Thursday, July 3, 2014

Teaching the Muslim Girl in a Western World

Flipping through "Rethinking Popular Culture and Media," I initially found it difficult to decide on an article to read.  However, as soon as I came across, "Save the Muslim Girl!" by Oslem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall, I had to read it.  In the article, Sensoy and Marshall ask the question, does popular young adult fiction about Muslim girls build understanding or reinforce stereotypes?  They discuss and critique popular Muslim girl texts such as "Under the Persimmon Tree," "Broken Moon," and Deborah Ellis' "The Breadwinner," which makes up a unit of the curriculum that I teach.  This is why I felt I had to read the "Save the Muslim Girl!" article; because I teach "The Breadwinner," and with it I likely unknowingly teach stereotypes.  As much as this makes my stomach turn, I knew I could no longer teach the book without reading this article.

Sensoy and Marshall argue that, "these novels can be used to teach about the common Western stereotypes rather than to teach about Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Islamic culture."  They then go on to point out the three most common stereotypes found in these texts.  First, Sensoy and Marshall point out that all of these texts support the stereotype that Muslim girls are veiled, nameless, and silent.  This is quite easy to see, literally, as the cover of each book depicts a veiled girl.  This image of a veiled Muslim girl has become an image of vulnerability in the West indicating that they must be saved.

The second major stereotype that theses books uphold is that veiled = oppressed.  There are various examples to support this in each text.  In "The Breadwinner" specifically the protagonist Parvana, points out how difficult it is to move in a burqa.  Furthermore, in each book all protagonists cut their hair to dress as a boy in order to move freely in public.  This indicates that the veil is oppressive and that not wearing the veil (as boys are able to do) is the only way to freedom.  While the burqa and chador are viewed negatively in some Muslim countries by women as tools of oppression, many women uphold the veil.  For example, in Egypt and Turkey where the veil is outlawed, Women wear it as an act of rebellion against the government to express their personal choice and freedom to wear the veil.  Additionally RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), used the burqa to conceal cameras to secretly tape the Taliban during their crimes against women.  In this respect the burqa became a positive tool of revolution.

The final major stereotype that these texts support is that Muslim women want to be saved by the West.  As Sensoy and Marshall point out, it is important to realize that these texts were written and marketed in a post 9/11 world; in a world where the U.S. was taking military action in the Middle East.  Moreover, these books were all written by White women living in a post 9/11 U.S who gloss over the complicated history that is so vital to understand in order to realize how these regions have become war torn.  Another important point that Sensoy and Marshall make is that no credit is given to the persevering strong Muslim women who have stayed in these regions and taken action for change.  RAWA has condemned the Taliban for decades, but their voices are nowhere in these texts.

Ultimately, Sensoy and Marshall bring some very important truths to light about Muslim girl texts.  As an educator, I have always struggled to teach my students about middle eastern culture in a bias-free, critical way.  I have focused so much time and energy into teaching students that Islam does not equal terrorism.  This is the most obvious stereotype and the only one I have taught against.  However, I failed to see the stereotypes of the Muslim girl.  While I still have to use "The Breadwinner" in my classroom next year, I will have to teach it in a much more critical way.  And after reading this article, I am convinced that pointing out these stereotypes and critiquing them is the only way to now teach this text.

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