Westernised Women & Silenced Ciphers:
Postcolonial And Diasporic Representations Of Muslim Women
Essay published in Outskirts.
"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."
- Laura Bush
On August 26, 2000 the New York Times reported on Asiyah Andrabi, a “conservative Muslim and radical feminist” who “makes her demands for equal rights for women from behind the all-enveloping burqa.” Andrabi, who is also described as a militant fighting for the liberation of Kashmir, seems to compound what the writer evidently sees as the irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and Islam, women’s rights and the veil, Muslim women and militancy. The representation of Muslim women as militant or potentially violent is rare. The idea of Islam as threatening is usually reserved for Muslim men, while women are perceived as an object of pity or empathy. Underlying Laura Bush’s statement is this more familiar paradigm of women as victims of fundamentalist Islamic tradition, implicitly brown women in need of rescue by civilized people throughout the world.
This paper examines representations of Muslim women, looking at the way interpretations of the Muslim woman are often limited to what is seen as the symbolic and ideological aspect of their presence in the texts, and examining the wider question of the veil, which unavoidably enters the realms of religious debate, cultural theory and literary criticism. It will focus primarily on two texts which can be classified as postcolonial: Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album (BA) and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story. In studying these texts and their representation of Muslim women, I am concerned not so much with the concept of "writing back" which is often a common theme in post-colonial discourse but with the way both writers speak out of and to their respective audiences.
On the one hand, Aidoo’s ironically titled novel, as has often been noted, is in fact a discourse on the complexities of the positions and lives of members of the Ghana’s neo-colonial elite, (Odamtten: 1994: 161) while Kureishi writes not as a postcolonial subject displaced in Britain but “as a British subject in a post-colonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of the nation.” (Williams: 1999: 10) I have chosen to focus on two Muslim female characters represented in these two very different texts who both play a secondary part in the plot, yet whose presence in the text is nevertheless central to both novels.