Somewhere in America….Stereotypes Just Got Served

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I’ll admit it: Muslim Hipsters (“Mipsterz”) have more style than me.

If you’re a American Muslim–or just an avid HuffPost reader, since they are posting a plethora of articles on the topic- then you probably have seen the “Somewhere in America–Mipsterz” video or heard about it. Social media has been abuzz with talk of the video, created by Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi of Shiekh and Bake Productions, a film “endeavor” which seeks to “create a culture that promotes freedom of expression/heightened imagination, meaningful engagement [and] critical self-reflection.” Rattani and Yazdi got their wish with Mipsterz.

A Mipster is someone at the forefront of the latest music, fashion, art, critical thought, food, imagination, creativity, and all forms of obscure everything. A Mipster is someone who seeks inspiration from the Islamic tradition of divine scriptures, volumes of knowledge, mystical poets, bold prophets, inspirational politicians, esoteric Imams, and our fellow human beings searching for transcendental states of consciousness. A Mipster is an ironic identity, one that serves more as a perpetual critique of oneself and of society.

The above definition was sourced from the “Mipsterz,”  movement Facebook page. To the uneducated American, Mipsterz probably sounds like an oxymoron: how can a Muslim girl, shrouded in layers of veils, still be cool, up-to-date, in control? The video puts any questions to rest: Muslimahs are pretty. They can be arty. They can be fashionable. They can be strong. They do sports like fencing (which Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the USA national fencing team, demonstrates); they chop wood (an odd but totally-real choice which I applaud!); they are fashion designers (Marwa Atik of Vela scarves); they skateboard, as demonstrated by  Noor Tagouri, a beautiful aspiring anchorwoman and inspirational speaker.

A scene from “Somewhere in America,” sourced from quebec.huffingtonpost.ca

Non-Muslim Americans believe that Muslimahs have to fit a certain mold. So do Muslims, insist Laila Alawa and Wardah Khalid in their HuffPost article. This has led to the various reactions to the video. Half are polarized into loving it because it breaks down stereotypes and barriers and shows how multi-dimensional the Muslim community (or ummah) is, which is important. After all, not all Muslim girls wear hijab, much less colorless and baggy ensembles. The other half hate the video for its message, its fashions, and especially the background song, Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America.” When I first saw the video I was a bit surprised by the choice, given raps historically “bad” reputation, but the song is actually good, the title fits with the theme of the video, and you know what? Muslims like rap. There are plenty of Muslim rappers out there, especially in France. There are even female rappers: Soultana of Morocco is one great example.

“We have an illness, us Muslims. We like to publicly humiliate our girls by pointing out where we think they’ve failed in their religious practice.” wrote Rabia Chaudry in a wonderful op-ed piece on the subject. Those who hate the video are hell-bent on body-shaming Muslim women: too tight! Too small! Too short! Trolling Instagram I see endless critiques. Muslimahs who put themselves out there-especially hijabis-are seen as representing the whole Muslimah community. Noorthinks, a Tumblr writer, follows this theme when she argues that the Mipsterz in the video are only representing rich American Muslimahs, not the greater majority who can’t afford designer scarves. Yes, this is true: but did they have to include girls from all socio-economic backgrounds?

No, they didn’t. And if there’s any scarves that should be coming loose with fury it should be over what the term Mipster apparently portrays. Mipsterz aren’t just rich, fashionable Muslimahs: they are rich, fashionable hijabi Muslimahs. Only one girl appears without hijab or turban, although she has a hoodie draped loosely over her hair. Since when did one have to wear a hijab in order to identify as a Muslim? Being Muslim for women is now equated with hijab. Hijab is no longer about modesty, or hiding the body: it’s about proving to the Western world that you are a Muslimah. And while this reclamation of identity is great, it denies all those Muslim women who ignore the hijab participation in the Muslimah community.

Ultimately I think the video is wonderful and creative and amazing. It is mesmerizing; I’ve watched it more than three times. I love the fashions, especially the black-skirt-and-yellow-hijab ensemble one girl wears. I love their smiles and happy personalities. I love it because the women look cool and confident. I love it because it challenges stereotypes.

But I understand a bit where the bashers are coming from. Isn’t the true point of hijab to be modest? To not draw people’s eyes to you, to not ask for attention? The point of a music video is to showcase a song and a story, a message, sure–but it’s also for looking. When we watch music videos on MTV (or, ahem, Youtube) we like watching them because of the visuals: think of all the bikini babes on the beach, or the flashy women dancing in the club: we’re looking at them. In “Somewhere in America” we’re looking at these Muslimahs. The camera pans slowly up their bodies just like in a Jay-Z video, except we’re not seeing boobs and acres of skin. The girls pose like Vogue models. Is this not objectification of the female body, regardless of what they are wearing? Regardless if they chose to be displayed in such a matter? Sana Saeed has a point. Of course we’re going to critique their dress, their actions; because that’s what society does.

This is one of the reasons why hijab continues to confuse me, especially fashion hijabis. Hijab of the body is meant to make the wearer unalluring for men, I should think: it’s meant for the focus to be on the woman’s brain and attitude. But if a girl is wearing stylish, tight clothes and tons of make-up (which a LOT of Muslimahs on Instagram do), then what is the point of covering your hair and skin? The “but it’s better than nothing” approach has merit, but it doesn’t impress me much. It’s a style. It is disconnected with Islam. You can be a Muslim and wear hijab because you like the look, not because you believe it is intrinsic to Islam. But this should be stressed.

If these women were Muslim and didn’t have scarves on their heads, the video likely wouldn’t be an issue, except in radical circles. A Muslim women sans hijab seems to suggest that she is “corrupted;” certainly, she is not as virtuous as the woman who dons hijab. Hijabis are seen as religiously devout, especially in America where the dominating culture does not insist on covering up the female body. Therefore, since hijab is equated with all sorts of Muslima stereotypes-submissive, out-of-sight, invisible, quiet, devout, obedient-by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it is not surprising that a video of hijabis langorously striking moody poses is going to generate some confusion and controversy.

The main take-aways are thus: first, hijab still reflects a certain female stereotype that will not be easily dismissed; and two, perspective determines the response. Non-Muslim Americans are going to watch the video and think, oh cool! If you watch it with a conservative Islamic viewpoint, you’re going to think, oh hell no! Unlike the rest of the entertainment industry-be it movies, music, fashion, etc.-Muslimahs in the business are not going to be judged for their creativity alone. They will forever be judged-especially if they wear a hijab on their head-by the ummah and “standards” of Islam.

This is a problem. These girls are not necessarily standing up for “what’s right in Islam”-whatever that means. They are representing themselves, their own personalities, their own unique being that God created. Until the discourse on hijab changes (which this video might certainly help) hijab for Muslims will continue to be seen as a “necessary” garment, not “fashion.” Can they be looked at as individuals first, and Muslims second, is the question facing hijabis in the spotlight today.

S-L-M

Sources

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3Nq0NzRrfE Somewhere in America #Mipsterz Clean Version posted by Shiekh Bake.

2. HuffPost These Muslim Hipsters Have More Style Than You

3.  hipstershaadi.com

3. HuffPost “‘Why Islam needs more Mipsterz’”

4. ‘Somewhere in America’ You Can’t Handle the Truth

5.  facebook.com/mipsterz

6. patheos.com “Somewhere on the internet muslim women are being shamed” by Rabia Chaudry 3 December 2013.

7. noorthinks.tumblr.com “Somewhere in America and the socio-economic divisions”

S-L-M

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