Photo courtesy of Wajahat Syed/Flickr.

Somewhere in America: Muslim Art and the Burden of Representation

The controversy surrounding the recent Mipsterz video “Somewhere in America” can be summarized as a problem of representation. It is a problem that other minority communities have undergone and continue to grapple with.

There are simply not enough representations of Muslims, and specifically American Muslim women, in popular media today.

So what happens when a group of Muslims get together and produce a representation of themselves?  The Muslim blogosphere goes crazy and demands a better, more accurate representation.

To paint with a broad brush for a moment: conservative-minded Muslims have once again sent out their modesty police in the comments sections; a leftist Muslim claims that the video supports consumerist attitudes; a secular liberal has found a place for herself in the work, a Muslim feminist questions the male gaze of the video, its reinforcement of normative, assimilationist standards of beauty, and its failure to grapple with the difficulties many American Muslim hijabis face daily; and another Muslim feminist critiques the shaming of the women who participated in the video.

Still from MIPSTERZ video.
Still from MIPSTERZ video.

We are demanding the impossible. No representation can speak to all parts of a community’s experience. No representation can speak to all parts of a single self.

The video simply displays a group of young, self-confident, and fashionable American Muslim hijabi women hanging out in public space. It’s nothing too political or subversive or challenging, save the sole fact that these are images we don’t encounter often in media. The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not this music video is an accurate representation of hijabis, but whether or not it is a good piece of American Muslim art.

In increasing numbers, American Muslims are representing themselves and their communities in a number of different and creative ways. We have fictional and real punk rockers, a lawyer grappling with self-hate, white female hijabi converts, queer black Muslims in love, a female comic book superhero, a portrait of a West Coast immigrant living room, men and women on love and sex, and much more.

But it’s still not enough.

The reaction to “Somewhere in America” is an effect of a community that still hasn’t seen enough of itself in popular media. And so we demand perfection, especially when it comes to Muslim women. We demand to see Muslim women who are fashionable and unfashionable, rich and poor, with and without headscarves, immigrant and native-born, and more.

The critiques are not unwarranted.

But we as a community need to invest in not only critiquing the artistic and cultural productions of other members of our community, but offering up our own. Making art is hard work. American Muslim artists and writers don’t get nearly enough of the support they need from their communities. They need not only critique, but also love and affirmation for work that is radically uncommon and unpopular for American Muslims to embark upon. Instead, they find themselves with the unique burden of having a community that wants every single representation done with perfection.

Photo courtesy of Wajahat Syed/Flickr.
Photo courtesy of Wajahat Syed/Flickr.

Other minority communities have struggled with this as well.  It took a while for Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and others to resist white stereotypes and create honest art of their own. The intimate, risqué portraits of a hyphenated American life depicted in the writings of Philip Roth, James Baldwin, and Junot Diaz did not arise out of nowhere. They came out of long struggles within their respective communities to create both representative and individualized art that challenged assumptions within and outside their communities.

Baldwin called this condition the “burden of representation.” Carrying this burden is a responsibility, removing it is creative freedom. Reject being a spokesperson; tell one story at a time.

Islam doesn’t need more Mipsterz. It needs more artists.

American Muslims should continue encouraging our brothers and sisters to represent themselves and their communities in various genres so that both our art and our sense of the diversity and complexity of ourselves continues to grow.

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  • About the autor
    Waleed Shahid

    Waleed Shahid is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. He also works at Decarcerate PA, a grassroots coalition seeking to end mass incarceration in the state of Pennsylvania.

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    • Rin

      “…Philip Roth, James Baldwin, and Junot Diaz…” You forgot Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Walker, etc. 😉 I agree with you that people put too much pressure on these girls to represent Muslim women, but it’s not just about _media_ representation. I think you’re forgetting that a lot of the criticism for this video was comments that Muslim girls receive offline from male brothers, fathers, etc. when their hijabi sisters, etc. don’t dress according to the image of the ideal hijabi in their heads. “You’re representing Islam; take it off if you’re not gonna do it right” is a very weird thought that many Muslim men and women repeat even though Islamically, covering is better than not. This makes it clear that appearances, i.e. representation, to other Muslims as well as non-Muslims, has become more important to us than the principles behind our practices, and that we unfairly expect only the women of the religion to bear this burden. We don’t just put this onus on Muslim women online or on TV, we expect them to be perfect walking symbols, projections of others’ ideals. Maybe it’s partly a result of being a marginalized group and feeling the pressure of representing one’s group, but it’s not right. Encouraging everyone to adopt the same lifestyle, values, and convey the same party line or Stepford image isn’t the solution. No one will be interested in us if they don’t see us as people, individuals, with interests, hobbies, loves, dreams, cultures, etc. I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with trying to convey a monolithic image and calling it a lack of dissent, “unity,” when it is in fact uniformity and makes many of us faceless and voiceless. It was a mercy that Allah fashioned different nations for humans. He never intended them to be clones.

    • children of riba

      We can criticize all we want but there is only one time to find out which one is correct, less than a minute after we die. We will either discover that hell is really truely in existence or paradise…when the ship reaches land, we forget the storm when we bargained with Allah not to sink the ship…any new Muslima with blonde blue eyes want to marry a pakistani doctor in usa, email me.

    • Burntberry Dot Net

      A Muslim HipHop artist: