Books Review


By Sarah Hussain (ed.) , Seal Press. USA. 2006. pp. 272. Reviewed by: Mirza Asmer Beg

This book is a collection of writings of Muslim women, from different backgrounds, living in the West. Here, they have examined, in their own different ways, the complexities and realities of their lives and experiences, their struggle for peace. This anthology is an attempt to start a fresh debate among Muslim women about issues that concern them. It tries to break free from the stereotypes of Muslim women and Islam, which are all pervasive. What we generally come across is a wholly negative and incorrect stereotype of women in Islam, where they are shown as inanimate objects, submissively attending to the needs of their lords and masters, locked away in darkened homes. The veil which Muslim women use to cover their bodies decently, and protect their modesty, is seen as a symbol of physical and mental enslavement, forced upon women by men. This book tries to move away from such sweeping generalizations. Within Islam, it demands an Islamic practice, that considers men and women to be equals.

In their own ways the different writers  have tried to present their struggles vis-à-vis their families, societies, and states. Sarah Hussain hopes that this anthology will serve as a “ catalyst for ‘Muslim’ women in North America to collectively organize ourselves in order to put forth the issues we face both locally and globally.” (p. 4) Most of the contributors confess of being targets of hate crimes post September 11, but they have decided not to take it lying down. This writing is their response to what they went through, and what others like them are going through, across the globe, and they want others also to speak up and organize against all forms of oppression.

The first part of this book, looks at the issues confronting Muslim Americans in today’s world. It puts the different conflicts and wars going on in this world in their proper contexts, by examining what Muslims went through in the Gulf and other parts of the world and what they are going through in the US, in the form of hate crimes and discriminatory laws. Faced with war or other forms of oppression  in their homelands, they often are forced to move to other countries, where they are confronted with the problem of displacement and the hostility of the place. For those of them in the US,  their basic existential problems are obscured behind the war machine and its omnipresent dominance.

The second part deals with the issues and concerns which do not directly affect western Muslim women, but indirectly have an effect on their  psyche, thinking and conduct. There are women, mainly Muslim women, who are at the receiving end of a lot of policies and actions in different parts of the world. A contributor, Shadi Eskandari, tries to look at the suicide bombings in Palestine from the perspective of the bomber himself, and questions the way that problem is being handled by the US, which continues to fund the State of Israel , knowing fully well its excesses. She argues that the web of myths created by the western media does not let us indulge in such questioning. Another writer, Choumtoli Huq argues that it is not worthwhile for the media and society to denounce violence without examining its underlying roots. She finds it ironical that, on the one hand, the American jurisprudence recognizes and sanctions violence in limited circumstances, on the other hand, the public is asked to denounce violence. She adds that “if the use of violence as a political ideology and tactic to resist an unjust State is equated with terrorism…. Then all revolutionary movements that may use violence may be suppressed under the guise of labeling it terrorism” (p. 119). She concludes that if we are serious in combating violence, we need to try and create a just society, where there would be no need for people to resort to violence.

The third part, deals with the struggles between a recolonized public and the policing of families in our homes, (p.6) and in Muslim communities across the globe. Jawahara K. Saidullah explains how the war on terror started by America has given a shot in the arm to rightist forces in different parts of the world. She brings out the details of the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in India, which to her was a direct consequence of this global phenomenon.

The fourth section, studies the politics of the body, mainly sexuality. The struggles of  Muslim women at all levels, and the factors of war, faith and sexuality. The contributors here express their concern about a certain politics of masculinity in the public sphere.

In sum, this anthology is a creative response to the need for struggle against the present times, when violence is the rule,  and states sponsor and legitimize violence, seeking to control people, to define what is just and to monopolize the right to kill. The response of the contributors is in the form of a collection of poetry, prose and other creative, personal , political writing. It provides a platform to Muslim women in the west, to articulate their experiences and concerns, as regards their struggles, against all forms of oppression, and to search for new operational strategies to carry it forward.

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