Professor critiques new genre

Associate Professor of Sociology Ibtesam Al-Atiyat is currently working on a research paper analyzing “native informant” writings. A native informant is a person of a particular race, culture, ethnicity or religion that is perceived as an expert on said group due primarily to the fact that he or she belongs to it. Planned to be published in the academic journal Critical Sociology, Al-Atiyat’s research focuses on a new genre of native informant writings about Muslim women that has emerged in Western markets. This genre is generally written by Muslim women themselves, many of whom have fled to the West from oppression in their native countries. Their stories are retold as memoirs.

Despite the claim that the purpose of these stories is to expose the lives of women oppressed by extremist Islam and Islam-related cultures, many of the memoirs are written primarily for Western audiences in Western languages. In turn, the average Western reader consumes the story without sufficient context and understands it as a true representation of the entire Muslim world. Though there are differences within the stories, they depict the same stereotypical images of secluded, veiled and oppressed Muslim women.

“[Due to these stories]women in the Muslim world can only be explained by one variable: Islam,” Al-Atiyat said. “You eventually can’t look at the historical background, or colonialism, economy and politics. The only variable needed is Islam.”

Al-Atiyat also noted that writing about Islam and Muslim women has become a huge money-making industry in the West. Many native informants taking refuge in the West, particularly in the U.S., are now seeking and receiving fame and money for their stories.

“If you want to become famous and be interviewed at CNN and be a celebrity in the West, the one thing you can do is criticize Islam and show connections between Islam and terrorism. And this is how many of those women approach the discourse,” Al-Atiyat said.

The rise in popularity of these novels has generated problems. Al-Atiyat explains that since Muslim women are portrayed in a uniform and homogenized manner throughout the literature, the diversity of stories and conditions of women in the Muslim world is lost. Furthermore, this discourse presents the lives of Muslim women in an abrasive, gloomy and hopeless manner, as if every Muslim woman is suffering from brutal oppression under the patriarchy. However, many Muslim women, including Al-Atiyat herself, serve as counterexamples to this stereotype.

“I am a Muslim woman. I do not necessarily cover my head, not that I have anything against [that choice]. I hold a Ph.D. I am an independent woman. I have a career. My religion did not really limit my life choices,” Al-Atiyat said.

She argues that native informant memoirs generalize the lives of Muslim women by offering an individual face and story as representative of an entire culture. This serves as the catalyst for Al-Atiyat’s criticism.

To prevent oneself from being convinced by this way of understanding, according to Al-Atiyat, one must have critical perspectives that can help in distinguishing good literature from bad literature, or even good scholarship from bad scholarship.

“You have to subject every form of knowledge about women in the Middle East, and about women in Islam, through a thorough critique that should inform one’s criticism of this literature or scholarship,” Al-Atiyat said. In the end, however, the ultimate purpose of this research for Al-Atiyat is “to provide the reader with the critical framework on how to approach this genre of literature, and how to reflect on it critically without losing the sympathy with the human stories.”

Regarding how St. Olaf students should approach this genre, Al-Atiyat believes that the way in which one approaches the text is important.

“It depends on how you read and the purpose of your reading. If you’re reading [these stories] for entertainment purposes, then there is something wrong with you, reading about victimized women for entertainment. If your purpose is to learn about the lives of women, then you owe it to yourself and you owe it to those women to learn about their lives in a more complex, sophisticated and critical manner. And do not take a native informant’s story at face value. You have to critically think and reflect on it. The story might be true, but its representation might be wrong. What is happening to one woman does not necessarily mean that it’s happening to every woman.”