Notes from “Using Muslimahs to Sell Stuff”

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OK maybe I should have tweeted this out instead of frantically scribbling in my notebook, but hey, I hadn’t been inside a university in eight months. I needed to pretend I was back in a classroom. Sure, it was less of a classroom and more of a room where debates were held at the University of Toronto. The organisers had opened up the windows and along with the cold air of the initial stages of a Canadian spring, there was the sound of traffic and students busy with getting through their semester. I’m still very new to Canada – at least in conscious memory – and so I didn’t know most of the people in this panel, let alone the audience. I was only acquainted with Hoda Katebi, a person I began learning from when a video clip went viral where a news broadcaster told her on-air “You don’t sound very American”, to which she most eloquently replied: “Well, that’s because I’ve read.” At the time, little did I know that she along with Eman Idil Bare and Shelina Kassam would give me more of an education on practicing the hijab in this capitalist system than any other experience in my eight months in North America had provided me.

Of course, I was the new kid who didn’t even go to UofT. But while I’ve managed to make this about me, it’s really not. Here are some rough notes from yesterday’s all-women panel discussion on the commercialization of the hijab:

Khalood and  Naima opened the session and Habiba, our moderator for the evening, talked about why she wanted this panel to discuss diversity marketing campaigns that increased inclusion of Muslim women. “Why am I interested in this distinctive inclusion?” she asked, a question that seemed addressed to herself more than anyone else. I’m really looking forward to Habiba’s thesis on this. (If you’re reading this, Habiba, I hope this helps you in writing it. I did my best with transcriptions but I’m sure I missed a lot.)

“Fashion frames our bodies for public consumption.” – Hoda Katebi

Hoda began her opening offerings by talking about how we are all partaking in fashion since we are all wearing some kind and form of clothing. She said that all fashion and art is political and that it is a mistake that consider any of our fashion and art to be apolitical. Eman talked about she was not comfortable with her identity being reduced to a piece of cloth. She identified herself as “a journalist who also happens to be a hijabi.” When it was her turn, Professor Shalina got up from her seat, went to the podium, and began her presentation by asking us a series of questions. For me, the most interesting questions were:

“Who are these media companies and for whom are they working?”

“So why not (target) Muslim men?”

For content like Mipsterz the professor asked: “Is it making a point and if so, what is the point?” The slide changed and Oriental images were juxtaposed with images from present-day advertising featuring Muslimahs. “I want to remind us Orientalism. I want us to come back to that,” she said. “Are there differences between classical Oriental images and current images?”

(Honestly, I couldn’t find any)

“If you wanted to support Muslim women, why don’t you start in sweatshops?” asked Hoda.

She pointed out how campaigns that encourage women to try on the hijab for a day “without carrying our colonial baggage” are taking away from the lived experiences of wearing the hijab. According to her, the recent commercialisation of the hijab “flattens and monotholises Muslim identities” where what we are seeing is a “circus-level representation.” Like in the recent case of Amena Khan, a UK based makeup artist who left a L’Oreal campaign due to the reaction to her past tweets, a Muslimah’s identity is exploited for its superficial elements.

“They just want a face but they don’t want the politics that come with it,” said Hoda.

Eman shared how she went to an Islamic school and she talked about what she referred to as the “Islamic School Syndrome” where kids at her Islamic school would call refer to kids going to the public school across the streets as “normal”. This normal vs Islamic distinction made little sense to her because she said had always seen herself as “normal”. For her, being black and Muslim was normal and she was aware that for someone else, their normal could be different. As a result she consciously took care not to use parts of her identity to, in her words, sell out. “I never marketed myself as the first hijabi to do xyz,” she said, “because I knew someone had probably done it before me because Instagram wasn’t a thing back then.” Eman urged everyone in the audience to stop considering selling out to be an option. “We want a seat at the table without seeing who’s in control of the table,” she said. She suggested that we support local makers of hijabs. “The Nike hijabs are good because Nike has the money to make good hijabs,” she said.

When Habiba asked a question about how Muslim identities were being sanitized, Eman spoke about how most of the influencers on Instagram are white, half-white, or white-passing. She asked the audience if we ever wondered why it’s only Syrian refugees who the media keeps returning its lens to. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that bodies of brown and black refugees are not giving room in international media. Hoda agreed with Eman and said that when we are asked to assimilate into North America, what we’re actually being asked to do is “assimilating into whiteness.” Professor Shelina expanded the discussion by talking about  how “whiteness is not just in how we look but what we are allowed to say.” She said that according to the nation state, she is not a potential threat since there are no easy signifiers that indicate she is a Muslim. Which means that she’s the “moderate Muslim” except when she speaks her mind. Here, I should point out that the professor resists using the term moderate since according to her, anything not classified as moderate by the nation state is deemed to be immoderate and unacceptable – an understanding she does not agree with.

“You need to ask yourself: Why are we so buyable?”- Eman Idil Bare

Eman looked straight at the audience and continued: “You are being tested by how close you are to whiteness. And I see so many of you failing.” She talked about how she felt this wasn’t her test because she’s a black Muslimah and thus safe from being used in the commercialisation of the hijab. “They don’t want me. I want me. God wants me,” she said.

When the conversation shifted to Muslim men, Hoda talked about how fewer Muslim men were not as visibly Muslim from head to toe which is why that niche wasn’t targeted.

“What’s the point about wearing a hijab if it’s made by a seven-year old?” asked Eman, when talking about how sweatshops were haram.

When asked to place commercialisation with the larger conversation on capitalism, Eman’s point on sweatshops stood out strongest to me. For her, this was not a matter to be taken lightly as it brought our religious beliefs into question. Hoda saw the commercialisation to mean that we are comprising with our values.

“Not only are we comprising, we are complicit. … Not to take a stand is also to take a stand,” added Professor Shelina.

When the conversation was directed towards callout culture as opposed to the culture of calling in, Hoda talked about how the bar is set so low when in in fact it should be set higher for our influencers and leaders. At its core, Hoda’s argument was that no one is free to step outside the consequences of their choice. She said: “You have the right to choose to dress your body how you want but you’re not outside the harm that it (i.e. your choice) causes.” Professor Shelina talked about how communities need to have “spaces where we can be called out.” She said, “All of us have blindspots. All of us need to be called out.” For Eman, the matter was spiritual. She talked about how one of the signs of Youm ul Qiyamah would be how those who were undeserving would be appointed as leaders, as we could all see happening. “They represent us because they have the money to do so,” she said. It was a problem on our part too. “People who do not value themselves are continuously selling themselves out,” said Eman, urging how we needed to be disruptive and change how things were continuing  because we could afford to do so. “Our parents were in survival mode. They couldn’t be disruptive. Our parents kept their heads down to survive because we wouldn’t have to.”

When asked by Habiba to give some advice to the influencers and leaders present in the audience, Hoda talked about how a) you should seek brands that allow your words to take up space, b) you should do your research about the brands you want to collaborate with, and c) you should give up your seat when you are sure that the right voice is being heard (for example, she as an Iranian could not sit on a panel on Palestine with no Palestinians on it). Eman talked about career-related growth where from early on she realised the kind of stories she wanted to do as a reporter and the kind of training she wanted and what she is going to do to get it (freelance investigative journalism and law school). She spoke of how your organisation should invest in your growth as opposed to merely using you because you fit in their image of how diverse they are.

“Everyone wanted me to be the hijabi journalist,” said Eman, “but I wanted to be a journalist before I wanted to be a hijabi.”

When asked about little girls growing up in this day and age are being affected, Eman talked about how Instagram is feeding into insecurities of not just little girls but people of all ages and genders. “Just because it’s modest it’s not, like, halal,” reminded Hoda. Professor Shelina said she was intrigued and yet surprised by why people would willingly share so much of their personal lives online. “Is it OK to share all of that stuff?” she asked.

An audience member asked wasn’t it better to have any representation and inclusion as opposed to none at all. Hoda asked us to look at how we were represented not with the question “What representation?” but rather “Where?”. In the United States of America, the image of a Muslim woman using an American flag as a hijab disregarded how that same flag was fluttering in lands where her people were being killed. Eman appeared to be amused by the question. She said: “If a hijab in an ad makes you want to buy something, you should be supporting a lot of Muslim brands.” She spoke of how Muslim consumers needed to give validation to people who were low-key on the international scene but were deeply rooted in local community work. “The changemakers aren’t the ones getting verified on Instagram,” she said. She said it made no sense to her as to why we seek validation from people who had no interest in our well-being. “You really think they’re going to be nice to you because they put you in an ad?” she asked. As a Muslim community, she said we needed to love ourselves and sit with ourselves in front of the mirror so that we could never arrive at the day we sold ourselves simply because we didn’t value ourselves enough. We needed to remind each other of our worth and value because this was a duty we had as a community. “Why are we a community? Is it because we pray together?” she asked.

Around this time, the discussion had arrived at its end and in their final comments, everyone onstage reflected on what was said and how it was said.

“I wish this audience was more inter-generational,” said Hoda at the very end. She talked about how she hoped there would kids running around the place and elderly people becoming a part of the discussion.

Here’s hoping that happens the next time this conversation takes place.

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“someone once said to me that the way you love someone can actually change their life.”

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Photographed by R.H.

I used to feel sorry for flowers. I would also feel a physical pain when I’d see them plucked, strewn on the ground, or pressed between the pages of a book. I believed that their being conventionally pretty had to be a disadvantage because it meant that they would always have to prove they are more than just that. I thought that because their beauty is short-lived, it does not carry substance. I did not understand the demand which qualified such a supply nor I did find the price attached to be worthy of them. I would not carry flowers not even for visits to the hospital or the graveyard. Was I wrong to feel sorry for the flowers?

I wish I can go back in time and tell myself that there will be a day when I will look at beauty and see that it is not a endless wishing well carved deep by what is cast into it. That someday I’ll see it’s a tunnel – I don’t have to get distracted by its presence nor should I worry about its absence. The tunnel will end. There is light ahead even on days when I have to walk alone. It’s when the tunnel is darkest that the promise of what is beautiful and lasting makes the next step easier.

When I’m not looking, standing beside me are those who went out of the way to share their light and their beauty. For them it may have just a Friday where they helped me wear flowers weaved together to encircle my wrists. They helped me learn more about this beauty that is passing and temporary, the beauty that remains, and the light shining ahead.

Ghost Towns

Reporting on Reporting – Part One

PAKISTAN-UNREST-NORTHWEST

bannu, 17th june 2014.  photographed by: hasham ahmed (afp/getty)

When the war began, the elderly chose to stay. They preferred to send their children to seek shelter.

The military had given the locals some time to escape before it imposed curfew. And when they left, the refugees began referring to their settlements in North Waziristan as ghost towns.

Among those who were left behind were the people who said they could not afford the transport fare to leave.

Those who left their homes were known as the “Internally Displaced”.

A 44-year old man said that for years he had been stuck between the military and militants. He said that the government should bomb houses, mosques, and markets only if it meant that the insurgents were eliminated. “We need peace after our sacrifices,” he said.

The displaced brought their pets along.

In the mosques, the imams used the loudspeakers to recite the Quran. They spoke to the people to console themselves and their congregation. They prayed to God for the safety of those who had remained behind.

“The fact remains that the casualties on both sides are Muslim”, said an editorial.

Official claims could not be confirmed by independent sources. The newspapers claimed that because the area was off-limits to journalists, it was impossible to verify the numbers and identities of the dead.

*

These stories are what stood out to me when I went through 51 articles published by DAWN and The Nation when Zarb e Azb began. I’m hoping to continue sharing what I find in my research. This project is an independent pursuit I’m taking on and definitely not the idea nor the focus of the research work I do at my university. If you have any suggestions (How about including hyperlinks?), questions (Why are you doing this?), or comments please go ahead and write to me.

Makola

 

Acquaintance

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These past months, you’ve disappeared behind your workload. You’re drawing up Buzzfeed-styled listicles for assignments, writing “soft news” stories for homework, and remaining dissatisfied with the reporting you’ve done. This isn’t why you are here, you keep telling yourself. And when your friend tells your that her friend asked about Makola, you’re stunned. Do your words matter enough to even be remembered?

This comes down to how you are remembered, doesn’t it.

When you die, it doesn’t end. Your memory lives on. And you are talked about in quiet words, over the phone, in person, and on airplanes. You’re remembered by the strangers. You’re discussed by those whom you were most familiar with. They don’t want to let go. And they never will. You’ll always be with them.

You’re just going to have to wait for the day when they catch up with you. You’ve gone on ahead and here in the mortal world, time ticks on. So you wait with patience and a calmness that only death can acquaint us with.

And the rest of us who remain are all trying to being those who are worthy of your acquaintance. We try to be loving, gentle, true. We try to embody sincerity. We don’t want to make this about us. This was never about us. This is larger than us. Larger than anything I’ve written about yet.

And when we are all gathered, we’ll recognize each other. So much will have altered.. so much will have regained its original, unfiltered, unmodified form. But we’ll know. That day, we’ll see each other as we really are… even when we did not try knowing ourselves, each other, or the One who made us all.

#KarachiLive: Pakistan Lights Up Snapchat

by Ayesha Nasir

Courtesy: Snapchat

Courtesy: Snapchat

ISLAMABAD – “It’s November 5th and the sun is still shining bright,” reported Adeeqa Lalwani smiling into the camera. “Welcome to Karachi.” There was no gunpowder nor any vendetta; Snapchat had unmasked Pakistan’s most populated city by documenting stories shot by its residents.

In what are known as Live Stories, Snapchat curates a stream of user generated and submitted images or videos. Termed by the Time magazine as “the company’s most unusual and compelling feature”, users are eligible to participate if they are located in the area and have allowed apps to access their device’s Location. The app’s support team clarifies that once a story is eligible, “it may be published and viewable by anyone.”

Through geographically determined content, Snapchat hopes to generate stories “told from a community perspective with lots of different points view.”

“I was super excited to have Karachi become a part of the city stories and have people around the world see us!” said Adeeqa Lalwani, a journalism student whose story was seen 4.18 million times. ” It was my celeb moment, yeah? I just wanted to be natural and show the routine we all follow in Karachi!”

Snapchat made the announcement a day earlier but the city of lights went live well into the afternoon.

Some users had difficulty participating in #KarachiLive due to power outages, poor internet connection, exams to study for, and busy schedules.

https://twitter.com/iMahnuu/status/662291274570010625

There were concerns voiced about mobile snatching as well.

“I am glad I was mad enough to drag my friend out of the house and go do a story,” said Eisha Salim, a media strategist whose Snapstory was one of the few which got selected. “The coastline is the main and possibly the biggest attraction of the city of Karachi. That is what my story focused on,” she said.

Courtesy: Snapchat

Courtesy: Snapchat

She deemed the effort worthwhile.

“Intiatives like these matter,” stated Salim who agrees that Snapchat can “help in breaking stereotypes and preconceived notions built around things.”

“Now the world knows what being a Karachite really is!” she said.

The quickly changing and developing story was paced to leave one breathless. Citizens were filmed crammed in a banned QINQI, sipping chai at dhabas, playing cricket on a rooftop, applying mehndi, cutting ribbons, making coconut oil, riding camels on the shore, and praying at the local masjid.

“I think it was good, despite the short length they had,” said Mushba Said a first-year communications major at Habib University. “It’s nice to see the good side of my city, but I wish we could see more.”

“I am not too surprised we mostly get the optimistic side of things,” said Scott Campbell, a professor at University of Michigan speaking about Snapchat as a “feel good” social media platform. “Not all of reality is captured and shared, and in that sense highly important aspects are left out of the picture (or video).”

Although Snapchat is coded with a self-destructive understanding about content being fleeting and temporary, the sort of crowdsourcing it has engaged is sure to have a lasting impression.

Karachi’s live story was preceded by Seoul, South Korea and followed by Hyderabad, India.

10 Muslim Women Who Don’t Need Saving

The conversation surrounding women who appear visibly Muslim is often based on perceptions which may not be grounded in reality. If we meet Muslim women who are currently walking the face of the earth, this conversation can change. Allow me to introduce you to a few of them.

1. Linda Sarsour

Source: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times

She’s in the news for all the right reasons. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-born New Yorker, is on a mission to take on hate one headline at a time. Called “A Brooklyn Homegirl in a Hijab” by the The New York Times, Sarsour has been rallying Muslims of her community to speak up about #BlackLivesMatter, surveillance of mosques, and Islamophobia.

2. Amal Kassir

Source: Jeremy Stephen

She first made airwaves with her slam poetry on Syria where her lyrical verses spoke of a time when “we can eat together”, “build homes out of abandoned tanks”, and “sip from the cups made of old grenades.” As head of “Project More than Metaphors”, the Denver-based Amal Kassir is travelling the world to educate people about the conflict in Syria, help them stay connected with the stories of people there, and to keep reminding us to never forget.

3. Deena Mohamed

Source: Deena Mohamed

Creator of the web-comic “Qahera“, Deena Mohamed is an Egyptian graphic design student who took the internet by storm back in 2013. Her art has strong statements about sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt, stereotypes about Muslim women, misogyny in gender roles, and female revolutionaries whom she termed “the real superheroes”. With Qahera, audiences now have a female Muslim superhero who tackles real life issues in public spaces.

4. Noor Tagouri

Screengrab/OWN Media

Screengrab/OWN Media

Broadcast journalist Noor Tagouri is aiming to be the first hijabi news anchor on U.S. television. Tagouri has stated publicly that she doesn’t want to be forced to choose between her identity and her job. Having grown up on a steady diet of Oprah shows, Tagouri always wanted to be a journalist. She does not understand why a scarf on her head should prevent her from being one. And that’s why she’s speaking up about it.

5. Amina Elshafei

Source: Power House Museum

Dubbed as “the smiling chef”, Amina El Shafei is a pediatrics nurse who also happens to have won over audiences of Masterchef Australia. Her professional training as a nurse helped her remain calm in the stressful environment of the cooking competition. But rather like the recently crowned Great British Bakeoff winner, Nadiyah Hussain, El Shafei was not in the competition to represent Muslims or hijabis. When she was lugging a suitcase full of cooking books, she was just hoping to show the diversity of Korean and Egyptian cuisine, which is where the foodie in her is rooted.

6. Zainab bint Younus

Source: The Salafi Feminist

“Don’t speak for Muslim women. Speak to us,” says Zainab bint Younis. Self-identifying as The Salafi Feminist, Younis is a Canadian writer who threads her religious and political identity through her activism. Younis has penned a number of articles on issues surrounding marriage, divorce, youth, gender roles, and honour.

7. Maryam Amirebrahimi

Source: Maryam Amir

Having memorised the Qur’an and studied the effects of mentorship in high school students of colour, Maryam Amirebrahimi is on a roll. When it comes to religion and race, Amirebrahimi is actively seeking to break the cultural stigma surrounding difficult conversations within the Muslim community. Her study of Islam has led her to write compelling pieces on gender relations, misogyny, and what the Qur’an has to say about it.

8. Asmaa Hussein

Source: Asmaa Hussein

When her husband was shot and killed at a protest in Egypt, Asmaa Hussein was not silenced. The social worker took to the Internet to channel her grief, loss, and shock which had happened on a deeply personal level. By sharing what she is living through, Hussein is helping Muslim women see her loss as more than that of a widow. Now, Hussein is maintaining “Ruqaya’s Bookshelf”, a digital attempt to provide Muslim mothers with Islamic resources on parenting. She has authored a number of books meant for children, like her daughter Ruqaya.

9. Sara Filali

A taekwondo student, Sara Filali aspires to create an international platform where, regardless of their gender, Muslims can participate in sports. Filali was most recently awarded a gold medal at the International Martial Arts Festival. She was also crowned as Homecoming Queen at her high school.

10. Nadiya Jamir Hussain

Source: Mark Bourdillon/BBC/Love Productions

When the stay-at-home-mom showcased her baking at talent at the Great British Bakeoff, she was surprised to see the commentary surrounding her religion. But the show itself did not consider her faith as an obstacle. “It’s nice to be on a show where your skin colour or religion is incidental,” said Hussain in an interview with The Guardian. “For me, it’s important to instil in my children that they can do whatever they like, that no matter what their religion and colour, they can achieve what they want through hard work. And it’s nice to be able to do the same for a wider audience. If I have – amazing.”

I hear you, Nadiya.

AYESHA NASIR

Places to cry

  1. Where your mother gave birth to you
  2. In prayer
  3. At school
  4. At the airport
  5. Backstage
  6. In the audience
  7. During a lecture at university
  8. In the window-seat
  9. In front of a computer screen
  10. On Skype
  11. Before your mother’s empty room / full closet
  12. At the dining table
  13. The bathroom floor
  14. On the wrong bus
  15. In a crowd of people you may never see again
  16. At the voting booth
  17. Beside your brother, at your sister’s wedding
  18. In the house you spent most of your childhood in
  19. The terrace/corridor of the hostel
  20. Behind a newspaper
  21. In mid-conversation
  22. Between the pages of a book
  23. In the pause before the silence breaks
  24. With your back to the TV screen
  25. Crouched near the landline
  26. In your grandfather’s room
  27. Where you washed the dishes