The debates generated by the ‘Mipsterz’ video have been interesting, to say the least. Some responses to the film were enlightening, while others made me lose faith in humanity. Initially I found the video shallow and somewhat annoying, but over the past few days I’ve come to a different conclusion. Below I respond to five common complaints about the video.
1. ‘WTF IS THIS VIDEO SUPPOSED TO BE?’
Let’s start with the video itself. What is it, anyway? As Sana Saeed points out, it doesn’t seem to have a clear message; it’s just a handful of women in headscarves being silly and walking down the sidewalk like a fashion posse. When I look deeper, though, the implicit message I get is that Muslim women who wear headscarves come in all shapes and sizes, and that some of them enjoy the ‘hipster’ aesthetic. It’s as if they’re meaning to say:
‘We’re hijabis. We’re ‘hipsters’. Deal with it.’
This message could be aimed at the wider non-Muslim public, who associate the hijab with meekness, solemnity, submission to male authority and an all-consuming religiosity. For non-Muslims, this video would be a helpful reminder that Muslim women are much more than those stereotypes, that their hijab does not define them, and that being a Muslim does not preclude anyone from being equally ‘American’.
On the other hand, the video could also be directed at the traditional leaders of North America’s Muslim ‘community’ – the people who run mosques, give sermons, consult on questions of Islamic ‘law’, speak at conferences and so on. These figures often encourage Muslim women to aspire to become ‘ideal Muslimahs’ who speak softly, restrain their gestures and movements in public, obey their husbands and religious scholars, and devote their extra energy to humbly ‘seeking knowledge’ (meekness, solemnity, submission to male authority and an all-consuming religiosity).
The Mipsterz video is the product of an environment where Muslim women’s bodies are trafficked as cultural and religious symbols. Veiled Muslim women in North America live heavily mediated lives and are under intense scrutiny from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Non-Muslims assume they embody a certain stereotype and criticize them for it (or want to ‘save’ them from it), while mainstream Muslim leaders often encourage them to embody that same stereotype. If they fail to live up to this ‘ideal Muslimah’ image, the mainstream ‘community’ disciplines them with disapproving glances, unsolicited ‘advice’, hurtful gossip, abandonment, and even outright social rejection (and when all else fails, there are patronizing youtube videos). Worst of all, most of this violence (yes, and it hurts) is dealt out by their fellow ‘sisters’; men are often the least of a Muslim woman’s worries at the mosque. To top it off, once they step outside, the non-Muslim public typecasts them as weak, voiceless and boring people who are only interested in religion. In this environment, it’s not surprising that some women felt boxed-in and wanted to create some space by making a video like ‘Somewhere in America’. What sets them apart is that instead of trying to talk their way out of the box, these women got on their skateboards, rolled right out of it, and sent us all an unsolicited postcard.
‘Greetings, from Not-giving-a-damn-what-you-think-istan!’
I thought the Mipsterz video was dumb at first, but it’s actually a brilliant gesture. One of the its co-creators, Abbas Rattani, says that his production team ‘wanted to create a thought-provoking video that was very creative, very imaginative, very beautiful, that sparked critical conversations.’ They’ve succeeded on all counts.
2. ‘THE LYRICS IN THE BACKGROUND ARE PROBLEMATIC’
I have to agree with the viewers who questioned the content of the Jay-Z song playing in the background of the video. The parts where he talked about selling drugs and Miley Cyrus twerking were kind of awkward. Maybe an instrumental version of the song or a Lupe Fiasco track would have been better.
3. ‘THIS DOESN’T REPRESENT MUSLIMS’
A lot of people disliked the video because they thought it was presenting these women the way Muslim women are almost always presented: as religious and cultural symbols. But the complaint that ‘this doesn’t represent North American Muslims’ only registers when someone is actually purporting to represent North American Muslims. These women were not. They were representing themselves. But people aren’t used to seeing Muslim women make public statements unless they’re promoting Islam, advocating for ‘the community’, engaging in interfaith dialogue or raising awareness about ‘Muslim’ political issues. Because of this, the Mipsterz video disoriented a number of folks, making them puzzle over what it was ‘about’ and what the women in it were ‘supposed to be doing’. I’ll admit that this was my own reaction. After some reflection, I came to see that the video is ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’, as Sohaib Sultan helpfully points out. It isn’t attempting to show how hijabis, as a group, are or should be; it’s simply letting one group of hijabis say, ‘this is us, doing what we like to do’. That’s a hard thing for people to
wrap around their heads wrap their heads around, but it’s a positive development and a healthy message.
I like the Mipsterz video because it subverts both the Islamophobic gaze and the normative Muslim gaze simultaneously by presenting hijabis being silly, having fun, and just for once, not functioning as voices for other people or larger ideas. If the ‘ideal Muslimah’ represents one aspect of American Muslim women, then so does the ‘Mipster’, and I’m glad that this neglected facet of Muslim life is getting more exposure. Abbas Rattani has said that he hoped the video would inspire others to make their own versions. That is a worthy endeavor. If any Muslim women don’t feel represented in the video, they’re encouraged (and hopefully, by now, empowered) to do their own shoot.
I should add that if these women had released a video of themselves playing the ‘good hijabi’ and praying in a mosque, not a single soul would complain that ‘this doesn’t represent American Muslims’, even though only 40% of American Muslims pray at mosques on a weekly basis, and a third rarely or never go. Funny how that works.
4. ‘THIS IS OBJECTIFYING WOMEN’
A number of commentators, including Sana Saeed, whose article I refer to throughout this piece, knocked the video for ‘objectifying’ (most of) its participants. Saeed says it contains ‘images that, simply put, objectify the Muslim female form by denigrating it completely to the physical’ [sic]. (Strictly speaking, don’t all images reduce their subjects to the physical?) She rationalizes her claim by saying that most of the women are not shown doing anything that showcases ‘what makes each and every one of those women Herself’. Apparently Saeed assumes that having fun with friends is not a part of ‘what makes those women themselves’. Really? Can she rightfully criticize anyone for not conforming to her own subjective impression of ‘what makes people themselves’? I don’t think so. Abbas Rattani had this to say about how the film was made:
I do want to point out that the women involved had full freedom in the sort of scenes they came up with. The only direction that Habib, the director of the film, gave them was ‘Do what you do, and have fun doing it!’
The aspects of the video that we wanted to capture was that regardless of the fat resumes these women have, they are very down to earth, they do other things outside of their day-to-day or their job. [sic]
So that’s pretty much that. To be fair to Saeed, she didn’t know this when she wrote her piece. But her assumption that the women weren’t doing anything relevant to who they are is still, on its face, unreasonable. In the same interview, Rattani explained that women played a central role in creating and producing the video:
The credits originally had everybody who participated in the film. There were two female producers. I was the only male producer. The fashion director was a female. We had about 60 women who consulted on the project, and there were were a total of 5 men on the entire project. Unfortunately, we had to take everybody’s names down, so that nobody could actually go out and find out who these individuals were.
Apparently Saeed’s assumption about ‘what makes these women themselves’, along with the erroneous belief that the video was ‘produced/created/directed primarily by Muslim men’ led her to conclude that it was a case of ‘textbook objectification’. But this is transparently wrong, and she has yet to correct her (mis)statement about the production team’s gender ratio (the initial error wasn’t Saeed’s fault, as Rattani’s quote demonstrates). If Saeed and others can’t appreciate that some women might actually want to make a video of themselves having lighthearted fun, then that’s their loss. (I know, that’s almost as hard to believe as the fact that some women choose to wear hijab, isn’t it?) But it gives them no grounds to accuse those women of being ‘objectified’.
5. ‘THIS ISN’T ISLAMIC MODESTY’
The most common complaint about the video is that it ‘doesn’t represent hijab/modesty’. Saeed articulated this when she wrote,
The Mipsterz video is hard to stomach for so many because it throws the increasing Islamofashionista culture into your face. Catwalk ready, catwalk strut and catwalk ‘tude seem so antithetical to what we know and expect, sometimes zealously, as Islamic modesty. This isn’t about policing what we wear and how or about casting judgment, but about the sort of culture we’re creating for Muslim women’s dress that is no diferrent than the images and lifestyles sans hijab we criticize. The superficial culture we critique and claim is why we wear hijab is becoming our hijab. [sic]
Saeed reads the women in the video as symbols of an ‘Islamofashionista culture’ that threatens ‘Islamic modesty’ with its ‘catwalk strut’ and ‘superficial culture’. Most interesting is her use of ‘we’ when she makes a normative appeal to ‘what we know and expect, sometimes zealously, as Islamic modesty’. Who ‘we’ are is unclear, but apparently it doesn’t include the women in the video. What she means by ‘Islamic modesty’ is also unclear. Does she object to the clothes in the video, or only the way the women were carrying themselves? Judging by her article, it seems that Saeed associates the video’s aesthetics with America’s fashion industry and its objectification of women. But such an association could only be based on the most ‘superficial’ of similarities: some of the women in the video walk confidently in heels, which (apparently) reminds Saeed of strutting, which (apparently) makes her think of a catwalk, which (apparently) reminds her of the fashion industry’s objectification of women. Finally she suggests that the video is helping to ‘create a culture’ of Muslim women’s fashion ‘that is no diferrent than the images and lifestyles sans hijab we criticize’ [sic]. Where she got all this from is anyone’s guess.
After reading Saeed’s comments, I re-watched the video carefully. The only ‘catwalk’-esque content is a blurry shot of a woman striking a pose while standing (1:56) and a brief shot of a woman (in yellow) walking in a group with a bit of swing in her gait (0:34). (Disturbingly, some of the other women also angled their faces during selfies and placed their hands on their hips.) These two moments comprised about 1.7 seconds of the 2:29 video. That’s 1.1%. The other 99% of it shows women walking, skipping, skating, jumping, running, rising, shoe-tying, gazing, climbing, sipping, somersaulting, throwing, eating, laughing, sitting, putting on sunglasses, taking off sunglasses, smiling, blocking the camera and riding. Complaints about ‘catwalk strut’ seem frivolous in light of the video’s actual content, which is dominated not by ‘strut’ but by goofiness and happiness. This trifecta – goofiness, happiness, and a touch of swagger – may be distasteful to Saeed, but it will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has known more than a handful of American-raised Muslim women. This is very run-of-the-mill stuff.
This all makes me wonder, who is this ‘we’ that Saeed speaks for? And what ‘images and lifestyles sans hijab‘ (that ‘we’ criticize) is she talking about? Images of young women skateboarding in long clothing?
Or sans hijab images like this one of Shadia Mansour?
What about these sans hijab women? Do ‘we’ criticize their ‘superficial’ lifestyles?
Or is Saeed upset with images like this one of journalist Hajer Naili, from the Mipsterz video?
‘We’ criticize ‘images and lifestyles’ like this? Excuse me? So, what – do ‘we’ criticize her hijab for being loose, or her eyebrows for being plucked? Do ‘we’ fault her for wearing make up? Or heels? Or is she guilty of ‘imitating non-Muslims’? Did I miss a part of the video where hijabis were twerking on skateboards?
I have no clue who Saeed’s ‘we’ is supposed to be (maybe this guy?), but if ‘images and lifestyles’ comparable to the ones shown in the Mipsterz video are a threat to it, then it excludes many of the Muslim women I know (in everyday life, not the hijabulous internets), and I want no part of it. Saeed’s use of ‘we’ invites the reader to become her accomplice in the baseless criticism of Muslim women, and to me is the most offensive thing in this entire discussion.
Also, if ‘we’ can use such loose standards to tie the Mipsterz video to the commoditization and hypersexualization of women, then it would be equally valid for ‘us’ to blame niqabi women for ‘creating a culture of Muslim women’s dress that is no different from the images and lifestyles’ of the Taliban. Both associations are ridiculous.
I want to focus on another question here: What is ‘Islamic modesty’, anyway? Since Saeed suggests that these women are being immodest, she could at least outline a sketch of the ‘Islamic modesty’ that they’ve breached. Additionally, from a historical perspective, her attempt (and really almost any attempt) to use ‘Islamic modesty’ a standard with which to criticize other women is deeply suspect. Most Muslims are blissfully unaware of the fact that in early Islam, the hijab was a status symbol that slave women were not allowed to wear. ‘Umar, one of the Prophet’s most important companions and a caliph himself, forbade slaves from wearing hijab and is said to have actually hit a slave woman for daring to cover herself. Slave women walked around topless in public, and it was not considered ‘immodest’ for Muslim men to look at their breasts. As Laury Silvers writes,
“Modesty” was reserved as a social marker for free women; the “private parts” of enslaved women were only from navel to knee. The second Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women.
Hamza Yusuf himself even mentions this awkward bit of history during an attempt to get Muslims to stop obsessing over the hijab and ‘Islamic modesty’. I’m guessing that Sana Saeed, along with everyone else who suggested the video was immodest, is referring to the ‘Islamic modesty’ that Muslims have fabricated for themselves in the latter portion of Islamic history, and not the ‘Islamic modesty’ that reinforced the dehumanizing division between free women and slave women back when some of Islam’s most important personalities walked the earth. (See this article for a detailed analysis.) One writer asks,
I wonder what all the Muslim feminists who defend hijab in the name of modesty would think, if given a full accounting of this history, where Muslim women were in fact punished if they tried to be modest?
Personally, I wonder whether such an accounting might motivate Saeed and others to be ‘modest’ enough to stop wielding ‘Islamic modesty’ as a weapon against women whose ”tude’ and fashion choices they dislike. ‘Islamic modesty’ and morality have transformed beyond recognition since the days when slaves walked around topless and it wasn’t considered ‘cheating’ for a married man to have sex with concubines. Surely ‘Islamic modesty’ can accommodate a few sharply-dressed hijabis goofing around on video. I don’t mean to ‘go all Kecia Ali‘ on everyone, but people in glass headscarves shouldn’t throw stones.
All in all, I don’t find much to criticize in this video beyond the content of its background lyrics. It threw me off at first, and I still find it a bit cheesy, and I still think skating in heels is a bad life choice, but I appreciate where the video is coming from and I recognize that it’s serving an important purpose. If you didn’t ‘get’ it, that’s on you. If you didn’t like its style, that’s on you. Do your own thing. Rock a pants suit. If you mistakenly thought the video was supposed to be representative of all Muslim women in North America and then got mad when it wasn’t, that’s on you. If you didn’t like the fact that the women in the video were just chilling because you wanted a serious, cathartic ‘Muslim woman’ story of adversity and perseverence, that’s on you. And if you didn’t like the video because it undermined your own artificially-constructed image of ‘Islamic modesty’, that is most definitely on you.
Deal with it.
UPDATE: For more background on the hijab/jilbab as a social status marker in early Islam, see this article (pdf, link is also embedded above): “Out of Sight and Therefore Out of Mind: Early Sunni Islamic Modesty Regulations and the Creation of Spheres of Privacy” by Eli Alshech, published in the Journal of Near-Eastern Studies in 2007. Some quotes:
Early classical exegetes viewed the dress restrictions specified in the Qur’an for free women as a way of establishing a social hierarchy and stratification and ensuring that women were approached by others in a way that was appropriate to their social class. (Alshech 2007, 274)
Alshech cites early authorities such as Muqatil Ibn Sulayman (d. 150/797), Abu al-Layth al-Samarqandi (d. 373/983) and al-Tabari (d. 310/922) to support his assessment. He also mentions the account of ‘Umar hitting a slave for wearing the jilbab:
A widely-reported hadith states that “‘Umar struck a slave girl whom he saw walking veiled, asserting, ‘Do you wish to resemble free women? Take the veil off.'” See al-Baghawi (d. 516/1112) Ma’alim al-tanzil (Riyadh, 1993), vol. 6, p. 377. (Alshech 2007, 375, in footnote 35)