I want Tunisia to be a place where a woman can wear a veil or not, where we can pray or not. They are trying to break the mystical balance between tradition and religion in Tunisia. They are trying to burn our identity to replace it with something we don’t know.
Muslim Sportswomen on the Rise
by Marium Sattar, guest conributor
At the first ceremony of its kind, fencer and Olympic hopeful Ibtihaj Muhammad was recognized for her achievements as a Muslim sportswoman at the Ambassador Awards. The awards were hosted by the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation the first week of May to recognize Muslim women in this field. They are a reminder that Muslim sportswomen have broken new ground in the world of sports and helped change perceptions in society at large.
Although there are more Muslim women competing in sports today than there have been in the past, they have an overlooked legacy. For example, Halet Çambel was the first Muslim woman who competed in the Olympics — and did so in 1936, representing Turkey. Many athletes like her were honored at the awards where Muhammad won the International Sportswoman of the Year. However, women’s sports participation in some countries is still limited.
One challenge some Muslim sportswomen have contended with is regulations about athletic dress codes — but they have also paved the way for other players who want to dress modestly while still competing in the games they love. In 2007, for example, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) placed a ban on wearing the hijab, or headscarf, during matches due to fears that it could lead to choking. The ban even led to the Iranian women’s football team being deemed ineligible from a qualifying match to play in the Olympics; however, this year, FIFA is planning to overturn that rule in light of new hijabs designed specifically for athletes. The decision will be announced on July 2 after further testing of the new hijabs to ensure their safety.
Muhammad says that her faith, which requires women to dress modestly, directed her choice to start fencing, a sport which requires players to cover themselves from head to toe. “Often times, when I’m in competition, I’m the only African American, the only black person, definitely the only Muslim — not only representing the United States but in the competition itself. It can be really difficult…” she said.
Given their diversity, Muslim sportswomen are an inspiration to young women around the world. Yet some young women from Muslim backgrounds still face challenges overcoming cultural restrictions either because their parents believe girls should not become athletes or perhaps simply because they do not have role models. However, these restrictions did not stop Pakistani runner Naseem Hameed, who won the gold medal for her performance at the 100-metre race at the South Asian Games in 2010, making her the fastest woman in South Asia.
As more athletes like Hameed come into the limelight, young women watching them may start to have higher expectations about what they can achieve, especially in sports.
Other Muslim sportswomen have contended with much bigger hurdles. Sadaf Rahimi, a 17-year-old boxer from Afghanistan, is one Ambassador Award nominee who overcame the lack of facilities to practice in and the difficulties of living under the Taliban — which banned women from playing sports. Rahimi, who will be representing Afghanistan in the London 2012 Olympics, shatters stereotypes about Afghan women. Like her peers, she counteracts the misconception that Muslim women cannot play sports, while demonstrating that perseverance can overcome even the toughest hurdles.
In another part of the Muslim world, Qatar recently announced that it will send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. Brunei has also nominated a female hurdler and 400-metre runner, Maziah Mahusin, to join their Olympic team for the first time. Their participation in sports heralds a new era, one which is more inclusive of all women, and shows that governments are following where women are leading.
Many athletes at the Ambassador Awards said they never expected to excel as they have — a reality that shows young women that they are capable of achieving more than they may think is possible.
At the event, Muhammad reflected on how much her faith and sports have shaped her identity. “I would never have guessed in a million years that my hijab would have led me to fencing, to a sport, but also that I would have grown to love this sport so much. It’s so much a part of who I am; I can’t even imagine life without it.”
Marium Sattar is a multimedia and print journalist, and a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School in New York City.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 22, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
The Photos Used in Foreign Policy’s ‘Sex Issue’ May Be a Test Case for Cultural Insensitivity
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The “Sex Issue” recently published by Foreign Policy magazine has received a fair amount of publicity this past week. And, from the responses I’ve read, it’s Mona Eltahawy’s article “Why Do They Hate Us? The War on Women in the Middle East” that’s been greeted with fanfare by some Western media outlets, as in this response by Newsweek:
“Some powerful photo illustrations come with Foreign Policy’s stunning cover feature on the real war unfolding on women in the middle east, written by the awesome and oh-so-brave Egyptian revolutionary Mona Eltahawy. Read it.”
I’m unsure of why Newsweek refers to these images as “photo illustrations” but I think they miss out on the complexities of the issues at hand when they frame it in this way. To be sure, I can understand why many people like these photos. They are stunning images; the article’s title is gripping. But, most of us in the U.S. lack an understanding of the history and the cultural context of using such provocative imagery. For many Arab and Muslim women, these images are offensive. The pictures represent a problem that dates back centuries: the hypersexualization of the veil and the women who wear them. Perhaps we should tread more lightly upon this sensitive ground.
For Samia Errazzouki, these are images of “a nude woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.” In her Al-Monitor rebuttal, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent Us,” she writes:
“All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice. …
The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.”
Leila Ahmed, a revered and oft-cited scholar of women and gender issues in Islam and the Arab world, takes issue not so much with the choice of photos used but with Ms. Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion” finding “almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.”
If you’re interested in reading more responses, I recommend Muslimah Media Watch’s excellent survey of other female voices appearing in various posts and articles. The opinions vary widely. And, I’d definitely read their round-table discussion with five women who reflect on the larger issue at and and the Foreign Policy issue itself. You’ll gain a better sense of the range of opinions on the issue and the really smart women who wrestle with these issues every day.
At the Heart of Easter Sunday Is a Woman
by Norman Allen, guest contributor
I’ve always loved Easter. As a child, I divided the chapters of my Bible storybook to extend across Holy Week, reading each event on the day that it occurred. I recognize that the gospels are not a history lesson, but a bridge to truths otherwise beyond our comprehension.
I’ve also learned that the Easter story doesn’t revolve around crucifixion, an empty tomb, or even the glory of a resurrected spirit. It revolves around Mary Magdalene.
The Gospel of John tells of Mary going to the tomb in the darkness of early morning. Already we’re given the powerful image of a woman walking alone through dark streets and among hillside graves. Finding the tomb empty, she hurries to tell Peter and John, and returns with them so they can verify her story. As they rush off to report the news, she hangs back, to mourn.
In her grief, Mary sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for a gardener. He even speaks to her: “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Still she can’t allow herself the truth.
It’s not until He says her name that she cries out in recognition. In that world-shifting moment, she doesn’t call him “Savior” or “Christ” or even “Jesus.” She calls him “Rabboni.” In a telling parenthetical, the gospel’s author reminds us that the word means “teacher.”
These few lines from the Gospel of John hold great meaning for us. It’s a woman who rises early and walks through darkness to visit the tomb. It’s a woman who stays to mourn, unafraid of her grief. And it’s this particular woman, shunned by society, who is first called by the risen Jesus.
The denominations that still deny women their place at the altar, might take another look at John 20.
But the story holds an even deeper significance, for Mary represents all of us. We are slow to see, slow to consider the truths that challenge the comfortable limits of our understanding. And perhaps we all need to hear our name spoken — to be called — before we can recognize the opportunity that stands before us.
Most important, at the heart of this story lies the relationship between a student and her teacher, a man who challenges and annoys and demands the impossible. Easter isn’t about the resurrection of Jesus. It’s about the enormous achievement of his star pupil, who has the courage to open her eyes to new possibility.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.
Patriarchy’s Persistent Bastion? Religion
by Felice Lifshitz, guest contributor
A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article “Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion,” Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
“In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
“The men of the right” have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
After a while, okay, you’ve worked twenty years or twenty-five years. Okay, so you’ve got this many grants, you’ve got this long a resume, you have these people that hate you, you have these people that love you, you’ve done this piece, that piece, this piece, that piece…and then you go to your grave. And what do you think you have—a piece of paper that tells you all the pieces you’ve done? So what? The only reason for doing it is that you might have the joy of discovery on a day-to-day level. The only reason for doing it is really that you love doing it. What it gets down to is: how do you want to spend your time on Earth?
—Meredith Monk, from Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art & Politics, no. 17, 1984
~Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The Unorthodox Spectrum of Mormonism Explained
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve had a sense of déjà vu as the discussion about Mormonism has heated up as of late, with exactly the same dynamic occurring in the last presidential election season. But the discussion this time is more serious.
It’s not just the fact that two Mormons — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are viable presidential candidates. It’s a Broadway musical. It’s more than one successful TV drama. We’re in, we’re coming to say, a “Mormon moment.” Joanna Brooks, giving just one of the many helpful pieces of perspective in this conversation, compares the rise of Mormons in politics and culture to the rise of the Mormon-owned Marriott Hotel chain. A highly disciplined, highly effective frontier culture grows up and migrates back out into centers of power. It’s a classic American story. But there’s also some kind of religious and cultural coming of age here, for Mormons and the rest of us.
I couldn’t have found a better person than Joanna Brooks to shed some distinctively informative, candid, and meaningful light on it all. She’s a literature scholar and a journalist. Her Ask Mormon Girl blog and Twitter feed is a remarkably reflective, compassionate community of questioning with Mormons of many stripes. And Ask Mormon Girl, as she notes on her website, is housed on the “legendary Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.” That is just one of many things that does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but which we engage through the voice and life of Joanna Brooks.
She grew up, as she tells it for starters, at the southern tip of the “Book of Mormon Belt” — Orange County, California, that is, which I’d associated more vividly with evangelical Christianity. Her father was “bishop” of their congregation several times growing up — a volunteer position that Mitt Romney has also held in his communities across his lifetime. Her mother is a “professional Mormon,” as she affectionately puts it — with, among other things, a serious avocation for genealogy. Joanna Brooks uses words like “rich,” “imaginative”, and “robust” to describe this faith that formed her and that she continues to love.
She has also struggled mightily, suffered disappointment and heartbreak, with this tradition she loves. She became an intellectual and a feminist at Brigham Young University, and then watched the university and the Church for a time condemn and disown the very Mormon mentors who’d inspired her. She was vociferously opposed to the proactive role the LDS Church took in California’s Proposition 8 referendum. But she is a probing force inside the Church’s wrestling with pain and confusion over this issue. Her blog is a model of compassionate presence, both to LGBT Mormons and to parents struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs and their love for their children. She honors the human confusion here that is not exclusive to Mormons and the added complexity that their theology of the family and eternity gives to subjects of marriage and sexuality.
Most of this conversation, though, is not about hot-button issues or presidential politics. It is an informative, energetic, and often moving journey into life on the other side of the American perception that Mormons are weird at best, a cult at worst. Joanna Brooks does not defend her tradition in any simplistic way, but she does make it three-dimensional and far harder to parody. Consider, for example, as she helps us do, the ambivalence and pain that Mormon married couples feel at their church’s legacy of polygamy. Hear her explanation of her sense of the “strangeness” of accusations she’s heard since she was a child, that she — a follower of Jesus Christ, a serious thinker about notions like atonement and grace — is not Christian. On a lighter note, but with just as much illumination for the listener, she is candid and corrective about a lingering obsession out there with ritual Mormon undergarments.
The most classic American story in this Mormon moment, perhaps, is how Joanna Brooks and other faith-filled and “unorthodox” Mormons are claiming their place in the unfolding story of this young frontier tradition. It is evolving from the inside in ways more meaningful, perhaps, than its outer rise to prominence in politics. Maybe in hindsight, we’ll see this Mormon moment as an occasion for this increasingly influential American phenomenon, composed after all of human beings, to become more articulate about itself and more comprehensible to the rest of us in its complexity.
Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from her paper “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735” in the 1976 spring edition of American Quarterly
Did you know that the ubiquitous slogan contained within the quotation above doesn’t end with a period but a semicolon? That it comes from a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?
Rather than a rally cry for bold behavior, Thatcher Ulrich was lauding the underappreciated and shining a light on the historically invisible. As part of her research into Puritan funeral services, she was pointing to the value of an academically “neglected” group of quiet, dutiful Puritans who did not get as much attention as the so-called witches of that era.
Thatcher Ulrich says it’s her religious upbringing that drives her to work among the stories of everyday experience:
“Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me.”
Joanna Brooks, a scholar, journalist, and Ask Mormon Girl blogger, is another one of those smart, strong female voices. Look for our interview with her this Thursday. It’s a good one!
Photo by Hillary Stein/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.