On Muslimah Montage Muslim women take charge
When The Huffington Post linked to the results of a poll on Twitter recently with the words “How should Middle Eastern women dress in public?” the sarcastic responses came quickly: “indoors”, “to music”, “clothes right-side out”.
To Sabina Khan-Ibarra, the creator and editor of a new website called Muslimah Montage, the question was emblematic of the way that Islam and women’s bodies are discussed more widely in the media, whether it’s in the West or the East, among Muslims or non-Muslims. “It just seems to be a subject that other people are always talking about,” she says over the phone from her home in Berkeley, California. “And Muslim women are not really part of the conversation. I think everyone should have a chance to tell their own story.”
Muslimah Montage was launched in November as a place for these stories to be told. Each week, a different Muslim woman, one who is prominent in her field, is interviewed about her life, ambitions and beliefs.
Zainab bint Younus runs a blog called The Salafi Feminist, in which she describes herself as “a young Canadian niqaabi with a bad case of Gothic fashion [and] punk feminist attitude”. On Muslimah Montage, she outlines her idea of “the ideal Muslimah” as a woman who is courageous, idiosyncratic, intelligent and, most importantly, imperfect. She quotes verses from the Quran and hadith to back up her points.
Among other contributors are Zainab Ismail, a Puerto Rican convert and fitness trainer; Zahra Noorbakhsh, an Iranian-American stand-up comedian; and Nia Malika Dixon, a Baltimore transplant to Los Angeles who writes and directs films and who is currently being mentored by the Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. There’s variety in the type of religious practices represented, but, Khan-Ibarra says, “we all draw strength from the faith”.
Khan-Ibarra herself was raised in a religious household to Pashtun parents from Pakistan. She became a human resources manager, but gave it up to bring up her two small children, and to write and edit. The idea for the site came to her last year when she was working on an anthology called Hijabulous and had trouble finding a network of female Muslim public figures to contribute. (The book has since been put on hold.)
To launch Muslimah Montage, she hosted a “tweet party” on Twitter, asking questions such as “What’s the dominant narrative of Muslim women?” and retweeting the answers. Respondents talked about the idea that there was “one right way to be a Muslim woman”, the overemphasis on clothing, and the way that Muslim women were painted in the media as victims.
One woman with the Twitter handle @Margari_Aziza added a new level of nuance to the debate by tweeting: “Sometimes in dispelling certain myths about Muslim women, we downplay realities of inequality in our community.”
The site has received some less thoughtful responses, too. One Twitter user told Khan-Ibarra that the Prophet didn’t like women and would disapprove of what she was doing; another who wrote to her in Pashto said that Khan-Ibarra brought shame on her people for being so visible. “It shook me up,” Khan-Ibarra says of the latter. “It took me a day or two to recuperate, and I reflected and thought, this is why I need to do this. I need to prove that Muslim women don’t need to be told by other people what’s right and what’s wrong.”
In the future, Khan-Ibarra would like to set up “some sort of a mentorship programme”, so that the women featured on the site can help others to fulfil their aspirations. Her ultimate dream? “Just to be seen as a regular human being. One who has flaws, one who is learning, but one who knows what she’s doing and is making choices willingly and thoughtfully.”