Blog

Here I'll post presentations I'm working on as well as a space to think through my research and my teaching. Thanks for stopping by!

Opening Remarks at Screening Scholarship Media Festival

I gave the following remarks to open camra's 4th Annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival on April 2, 2016.

Good morning everyone! To begin, let me introduce myself, my name is Mariam Durrani and as the Director of SSMF 2016, I want to welcome you to our second day of film screening, art installations, and conversations that center on our theme of Race, Media and Social Justice.

This morning I wanted to discuss the theme as a way to frame our conversations today. Last year a group of us were discussing our frustrations about the crisis this country is facing, and has been facing for a very long time. We believe that this crisis is personal and this crisis is political. It incites such visceral emotional responses such that we can no longer avert our gaze. It's a crisis that has forced us to reanimate debates, some old and some new, about our position as residents of these United States, to interrogate why and how we do the kinds of work that we do and to what ends.

What does it mean to live in a country where we are constantly bombarded by mediatized images of black boys and girls being violently assaulted by the police, sometimes even by their own school’s security personnel, hear about Latino Americans who are characterized as criminals and rapists by a leading contender in the presidential race, and the fraught experience of Muslim Americans who face a constant fear of prosecution by a public that sees them through only the lens of “terrorist” and ‘outsider’? And that’s not to even speak of other populations that have been almost completely erased from our contemporary political imaginaries: native populations, for example, whose public image is most commonly associated with a football helmet and the slur that is still, horrifyingly, that team’s name.

camra’s own political stance has come to the fore during this time of crisis. While we are dedicated to scholarly critique, to imagining film and media more broadly as an alternative to text, a vision and mission that has been playful and, even sometimes rightly critiqued as insular, we find ourselves faced with the truth that our message is meaningless unless we can animate it with the explicit, if not the ex-plicit, demand that our scholarly work address and contribute to the far more pressing confrontations that have become commonplace in the year 2016.

Our festival this year, Race, Media and Social Justice, attempts to confront these confrontations as it were, to bring scholars, activists, and artists in conversation whose media making projects take social justice as a first assumption, an element without which the projects themselves cannot exist. We ask these media makers to share with us exactly how their media making practices drive their social change agendas. What do these digital artifacts allow that other forms of engagement might not and, as importantly, what are the limits to what digital activism can be?

Over the course of this Saturday you will be presented with an array of media forms – animations, twitter feeds, traditional films, installations – that allow us as audience members to enter into worlds of precarity, struggle, and hope. Last night, we had the opportunity to listen to Marc Lamont Hill and Michele Stephenson as they discussed the particularities of mediamaking for and about race in America. During the conversation, Michele asked us to be storytellers, to start the dialogue.

Today, we are continuing on the dialogue that started last night, building upon their thoughts, presenting work highlighting social justice endeavors in racialized publics of all sorts – from the university, to our public school system, to our right to the city, to our legal institutions. Sometimes these racialized publics fall neatly along a black/white binary and other times they blur these lines, especially when immigrant populations enter into America’s racial history. To what extent can these various social justice movements be allied and to what extent are they necessarily distinct?

We also highlight projects at Penn whose goals merge social change with scholarship. For example, the School of Social Policy and Practice gives us the Penn Top 10, a unique endeavor that translated some of the most pressing social justice research articles into animations accessible by a public beyond the university. The Penn Law School’s Visual Legal Advocacy course, led by Dr. Regina Austin, presents videos they’ve created as one method by which to advocate for redress for those on the margins of our legal system.

This year’s installation curator, Chris Vandegrift, has put together two amazing showcases. Last night at the Museum’s Pepper Hall Gallery, we saw the showcase titled Changing Delineations/Delineating Change, that asks: When does survival become resistance? Why should suffering be polite? What distinguishes an ally from an accomplice? Why is Blackness demarcated? What killings deserve to be documented? How is spectacle incentivized? And showcased projects, such I ain’t tragically colored, a projection-mapped multimedia installation that explores the issue of vulnerability in African-American communities by Tamika Galanis from Duke University, a large format print series titled How to Suffer Politely by Kameelah Rashad who is also featured on our tote bags this year, Kelly Gallagher’s From Ally to Accomplice, an experimental cinematic essay in three movements that explores the importance of being more than an "ally" in struggles against white supremacy, by sharing histories of committed accomplices John Brown, Marilyn Buck, and others, Color Bar by Roxanne Campbell, an interview-driven documentary project that examines concepts of race and masculinity in relation to Black identity in the US. Trail of Silence, a video installation that investigates the killings of unarmed civilians by police since 2000. And Chaser by Caleb Beckwith, a looped video installation that repurposes the medium of the ubiquitous news ticker (or “crawl”) as a vehicle for poetic articulation. These are still available today at the Museum, and I encourage you to walk over there and check them out.

In Annenberg today, we have our second installation showcase, titled Materializing the Moment, works that share an emphasis on documenting lived realities associated with processes of transition – crystallizing the effects of ongoing societal change at the level of everyday experience. We have four installations by four wonderful artists. Gabriel Dattatreyan’s film Across Oceans draws from over two years of ethnographic research and relationship-building in Delhi’s pan-African enclaves, engaging with diasporic understandings of global Blackness within the unexpected context of urban India. The Other Side of Patriotism, a collaboration between Charles Davis and Matthew Nelson, is the cathartic manifestation of an artist's ongoing racial trauma – an American flag adorned with the names of Black men and boys who have been hunted and killed by police and citizens at-large. The film and the artwork are presented side-by-side, offering insight into the artist’s engagement with the modern racial moment. Sahar Coston Hardy’s A Rallying Cry for Justice is a collection of photographic prints documenting three protests organized in response to the killings of African Americans by police. And Amber Reed’s photographic prints from her work with South African school children mapping their communities, where these maps offer us visual perspective on the historical and contemporary racialization of South African landscapes.

These panels and installations are intended as openings, a starting point for further engagement, rather than ends in and of themselves. There are, of course, an infinite number of social justice issues that may not have been addressed and, we hope, these erasures will come up in conversation during and after our presentations. This festival is as much about the audience as it is about our speakers, so please bring your thoughts, emotions, stances to the fore, please tweet and share your thoughts on social media with the hashtag #SSMF2016. These extensions will allow us to go beyond what we as organizers have imagined as the purpose of this endeavor.

In some ways, I am reminded of the words of our founder and guide Dean John Jackson, who, when speaking of the filmic project argued that “every film begets its sequels” and here, we hope, that our media festival will beget sequel upon sequel upon sequel in forms that reflect camra’s deep commitment to political and scholarly dialogue in any and every media form imaginable.

 

feminist critics of wearing hijab in solidarity fall into same old traps (Religion Dispatches)

Originally published December 26, 2015; http://religiondispatches.org/feminist-critics-of-wearing-hijab-in-solidarity-fall-into-same-old-traps/

Though Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins was officially reprimanded for claiming that Muslims and Christian worship the same god, it was Hawkins’ decision to wear a hijab that has inspired women and girls from many backgrounds to follow suit in solidarity with Muslims facing hostility. In response, journalists Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa took it upon themselves to ask non-Muslim women to please stop. In their words, the ‘spectacle’ of such solidarity campaigns are “a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies.”

Feminism is at its best, most productive, most socially-conscious when it incorporates Crenshaw’s understanding of intersectionality; without a deeply nuanced understanding of race, religion, sexuality, and able-bodied-ness coupled with discussions on gender, we run the risk of reproducing the narrow, uncritical discussions of earlier feminist debates. And that’s exactly where, I argue, the online Muslim community has been stuck over the last few days.

Can we just stop for a minute?

While I can agree with Nomani and Arafa’s critique of Wahhabi, Saudi-funded Islamist groups that support more conservative and often sexist ideologies and policies across the Muslim world, I’m hesitant to rope the hijab into this socio-political and economic constellation of issues.

The arc of their argument goes something like this: non-Muslim Americans should not show solidarity with Muslims by wearing the hijab since the hijab is a painful reminder of Islamist, extremist religious campaigns and supports a religious ideology of women as subordinate to men; a short exegesis, which shows how Quran doesn’t support the hijab, is followed by the claim that in the 20th century the hijab has been imposed on Muslim women to subjugate them. Thus, they conclude, please don’t wear it and join our movement instead.

Nowhere in this diatribe do the writers explain that the solidarity campaigns have been in response to the series of incidents involving anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamophobic rhetoric that has placed Muslims (and non-Muslims like Sikhs) in a highly vulnerable and stressful position. Of the many forms of harassment faced by Muslims in America today, harassment around the hijab has become central. The bigots and racists see a hijab and feel compelled to ascribe a terrorist identity to hijab and attack these women.

This is even happening in middle schools, as in the case of a 6th grade student in the Bronx who had her hijab forcibly pulled off by classmates. Women in hijab speak of walking in their city and being called ISIS and harassed. The very real violence and abuse occurring in America and around the world against Muslim hijabi women is not discussed anywhere in their article. For writers so concerned about context around a particular practice, this lack of contextual specificity for why ‘wear-a-hijab’ has become national news is conspicuous.

Instead they choose to frame their argument around a pseudo-feminist critique of the hijab as a stand-in for ‘conservative Muslim patriarchy.’ This rhetorical maneuver disempowers the thousands of women who have decided to wear the hijab and paints them as subjugated women in need of a savior. In her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” noted postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak explains that white men are interested in saving brown women from brown men. In the current case, however, rather than white men, it’s middle-class, brown women professionals who have come to liberate the hijabis. This brand of feminism presents itself as a form of benevolence but much more closely resembles neocolonial forms of violence.

As a researcher who works with young Muslim women in New York City, some who wear the hijab and some who do not, it makes me squirm to hear the echo of arguments that surfaced in 2001: that the US must continue the war on terror in order to liberate and save Afghan women. But in the case of Nomani and Arafa, it is no longer as simple as a white imperialist nation seeking to rescue the brown, Muslim people from themselves.

Here, two Muslim women rely on their authenticity as Muslim women to speak on behalf of other Muslim women—a right, I’d argue, they do not have—to ask that no one wear hijab in solidiarity, because the hijab itself is a problem. Their stance is particularly problematic when we consider their absurd connection between all hijab and conservative, sexist Muslim patriarchal cultural practices. To strip hijabi women of their agency is a powerfully dangerous move that should be identified as such.

Recently, I had a short chat with one of my research participants, a Muslim college student in New York City. When we first met, “Sarah” (not her real name) did not wear the hijab. She was a prominent member of her college’s Muslim Student Association when she wasn’t hanging out with friends in the city or watching Bollywood movies at home. Sarah decided to wear the hijab earlier this year because, she told me, it changed the way she socialized with others. Being publicly seen as a Muslim gave her more time to reflect in the moment, to be more mindful of her words and actions, to be nicer to “random people” as she put it.

Materially, the hijab is but a piece of cloth. As a social object, it is given value by its wearer and the audience. As an anthropologist, I am careful not to get caught up in the ‘true’ meaning of hijab and what religious meaning it has been given by Islamic scholars and non-scholars. Rather, I believe we should concern ourselves primarily with the value given to it by the wearer.

Personally I do not wear the hijab, but I respect the women who choose to for whatever reason, the same way I would respect any other spiritual act a person chooses to practice, so long as it doesn’t cause harm. As a Muslim woman, I’ve appreciated the outpouring of support and solidarity amidst a toxic Islamophobic discourse, and look forward to being a part of these campaigns in the future.

A Portrait of Islamophobia (Published on Religion Dispatches)

Originally published December 15, 2015; http://religiondispatches.org/a-portrait-of-islamophobia/

 

On December 5th the New York Timespublished an editorial on its front page for the first time since 1920 to criticize politicians and call for more stringent gun control and regulation. But that was only half the story. The rest of the front page [image, right] featured four photographs, three of the apartment previously belonging to the San Benardino shooters and one of the female shooter’s face.

The largest image of the apartment includes a decorative wall-hanging with the 99 names of Allah woven in above a dining table strewn with random dining-table things like a wooden fruit bowl, a few artificial flowers, half a bottle of Sprite, and some phone chargers. The two smaller images feature the cluttered interior of a walk-in closet with a bunch of clothes and a faint family portrait on the wireframe shelf, and something that will be familiar to anyone with a newborn child: a rocking seat next to a pink and yellow baby mat. With the caption “A Home Revealed,” the audience is left to make sense of these household portraits that are almost boring in their everydayness (except perhaps for the wall-hanging written in Arabic).

In the right column is a headshot of Tashfeen Malik in a light peach hijab. To some, the collective assembly of these objects might be interpreted as what terrorism looks like. By that, I do not mean the individual objects themselves; after all, what about the dining table or hanging clothes scream terrorist? And yet there is something about the assemblage of pictures with the suggestive title “A Home Revealed.” Just what is being revealed? Aside from the mundane apartment, what is exceptional about this photo collection that it is worthy of front page news. I would argue that it’s the assemblage itself that shouts difference, specifically a Muslim difference. Or, to be more precise: nothing is remarkable about these images without the Allah wall-hanging and Malik’s headshot.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association in New York, sharply critiqued the cover on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, noting that “These are things that all Muslims have in their house. There’s nothing about that that tells you a story about what terrorism looks like. So you’re telling me that when my friends who are not Muslim come into my home and see a Koran and see frames on the wall with a scripture from my religion, is that supposed to tell you something? I mean, it’s absolutely outrageous.”

Sarsour’s observation of the lack of critical visuality by Times editors at the very moment they’re trying to point out the lack of criticality on gun violence by political leaders is remarkable. The Times is not an exception in the implicit, and sometimes explicit, Islamophobic textual and visual rhetoric that has become pervasive in the American public sphere. Is this what terrorism looks like? Perhaps we should reformulate the question to: Who thinks this is what terrorism looks like ? 

An ensemble of Other

Muslim-Americans, like many other minority groups, have become accustomed to not being included in the conceptualization of Americanness, with Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant campaign just being the most blatant example. When the media descended on the home of the San Bernardino shooters, it clearly lacked any restraint or sensitivity. I don’t recall a similar situation following the Charleston massacre or other white terrorist mass shootings. Sarsour was simply calling out this double standard as a marker of the ways that racist and xenophobic ideologies saturate the media cycle, and yet this was met with critique. Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple offered an almost nonsensical critique, including a snarky set of observations about Perry’s show and the argument that “[Sarsour’s] comments boil down to a critique of the New York Times over using newsworthy photographs.”

In this article and others, the dearth of criticality around images of the Other leads many white audience members to make quick assumptions using the quickest, stereotypic misunderstandings about the minority group in question. We saw the same during the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson and the media’s use of his image to portray a large, black male (read as ‘thuggish’), rather than an 18-year-old high school graduate about to start his college career. With hashtags (#IfTheyGunnedMeDown), Black Twitter immediately drew attention to the lack of media consciousness around how certain images, e.g. those marked by smiles and graduation caps, rendered Brown as humanized and valuable, while other images and discourses aligned him with a thuggish persona clearly framed as dangerous.

Similarly, the face of Tashfeen Malik is not what’s being read in her headshot. But the marker of Malik’s hijab, her dark, kohl-rimmed eyes and olive complexion, and the Arabic script on the wall form a collective ensemble of Other, of danger, of radicalized Muslim, of a threat to all that’s good, safe, and familiar about a particular version of America. If we turn our eyes to the not so distant past (a feat surprisingly easy given the digital archives of Holocaust museums), we can easily find imagesfrom the early 20th century that show a side profile of a Jewish man puckering his lips with an image of a chimpanzee to the right, clearly representing an anti-Semitic message. Was the man puckering his lips? Yes, but that’s not the point of putting his image next to a chimpanzee. The editors of this magazine were making a much more problematic and offensive statement with that photo assembly.

The markers themselves are not what’s problematic. It’s the uncritical assembly of these markers to make implicit arguments about value. The markers of Muslim-ness found in the NYT photos of the shooters’ homes, as Sarsour vocalized, can be seen in many Muslim-American women’s lives. It’s outrageous because of what’s being said about those of us who look like her; those of us who also have Arabic script as part of our home’s decorative arrangements. One can’t help but wonder when our friends come into our homes, do they think these markers are telling them something?

A few days later, a Republican presidential candidate offered the most extreme version of Islamophobic rhetoric we have seen thus far. In Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims—including any would-be immigrants, students, tourists and other visitors—from entering the country as a response to last week’s California shootings. He went on to defend this egregious statement on Good Morning America by comparing his plan as similar to FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This statement and the crowds of Trump supporters cheering for him have finally struck a chord in the US public sphere. The other candidates have called him out with House Speaker Paul Ryan clarifying how Trump’s ban on Muslims is “not what the [Republican] Party stands for.”

While it is the Republican Party’s responsibility to extend this critique into unequivocal opposition to Trump’s bid for presidency, the ban on Muslim rhetoric only feeds into the Islamophobic words and acts we see all over the country. From the death threat calls and messages to Islamic community centers and mosques, to a string of violent acts of hate—including a 6th grade Muslim-American girl in the Bronx, a Bangladeshi-American shop owner in Queens, and others—the perpetrators of hate against Muslim-Americans are working on more or less the same visible markers of Muslim difference that the Times put on its front page. Terrorism looks like a Muslim, or what someone thinks a Muslim looks like. Sadly, this has also been why Sikhs are mistaken as Muslims. Following 9-11, the first hate crime was when 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. When the police arrested the shooter, he said: “I’m a patriot and an American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.”

Muslim girl power

The fictional war between America and “Muslims” (including actual Muslims, those who “look like” Muslims, and those who live close to Muslims, like Iraqi Christians) is perpetuated and extended by the uncritical visuality of the news media. While I believe the war is based on fictional understandings of “Muslims,” and any link to radical terrorist groups, the war has very real implications. People are being discriminated against, beaten up, and killed based on these fictions. In the haze of all this gloom and doom, Linda Sarsour offers a welcome respite. Yes, she wears a hijab, just like Tashfeen Malik’s headshot shows her wearing a hijab. The optics are startlingly similar if that’s all you’re looking at. Fortunately, when Sarsour and others wear hijab on national television, they offer relief from the battle over what an American can look like.

As an Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities (a network of organizations across 11 states), Sarsour represents a strong, independent voice. She’s been selected as a “Champion of Change” by the White House, calls Trump a “fascist” on national television, has been arrested by the NYPD at a Black Lives Matter protest, and works tirelessly to advocate for social justice for all Americans. The power of having a Muslim-American woman speaking resolutely against Islamophobic sentiments is something to celebrate. As anthropologist and Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod argues in Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Muslim women are, and have always been, much more than the stereotype that assumes someone like Sarsour is an anomaly. Muslim-American women are powerhouses and it’s time for us to change the narrative and bring our voices and images to the fore.

Terrorism is not in the hijab. Terrorism is not in the verbal or textual use of Arabic. Terrorism is a sociohistorical fact that has religio-political, economic, and cultural roots that go far beyond the average, superficial conversations we see in the press. But when we don’t speak out and acknowledge what’s really happening when uncritical visuality and rhetoric is embraced by media, or when terrorism is easily laminated onto a few visual markers of Muslim difference, we’re putting Americans in danger because those who see “Muslims” as terrorists don’t then see Muslims as peaceful, law-abiding friends and neighbors. They don’t see their violent actions as the heinous, racist acts threatening national security that they arguably are; rather, these people see themselves as “patriots.” And while it’s imperative that the White House, Republican candidates, and other officials condemn Trump’s absurd ban on Muslim immigrants, it’s equally imperative that we turn our attention to the optics and rhetoric that make this kind of absurdity a possibility. The acceptability of anti-Muslim rhetoric has led us to this moment. It is our responsibility to change the conversation.

And I’d like to start the ball rolling with a small anecdote to end on a positive note. The other night as my first grader and I watched Linda Sarsour blast Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and critique Obama’s double standard to ask Muslims to root out extremism in their communities, something not asked of other communities, Sarsour said, “I’m tired of this idea that extremism can only mean Muslims or Islam or people who are associated with Islam. Extremism comes in all forms and we’ve seen that, but why is it that we’re only obsessed with Islam and Muslim communities?” Then, as Nadine and I turned back to watch Sarsour further dismantle the hypocrisy in her silver-speckled, dark-purple hijab, my daughter looked at me and said “Muslim girl power, mom!” And then we fist bumped.

My Work at Ethnographic Terminalia in DC (December 2014)

In July and August of 2012, Arjun Shankar and I accompanied Dr. John Jackson and Dr. Deborah Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania, Cape Town filmmaker Kurt Orderson of Azania Rising Productions, the Rasta band Ancient Vibrations and Rasta elders to screen the film Bad Friday to the Rasta diaspora in three cities: London, Cape Town, and Johannesburg.” We collaborated on documenting the journey including the films “Beating as One: The Music of Ancient Vibrations” and “Rasta Rights and Reparations: Bad Friday Tour.” These films can be seen on Vimeo. If you are interested, please contact me and I will send you the link.

At the American Anthropological Association's Meeting in December 2014, we have created an installation to showcase our two films. This installation seeks to create a novel sensory re-creation of the journey, juxtaposing photographs from the events with scrolling transcriptions of community member commentary and audio footage from the Ancient Vibrations musical performances. Together these pieces provide partial perspectives on how we make sense of transnational movements of people and ideas, with a specific focus on how diverse sensory processes challenge perceptions and normative representations of Rastafarian life, values, and culture. If you are in the DC area, please visit. For more info, click here.