South Asian Muslim American Girl Power: Structures and Symbols of Control and Self-Expression

By Hermansen, Marcia; Khan, Mahruq F. | Journal of International Women's Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

South Asian Muslim American Girl Power: Structures and Symbols of Control and Self-Expression


Hermansen, Marcia, Khan, Mahruq F., Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

South Asian Muslim American (SAMA) girls studied ethnographically in Chicago and more broadly in the United States negotiate these three components (South Asian, Muslim, and American) of identity across the spheres of home, Islamic institutions, and the public "American" realm.. Drawing on interviews and fieldwork at an Islamic school and within South Asian families and mosques, the authors illustrate how nascent "girl" power is evidenced in these contexts drawing on media representations, academic sources, and data drawn from participant observation. Sources of SAMA girls' expressions of confidence and power are selective use of identity markers, increased mastery of Islamic knowledge, and various subtle acts of resistance to norms imposed upon them within home and family interactions, Islamic spaces, and the American public sphere.

Keywords: Muslim girls, South Asian, United States,

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The female body has represented a locus of identity symbolism across cultures and traditions while the sources and degrees of control over women's bodies have waxed and waned with tensions engendered by modernity and social change. While this phenomenon may be observed throughout the world, its manifestations have been particularly striking in Muslim societies and their respective diasporas For example, in the early 20th century modernizers such as Ataturk (d. 1938) and Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) banned traditional forms of conservative Muslim dress for females in their respective countries, Turkey and Iran. With the rise of Islamization projects on the part both of Muslim states and oppositional movements from the 1970s until the present, discourses and symbolism of the Muslim female and her body have become increasingly globalized. As a consequence we note the investment of Muslim or non-Muslim states around the world in either veiling or unveiling women (3) and the challenges to laws proscribing women's autonomy and expression through limiting voting, inheritance and family rights, full participation in local governing bodies, and participation in the paid employment sector. Furthermore, in a post-9/11 climate, mainstream American media outlets occasionally manipulated images of "oppressed" Muslim women, which not only served as a pretext for America's "War on Terror" but also highlighted Americans' continued perception of the Muslim women as the "Other". Concurrently, in contexts such as Western Europe and North America, sartorial choices of young Muslim girls and women test the limits of multiculturalism while provoking ongoing debates over the role of the state in enforcing of secularism or judging seemingly problematic religious affiliations, namely Islam. At the same time, dress, behavior, and the physical space that Muslim women occupy may be policed both within and without their religious circles.

In this paper, we seek to examine the gendered processes that inform the lives of South Asian Muslim American (SAMA) (4) girls from childhood through young adulthood. More specifically, we argue that SAMA girls are employing notions of individualism, self-expression, femininity and multiculturalism whether they confront or embrace traditional understandings of Islam in the American context. In shaping the argument we aim to review how the institutions of family, Islamic schools and educational settings as well as mosques, public schools and universities, and media representations serve as key locations within which SAMA girls reinforce or contest their gendered socialization. This paper will primarily consider the embodied American Muslim girl of South Asian ethnicity in a range of contexts and at various ages ranging from what is traditionally considered childhood, through adolescence and even in some cases young adulthood. Our observations are drawn from ongoing participation in the everyday life of the South Asian Muslim community of greater Chicago during the past decade.

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