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Some years ago, I accompanied Arab feminist and writer Nawal Al-Saadawi to an interview with National Public Radio at their New York studio. Saadawi was already recognized as a dissident and a provocative thinker. The host began by asking: “Are you a good Muslim?” Unshaken, perhaps accustomed to simplistic, seemingly innocent challenges, Saadawi calmly retorted “That is between God and me”.
That rebuke was and remains the appropriate and also the wisest answer. Nowadays few seem to grasp the significance that interrogation, as Saadawi did, and then to reply as sharply as she could. Today it is not: are you ‘good’? It is whether we’re shiia or sunni, salafi or alawi, caldean or copti, kurdi or turki. Oh yes, how can we forget sufi?
Questions refer not to theological or ritual considerations, but to a conflict highlighted in our media. They reflect the savvy of the interrogator; because using such terms endows the journalist or the curious colleague with authority, with insider-information.
Women’s month calls me not to rethink my relation to Allah, but rather where we –Arab women–have arrived. Who speaks for us? Who are our pioneers? Who do we champion, study and celebrate?
Thirty years ago, the Arab woman was recognizable, vocal and visible. She Is embodied in individuals like Nawal El-Saadawi, Hala Maksoud and Intissar al-Wazir. Today she has all but faded (or has she been sidelined?) behind the more current– that is to say, more controversial and provocative –‘Muslim’ woman.
A generation ago, no one asked, ‘What kind of Muslim are you?”. That issue was between ourselves and Allah, as Saadawi said.
Today, we should be Muslim– ideally head-covered–to be recognized, invited, discussed. Our headwear becomes central to our dialogue. Our Muslimity helps secure funding, invitations to seminars and performances, inclusion in collections and exhibitions. Especially those of us residing in Western countries for whom religion had been private and between ourselves and the divine we now find ourselves submitting to the currency of Islam.
In an earlier article, where I identified a few worthy Arab women, I didn’t know who among them was shia or sunni, caldean or turkman. To those who admired them and followed them, and celebrated them, it did not matter then. Why does it today?
Remember “Can she type?”–the parodied phrase invoked among early American feminists. We chuckled over this pithy summary of women’s identity of the old days. We finally recognized the poignancy and the disarming power of that question.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and radio producer at WBAI in New York.