Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voices
Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Curator Samina Ali about the vision and inspiration behind the new International Museum of Women exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voices. Her answers are below.
I was excited to hear about the Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voices by the International Museum of Women! Can you share with our readers your role in this exhibition?
I’m the curator for the Muslima exhibition, which launched on March 8th and will be live until the end of December 2013. So for nine months, the exhibition will be expanding, deepening and growing its number of artworks and interviews with Muslim women. What you see today is just the beginning. This is the first global exhibition of its kind – it allows us to reach people across the world in many different walks of life. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee or live in San Francisco to be a part of it or to see it. From small towns in the Middle East to where we are in the United States where the museum is located, any woman or man can access it anywhere in the world – we feel that makes it revolutionary!
Access is important to us because we really want to change the dialogue that is taking place around Muslim women. We find that the mainstream media often portray Muslim women as weak or subjugated, and that they don’t understand the veil – there are many misinterpretations about that and what it means to individual Muslim women to wear or not wear the veil. So we thought it was finally time to have Muslim women speak for themselves rather than having others speak about them.
What is your personal message in this exhibition? Was there a pivotal moment where you knew you had to make it happen?
It’s a culmination. I have been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. I started with publishing my own novel called Madras on Rainy Days (http://www.amazon.com/Madras-Rainy-Days-A-Novel/dp/B005M4VY18/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365111485&sr=8-1&keywords=samina+ali) about a young woman named Layla. She’s an Indian Muslim, and the book talks about how a lot of times women don’t know enough about Islam to be able to differentiate what the faith says as compared to what culture, tradition, and family demand. In the book a lot of Layla’s rights are taken away from her and Indian culture is privileged over Islam. For example Islam says women have the right to choose a husband. In India, marriages are arranged. Women give dowry in India so they are often seen as either a commodity or a burden. In Islam, men give dowry. Often cultural traditions supersede what religion actually says and women end up paying price.
After writing this book, I helped co-found an American Muslim feminist organization called Daughters of Hajar. Our first act was to organize a march into a mosque in Morgantown, W. Virginia. My fellow co-founder, Asra Nomani, attended that mosque and women there were being told to enter through a back door in order to pray. We marched to protest and to assert a woman’s right to enter a mosque through any door she chooses. Doesn’t the “front door for men and the back door for women” echo a time in American history when whites and blacks had different accesses? Our peaceful march received so much national and international coverage that a year later, CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) announced that women must be allowed to enter through any door throughout U.S. mosques. After this, our organization went on to lead the the first women-led prayer in New York with Amina Wadud.
Later, I traveled to Europe with the State Department to speak about my novel and on Muslim women’s issues. This all was what allowed me to bring my contacts and women together – the exhibition is a really beautiful culmination of what I’ve been doing over the last 10 years.
Who are the artists and thought leaders in the Muslima exhibition?
This is a global exhibition and with that in mind I, as a curator, really tried to make it a global perspective. I didn’t want to represent only Americans – it would defeat the purpose. We wanted a strong launch, so I reached out to incredible Muslim women who are making change in their communities. Dr. Shirin Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Fahima Hashim, a leading women’s rights advocate in Sudan, is the Director of Salmmah Women’s Resource Center and part of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Maria Bashir is the first female Prosecutor General in Afghanistan. We we have Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, we have Tayyibah Taylor, Editor in Chief of Azizah Magazine. This is just a small sampling of the cross section of women who are making incredible change in their communities – and we are going to continue to add interviews as the exhibition proceeds. From the artists’ side we have leading Palestinian artist Laila Shawa, Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutakawal, Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian. We also wanted to make sure we represented the next generation, so you’ll find some emerging voices there too.
Another facet of the exhibition is the Muslima Stories. We posed the question, “What does it mean to you to be a Muslim woman today?” and Muslim women have to answer that question in six words. That is open to the global community, so Muslim woman around the world can answer that question. We already have collected close to 60 statements along with photographs. Those are quite beautifully put together. So the exhibition is really from women who are well established down to emerging artists and the up and coming generation.
Have you noted any emerging themes from the voices and art through the Muslima exhibition?
One of the fascinating things I found when doing interviews that is that many of these leading reformers are saying: Islam grants us rights, Islam says we’re equal to men, so why are we seen as lesser-than by our communities and families – and, in some places, that gender bias is systematically encoded into the legal and political system? For example, Zainah Anwar. the past director of Sisters in Islam and the current director of Musawah, is fighting the Malaysian legal system for a more tolerant and woman-inclusive interpretation of Islam. We’re finding that contrary to media representations of “weak, oppressed Muslim women,” Muslim women are in fact standing up, speaking up, and saying that this is not the way that Islam was intended for us. They are saying that we have rights that were taken away from us by culture, tradition, patriarchy, laws, and we are hoping to regain those rights. The movement that is happening within the Muslim community is that women are working within the framework of Islam to reclaim their rights.
Do you think the world will be convinced that woman can use and are using Islamic frameworks to advance women’s rights? What would indicate success in getting the world to listen to Muslim women’s voices?
When I first started speaking about these issues after 9/11, what I found was that many people from other faiths in the United States were not ready to hear the message about Muslim women. Many people didn’t know anything about Islam and the first time they thought about Islam was when 9/11 happened. There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of pain, and there was a lot of fear. So when I went out there and tried to speak with people about what Islam actually says they didn’t want to hear the message – they weren’t ready to hear the message. Now that we are in over 10 years of recovery, people are willing to hear it.
We had our annual gala in early March, celebrating the entire work of the museum, and there was so much interest in this current exhibition! People were saying: “I understand that I have a limited understanding of Muslim women and I want to hear what Muslim women have to say,” “I understand that the Middle East is not the only place where Muslim women live,” “I understand that the veil can sometimes mean empowerment.” Because our nation has done much of its healing, we are ready to change our views. It is an opportune moment that we can seize to make the necessary changes in the relationships between our communities, and through the voices of Muslim women themselves.
Do you have any final words about the Muslima exhibition that you want to emphasize to our readers?
There are so many ways that people can be involved, whether they are Muslim or not. We want to hear from you! After every interview, every art gallery piece, every photograph, we have a “Comments” section for people to engage in a global dialogue. Our Global Call for Submissions will be open until the 15th. Submit your own Muslima Story with photos. I want to emphasize that we interpret “Muslim” as anyone who identifies as such, not measured by level of religiosity. We are saying that the tent has to grow huge to encompass everyone. This exhibition is about inclusivity. So, join it, read about it, educate yourself, be inspired, and tell your friends about it!
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