November 17, 2008

How I Knew...

My PhD. I'm in the process of applying for it right now, as we speak. It's a weird thing, deciding what it is you want to study for several years of your life. You have to do the research, write the dissertation, and then spend a few more years turning it into a book. It's the biggest commitment I'll ever make besides perhaps getting married or having kids. In fact, it basically is getting married, only getting married to an idea. What's the idea I want to marry? Post-9/11 Muslim feminism. I want to study the interactions between Muslim feminist groups and non-muslim feminist groups. I truly believe that non-muslim feminists largely have a prejudice towards muslim ones, thinking the terms "Muslim" and "feminist" are a contradiction in terms. This only creates cleavages between these groups of feminists.

I first fell in love with post-9/11 Muslim feminism in my third year of university. I read a piece on the history of Muslim women's veiling in my feminist theory class, and I was just captivated. How did I know that this was the topic for me? How did I know I wanted to spend a significant portion of the rest of my life on it? Well, I didn't know at first. I flirted with the topic initially. It seemed like such an unlikely area for me to want to study. My mom is WASP and was never too into educating me about other religions growing up. And my dad's Armenian heritage has resulted in him having a prejudice against Islam that I don't think I'll ever be able to rid him of. I entertained the possibility that my fascination with the topic simply came out of a place of youthful rebelliousness, as it was the last thing my parents wanted me to study. But soon the flirting stage passed, and no matter how many articles I read on contemporary Muslim women's issues, I was still enthralled. I loved the topic more and more after reading Hoodfar, Mohanty, Nasser and Myra MacDonald. It wasn't just a phase; I became committed.

One of my professors at LSE told me and my fellow grad students that we must all ask ourselves WHY we want to study a certain topic for a PhD. "Why that topic?" she demanded. "Why do you want to spend years of your life thinking about that?" Because I love it would be my simplest answer, but why do I love it? That's the real question.

My whole life people from members of my immediate family to random Cypriot people I met at high school debating tournaments have tried to use a history I share with many others to vilify Islam. Events like the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated against a Christian minority by a Muslim empire, are used as part of a narrative regarding what people purport to be the "evil of Islam." They portray Islam as a bloodthirsty religion, ignoring that you never hear people say all Christians must be bad because they have killed a lot of Jewish people in their time. I don't want to be part of that narrative used to keep Muslim people I myself know down. I don't want people to be so oppressed partially in my name. I want to be part of a counter-narrative - one that asserts the rights of Muslim women to be Muslim and be feminists. One that doesn't assume their religious beliefs are the result of false-consciousness. I don't want any violence in my history to justify violence today. And I consider it to be violence when people like Jack Straw won't see members of their parliamentary riding unless they remove their Muslim veils.

When I think about how female ancestors of mine were raped and murdered because of their religion - how they lost children, husbands and a homeland because of their Christianity - I am reminded of diasporic communities of Muslim women in Great Britain today. I do not want them to lose their right to participate in democracy because of their veils. I do not want them harassed in the streets because of their religious identifications. I do not want them to feel small because they believe in something others don't believe in. And while I know it plays only a small part in the grand narrative of historical references used to vilify Islam, I don't want my family's history to play any part in creating and justifying such appalling conditions for women I know today. In a strange way, by helping the world to see injustices perpetrated against Muslim women, I feel I am also reclaiming part of my heritage and history. I no longer want it to be used to hurt people as some sort of faulty evidence that Islam should not be respected. I don't want this event, which hurt so many people I am related to, to continue to hurt people today.

I fell in love with Post 9/11 Muslim feminism. And in a way, though my love is on some levels altruistic, it comes out of a pure and deep love for myself. I am not ashamed of this. I am not ashamed that I love myself enough to rescue part of my family history, part of my identity, from abuse. The research I wish to do is both a defense of others and a self-defense. I will have no problem studying this topic for three or more years, because this topic is who I am.

It's incredibly cliche, but I want to be the change I seek. I want to research the problem in an attempt to help find an answer. I want to leave this world a better place that it was when I started.

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