Links: Mannequins, Muslima and Mallika

What do a virtual art exhibition and real-life mannequins have in common? Prejudice arising from preconceived notions. What do those two and Mallika Sherawat have in common? Not much, in all honesty. But they all start with M and there’s some screwed up thinking surrounding all of them.   

First up, mannequins. It’s a bit odd to think this piece got me on the BBC World Service — albeit for a mere second or two — but hey, it’s “This is the BBC. And you’re listening to BBC World Service”. If anyone had told me when I heard the World Service on the radio as a kid that I’d be on it one day, I’d have told them to go find a Barbie to decapitate.

Out of concern for her fellow women, Tawade has suggested that mannequins wearing “two-piece clothes that barely cover the body” be banned from public display. It isn’t a total ban on dressing mannequins in lingerie. Inside a shop, they’re acceptable as marketing tools.

Outside, they could cause crimes against women. Tawade’s proposal is awaiting final clearance from BMC chief, Sitaram Kunte.

Tawade has wasted no time though. She has reportedly forced some shopkeepers in her ward in Ghatkopar to change their display. “One must think of the awkwardness a woman will feel standing in front of such a mannequin,” Tawade told Indian Express. She also believes seeing these scantily-clad mannequins are indecent and therefore are “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals”. You’ve got to wonder how dumb she thinks Indian men are. Because if they’re confusing real women with the distinctly un-human mannequins, then they’re either idiots or suffering from serious psychological issues.

This is an oddly gender-specific problem because Tawade has said nothing about the effect of male mannequins that bare their chests wearing nothing but pants or swimming trunks or underwear. For instance, there’s that nude male mannequin that’s been perched on a balcony near Kemps Corner flyover for years. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and maybe I’m just not hormonal enough, but the sight of it has never led to a tsunami of lust in me. All men in the vicinity were as they usually are in my presence: safe from any advances.

From my column, the rest of which you can read here.

Then there’s this piece I wrote on Mallika Sherawat, in which I was decidedly pedantic. But well. 

LallaEssaydi
By Lalla Essaydi.

Next, an interview with author and curator Samina Ali, who has curated Muslima, an evolving exhibition that is exclusively online and explores both the reality and the fiction involved in being a Muslim woman. Ali plans to keep adding pieces and contributions over the next few months, so keep visiting the website. You’ll find some fascinating work in there. Ali took the time to do a little interview about Muslima and her long-standing campaign to ensure Muslim women are not misrepresented.

Here’s the unedited interview:

DP: Would you tell me a little bit about your own journey?
SAMINA ALI: I’ve been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. I began with writing my novel, Madras on Rainy Days, which won both U.S. and international literary prizes. It’s published around the world, including in India. Through this story, I wanted to show how Islam is misinterpreted by some Muslims and then misapplied to such a way that it limits women’s lives and contributions. There’s nothing in the faith itself that diminishes women — it’s power, politics, and sometimes a purposeful misapplication of Islamic law. I took that message to the streets when I cofounded Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist organization. Our first act was to walk into a mosque in Morgantown W. Virginia to protest the custom of asking women to enter mosques through back doors and to pray in back rooms. The group went on to organize the first woman-led prayer in NY. I’ve also been a Muslim ambassador for the State Dept. in Europe. All of this led to me curating this global exhibition on Muslim women.

DP: Have there been experiences that you have had that made you feel the need for Muslima?
SAMINA ALI: In post 9/11 society, Islamophobia remains one of the few acceptable prejudices. All to often, media, leaders, and communities project an image of Muslim women that is far from the truth. It’s a one-dimentional image that shows Muslim women as being weak, subjugated victims. That distorted, limiting image of Muslim women began soon after 9/11 and seems to have become cemented in people’s minds over the past decade. This exhibition is not only timely, it’s necessary to help reverse those stereotypes and create dialogue between different communities and peoples. At the same time, the exhibition doesn’t shy away from confronting the ways in which some Muslim-majority countries have implemented laws that directly limit women’s contributions. So the exhibition is speak to both communities.

DP: How did the idea of Muslima come about?
SAMINA ALI: This exhibition was inspired by the deeply entrenched fears and misunderstandings people have about Muslims generally, and women specifically. All too often, Muslim women are seen as weak, powerless, subjugated. And there are many misinterpretations about the veil and what it means to individual Muslim women to wear, or not wear, the veil.

We wanted to help reverse those stereotypes and the best way to do that seemed to be to present Muslim women speaking to the complex realities of their own lives-through interviews and art. In the process, they would help dispel stereotypes, curb Islamophobia and build understanding.

The International Museum of Women has always been a virtual museum and it’s a museum with a special focus on women’s issues. So this exhibition is a perfect fit. The beauty of a virtual exhibition means that anyone anywhere in the world has access, no matter language, location, culture, or economics. Someone in Mumbai can visit the online exhibition and become involved in the global dialgue as easily as someone sitting here in San Francisco where the museum is located.

DP: How do you respond to those who see a difference between a Muslim woman and a modern woman?
SAMINA ALI: I think anyone who doesn’t realize that a Muslim women is a modern woman needs to visit the exhibition and read the interviews I’ve conducted with leading women reformers from around the world. These women will challenge any last remaining ideas that anyone continues to believe: the constant media distortion that Muslim women are backward. Getting rid of these negative beliefs is the first step toward real understanding.

DP: Do you think Islamophobia is a global phenomenon? Do you find the prejudice against and misconceptions about Muslims in South Asia different from what you’ve experienced in North America?
SAMINA ALI: I was born in Hyderabad, India and I was half raised there. The tension between Hindus and Muslims is an unfortunate reality of India, with its communal riots. However, that tension has roots in India’s more recent history (since independence) and in India’s political environment that stirs up those religious tensions. Culturally, Muslims and Hindus are basically the same — we have the same 5-day long wedding, speak the same language, watch the same Bollywood movies. What’s happening in the U.S., where Muslims are immigrants to the country and where not much is known about Muslims and Islam, is very different.

DP: Muslima shows so many shades of opinion, from traditional to militant, but without succumbing to cliches. What did you look for in the works that you selected?
SAMINA ALI: I don’t think I would use the word “militant.” I don’t think any of our contributors can be described as such. I did make sure to show a diversity of voices and opinions as well as range of artistic expressions because that’s the reality of life. The Muslim community is diverse, just as the Indian community is diverse. There are so many languages and dialects in India, so many different sub-cultures and so many different ways to practice faith. My husband is from the north and his language is Punjabi. We don’t even share the same language but we’re both Indian. Like that, Muslims are so incredibly diverse. To eliminate that diversity does them a great disservice.

The reason the exhibition is called Muslima is because it’s open to everyone and that’s extremely important to me. I want to be as inclusive as possible in order to show the great diversity of Muslim women; their thoughts, attitudes, expressions, values and realities.

In the exhibition, we have voices from women who are deeply religious and those who are no longer practicing, women who cover and women who are comfortable in bikinis. We are even open to including voices from women who are not Muslim, like Helen Zughaib who speaks as a Christian about our commonalities. She’s a “muslima”. I’d love to include more like her. I’ve had a truly extraordinary experience bringing together leading women artists and reformers from around the world — from the first Muslim women to win to Nobel Peace Prize to the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English.

DP: What was the brief that you set for yourself as a curator?
SAMINA ALI: I have been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. My influence can be most clearly seen in the many interviews I’ve done for the exhibition with leading reformers from around the world: Dr Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel peace prize; Fahima Hashim, a leading women’s rights advocate in Sudan; Maria Bashir, the first female prosecutor general in Afghanistan; and I’ve just finished an interview with Fawzia Koofi, who will be running for president of Afghanistan in 2014.

All of these women are leading the movement toward justice, equality and women’s rights in their communities, systematically fighting the legal and political structures to promote lasting change. And all of them believe that this change should come about from within the Islamic framework, because Islam grants women rights that are then taken from them by politics, or power, or patriarchy, or tradition.

DP: How long did it take to put Muslima together?
SAMINA ALI: We began working on the exhibition two years ago, searching for funding. When funding came in, we began actively working on the exhibition last August. The exhibition launched in March 2013. It will remain live until the end of Dec. 2013. During this time, each day we will add new material to the exhibition. What you see today will be added to tomorrow, and so forth. Over the next few months, the exhibition will continue to grow wider, richer, deeper, and more complex. It’s exciting to have so many different voices, so many leading women on one platform.

DP: What would you like a viewer to take from the exhibition?
SAMINA ALI: I’d like everyone to be involved — no matter their faith! Come and visit. Join the dialogue. If you are an artist or writer whose work falls under one of our topics, please consider submitting your work. We just ended a global call for submission but will announce a second one in Sept. If you happen to be a Muslim woman, please submit a Muslima Story! We have incredibly diverse ones from around the world. And everyone please sign the pledge to end discrimination of women worldwide. Our Speak Up! Listen Up! campaign requires no money or commitment other than to pledge that you’ll support women worldwide who are helping to bring about a just, equitable world.

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