Gender Studies

Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity

Shahnaz Khan, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. 151 pages.

Shahnaz Khan’s study of Muslim female identity in Canada is a worthy contribution to the literature on Muslim experiences in the West. She explores how women negotiate their identities in-between the polarized discourses of Orientalism and Islam by occupying a hybridized third space. This third space is not only the site of resistance to the dominant Islamic and Orientalist prescriptives of Muslim female identity, but a starting point for Muslim women to engage in individual and collective projects to remap and reconfigure their identities in a process of cultural, political, and economic empowerment. Khan argues that progressive politics by and for Muslim women are possible only from this hybridized location. Her study elucidates this third space’s dynamics by examining the dialectic between the personal narratives of culturally diverse Canadian Muslim women and the political space they inhabit.

In her introduction, Khan locates herself as a Muslim feminist intellectual who does not practice but is influenced by Islam, as well as Orientalist, multiculturalist, and feminist discourses. In order to move away from essentialist notions of “Muslim,” Khan clarifies that she uses the term to reveal the fluidity and diversity of expressions associated with being Muslim, including its use in both a religious and non-religious context. In chapter 1, Khan draws on the work of various social theorists to rupture the notion of a homogenous, static, and authentic culture. She does this by emphasizing cultural fluidity, permeability, and shifting boundaries.

Resisting and challenging the former serves as the premise of what is termed the third space, whereby hybridized identities are constructed from a wide and even contending range of influences, such as eastern and western cultural forces and religion. For Muslim women, Khan outlines how the third space disavows colonial authority and forbids the reign of dominant narratives of either Islam (which legitimates patriarchal authority through sacred texts) or Orientalism (which represents Muslims as the pejorative “Other”). This third space allows Muslim women to negotiate, resist, and reinvent the forces informing their realities.

In the next few chapters, the personal narratives of 14 Muslim women elucidate how Muslim women negotiate their own identities as they confront racism and Islamophobia in the broader community, and sexism and conservatism within the Muslim community. Khan indicates that these predetermined signifiers are inherent contradictions in the lives of Muslim women – contradictions that they struggle to resolve within the third space.

Chapter 2 overviews her selection of the women interviewed and outlines her rationale. Chapter 3 focuses on the lives of three women who reconcile their contradictions by disavowing Islam. Although they no longer identify themselves as Muslim, or have converted to another religion, Khan maintains that they nevertheless still encounter and enact a Muslim identity.

The women interviewed in chapter 4, on the other hand, clearly identify themselves as Muslim. Their hybridized identities are constructed by their experiences with racism in the mainstream and sexism in the Muslim community. Khan associates their experiences with ambivalence and emotional dissonance, which she identifies as key ingredients for entry into the third space. In chapter 5, the narratives of other women who position their politics within an Islamic framework are highlighted. These women resolve the contradictions and sexism they experience by highlighting the emancipator and transformative potential of Islamic doctrine and practice.

In her conclusion, which weaves together all of the interviewees’ narratives, Khan revisits the notion of hybridity and the third space as the mixing that occurs in contemporary diasporic communities at the intersection of contradiction and ambivalence. She indicates that Muslim women engage in the third space daily through resisting and contesting the regulatory pressures of Orientalist stereotypes and Islamic dictates. The hybrid and dynamic notion of Muslim identity, she writes, is a reality of the postmodern and postcolonial world, as it very deliberately enables Muslim women to engage in progressive politics.

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