#AmericaIsBeautiful: I talk to Arab American News about Coke’s ad (aka, I have never talked about soda this much in my life)

In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the Superbowl commercial that sparked a national discussion on language, immigration, and Muslims in the media:

I spoke to Ali Harb of the Arab American News about the commercial. Here is the portion of our discussion that was published:

“Raquel Evita Saraswati, an American Muslim activist and writer who focuses on issues related to the status of women in Muslim societies, described the ad as an ‘obvious albeit clever marketing strategy.’

Saraswati said she had mix reactions to the ad. She was pleased to see a favorable display of Muslim women on television, but she did not expect much from the debate that would follow the ad.

‘As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I noted that my own reaction to seeing a woman in a headscarf was twofold: it was personally meaningful to see a positive representation of a hijabi, but I also immediately knew that it would spark a national discussion,’ she told The Arab American News. ‘I also knew that the media’s version of the national discussion would leave out many voices, lack nuance, and avoid the most critical questions about why the image both troubled and inspired many.’

She added that the ad is an indicator that Muslim women are often addressed and identified by their dress code.

‘I was reminded that in every context Muslim women are still discussed in terms of what we wear,” Saraswati said. “This is true both in the media and within our own communities. Once again, the burden of ‘representation’ rests squarely on our bodies – to be discussed and debated, and to absorb the brunt of what is often a tense discourse.’

Saraswati said despite the differences of the groups portrayed by the commercial, which include a gay couple with a child at an amusement park, two Jewish men looking out of a window and a group of young people dancing on a street, they can all be a part of one American experience.

‘America’s beauty is not in the similarity of my struggle to yours,’ she said. ‘America’s beauty is in its commitment to individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the diversity of individually lived experiences. America’s beauty is not diminished by the hateful reactions of some or even the flaws of some of our leaders. Rather, America’s beauty lies in the freedom to dissent and to challenge one another in a free marketplace of ideas.'”

Read the entire article here.

Featured video: Mona Eltahawy on “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you”

with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009
with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009

Egyptian journalist (and very cool sister) Mona Eltahawy has just released a new video commentary of her piece  “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you.” For an enlightened and even witty commentary on the coverage of Muslims in the media (no pun intended) watch Mona’s video here.

Bidding adieu to 2008 (and – inauguration day is coming!)

Change we can believe in. (Flickr / riverwatcher09)
Change we can believe in. (Flickr / riverwatcher09)

December 31, 2008 – a few hours before midnight,  I momentarily set my perpetually poor-performing laptop  down on the floor. Upon returning it to my lap, I am given nothing but the error message “operating system not found.”

Fluff post? It may sound that way.  The point is – 2008 was ending quite aptly: nothing sums it up better than “operating system not found.” In fact, technology references seem mighty appropriate for 2008 – someone get me a fire wire to rapidly send all useful data to a stable-state hard drive, please. Call in the geek squad for a full system restore.

2009 didn’t start much better. On a personal note, I began today by committing a major misfire in text-message communication.  In context, the message was innocent. Sent to the wrong person, less so.  Smooth, Saraswati. I’m blaming that snafu on the fog of sheer exhaustion I’ve been living in over the past few months.

On a global scale, we’re dealing with one of the least promising conflicts in human history. We are at a death toll of almost 400 – mainly Palestinian civilians.

Yesterday, January 1, marks the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Sarah and Amina Said. Honor killings take some 8,000+ lives per year. Read about the case of Afsaneh, a woman whose sentence – death by stoning – is being upheld despite opposition. We have seen an increase in honor killings in places like Pakistan.

Two women in Kuwait were attacked recently, allegedly for not wearing the hijab. “Morality police” in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are stepping up their offensives against women.

The Taliban is threatening to blow up girls’ schools if they don’t shut down.

I could keep going – and the ladies at Muslimah Media Watch can provide you with links to even more stories like these.

As you can see, we have a lot of work to do in 2009 – and, despite the enormous magnitude of the problems presented in the stories above, we have reason to believe that women and men can continue to make change.

See these women, who are taking action to end the conflict in Gaza. Subservient? Submissive? Not a chance.

Salima Ebrahim, a Canadian of Kenyan descent, is confronting injustice and prejudice head on. Her mission of  “dignity for everyone” is one many big-time activists claim in order to get the big bucks – but few actually make human dignity a priority. It sounds like Salima’s voice is a sincere one. Congratulations to this up-and-coming sister!

A Saudi doctor was able to save two girls – one 5 years old, the other 11 – from forced marriage. Doctors like her deserve to be commended.

I hope you’ll join me in seeing the hope these last stories can provide. I’ll need your help to make a difference. Stay tuned to the links at right for organizations and people who are with us in the struggle for dignity, equity and justice for all.  Happy new year.

The Hijablog hearts my style – and I heart them for their support

I’ve done a handful of postings on here about hijab, women’s dress, and the importance of choice. The most fundamental issue being that women should have the right to choose – or reject – wearing the hijab. When you choose to, it has a fighting chance at being authentic. When you’re forced to, it’s dogma. When people demand that you remove it, they’re no better than those they claim to be fighting.

As a self-identified reform-minded Muslim, I’ve spent an awful lot of time questioning. I’ve dissented with leaders and peers. So what’s with the hijab, you might ask? Doesn’t being a “dissident” mean I’d reject something like that? 

Nope. And I’ll tell you why: it was not until I gave myself the freedom to question all of my communities – including the ‘progressive’ ones – that I found what my truth looks like. For some time, I felt that being “progressive” meant that I had to look a certain way. Turns out that’s not so. It also turns out that when you don’t buy into the dogma of any community, you’re able to pay attention to your own spiritual development. And guess what? I’ve come to realize that some of the things I questioned most heavily are the very things that bring me peace right now. It would seem that parents, peers and clerics shouldn’t be so afraid of dissent – that crucial exploration can bring so much more value than forced religiosity ever could.

I’ve recently come into contact with the wonderful blogstress at The Hijablog. And we’ve hardly discussed fashion – more than that, we’ve discussed the importance of faith in our lives. Today, The Hijablog features a post on me – and I’m honored and excited to share it with you. Click here to view it!

More. About. Hijab. Swanky hijab this time.

Yes, another post about hijab. I can’t help myself – Muslimah Media Watch started it!

IslamOnline published an article this month about the hijab going mainstream. It was a truncated version of the Telegraph’s piece on the headscarf making a fresh foray into fashion. The piece in the Telegraph opens with the journalist feeling none-too-happy with her “babushka” appearance as she tries on a headscarf. (Sidenote: the scarf was Hermes. If she’d care to donate her castoff Hermes to me, I’d be more than happy to show her that there is no reason to feel frumpette in those threads, wallahi!)

Anyway, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vera Wang and other designers are jumping into the  market, looking to “liven up” the headscarf and “introduce it to a younger generation.”

This isn’t anything entirely new. Top-notch designers have been designing abayas for years and selling them to the Middle East’s upper crust. Rummaging through a friend’s closet recently – looking for something to wear to a party we’d be attending – I had my pick of abayas: stunning purple, gilded turquoise – from Lolita Lempicka to Dior. (To my chagrin, my feet were too puny for her Louboutins.) In her closet, modesty met fashion, for sure. But wait – if it’s a flagrant display of cha-ching, is it modesty at all?

What is new is the 21st century push to revive the headscarf in the West. Sure, Grace Kelly rocked it. So did Audrey Hepburn. It’s even shown up on runways over the past 5 years — but hasn’t made its way into the fashion rags as an “it” trend.

Faith at Muslimah Media Watch has posted an insightful and interesting commentary about this, which I recommend you read here.

Mona Eltahawy: “When did Egyptian women become candy, and when did Egyptian men turn into flies?”

In Egypt, a billboard reads "a veil to protect or eyes will molest"
In Egypt, a billboard reads "a veil to protect or eyes will molest"

Please see this article by Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy. I’m including an excerpt, but the entire piece is worth your attention. I thank her for her honesty – it’s voices like hers that will one day break the shackles of shame.


“When did Egyptian women become candy and when did Egyptian men turn into flies?

There is no law criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt, and police often refuse to report women’s complaints. And when it is the police themselves who are harassing women, then clearly women’s safety is far from a priority in Egypt.

The State itself taught Egyptians a most spectacular lesson in institutionalized patriarchy when security forces and government-hired thugs sexually assaulted demonstrators, especially women, during an anti-regime protest in 2005, giving a green light to harassers.

So there was little surprise that during a religious festival in 2006, a mob of men went on a rampage in downtown Cairo, sexually assaulting any woman they came across as police watched and did nothing.

It was only when bloggers broke the news that the media reported the assaults. Still, the Egyptian regime has never acknowledged it happened. At a demonstration against sexual harassment that I attended in Cairo a few days later, there were nearly more riot police than protestors.

My sister Nora was 20 at the time, and she, with several of her friends, joined the protest. She had never been to a demonstration before but was incensed when she heard the State was denying something that had happened to her many times. We swapped our sexual harassment stories like veterans comparing war wounds, and we unraveled a taboo which shelters the real criminals of sexual harassment and has kept us hiding in shame.

And that is why I began here with my own stories — to free myself of the tentacles of that shame.”

The full article can be read by clicking here, and you can see Ms. Eltahawy’s blog here.

Niqabi woman denied French citizenship – your thoughts?

Miss France (Flickr)
Credit: Miss France (Flickr)

In June of this year, Faiza Silmi was denied French citizenship because of her choice to wear the niqab – a facial covering worn by some Muslim women. French officials cited her lack of “sufficient assimilation” into French society. They elaborated that they viewed her niqab to be a “straightjacket”, “prison”, and a symbol of her willingness to be oppressed by the men in her family.

So far, the New York Times reports, citizenship had only been denied to those Muslims who had close ties with fundamentalist groups. Ms. Silmi does not have such ties – this decision was based on her choice of garment alone.

It seems that Ms. Silmi leads a pretty standard life as far as that of a Western housewife is concerned: caring for her children (all born in France – her husband being a French citizen himself), shopping for their necessities, driving to run errands, etc. She does all of these in mainstream French society. Nonetheless, officials viewed her niqab as prohibitive to her full integration.

When it comes to the niqab within a democracy or open society, I have only one question myself – I am not sure that it is possible to navigate societies functioning on identifiability  – from driver’s licenses to banking – without permitting your face to be seen. (Note – I said I am not sure. I’d be interested to hear what niqabis have to say about their experiences with this). In any event, it isn’t made clear that Ms. Silmi has encountered troubles in the public sphere. All that is clear is that the French officials deciding her case determined that she is oppressed.

As a twisted sidenote, officials apparently approved of one thing in evaluating her case: that she had seen male gynecologists during her pregnancies. Are they seriously using that as a mark of feminist liberation these days? What is this, the year 1700?

Perhaps what the French could have noted is that Ms. Silmi actually felt freer to wear her niqab in France than she did in her home country of Morocco. In France, religious freedom in one’s personal life is protected by law. Not so in many Islamic countries – where religious expression must often look exactly the same across the board.

The burden falls on the French government, then, to make the case as to why Ms. Silmi has not assimilated. She chooses to wear the niqab not to work as a judge or a public official. She chooses to wear it in her personal life – as French law would seem to permit.

What are your thoughts?

P.S. I dig this commentary.

Banning headscarves = democracy?

Aksine, I say. (That’s Turkish for “on the contrary“).


This week, Turkey’s parliament revived its ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses.

The hijab ban is nothing new. Shortly after a military coup in 1980, the hijab was banned in public buildings, universities, schools and government buildings.

The reasoning for banning the hijab is simple. Some factions of the secularist movement feel that public wearing of the hijab undermines the separation of religion and state. Some secularists fear that a visibile symbol of religiosity could lead to a rise in fundamentalism.

In February of this year, the ban on the hijab was lifted . The event was met with both celebration and protest. Only three months later, however, and the ban has been reinstated.

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. It is also a democracy. Restricting freedom of religious observation and expression, then, seems wrong – doesn’t it? After all, hijab-wearing women aren’t demanding that public institutions stop activity during the five daily prayers (though interestingly, the call to prayer is still heard throughout the country) or asking that all women wear the headscarf.

Some of the ban’s supporters make an argument I’d like to find valid. They assert that for women otherwise forced to wear the hijab by their families or husbands, the ban provides a space – be it on the workforce or in the university – where they will be not just able, but required, to go without a headscarf. In short, women who don’t want to wear the hijab would be protected by the law.

In theory, this makes some sense. However, to believe that legislation like this would protect women from unreasonable family members is, I believe, profoundly naïve. 

Do the ban’s supporters really think that a woman returning home to an illogical family or spouse will be well received without her hijab? Do truly oppressive, dogmatic families care that the law requires the women in their lives to violate what they view to be a religious obligation? Certainly not. The very nature of such mentalities is that they are beyond reason. I’m not endorsing the behavior of those who would mistreat the women in their lives. I’m simply acknowledging that they exist. I’m being realistic in a way that I wish the ban’s supporters would be. Women must follow this law – and thus it is women who will be directly impacted by the reactions it sturs.

I’d argue that women aren’t at all protected here. In fact, legislating women’s self-presentation is the oldest and most repressive game in history. Women’s bodies have always been used as a measure of a community or nation’s purity – be it racial, cultural, religious or secular. Rather than protecting women, then, the state sacrifices them to protect itself. It is women who will have to live with the spiritual, familial and other struggles of this legislation.

If Turkey is serious about democracy, and serious about the separation of religion and state, it would not restrict the choices women can make about their self-presentation and religious expression.

Turkey has good reason to be concerned about fundamentalism. The country must work to protect its democratic system. However, it needn’t borrow from fundamentalists by telling women how to dress.

A much more democratic approach would be to enhance education and vocational training for women – in a way that would reach both more conservative and more secular communities. It would also challenge those men (and women!) who would mistreat a non-hijabi woman. Further, resisting censorship (did you know that all of WordPress is banned in Turkey? All in an effort to silence a secular-minded Muslim!) doesn’t send the message  of democracy. Reforming the Muslim mindset – including focusing on the education of both male and female children – establishes a robust, dynamic society.  Legislating what women put on or take off, however, is the same tactic used by the enemies of democracy.

Why must women prove Turkey’s democratic success with their bodies rather than with their minds and their votes? Ultimately, the hijab ban tells us that the government can’t prove its own legitimacy as a democracy that protects women, their voices, and their bodies.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States presents Muslim women with more opportunities to express “traditional” Islam than a country that is, in fact, 98% Muslim?

Brown Man Clothing Co. gives my shot at humor a chance

See the latest design from Brown Man Clothing Co.:


Click here to see the design up-close, and here to buy the shirt. I’m honored – and hope my name helps, rather than hinders, their sales! Check out this mention in the official Brown Man Clothing Co. blog, too.

Be sure to check out the rest of of Brown Man Clothing Co.’s merchandise. Allow me to make a suggestion