Does representation lead to empowerment?

A Muslimah Writes

Prior to her stepping down over anti-Israeli tweets, news that L’Oreal had featured their first hijab wearing woman, Amena Khan, in a shampoo advert caused a stir on social media this week.

The “history making” decision was (initially) praised as just one of many measures thatibtihaj-muhammad-rt-mem-171114_4x3_992
have sought to integrate minority communities, particularly Muslims into mainstream branding, from Revlon hiring youtuber Dina Torkia and Vogue featuring hijab wearing model Halima Aden, to Barbie launching their first doll in the image of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Whilst Muslim women tend to feature more in such adverts than their male counterparts, this phenomenon is not limited to one demographic. Throughout modern history, all minorities have sought prominent positions of leadership or fame in an effort to increase their influence and promote acceptance. It is based on this idea that Muslims, especially visibly Muslim women, are encouraged to seek out and embrace platforms that will let them be seen by millions as “normal” people, in an effort to defuse hatred and fear.

But does this actually work?

Celebrating the exception

Despite being a regularly toted idea, upon further scrutiny, its clear that the idea of representation leading to empowerment has not always produced results. Simply being visible has never served to change public attitude, but has always been accompanied by legislation and active campaigning as to the reasons why discrimination against said group should not be tolerated.

There are many instances where even when minorities reach extremely high public positions, public opinion fails to keep up. A recent example can be seen in US President Barack Obama, who was celebrated for being the first African American president, with journalists and analysts hailing a new era of history and the end of racism. Yet it was during his two terms in office that the Black Lives Matter movement was launched, in protest of the perpetual dismissal of discrimination and abuse within state institutions and rampant police brutality. And to the supposed new era of history, one can assess how much of a difference Obama made in public sentiment, given the election of the proven racist, sexist and elitist that is Donald Trump.

US-POLITICS-OBAMA

The inevitable result of the promotion of specific individuals, in absence of the principles as to why the “other” should be accepted, results in any successful persons being seen as the exception to the stereotypical norm.

Rather than humanising the masses, representation creates an acceptance of a specific personality and hinges upon the individual possessing certain celebrated traits, only approved if deemed the “model” Japanese citizen, the educated black man, or the beautiful hijabi makeup artist. Communities are infinitely diverse such that not everyone will be featured in the mainstream; consequently basing societal acceptance on representation is neither feasible nor effective.

Read: We need to talk about the sexualisation of Muslim women

Additionally, when it comes to Muslim women, there is a clear promotion of a certain segment of this demographic, largely a hijab-wearing, fashionable, photogenic social media star, with their profession usually revolving around their appearance and/or their stereotype-breaking abilities.

The result: Muslim women that aren’t fashionable, that aren’t stereotype breaking, that may be more conservative are relegated to the oppressed, submissive label once again.

So progress has been seen for a certain segment of society who have proven they are “just like everyone else”, but has not changed the fundamental issue: that discrimination should not be tolerated.

An intolerance of values

The case of acceptance in society ultimately boils down to a discussion of values. When the cause of a group’s difference is deemed acceptable, so too are the individuals who practice it accepted.

Take the LGBT community, a minority that has faced legal and social discrimination even in secular societies. It was not until recently, 2017 in the case of Australia, that the right to same-sex marriage and adoption has been entirely legalised. Despite popular figures in the music and entertainment industry identifying as gay since the 1970s, which played a role in mainstreaming their appearance, it was not until the principle of same sex relations was accepted that rights were granted. When identifying as LGBT was justified as an expression of freedom, rationally legal between two consenting adults, and natural according to science (three validations that form the cornerstone of secular societies), only then was it considered the same as a heterosexual relationship.

Read: My liberal MSA caused me to doubt Islam

Yet such a strategy will not work for the Muslim community, because Islam’s values contradict the bases used to justify differences. Islam does not advocate that individuals are free to act as they please and choose which obligations they fulfil. Wearing hijab, praying and subscribing to our Islamic duties are not choices we make because we are “free”, but rather out of submission.

However, society will never accept “submission” as an appropriate reason for one’s actions, and consequently only Muslims that emphasise freedom (or other reasons) as to why they fulfil their Islamic obligations will be given a platform.

This is evident in the case of prominent Muslim women, whose choice to where hijab is always given undue attention, as well as those who say they wear it to express their identity or fashion. Similarly, they are praised for their “stereotype breaking” behaviour because it appears to champion the values of liberty and independence from cultural or religious norms. Subtle compromise is endorsed, and largely tokenises women, with or without their consent.

With this in mind, it is impossible that any mainstream voice will be given to air conservative Islamic perspectives on issues. Not only will the Islamic perspective contradict the values held dear in Western liberal societies, but it will undermine them by posing an alternative way of life.

So should we just hide in our own communities?

Refusing to be part of the tokenising culture of representation that devalues aspects of Islam does not mean that one must be calling for Muslims to hide themselves away. Rather, the community must be savvy about what representation on our own terms means and what platforms will be useful to take advantage of while leaving problematic ones behind. A case-by-case analysis is needed, considering all possible outcomes.

Muslims must also concentrate on developing their own platforms for adequate representation and not falling into the temptation of watering down Islam in for the sake of mass viewership. Our religion encourages hikma (wisdom) when informing other of Islam, not compromise.

Read: Why are British women turning to Islam?

But our community needs to wake up to the bigger picture. Islamophobia is not just limited to individuals, but also state policies that are not going to be affected by Muslims being featured in an advert for makeup or winning a sporting award.

Strategies like Prevent in the UK and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US arguably affect a greater proportion of Muslims than individual Islamophobic incidents yet receive considerably less attention. This is an issue that representation will not solve; rather a debate on why such policies are implemented is needed to challenge this narrative.

And finally, we need to encourage our communities, our young people in particular, to not draw our strength from seeing their faces in the media or the Internet. We need to harness and bolster our own inner strength, such that confidence in our identity is not drawn from being the same as everyone else, but from being different.

“Islam came as strange and will return as strange, so blessed are the strangers.”

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

 

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2 thoughts on “Does representation lead to empowerment?

  1. What about the “question” of women in Islam?
    Admitting is and may be a “special” issue, considering the abuses and so on that the female gender receives abundantly in every society or, to better define here, in every community of the faithful, far from being an exegete (remember that each Sacred Book -uncompromising and pretentious shared position- needs of these “forms of in-depth study”) and in the absence of a hermeneutic approach, (as above …) I extract some passages from “Mā shā’ Allāh (XXI century schyzoid man)” book:
    “….the emancipation of women, and not only in Islam, is a phase of transition and appropriate absolute need, especially to remove dissolved historical reasons in interpreting the religion of the male form that has sought a convenient benefit for him; confusing in the behavior and accommodating companies of a semblance of justification for corrective Sacred Text the psychological domain practices on women, undermine the message of God (…)”
    The investiture that the woman receives is exactly double (double submission) than that of man and therefore it is natural that man, the male, recognized this effort that makes even this certainly weak against him, has had and has protective behavior, but often this has proven itself and as unfortunately happens today, a formula quite eagerly possessive itself, “pro domo sua”, blurring the female condition of that humanity which has the same thickness of the male in front of the Creator, as clearly and without any doubt it is stated in the Koran Sura number 4 Verse number 124. What must also be clear, is that this will never mean that men and women are equal to or must seek equality in a way which they may wish to tackle the course of their lives engraving it in equal measure and there will not be equality in the behaviors of two kinds freed from those traditions, from those costumes and all those uses that make the companies that have or have not chosen to continue take a differentiated behavior of Faith received in the act of birth (…) As can be seen, there are “elements” in Sura cited in question conjure behavior (nowadays we “summarize and extend” in dress, in performing etc.) that the woman should hold in public, outside her family sphere. Moreover, in every “good family” (beyond Religion!) is commonly accepted and applied to do this, where possibly a hairstyle collection, a well-groomed appearance, but never vulgar or without hoods blackout to be affixed to the head would NOT UNDERMINE THE HOLY SURA. For example, in Indonesia rather than in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the women wear a traditional and light “scarves” very colorful not totally hiding hair but adorns them with a nonchalant demeanor in itself, Countries that together contain more Islamic people then “Arab world”…

    Thanks for support and God bless you all!
    https://goo.gl/ygA6kZ <– an article on topic
    Please, readers, ask and follow me on Twitter: @MshAllh_theBook

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