Reacting to the Gaze: Understanding the Muslim Woman Identity and its implication for classroom context

Muslim business woman in traditional clothing working on laptop at home or in office. Vector illustration isolated in white background

One of my first vivid memories of my Muslim identity was in 2004. My family was bound to leave for  the United States for my father’s work. A major concern was whether or not my mother, a hijab wearing woman, should continue donning it when the memory of 9/11 was still fresh and our safety was not guaranteed. She decided not to wear it for the year we stayed in the US.

            As I myself grew to learn, the Muslim identity, particularly that of the Muslim woman, is complex to navigate, be it in the United States or anywhere else in the world I found myself in. In 2019, it was in the UK for my Master’s, where I was one of the very few Muslims and the only hijab-wearing student in my course. In classes where I was distinctly different from the rest, I found myself questioning how or where I should place my faith in relation to other parts of my identity. This reflects Preece’s (2016, p. 1) argument that people grow more aware of their identity when they are going through transformations and facing new possibilities. While reflecting on my own experiences and concerns, I could not help but to question if other Muslim women felt the same way too. In my attempt to understand this complicated identity work and myself, it even became the topic of my Master’s dissertation. 

            In this writing, I share the findings from my study in which I observed how three Muslim women juggled their faith and other parts of their identity. I start by outlining my research. I then present the experiences of my participants, organized into common themes and complemented by theoretical perspectives. This is followed by considering the implications of the findings for the EAP classroom. 

Approaching Identity and Research

My research focused on identity, which Weedon (1997, p. 32) defines as “the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to the world”. I approached identity as socially constructed, fluid and intersectional as “different dimensions of identity cannot be dealt with in isolation of one another” (Block & Corona, 2016). The goal of the research was to examine Muslim women’s negotiation and construction of identity, specifically in online spaces. This was done via      a qualitative approach, using social media analysis and thematic analysis of narrative data, with more emphasis given to the latter. The narrative data was collected from in-depth interviews which leaned into the narrative inquiry approach, where I shared my own stories to initiate the participants to share their experiences.

Findings and Shared Experiences

I found that there are recurrent themes that occur across the experiences of the three participants as Muslim women, themes which resonate with my own experience. Although my study was focused on online spaces, I believe these themes to be relevant in other contexts as they are matters that often tend to affect how Muslim women express themselves in general. As has been highlighted by Abiala & Hernwall (2013), despite its fluidity and freedom, the online world is still intertwined with offline experiences and power structures. 

  1. The Gaze That Follows 

            The most prevalent and relevant theme is an intense awareness of a ‘gaze’. This gaze and looming presence of scrutiny comes from both the Muslim community and those outside of the Muslim community, what Mir (2009) calls the “twin towers of surveillance”. Intertwined with the gaze is a sense of representing the faith that is present with all of my participants. Muslim women, who are often visually identifiable, have become the subject of much concern by both Orientalists, those who perceive others with prejudice and a lens of presumed Western superiority, and Muslims. Cooke (2008) captures this through her use of the term “Muslimwoman” which reflects the singular, collective identity ascribed to Muslim women who are no longer thought of as individuals due to the concern surrounding them. She also highlights the prominence of the veil and its importance as a marker of the Muslimwoman identity. Due to this visual marker, Muslim women have inadvertently become the emblem of Islam. Within the Orientalist gaze, Islam is symbolized by the oppressed Muslimwoman, clad in a veil. Meanwhile in the Muslim community, the Muslimwoman has been given the role of a positive emblem, thus making it a great importance to maintain their behavior and appearance.

            This explains the sense of representing the faith that is present with all of my participants as well as their wariness of scrutiny. The inspecting gaze manifests itself in the expectations put upon the participants as Muslim women, which spills into their experiences with their self-expression. When asked about such expectations, the participants pointed to preconceived notions of a Muslim woman as being subservient, well-behaved, and donning the veil or hijab. As mentioned, the hijab itself plays a major part in the gaze (Cooke, 2008), being both the subject and cause of scrutiny. In other words, as one of my participants put it, it is like facing the “haram police” within the Muslim community who are policing the behaviour and hijab of Muslim women while also confronting stereotypes of the Western or Orientalist view. 

  1. Handling the Gaze

            Although this feeling was shared by all of them, the way my participants reacted to the gaze differed. One participant became an overseer (Mir, 2009) of her own behaviour online. She chose to get closer to idealized Islamic behaviour or what she felt suited someone who wears the hijab. For example, she avoided swearing or offensive words on her social media despite doing so in ‘real life’. This same participant also made use of the gaze to redefine modesty and resist confining norms surrounding Muslim femininity. She did so by regularly posting her fashionable outfits on Instagram to showcase her individuality and challenge the stereotypical image of a modest Muslim woman who only wears black robes. 

Another participant talked back to the gaze by writing articles for an online magazine for Muslim women, which she felt is her personal act of reclaiming the narrative and challenging stereotypes. This act of ‘talking back’ is an act that resists the ascribed identity of Muslim women as subservient, docile, and oppressed (Cooke, 2008, & Jamal, 2011). By sharing her voice and opinion through writing, she deployed the Muslimwoman identity to deconstruct and resist the constraints of the gaze. She, along with her colleagues, were engaging in the politics of identity and producing digital content that act as a form of activism (Warren, 2018, p. 3) by presenting counter narratives. 

My third participant also reacted to the gaze in her own way by minimizing her Muslim identity online. She personally felt that other facets of her identity might conflict with preconceived notions of Muslim women. As a result, she intentionally minimized her Muslim identity online to allow her to explore her identity—particularly her sexual identity—without much scrutiny or conflict. This allowed her an outlet that she might not easily find in the physical world. 

            In a nutshell, the participants indicate that their religious identity and faith do affect their expression. The participants react to the gaze and negotiate the expectations that follow them from outside of the internet, either by adapting to its constraints, deconstructing its limits, or navigating away from it. The study also shows that online spaces afford the participants with agency of representation and carving their own individual, unique identities. Despite this freedom, many      of their experiences online still reflect the social and power structures of the physical world. 

The Religious Identity in the Classroom and Campus

            To relate these findings to the context of the classroom and campus, it is pertinent to look to recent studies. According to Guest et al.’s (2020) report on Islam and Muslims in the UK higher education sector, university management and staff are often unaware of the gendered experiences of Muslims on campus. There is also evidence that the campus can be a hostile environment especially for those who are visibly Muslim (Stevenson, 2018 as cited by Guest et. al, 2020). Additionally, both male and female Muslims are reported to experience feelings of scrutiny and suspicion from others on campus, mirroring the same awareness of a gaze that my participants experienced. This results in Muslim students and staff often feeling the need to self-censor to avoid suspicion. The report also highlights that there a number of challenges for UK universities, one of which is empowering Muslim voices. 

So what could this mean in a EAP context? Simply put, language can prove to be a tool of agency. In any given context, people construct their identity and gain access or opportunities to speak through language (Norton, 2013 as cited by Preece, 2016). By having such a widespread language such as English in their arsenal, marginalized people have a better chance to push their own narratives into the center. Although the spread of English has a colonial genesis, it can be utilised to empower Muslims and to resist the exclusion of their narrative, allowing them to “express their own cultural and religious experiences” (Hasan, 2013). As evident with my participants, English is being used to reclaim Muslim women’s narrative and to challenge stereotypes, to find connection with others, and to renegotiate what “Muslimness” means in a contemporary world.

            As we are slowly attempting to shift away from the center focus on the Eurocentric, white narrative (Hasan, 2013 & Gebrial, 2018), we should proactively counter this cultural hegemony by allowing space for diverse voices, including those of Muslim women. The classroom should be a safe space where Muslim women feel free to express their multifaceted identities, where they can feel comfortable being markedly different but not othered, where they are not scrutinized but seen. What efforts could be made to provide such a safe space? How could the freedom the internet provides be replicated in a classroom? 

Although I have no quick solution, what has helped me in my own experiences as a Muslim woman in spaces where I am the minority is being approached and viewed as an individual. Orientalism and religious extremism very much focus on promoting a homogenous image of Muslims (Cooke, 2008, & Mir, 2009). Being viewed as an individual is both empowering and assuring. Pushing aside preconceived notions and making room for people to create their own identity is of course, an ideal situation, but it is one we could choose to strive for. 

To quote one of my participants: “you know for Muslim girls, Muslim youths out there like now what we’re doing is we’re reclaiming our own voices and we’re reclaiming our narratives and we just need to keep putting ourselves out there.” What can we do to ensure that these voices are heard?

To reiterate for further reflection and discussion: What efforts could be made to provide a safe space for Muslim women in the classroom? What can we do to ensure that Muslim women’s voices are heard? Please share your reflections on your own experiences either under this post or on our ‘Emerging Voices win ELT’ Padlet as well as feel free to share this post on Twitter. If you would like to take part in a Tweet Meet discussion with Noor – the author of this blog post, tune in on Friday 26 November 12pm-1pm UK time.

Author:

Ashiqin Hasbullah (Noor)

Ashiqin Hasbullah (Noor) currently works at a market research firm in project
management. She is also a media associate for a mental health organisation. She
graduated from UCL with an MA in Applied Linguistics in 2019. Her interest in research stems from a desire to understand the how and why of people, their actions, and their selves.

References:

Abiala, K., & Hernwall, P. (2013). Tweens negotiating identity online – Swedish girls’ and boys’ reflections on online experiences. Journal of Youth Studies16(8), 951-969.

Block, D. & Corona, V. (2016). Intersectionality in language and identity research. In S. 

Preece (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of language and identity. London: Routledge. 

Cooke, M. (2008). Deploying the Muslimwoman. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion24(1), 91-99. 

Gebrial, D. (2018). Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford and movements for change. Decolonising the university, 19-36.

Guest, M., Scott-Baumann, A., Cheruvallil-Contractor, S., Naguib, S., Phoenix, A., Lee, Y. and 

Al Baghal, T. (2020) Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges. Durham: Durham University, London: SOAS, Coventry: Coventry University and Lancaster: Lancaster University.

Hasan, M. M. (2013). The Islamization of English Literary Studies: A Postcolonial Approach. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences30(2), 21-41.

Jamal, A. (2011). Just between us: Identity and representation among Muslim women. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 12(2), 202-212

Mir, S. (2009). Not Too “College-Like,” Not Too Normal: American Muslim 

Undergraduate Women’s Gendered Discourses. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 40(3), 237-256.

Preece, S. (2016). Introduction. In S. Preece (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of  language and identity. London: Routledge. 

Warren, S. (2018). Placing faith in creative labour: Muslim women and digital media  work in Britain. Geoforum, 97, 1-9. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2018.10.003

Weedon, C. (1997). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory (2nd ed.). Oxford:  Blackwell. 

Published by EAP 4 Social Justice SIG

What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

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