Let’s look at how each of us could contribute to better representations of Muslim women in our roles as writers, literary citizens, and even as non-writers
The Critical Importance of Accurate Representation
We have talked before about the power of stories to increase or decrease empathy. How does your writing portray Muslim women?
A 5-Point Checklist for Writing About Muslim Women
1. Does your writing erase or acknowledge the existence of Muslim women?
2. Does your writing reduce Muslim women characters to their external appearance and their “exotic” religious apparel or depict them as non-objectified human beings?
3. Does your writing exclusively represent Muslim women as voiceless, submissive, passive, oppressed victims or portray them as protagonists and heroes?
4. Does your writing include Muslim women characters and represent them as diverse individuals with agency?
5. Do your Muslim women characters actively pursue and achieve their own goals?
How does your writing measure up against this list? How could it improve? What step will you take next to improve the way your writing portrays Muslim women?
How to Support & Amplify Muslim Women Writers
Literary citizenship includes supporting marginalized voices. The best way to improve the representation of Muslim Women in media is to support and amplify the voices of Muslim Women writers! Now that I’ve made that statement, it’s obvious, isn’t it? So let’s look at what we can stop doing as literary citizens, and then look at positive steps we can take.
Five Things Not to Do to Muslim Women in Your Writing Group
1. When you encounter a Muslim woman writer in a writing group, do you rush to explain to her that her portrayals of women and of Islam are wrong, because her point of view on her gender and religion and culture better differ from yours and therefore your uninformed opinions must be correct?
2. Do you push the Muslim woman in your writing group to write about middle-class, WASP, “white” things–because any other writing material is “too foreign” and “too hard” and “not interesting”?
3. Alternatively, do you push the Muslim woman in your writing group to write about the “exotic” Middle East and tell her that her work isn’t foreign enough because it doesn’t live up to your expectations of exoticized, fetishized portrayals of Arabs and Muslims?
4. Do you project your own narrow-mindedness, racism, sexism and Islamophobia onto her writing and tell her it’s “no good” when it doesn’t pander to your prejudices?
5. Do you hold up portrayals of Muslim Women by writers who are neither Muslim nor female as positive examples for her because that writing is more comfortable for you?
I didn’t pull these examples from thin air: they all come from stories told to me by writer friends who are women and Muslim. These behaviors are the dead opposite of support and amplification: treating a writer this way is likely to shut her down in the short term and potentially turn her off writing altogether. Don’t do this!
Five Ways to Support & Amplify Muslim Women Writers
1. Listen to Muslim women. Trust their accounts of their lived experiences.
2. Support Muslim women in challenging narratives that push them to the margins. Support them in telling their own stories and placing themselves at the centers of their own stories.
3. If you are in a position to solicit work (such as an editor), solicit work directly from Muslim women. When you look at your line-up and ask “where are the women?” (because you’re asking that, right?–of course you are), recognize that not all women are white or Christian: look at the diversity of the women you publish or promote. Also, recognize that not all Muslims are men: look at the Muslim creators you work with as well as the representations of Muslims and question (and rectify) the proportion of women.
4. If you are in a gatekeeping position where you filter literary submissions of some kind, work on setting your prejudice aside. Do all of your submissions really have to be by and about WASP-ish white males? If they do, you might consider changing jobs. If they don’t, look at what your selection criteria filters out and allows in.
If your organization consistently filters out writing by Muslim women, consider A) updating your evaluation criteria for the 21st century, and B) soliciting work by Muslim women directly (see no. 3 above). If you have enough social capital in your organization (and front-line readers don’t but top level decision-makers do), start a conversation about diversity, who you support vs who you silence, how that could change, and how those changes could support Muslim women writers (as one of many specific examples of underrepresented writers).
5. Ask Muslim women writers what kind of support they would appreciate. Listen. Act.
Regarding no. 5 above, I know we have some incredibly talented Muslim women among the readers here. I would love to hear what kind of support you need as a writer–individually, specifically, right now–as well as what kind of support would help in general. I hope you’ll share your suggestions in the comments or send your ideas to me directly and I will happily update this post or put up a companion piece. (I should have solicited your input before I wrote this piece and I apologize that I didn’t; I hope you’ll understand that in light of recent events I wanted to get this article published and added to the conversation as soon as possible.)
What You Can Do If You’re Not a Writer
Whether or not you’re a writer, there is still so much you can do. Here are several suggestions for specific actions you can take right now.
Three Ways You Can Improve Representation of Muslim Women
1. Join the campaign to speak out about negative stereotypes about Muslim women and encourage others to truly listen to their voices. Visit the “Speak Up! Listen Up!” Campaign for more information.
2. Question and fight against the stereotypes of Muslim women that are presented to you in the media. Use Miss Representation’s #notbuyingit hashtag on Twitter whenever you see stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of Muslim women in media.
3. Support Muslim women who are creating their own media and contributing to alternative media sources and views.
Celebrating Muslim Women Media Creators
To expand on the points above about improving the portrayals of Muslim women in media, some incredibly powerful ways to support Muslim women in telling their own stories include listening to them and celebrating and recommending their work.
Who are the Muslim women writers, directors, producers, poets, essayist, playwrights and other types of creators who you love who contribute to positive, accurate, empowered portrayals of Muslim women? Please share your suggestions in the comments!
PS This article is a love letter to my Muslim women writer friends. In a perfect world or a real meritocracy, your writing would be everywhere.
Infographic via Miss Representation
I want to talk with you today [February 11, 2015] about improving representation of Muslim women in media, in response to yesterday’s fatal shooting of three young Muslim American students–Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, her sister Yusor Mohammad, and Yusor’s husband Deah Shaddy Barakat–by a militant white atheist.
Representation is important. Narratives have power. Stories shape the way we see the world.
The way western mainstream media (both news media and pop culture media) portray Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular is consistently abysmal and dangerous. Narratives that dehumanize and objectify whole categories of people contribute to these tragedies. We are culpable when we create these portrayals, we mindlessly consume and promote them, and we passively tolerate them.
The article above contains several suggestions for specific actions you can take, right now, whether you are a writer or a media creator or not. If you have other constructive suggestions for positive action, please share them in the comments.
I won’t do this often but in this rare case let me say: I would personally appreciate if you could share and promote this article and the issues it discusses. The issue of improving representation of Muslim women in media is urgent and important. We need to do better because lives are at stake and Muslim lives matter.