some say I am pro-Islam, others that I am anti-Islam. It’s all very interesting—but at the end of the day, I am above all an artist.”

Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom.

Link to the Article on the Bitch website.

Sexuality and the national struggle

Rauda Morcos has every right to hate the press. On July 2003, the Israeli newspaper Yedeot Ahronot interviewed Morcos about her poetry but also announced to the world that she was a lesbian.

By ARWA ABURAWA

Rauda

Rauda Morcos (by lieve snellings)

HAIFA, July 27, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Following the public outing, Rauda Morcos’ car windows were smashed, the tires punctured and she received countless threatening phone calls and death threats. Soon after, Morcos lost her job working with youth and was forced to move back in with her parents in Haifa.

“It was a disaster for me,” she explains “but I am not bitter, at least now I understand how important it is to influence the media and represent something different.”

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