Beyond the Western Gaze

At the keynote address of the 2009 Women's History Conference, "Gender and Power in the Muslim World," journalist Mona Eltahawy thanked the organizers for providing a space where Muslim women could be considered for more than their headscarves and virginity. The award-winning writer set the tone for the event by sharing her personal journey as both a Muslim woman and a feminist.

Conference participants investigated stereotypes of men and women in the Muslim world, seeking to understand and challenge their construction. Topics ranged from the politics of women leading prayer to the representation of masculine identity in Iranian film.

The 11th annual conference coincided with Women's History Month and included scholars, journalists, students, and community members from across the United States, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Singapore, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. Men and women, both Muslim and non-Muslim attended the two-day event.

At a session on how Western media sensationalizes honor killings, scholar Leila Pazargadi revealed that at least two best-selling memoirs depicting the victimization of Muslim women are hoaxes. These falsifications of stories feed the stereotype that Muslim women need to be rescued by outsiders, she said.

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, a successful plastic surgeon, related her experiences as an immigrant who initially tried to assimilate to the culture of the United States, but then decided to wear a headscarf. She explained that when she chose to cover her head she felt a stronger connection to her faith: "I am carrying Islam on my shoulders. Hijab made me a better person." An intense but respectful discussion followed as women of differing opinions presented their own interpretations of Islam.

Juliane Hammer of the University of North Carolina stated, "The liberation of Muslim women has been a colonial trope. Muslim women therefore haven't been allowed to define their roles on their own terms." Throughout the conference, participants analyzed the power of the Western gaze, and while personal responses differed, everyone seemed to agree that Muslim women must be granted the right to make their own decisions about their culture and religious practices.

–Sophia Kelley MFA '10
April 8, 2009