I once asked the editor of the liberal newspaper where I was doing my undergraduate internship in Minneapolis to write a letter of recommendation for me. The recommendation was sealed and it was a couple of years later before I would come across it in my file at work.
I had assumed the reference letter would be spectacularly glowing. And it was, but not in the way that I had expected. At 20-years old, I had come in as an intern but ended up doing investigative pieces that landed more than once on the cover. This was because soon after arriving, I was quickly asked to field the story leads that were intended for the paper’s star reporter, who had gone into rehab for longer than his usual time. The other star reporter had quit because she wanted to have a life. The rest of the staff specialized in arts coverage. That just left the eager-to-prove-herself intern. I dug deep and developed stories on a family crushed by mental illness,
Haitian drug dealers stuck in Minnesota prisons, and I interviewed the patients of the first heart and lung transplants in the world, who shared their stories publically for the first time with me.
None of that was mentioned in the letter of recommendation. Instead, the editor wrote three moving paragraphs about how impressed she was with me–not with my stories but with my ability to do the stories at all– being as I was Muslim female. I do not believe I ever once talked to her about religion nor do I remember anyone asking me about my religion. Obviously, my Arab ethnicity came up always with the inevitable question, “What an interesting name. Where did it come from?” But there were never questions about my religion. At least not in front of me. And I wore no physical manifestations of my religion, and religion, mine or anyone else’s, wasn’t a subject I found remotely engaging at the time. This was also years before 9-11, when you rarely even heard the word “Muslim.”
Yet I had been branded: a Muslim female, i.e. the most pitied female brand. The editor wrote of how she had so much admiration for how I, a young Muslim female, could talk to just about anyone, even the strippers and hookers I befriended for a story. Perhaps I was slightly shy around men but that was understood, implicit in my religion’s shunning of women—at least that’s what the subtext pretty clearly said.
So there was purity implied in my Muslimness—that explained why I wouldn’t be exposed to strippers and hookers as a Muslim, and I would get flustered around men. If anyone had asked me, I could have told her Christians don’t have the domain on prostitution. There are Muslim hookers out there. But I wouldn’t have mixed with them either under normal circumstances. Because I had grown up in middle class neighborhood that weren’t the chosen milieu for hookers, at least not publically, whatever their religion. My face turned red talking to handsome men because I was a chubby girl with low self-esteem from years of fat jokes—Muslims make those, too. I was glad, though, the editor appreciated how I dressed professionally, because somehow, I read between the lines, I had some fashion sense that didn’t involve a black cloak.
She admired me—I was an exclusive, limited edition designer brand of Muslim female, the token one who wasn’t afraid to break away from my oppression and work as a journalist who talked to non-Muslims. I was brave, yes. But so would any shy young woman who did those stories. But it was my defiance of my religion, which I didn’t even know I was defying, that made me brave in her eyes. Proof that it is possible for one black cloth not to fit all.
I leaned more at that newspaper than in any of my classes that year, including the lessons from the abused women in homeless shelters whose stories I told. (I never mentioned the religion of those women in those articles. They were not Muslims, though.) But I taught no one anything. Because I didn’t know I was a poster girl for Muslim Women We Admire, and that we (the deprived sisterhood of Muslim women that I didn’t even know existed, let alone was a member of) are all viewed as an inferior brand and in need of saving and rebranding, unlike other types of women.
I hadn’t thought about this in years. Until I saw this article by Lila Abu Lughod http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/do-muslim-women-need-saving/