Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out/politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject/women with Mustaches, Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity

By Mottahedeh, Negar | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out/politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject/women with Mustaches, Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity


Mottahedeh, Negar, Women's Studies Quarterly


SHATTERING THE STEREOTYPES: MUSLIM WOMEN SPEAK OUT, EDITED BY FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN, WITH A FOREWORD BY NAWAL El-SAADAWI, NORTHAMPTON, MA.: OLIVE BRANCH PRESS, 2005

POLITICS OF PIETY: THE ISLAMIC REVIVAL AND THE FEMINIST SUBJECT, BY SABA MAHMOOD, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005

WOMEN WITH MUSTACHES, MEN WITHOUT BEARDS: GENDER AND SEXUAL ANXIETIES OF IRANIAN MODERNITY, BY AFSANEH NAJMABADI, BERKELEY AND LOS ANGELES: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 2005

Largely overlooked by scholars within the humanities, an article published in September 2001 in the journal Physics World featured a report about recent research on the relationship between light and optics. Detailing findings by John Pendry at Imperial College in London, the author noted with surprise the discovery of materials that have a negative refractive index. Physicists explain that the refractive index of any material is determined by its electrical permittivity and magnetic permeability. Refraction, then, is what occurs when light waves move from a material with one index of refraction (say, air) into a medium (water, say) with a different index. This means that when light enters a material such as water it slows down and changes direction. That's refraction. But when physicists encounter materials that have a negative refraction, they start rethinking the world of optics as we know it. Materials with a negative index of refraction behave as the concept suggests they do. They refract light in a way that is contrary to the normal rules of electromagnetism. In contact with such materials, light bends; in fact it bends in a direction that could completely eliminate the visual mark of the object that is encountered by these light waves. In my thinking, if it were possible to make clothing, for example, out of negative refractive materials such clothing could refract light away from large hips, making them look smaller. Manufactured in just the right way, clothes with a negative refractive index could make big shoulders appear more slender or hide a body, any body, altogether. But my example here veers from the main point: September 2001 marks an important date for negative refractions in a world larger than the world of optics, and the points of refraction within the larger world have significance particularly for feminist theory because of its commerce with such disciplines as history, cultural anthropology, and comparative literature. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the war on terror, directed largely at the "Muslim world," has brought research and writing from the "area" of the world we refer to as "Muslim" to the fore, focusing a beam of light, so to speak, onto the "Muslim" subject in several of the fields that were reinscribed in the past three decades by the category of gender and through what one might call feminist "optics." In a terrorist-alert world in which an olive-skinned man with a full beard or the modest profession of faith in the divinity of Muhammad are taken for signs, Afsaneh Najmabadi's textual and visual study of gender and sexual anxiety in Iranian modernity and Saba Mahmood's ethnography on contemporary Muslim female practices of piety offer a reconsideration of some common, if not commonsensical, misperceptions that implicate feminist practice to no small degree. They do so precisely for the avenues of investigation that feminist practices have closed off, even as these practices have opened up other paths within the various disciplinary fields that are affected and thereby transformed by them. Feminist practices can choose to ignore and bend away from these bodies of work because of the otherness their materials represent (as with materials with a negative index of refraction) or change direction in contact with them.

Of the three texts under review, Fawzia Afzal-Khan's Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out, a collection, of fiction, nonfiction, "religious discourse," poetry, plays, and journalism, is perhaps the most obviously relevant in terms of efforts aimed at understanding "the other" in a post-9/11 world.

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