Those of you who aren’t avid followers of Western Muslim Feminist discourse (um, why are you not?) may not yet have come across Mipsterz. The brainchild of two Muslim men (more on that later), Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi, known as Sheikh and Bake Productions, Somewhere in America: Mipsterz is a two minute video that depicts an array of stylish, impeccably groomed, young Muslim women looking - well - cool. As they hang out in parks, skateboard down streets, and pose on rooftops, all set to a soundtrack of Jay-Z’s ‘Somewhere in America’, the film looks like it could be an advert for ESpirit or River Island. And in case you haven’t worked it out yet, ‘Mipsterz’ is a tongue-in-cheek, super-ironic term born from the following equation:
'Muslim' + 'Hipster' + ironic random 'z' = Mipsterz.
Ahahahaha, so clever.
Given that Mipsterz involves two of the internet’s favourite topics: women and Islam, there has been a predictably potent level of response from across the spectrum of People Who Like To Discuss Muslim Women and/or Hipsters.
Obviously, we have the HipsterHaterz:
The topic has even showed up on ‘mainstream’ media channels such as the HuffPost and Buzzfeed, although, like the article featured in Jezebel, these responses are patently rushed copy/paste jobs that lack any kind of analysis and fail to reach a sufficient level of critique.
Thankfully, there have also been more eloquent analyses offered up, two particularly excellent ones by Muslim women: Sana Saeed gives an articulate, nuanced critique of various aspects of the video in her Islamic Monthly article, while Rabia Chaudry’s powerful open letter to the women in the video tackles the tirade of ‘shaming’ that has exploded over the last 48 hours. In her response, Chaudry’s anger is tangible:
"We have an illness, us Muslims. We like to publicly humiliate our girls by pointing out where we think they’ve failed in their religious practice. We don’t do this to our men, ever."
"I’m sorry that you have to put up with awful judgments from both non-Muslims and Muslims […] I’m sorry that your appearance and behavior has become a litmus test for the state of our community."
"You’re easy prey. Low hanging fruit. What you wear distracts us from discussing serious issues, like sexual violence, drugs, or domestic abuse; because those are things we’d actually have to do something about. You’re in the center of a shaming-storm and I’m sorry for that."
Can I get an “Ameen”?
It goes without saying that nothing at all can justify the shaming-storm that Chaudry refers to - but the Mipsterz video poses an interesting contradiction: simultaneously exploding one set of assumptions, while also perpetuating a number of myths. It is precisely these confused and confusing messages which have generated such potent discussion in just over 48 hours:
1. Muslim Women Are Dowdy: DEBUNKED
The majority of the backlash against this video has stemmed from the reactionaries who are recoiling in horror in their droves at the fact that that (visibly) Muslim/oriental/eastern/exotic looking women are - gasp! - attractive. The portrayal of these women as being (un)conventionally fashionable or appealing is the antithesis of the usual associations of Muslim woman as dowdy, unattractive, weak and sexless.
It is frustrating that it takes a 2 minute film to go viral, in order for this centuries-old myth to even begin to crumble. And yet some of the most vociferous complaints about the crumbling myth are Muslims themselves. It’s almost as though by maintaining the notion of Muslim-woman-as-dowdy-frump, we are also maintaining her virtue/honour/chastity/insert word of choice here. Well, for debunking that myth alone, I think Mipsterz deserves one point at least.
2. Muslim Women are Exotic Creatures: PERPETUATED
Oh, world. We Muslim women give you such a hard time, don’t we? We complain about you portraying us as shrivelled old babushkas, but then we also take umbrage at being depicted as exotic eastern creatures who lounge around in harems looking bejewelled and ravishing.
While I don’t think Sheikh and Bake do this maliciously, there is certainly an element of mythologising the exoticism of the Muslim women in this film. In portraying these women in a ‘never seen before’ way, there is almost a sense of being given access to something that, far from being cast as normal, is made to seem particularly enticing. We see several shots of women skateboarding or riding motorbikes at night - both of which could be viewed as traditionally Western cultural expressions of hyper-masculinities - and we are led to marvel at this. While it is entirely reasonable, plausible and possible that these women might just enjoy skateboarding or riding motorbikes, the fact that there is not a single point where these women’s voices are heard in the entire film, renders the concept unquestionably voyeuristic. We are encouraged to watch these women, enjoy, praise, look at them - but we are not invited to hear them.
3. The Worth of a Muslim Woman is the Sum Total of the Fabric on Her Head: PERPETUATED
The perpetuation of this myth, in fairness, has zero to do with the makers of the video, or the women in it, and everything to do with how the reactionaries have responded. As with anything to do with Muslim women, the majority of the discussion about the film has centred around the hijab. Obviously. Because what is an obvious representation of a Muslim woman if not a piece of cloth on her head?
Many supporters of the video have commented on the diversity seen in the film: there are women from different ethnicities, who wear headscarves, do not wear headscarves, wear skirts, wear pants, wear colour, wear black. And I would wholeheartedly concur that this is one of the strengths of the film. But the sheer volume of comments focused specifically on hijab shows that this really is seen as the pinnacle of any conversation to do with Muslim women. Which is, unquestionably, ridiculous, because no woman, Muslim or otherwise, should feel the burden of having to be representative of an entire faith, or community, or ideology. It is exhausting. It is unsustainable. It is not going to work. As someone who wore a headscarf for two years, before deciding that it was not for me, I am fully aware of how it feels to be carrying a world of judgements, assumptions, assertions and speculations, all in one metre square of fabric. Which leads perfectly to:
4. Everything a Muslim Woman Does is a Political Statement: DEBUNKED
This myth is only half-debunked, because no matter what Muslim women say or do, someone, somewhere will interpret that as a political statement. This very blog post is a testament to that. Sorry. But the point is, we shouldn’t look at these skateboarding, sharply dressed women and think that they somehow are making a pointed assertion about the state of Western Muslim feminism. The likelihood is that they aren’t. They probably just like wearing nice shoes and skateboarding. That’s as much as we can tell from the video anyway. And herein lies the problem of the video: it’s a a visual feast, but there is no substance beyond it. We don’t know if these women are students, or professionals, or shopkeepers, or doctors. We do not know if they are university graduates or not. If they are married, or not. We don’t know if they are Democrats or Republicans; if they are vegetarians, or Creationists, or Marxists. But maybe - just maybe - there are Muslim women who are, shock, just really quite into fashion and starring in short films, and don’t really care about making a political statement. Just a thought. But this is another flaw of the film - in a bid to portray Muslim women as ‘normal’, the makers of the film have ended up with a rather hollow depiction. Sheikh and Bake have certainly de-politicised the actions of Muslim women in this film…because what’s political about posing on a rooftop taking selfies? Maybe that’s the point. Who knows.
Mipsterz: yay-sterz or nay-sterz?
I really, really wanted to like this video more than I did. While I enjoyed the celebration of expression, dress, joy and activity in the film, some of the stronger and more substantial positive messages get lost amost the stilettos and scarves: there are a couple of scenes featuring Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the United States fencing team, wearing an American flag hijab. I want to know more about her. I want to know the stories, the real experiences, the personalities of these women. Not just marvel at their clothes. And so, this video, ultimately, fails in its objectives which - I assume - was to portray the ‘reality’ of what Muslim women are like. Because all I came away with from this video was a reinforced message that there are some women (who happen to be Muslim) that are far more stylish than I am. Well, duh.
Perhaps this is a problem with the medium of video in general. Other formats may better lend themselves to a more nuanced, in-depth exploration of Muslim female identities, with more success. Love Inshallah, a volume of collected stories edited by two Muslim women, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, is a fantastic example of how the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences and perspectives can be more effectively depicted. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that this video was produced and directed by two men, and the influence this may have had (fairly or unfairly) on popular reactions. It is not to say that the gender of the film-makers is inherently problematic, but why is it that this video went viral, when all these many other examples of women representing themselves haven’t made the same shockwaves?
Mipsterz was a creative move, but sadly slightly lacking in any kind of meaningful message. But maybe that is the point - that sometimes, Muslim women just want to “be” and not have every item of clothing they wear, every song they listen to, every action, every movement to be politicised, scrutinised, pulled apart, and ultimately, judged by the crowing audiences of haters and liberators alike. And if that involves taking selfies on a rooftop to a Jay-Z soundtrack, then so be it. It isn’t the sum total of who they are and what they stand for. To know that, you might actually need to speak to one.