Stop Looking at Me Like That

By kian Elyassi Bakhtiari, via Wikimedia

My name is Aisha Abdel Gawad.

Aisha: favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

Abdel: servant or slave of.

Gawad: one of the many names for God, as in the Merciful or the Compassionate.

My name may identify me as “Muslim.” My unveiled hair, leggy skirts and penchant for spontaneous dancing and gin and tonics may identify me as “progressive.” I am one those Muslim women—the cool kind, the kind that are on a crusade against stodgy old Islam and its stodgy old sheikhs. I am the type of Muslim woman that PBS airs documentaries on, that New York museums create exhibits around. The veil is off, world! Muslim women like me are throwing off their shackles to show you what Islam’s really about.

At least, this is what you want me to be. I don’t blame you for wanting me to embody Islam. I’m prettier than Osama bin Laden and less scary, too.

But the truth is, I am not “the Muslim woman.” And no matter how many museums you go to, documentaries you watch, and books you read on “unveiling Islam,” you still won’t find her. But you won’t be the first to try.

People have been searching for her for centuries—in times of struggle, ideological warfare, cultural reclamation, and nationalist ambition. The Muslim woman is the nation and the umma—the community of believers embodied. She is the signifier of what is ahead of us. What will Islam look like if it ever comes out of those bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, if it ever emerges from the stagnant repression of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, if it ever decides what shape it will take in the confused mosques of the United States and Europe? You want to know, and so do I. So, together, we both look to the hijabi on the subway as if she knows something the rest of us don’t, as if she is a window into our collective futures.

I know because I too went looking for her. I spent seven months researching, interviewing, and writing about her. It was for an article about a number of young American Muslim women trying to become religious authorities—women who know their Quran better than the imam, women who dream of standing at the front of the mosque as sources of spiritual guidance, women who are unsatisfied intellectually and religiously from years of being literally cut-off from the decision-making center of Islam. They are women who are sick of sitting behind a closed door in the back of the mosque with the children, the surplus of extra prayer mats, and the crackling loudspeaker out of which a distant man tells them what they are to believe today.

Take Sara, for example, a compulsive shopper who likes platform heels, skinny jeans, Buddhism, and tofu. Call her a “hippie hijabi” and she might stab you with her stiletto. She is a 23-year-old woman like any other but instead of studying history or philosophy, she studies Islam; she is always reading something new—on Sufism, on the politics of the veil, on medieval education in Abbasid Baghdad. And she also happens to fast fastidiously during Ramadan, pray five times a day, and cover her hair in public.

While I am the “progressive”—i.e., non-practicing—Muslim you take comfort in, Sara is the subversive hijabi you never knew existed. She questions, prods, and argues because she is never finished learning about Islam and she doesn’t think any Muslim should be. She is not always popular for this. Sometimes she gets prank phone calls where the person on the other line shouts “Hijabis Gone Wild! Woohoo!” She has become a black sheep in a Chanel headscarf.

You claim you have no problem with Islam, just with extremism in all its forms. Yet you like to hear about Muslims like Sara—the discontented ones. As a “Muslim woman” you put stock into her discontent, as if it is indicative of the larger community. In her, you see your own unspoken hopes for change in that community. She is a relief to you—like finding the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle you have long been laboring over.

But when Sara walks into the mosque, she is not always so warmly received. Her questions, criticisms, and clamoring for change certainly do not come as a relief for many Muslims. In times of struggle, defense, and revival, the Muslim woman is supposed to be a stoic symbol of unwavering strength and tradition. Historically, the Muslim woman is invariable. She is integral to the struggle, but she is not fighting in it. Symbols don’t speak.

In the decades after World War II, when Arab nationalist movements in colonially-choked places like Egypt and Tunisia reached their height, women were encouraged to stand with their Arab Muslim brothers in the struggle for nationalist identity—to stand but not to lead. Women were to stand and serve as living, breathing symbols of the movement for cultural repossession from Western imperialism. The Muslim woman was nation and tradition. She was what needed repossessing. In The Production of the Muslim Woman, Lamia Zayzafoon calls the Muslim woman Arab nationalism’s “conservative principle of continuity,” while the Arab man served as the “progressive agent of national modernity.” She is the rallying cry, but she has no control over what is being shouted.

Today, Muslims are finding themselves in another struggle for reclamation—and no, it’s not one against “Islamic extremism.” It’s a struggle against your and his and her and their and our and my constant attempts to understand what it means to be a part of the Muslim umma today. What should we look like, talk like, dress like? Where does the individual fit in? Or is there no such thing as one binding community of believers anymore?

You say you just want to understand us, but this isn’t true. You only want to understand us in a way that makes you feel warm and safe. And we say that we just want to speak for ourselves, but this isn’t true either because we don’t know what we want to say. And so we all look to the Muslim woman—that constant, immovable, Mona Lisa-like figure, to explain away all our confusion and fear. We use her to push our own agendas—you for a “progressive” version of Islam that you can listen to on NPR on your morning commute to work—and Muslims for equal measures self defense and preservation that we can tote out at 4th of July halal barbeques and stick back in the basement of the mosque again when we’re done, along with the children, the kitchen, and the prayer mats.

I do not want to be in the mosque because I cannot live up to that quiet statue of the “Muslim woman,” nor do I want to. And I do not like feeling like a museum exhibit, a symbol used to ease your Western conscience.

So I’ll say it again: my name is Aisha Abdel Gawad.

Aisha: favorite wife of the prophet. Scandalous battle heroine. Mother of the believers.

Abdel: servant or slave of.

Gawad: one of the many names of God, as in the Merciful or the Compassionate. Or, if pronounced in the Egyptian dialect, might sound like the word for stallion. Or, if pronounced in the Palestinian dialect, might sound like the word for pimp.

I am just one woman. I do not represent anyone—not the Muslims, the progressives or the feminists. I am not a symbol and I possess no secret insights. Look somewhere else for your answers—I’m not hiding them in my bra, and that hijabi on the subway isn’t hiding them beneath her veil. I’m sorry to disappoint everyone.

But at least I’m still prettier than Osama bin Laden.

Aisha Gawad is a freelance writer based in New York City. She spent seven months trailing after aspiring Muslim-American sheikhas---following them around in mosques, classrooms, shopping malls and even tanning salons. Her work has been published in places such as The American Muslim, The Brooklyn Paper, The New Presence, The New York Press, and The Prague Monitor. Aisha can be contacted at