A couple summers ago, I ran into an elderly couple who had done decades of Christian missionary work in Australia. They were looking for my neighbors, who were from Turkiye. When I said that I too was from Turkiye, the wife told me “But you do not look Islamic” since I was wearing a sleeveless above the knee height dress, unlike my neighbor’s wife, who wears a hijab. It was an odd conversation. Not only did I have to correct the word “Islamic” to “Muslim,” but I also had to explain to them that different people practice their religion in different ways – including Muslims.
Saying the last part of my sentence usually results in one of two facial expressions: puzzled or condescending. Puzzled because, according to some, I cannot have my own agency as a Muslim woman in Islam and condescending because “poor me” is probably trying to gain my independence in the West from an oppressive religion. While the general perception is that Islam is a religion that boxes women, after having such interactions with people over and over, I have started to wonder: Is it the outsiders who wrongly put Muslims into a box by thinking that we have to look and act a certain way, or am I really the odd one out among the 2 billion Islamic people around the world who look the same?…
The challenging truth is that, believe it or not, free will and agency also apply to Muslims (including Muslim women) simply because they (we) are human. But the stereotype of Muslim women without agency is pervasive. Even a simple Google Images search on Muslims does not help to confront any of the existing stereotypes either. It is like there are two realities: the actual reality of Muslims as an incredibly diverse group of peoples vs. an assumed reality of Muslims as one, identical group of people. As a result, it has been hard for me not to wonder what perpetuates such misperceptions about Muslims, specifically Muslim women.
Interestingly enough, this was something I had already asked some of my acquaintances about in Turkiye as I interviewed them for the Muslim Voices already prior to the aforementioned conversation. Those earlier conversations only keep resonating with me during such experiences. For example, Ms. Sultan, a housewife with strong political activism in her background had told me previously (translated):
…… there are borders which people define for themselves. Otherwise, if you don’t do it, society will define you in such a way that even though you don’t choose one, you will be in some sort of category …… This is because of the culture of obedience, I mean when one says Islam, it is immediately considered as a conservative culture, I want to say this for those in other countries who don’t believe (in Islam). But if you move forward with questioning (this), the culture of obedience wipes off one’s curiosity, thoughts, and emotional attachment to their own stories. However, if you think of it in reverse, your thoughts will lead you in a direction where you will face the reality and the reality is far away from the stereotypes; very different and deep and that is the universe itself. It is the universe. It is the human being.
Culture of obedience! This is an incredibly powerful statement through which Ms. Sultan challenges the idea of not having free agency as an attribution to Muslims. Instead, she claims that it is more of a universal problem where we, the people, become accustomed to taking in all that is presented to us as “reality” without questioning our own assumptions. In the context of Muslims vs. non-Muslims, this culture of obedience exhibits itself as seeing Islam from a single lens – the lens that we were given by society – which denies Islam’s diversity and pluralism. Comments by Dr. Mehmet, a professor of Agricultural Studies in Turkiye, help to explain my thoughts better:
Of course, according to (the) Quran, (a) Muslim is classified [categorized] as a unique person. But we cannot think that all people and all Muslims as the same person. Muslims have different understandings of Islam. Therefore, other [majority Muslim] countries [as opposed to Turkiye] live according to their traditional thinking, traditional inheritance, and different Islamic schools of thought.
“Results for Muslim Men on Google Images” (4/24/2023)
What Dr. Mehmet proposes, multiple concepts of Muslims, is compelling. There is the concept of a Muslim as described in the Quran, then there are people who self-identify as Muslim and live their lives under the influences of their surroundings – whether that be cultural influences, political, national, social, etc. An example to this would be what Ms. Nuran, a retired elementary school teacher in Turkiye said when I asked her about how she self-identified herself as a Muslim (translated):
I value my nation’s values and also believe that religion is between a person and God. This is secularism. Respecting everyone’s religion.
Overall, each individual has their own, unique socio-cultural and emotional complexities that help them define their worldview. This worldview both shapes and is shaped by the religion they come from, and Muslims are no exception to this. While we all wear lenses through which we see others, it is OK to challenge ourselves to see the world through different perspectives and acknowledge the plurality of thought, voices, and lived experiences world round.
Derya Doğan is a double-major PhD candidate in Education Policy Studies and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. She explores citizenship education and contemporary Islamic schooling practices in secularized contexts across the world in her research.