In the video Somewhere in America, a bunch of young Muslim women take over the urban landscape with their skateboards, high heels, hijabs and other fashionable clothing with a Jay-Z soundtrack. The video is directed together with Sara Aghaganian and Layla and released by Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi of Sheikh & Bake Productions: A music video that captures the attitude “I’m dope as hell and I don’t give a @!#$%&.”. Their facebook page describes them as:
A Mipster is someone who seeks inspiration from the Islamic tradition of divine scriptures, volumes of knowledge, mystical poets, bold prophets, inspirational politicians, esoteric Imams, and our fellow human beings searching for transcendental states of consciousness. A Mipster is an ironic identity, one that serves more as a perpetual critique of oneself and of society.
The video you see here is a clean version of the Jay Z song since several people complained about the N-word that was part of the original song.
The video has gone viral on Facebook, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, Glamour, Huffington Post. The video has triggered an interesting debate about what it means to be a young, American, Muslims, woman. Take for example dr. Suad Abdul Khabeer:
Everywhere in America, a Muslim woman’s headscarf is not only some sex, swag and consumption, it also belief and beauty, defiance and struggle, secrets and shame.
I know some people are celebrating this video and others criticizing it. I think it’s pretty clear I fall in the second camp. Yet, while it could be so much more. It actually does what it intends to do so effectively. Nothing in this video should surprise you. After all it is being championed by a group called the mipsterz—as in Muslim Hipsters—with no sense of irony. A friend remarked to me that the video was particularly tragic because our champion Ibtihaj Muhammad is in it, and she has been lauded by folks like Hilary Clinton for being a role model. And this video and its background song, replete with profanity including the N-word, seem far from that acclaim. Yet I don’t think it’s incongrous that the same person who Clinton lauded would end up in a video with Jay-Z as a back drop, both Clinton and Jay assert and epitomize American Exceptionalist Capitalism par excellence—and by this I mean the way they would approrpirate her not necessarily how she sees herself. And lest we forget, even Obama has Jay on his Ipod. The video is full frontal consumption and thus can only offer narrow visions of who Muslim women are, even in the attempt to show diversity but again how American is that?! I must admit I may have been a tad bit surprised that they didn’t bleep out at least the N-word but maybe they were aiming for that “ironic” hispter racism. Maybe in the remix they will swap out Nigga for Abeed.
Also a critical comment by Sana Saeed from The Islamic Monthly:
The video, produced/created/directed primarily by Muslim men (oh hey voyeuristic-cinematography-through-the-Male-Gaze heyyy), doesn’t achieve anything to really fight against stereotypes: it is literally young Muslim women with awesome fashion sense against the awkward backdrop of Jay Z singing about Miley Cyrus twerking. The only semblance of purpose seems to come in with the images of Ibtihaj Muhammad who is shown in her element, doing what she does as a professional athlete. Those images are powerful and beautiful in what they are saying. Other than that, however, all we as the audience are afforded are images that, simply put, objectify the Muslim female form by denigrating it completely to the physical. Muhammad’s form as a unique Muslim woman is complemented by her matter – the stuff that makes her her; makes her Ibtihaj. As the credits below the video mention, the rest of the women (Muhammad is included in this) are merely “models” even though every single one of them has a central and important function and contribution to her respective community and in her field. Instead of showing what makes each and every one of those women Herself, they’re made into this superfluous conformity of an image we, as the audience, consume and ogle at because hey, they’re part of the aesthetic of the video. Ibtihaj is shown as a professional badass and the rest are shown as professional hot women who skate in heels and take selfies on the roof. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, in and of itself, but what a strange dissonance and incongruence in imagery?
And if that isn’t textbook objectification then I think I’ve been raging against the wrong machine since I was 14.
One of the participants in the video, Aminah Sheikh, defends her choice of participating in the video:
My problem with all the critiques I am reading is that you are taking away my agency and power. I made this choice, and the video is in fact a reflection of me and many Muslim women. You may not like it, and that is ok. It may not represent you, and that is even better. You probably don’t know anyone like us – even more so better!
Hijabis are humans, and that was the point of the video. I know hijabis who ride bikes, skateboard and listen to rap. You can be in denial and reinforce the ‘us and them’ dichotomies and Occidentalism. But, I personally see this as reactionary Islamist politics — this naming, shunning and shaming. It is counterproductive and not useful. Islam is a global religion with about two billion adherents and colorful, historical trajectories.
Islamic culture has not come in a vacuum. Islam is linked to a myriad of people, histories, nations and ethnicities.
The most amusing part of this post-video conversation is the class/or Marxian critique and the linking of the video to materialism and consumption. First, of all the women in the video, not one is endorsing any particular brand. Second, it certainly ironic when the majority of “Western” Muslims are living in their fancy suburban homes, driving a luxury car, jet setting through Dubai and staying in luxury hotels on their Hajj– now they want to bring class politics into the discussion.
Let’s not even get started on the race politics: I am a first generation Muslim woman living in Toronto, Canada. I have been called a terrorist post-911 more times than I can count. I am brown-skinned and by no means the normative standard of beauty. I am a daughter of parents forcefully moved during partition in India/Pakistan. Like me, none of the women in the video fit into mainstream culture. It was great giving us some representation in alternative media forms. I can only hope one day there are more Muslim women in the media when I have my own daughter.
Finally, don’t say what my identity is. I can do that for myself. Don’t take away another woman’s power or agency.
I am Canadian. I am Western. I am them, and they are me. I am definitely the same. I can be a hipster, I can be a mipster, and I can be mainstream. Oh. and yes — I listen to Jay Z.
Another participant, Noor Tagouri expressed on Facebook that she wasn’t aware of how the final product would be:
When I was first asked to be a part of this project, I was told it was for an official music video of Yuna’s song “Loud Noises.” An inspiring song on friendship and love.
I was never told the music video fell through, and in turn a video was still going to come out of the footage shot and be set to Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America.” I’ll admit, I was uneasy about it at first, still a bit meh about it because the explicit version was used and besides the theme of being “somewhere in America,” it wasn’t relevant to friendship, love or empowerment.
Nevertheless, the video was edited and posted before I could say anything about the drastic song change…and it remained fun/catchy. I enjoyed seeing the cool senses of fashion and recognizing faces of people who I admire. I get it. This song isn’t exactly appropriate, and I do believe the song choice is the main reason many people were thrown off about it. If it’s the way girls are dressed in their hijab, then, you really need to just accept the fact that hijab is a personal choice and everyone interprets it differently. Would it have been better to see an even MORE array of hijabis? Probably. But the video came out and though there was/is much criticism, there is also a lot of good feedback, esp from people who viewed hijab as “oppressive” and disempowering. So, I’ve decided to take the positive from this video and leave the negative. And next time, be sure that if I participate in something like this, I get the chance to see the progress before the final product is put out.
At one point the debate got (over?)heated and one of the things that happens with videos that go viral is that they are completely pulled out of their original context. As Rabia Chaudry explains:
Somewhere on the Internet, Muslim Women are being Shamed
I am really sorry that you vivacious, happy, dynamic, stylish, and I’m sure very bright young women are being brutally examined and analyzed with laser-like tenacity, and about as much empathy. It stinks to high heaven that you are being accused of promoting racism (poor song choice, but I know it had little to do with you), elitism, classism, fat shaming, immodesty, and essentially the downfall of our entire Ummah. Yes, I know. I didn’t see it coming either.
Debating the video
The next video shows the debate on Al Jazeera’s The Stream between Hajer Naili, Sana Saeed, Keziah Ridgeway and Linda Sarsour:
Earlier also a debate at HuffPo with Abbas Rattani, Hajer Naili, Sohaib Sultan, and Sana Saeed
In this debate Abbas Rattani refers to an all male mipster video, that has caused much less controversy and has only a little over 4200 views on youtube. That is this one
It appears that we are much more concerned with women’s lives, bodies and dress then with men. The message of the video may be not that clear but that is probably stimulating the discussion as it leaves room for everyone to project their own meaning onto the video and onto the women in it as well. There have been a lot of comments stating that these women do not deserve to wear the hijab since they do not behave modestly. I have seen such comments (often ad hominem) from Muslims and non-Muslims signifying the attempts to control women’s bodies, attire and behaviour.
The fact that the performance in the video mixes and blurs the boundaries between pop culture, Islamic religiosity and identity and womanhood is probably also an important impetus for the debate. For some people pop culture is everything that is unislamic or even anti-Islamic. Mixing it with Islam is than often a source of controversy as it is regarded as vulgar and dangerous. At the same time for those people who want to make a strong statement in the sense of ‘Here I am, I’m not going away, deal with it’ pushing the boundaries through pop culture is often a strong tool for challenging the status quo (see also Imran Ali Malik‘s comments).
In that sense this is an important debate that goes beyond the video itself, or as Hind Makki explains (who has a great overview of the most important opinions and links):
while this discussion may seem trivial at first glance – that so many American Muslims are getting our scarves and kufis into a collective knot over a short clip that is essentially a fashion shoot set to a popular hip hop track – in reality, this public conversation points a collective finger on a very real question: what spaces are Muslim women occupying in American Islam?
The critiques also shows a fundamental dilemma for activists. Or two actually. First one if one wants to debunk stereotypes regarding a particular group it is difficult not to reproduce the same stereotype as well. By stating that Muslims are normal, want to have fun and fit in, the stereotype that they are abnormal, do not know how to have fun and do not fit is implicitly repeated. The second dilemma is that by showing the ‘normal Muslim’ in this video a particular category is included while others are excluded. Are those Muslims who do not have fun, who do not function in society, who are not strong women according to the definition of the video, not normal? This is certainly not what the video explicitly states, but by showing these women other women who do not resemble them are left out or made invisible. These dilemma’s notwithstanding (or maybe partly because of them) the video generated lots of comments and debate on what it means to be a Muslim woman and how to intervene in the debates on Islam.