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Most especially, she says, “They tend to forget who owns the surplus of the enormous imbalance of power in the world, and so they spend more of their energy excoriating those who don’t have hegemonic power.” She prefers critiques of both: “Osama bin Laden sucks big time, and the U.S. created him in the mujahedeen camps of the 1980s . . . Hijab, the way the conservatives codify it, is patriarchal and misogynistic while pretending to be liberating, and so is the Western mainstream attitude toward women’s bodies and fashion. Both suck.”
She also has a list about why she’s not a conservative Muslim. And so I reel off my own list of words that might be used to describe her — liberal, modernist, reformist, leftist, feminist, moderate — none of them will do.
“Can’t you just call me freethinking?” she asks.
Kahf also runs into stereotype issues in the U.S. publishing industry. In one of her most eye-opening essays, “Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West,” she describes the most astonishing misunderstandings:
“No matter how much a Muslim woman may want to tell a more nuanced story, by the time it goes through the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either ‘Victim Story’ or ‘Escapee Story.’ Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes.”
Post-9/11, well-meaning editors and publishers often scratch their heads in authentic bewilderment, asking, “Where are all the moderate/liberal/progressive Muslims? Where are the Muslims who will rock the boat?” Kahf’s experience shows how hard it can be, even in ostensibly liberal publishing circles, for voices that disturb the burka-and-bomb narrative.
She sees the plight of freethinking and progressive Muslims — who do want to criticize certain wrongs they perceive in their own Islamic midst — as plagued by a similar problem, raised by Alice Walker with her novel The Color Purple, namely “whether and how a black woman writer will address the sexism of black men in the midst of a racist mainstream climate.” There is another problem for Muslim writers (one they may not always want to acknowledge): Their audiences, the readers who are most interested in hearing alternative Muslim voices, are by and large white, liberal, internationalist, bridge-crossing people. They are the types who might also read The Kite Runner or Reading Lolita in Tehran, stories that satisfy a liberal urge for pity while also giving a platform to much-in-demand Muslim self-criticism, finally showing that “they are just like us” at the end.
In an essay on victim and escapee stereotypes, Kahf articulates a discomfort that had remained ineffable for Western Muslims, built up from years of reading such stories and feeling that something was amiss. Here are just a few of the guidelines she offers for creating palatable female “Muslim victim” heroines: “Portray her as powerless to speak, but for the Westerner speaking on her behalf. Eliminate the subculture of women from the picture, all her empowering relationships with sisters, grandmothers friends. Ignore homegrown non-Western feminisms. Include no kindly brothers or uncles and no Muslim men who champion women’s rights. Make sure there are no nice imams around. Make the mosque a nasty-smelling place. Have the adhan[the call to prayer] called while she is beaten by her husband, like in the movie Not Without My Daughter.” And the most necessary feature of all, the element that no work authored by a Muslim woman is complete without: “Jacket the book with a picture of an inscrutable niqabi [a woman wearing the full veil covering the face], or an army of identically hijabed Muslim women looking sullen. Or how about a Muslim woman staring from behind a barred window? Now that’soriginal.”
To show just how pervasive these victim/escapee tropes can be, Kahf cites a personal conversation she had in 2004 with a debut novelist. “[She] was offered a million dollars for her book,” Kahf says, “if she would slant it against Islam.” The woman rejected the terms and signed for a smaller sum with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Kahf says that the kind of Islamic female figure that progressive Muslim women would select as a role model — pious, moderate in demeanor but immoderate in her activism, intellect and pursuit of her rights — has no real place in the mainstream U.S. publishing world.
“When the time came to sign my own contract,” she says, “I asked for control over the cover. ‘No,’ came the answer. Well, so I beefed up the cover clause. Did it help? No. They still approved an offensive cover without my knowledge, featuring a ‘Muslim girl meets Britney Spears’ hijabi with, get this, a bare midriff, and her eyes cut off. I kicked and screamed . . . I wanted a cover that featured praying.” After getting lawyers involved, the two parties finally compromised: The cover would display a veiled woman, showing her entire face but no midriff. Her editor’s comments were also revelatory: “Put more sex in it.” Needless to say, Kahf insists, “I did not take his direction.”
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