Sunday, April 12, 2015

Diversify! - [Let's Level] The Real Issues of Muslim Representation, Part I

This afternoon, the wonderful Angie Manfredi (librarian extraordinaire and diversity advocate) linked me and author Aisha Saeed to the 2015 official poster for Banned Books Week. This poster is currently available in the ALA Store and can be viewed there, but for my readers, I’m also adding it below.

Angie wanted our reactions as Muslim women, and mine was almost instantaneous. I spent another five minutes trying to give ALA, and the designers, the benefit of the doubt. But it soon became clear that I just couldn’t. It was just too blatant, and many other friends, both Muslim and non-Muslim, reacted with the same discomfort and anger.

If you look at the image, you can see that the design forms a veil over the model’s face. That, coupled with the fact that the model is otherwise dressed rather “skimpily”, in Angie’s words, quickly draws the mind to the usual stereotypes about the oppressed, repressed Muslim woman, smothered by her veil and her “backwards” faith.*

(I’ve heard this directed at me so many times, but typing it out always gives me another little twinge of irritation.) 

Added on top of this already problematic suggestion is the accompanying text: a big, red “Readstricted,” and the fine print that reads, “Warning: Banning Books Restricts Our Freedom to Read.”

I’m not going to lie: in 2015, coming up on the anniversary of the initial #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, from an organization that has a young hijaabi librarian that I personally know as one of its 2015 Emerging Leaders

I am not amused. I am not amused at all.

Since I know I can get incoherent when on a tear, I’m parsing this down to two main points. 

(Honestly, I’m a big fan of three, since three is a magic number and all, but…let’s stick to the basics of this situation and why it’s concerning.)

Point #1: It doesn’t do any favors for Muslim women. At all. 

(And yes, this is an argument I’ve already heard several times during this discussion. As always, it is primarily pressed forward by non-Muslim men who claim that protesting against the poster silences the realities of Muslim women and said poster is necessary for the sake of a discussion on women’s rights.

Yes. There are people who will bring this argument into a discussion with an actual hijaabi Muslim woman.)

So, let’s say this argument about education is on the table. Let me give you a scenario. A reader walks into the library. This poster is on the wall. As we’ve said before, a consensus of viewers cannot see this image as anything other than a Muslim veil – and they’ve tried to see around that. This reader sees this picture. They talk to a librarian who will likely be kind-hearted and doing her job in talking about Banned Books Week…

And no discussion will be held.

If anything, this is just another drop in the bucket – a VERY, VERY full bucket – of stereotypes surrounding the Muslim woman. Stereotypes that arm racists and bigots and perpetuate their cycle of tearing us down and making assumptions about our faith, while insisting that they are doing so for “our own good”.

And let’s be clear, these stereotypes – this poster – will come back to harm Muslims, and Sikhs, and Hindus, and anyone is unfortunate enough to be targeted by someone who is fueled by hate and won’t bother to tell the difference. 

A lot of times, stereotypes are presented as the education. This is what we know (from our own assumptions, our own dismissal and ignorance we do not want corrected). This is what you, the next generation, should know.

And, briefly going back to my mention of the very important #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I in no way intend to imply that WNDB is the end of things. As a participant and former member, I can tell you that it was important. It changed people’s minds. It opened up hearts and discussions and fostered encouragement and ideas. It still is.

But, also speaking as a participant and former member who waded through so many negative remarks and prejudiced backlash, I can tell you that WNDB did not fix everything. This, from ALA of all people, proves that. We still have work to do in the industry.

Not the least of which being that we have such a sad dearth of Muslim titles in YA for readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, to look to for reality and debunking of stereotypes and a breath of fresh air. If this poster is hanging up, and there are so few titles to point out why it is a problem, where is this discourse going to manifest from?

If anything, these voices that pipe up only when Muslim women are already laying down the hammer on why a certain form of representation is problematic – throwing around phrases like “it has nuance” and “an important discussion for the reality of Muslim women’s lives” – are just a marker of the problem. 

Just ask them to give you solid statistics, or coherent anecdotes aside from the media or some skewed form of fictional representation, or even ask them if they know a Muslim woman personally. Either it turns to vitriol – or sometimes, they even admit that they don’t know and maybe they should educate themselves a little more.

We do not need voices like these pressing forward stereotypes – particularly when we have incredible Muslim women in the arts, in America and on an international scale, who can speak and address issues they face for themselves.

From L to R: Patricia Dunn, Aisha Saeed, Sabaa Tahir and G. Willow Wilson - four brilliant, outspoken Muslim-American authors. Dunn, Saeed and Tahir are directly involved in the YA community, while Wilson contributes through the Marvel Pakistani-American superhero Ms. Marvel.
But anyway, like I said today, the best thing these naysayers can do for Muslim women if they are so very concerned is pay attention to the voices that are part of the discourse, boost Muslim women's responses to situations like this – and please, please educate themselves.

Point #2: This poster has the strong potential to isolate and hurt Muslim students and library patrons.

I am not the only Muslim girl I know (or girl of faith, period!) who considers the library to be her safe space.

When I first saw the poster, I tried to picture how I’d feel if I walked in during Banned Books Week and saw it in a place of honor at my local library.

And I’ll be honest with you. I felt defeated. I felt hurt. I felt as though all these discussions about freedom in our reading and welcoming children from all backgrounds were going in one ear and out the other.

Now, just think about the psychological effects on children – and adults, even. A non-Muslim friend pointed out that she even felt uncomfortable and saddened just looking at the poster, and she couldn’t imagine how a Muslim child, walking into the library to take advantage of the services and books, would feel upon seeing it.

It’s very clear from a hijaabi perspective, but non-hijaabis are just as affected by the daily battle with Islamophobia. 

I meant to write on this last month, but School Library Journal’s article on supporting the conservative reader was beautiful. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that different readers with different tastes and experiences turn to the library for nourishment. 

It brought back all the warm feelings I had for my library and the wonderful, lovely librarians in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where it stood as a beacon of electricity and heat and education while schools were forced to remain closed and houses were cold and dark.

That is the feeling I’ve always had when I’ve thought of libraries and librarians. It’s why I want to be a librarian. And this poster can undo that in just minutes, for so many readers.

To me, that’s inexcusable. It’s cruel. It needs to be corrected.

And so now, after all that, what can we do? 

For one, we can sign this petition that is currently being passed around. (If you need to take heart after all of this, just look at the reasons listed for signing the petition. There are lots of wonderful people already behind it.) 

We can continue to discuss the repercussions of this poster should it continue to be on sale, and steps to take in order to protest it further.

But to me, the fact that this poster was okayed by a national organization is just another indicator on how far we have to go with Muslim representation and voices in the industry – and with voices for diversity, period.

* A few Muslim friends did not immediately see the veil, but they did feel instantly uncomfortable, which is also worth noting.

 Update (4/13/2015):

As of writing this update, the petition now has 282 supporters, including Muslim librarians and the incomparable Rukhsana Khan, children's' book author. 

ALA wrote a response to the discussion this afternoon that you can read here. I am glad that they did acknowledge the issues of the poster and, as far as I understand, are going to be discussing an alternative poster design. 

I do have a few concerns, but I'd like to note that this is a very polite and pleasant response to the situation and I am grateful that they are willing to continue the discussion and are open to hearing why the poster was upsetting.

I also wanted to note that, immediately after ALA's response was posted, I received several messages that urged me to take down this post, or informed me that I was being too sensitive in this post or in creating the petition.

I did not create the petition. As written in the body of this post, I was linked to this petition by a librarian friend and it already had 20+ responses. 

In addition, this post will remain up as a reference on the situation for people who are unsure what the discussion is about. It was not worded in a way to offend ALA, who are handling this situation quite well and diplomatically, and I see no reason why it would need to be removed.

Thank you to everyone who has passed this post around or felt that it helped them understand the situation!  


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