Mipsterz, which is a loose group of self-proclaimed "Muslim hipsters," has released a video entitled "Somewhere In America." It shows several Muslim young women, all in hijabs, doing a variety of activities: skateboarding, posing, laughing, biking, fencing, listening to music in the woods, etc., set to a soundtrack of Jay Z.
It's visually arresting and compelling — at least to me — in the way that all videos of my coevals who are clearly far cooler and more stylish than me are compelling. However, the video has garnered mixed responses: while some have lauded it as empowering and stereotype-defying, others have criticized it of courting a shallow Westernized concept of "normalcy" to the detriment of Muslim identity. As is so rare on the Internet, though, the debate surrounding Mipsterz is nuanced, thought-provoking and remarkably productive.
According to Mipsterz' Facebook page,
A Mipster is someone who seeks inspiration from the Islamic tradition of divine scriptures, volumes of knowledge, mystical poets, bold prophets, inspirational politicians, esoteric Imams, and our fellow human beings searching for transcendental states of consciousness. A Mipster is an ironic identity, one that serves more as a perpetual critique of oneself and of society. A Mipster has a social mind, and yearning for a more just order, a more inclusive community unbounded by stale categories...
A tumblr post by user ordak elaborates on this point:
One of the values that define that community include a willingness to engage, critically and constructively in shaping public conversations... Mipsterz is not about reproducing tired, assimilationist apeing of Hipster culture or a an equally problematic, uncritical reading of Muslim culture. It's about building a community where folks can gather and, if but for a moment, suspend judgement and engage as equals and peers, at a chai party, a potluck, jam session or whatever else that Mipsterz do. Mipsterz is a badly needed cultural home for a lot of folks, a place where we can finally be ourselves and allow our identities to develop on their own terms.
Writing in the Islamic Monthly, Sana Saeed expressed her unease with the video and the movement. She argues that it was produced, created and directed primarily by Muslim men. Yes, it's cool, she says — "But that's about it." Saeed fails to see a purpose and believes that "Somewhere In America" does little to combat stereotypes: "it is literally young Muslim women with awesome fashion sense against the awkward backdrop of Jay Z singing about Miley Cyrus twerking," she writes.
In the name of fighting stereotypes it seems we're keen to adopt... tools and images that objectify us (either as sexualized or desexualized; as depoliticized or politicized) rather than support us where we need that support. We're so incredibly obsessed with appearing "normal" or "American" or "Western" by way of what we do and what we wear that we undercut the actual abnormality of our comunities and push essentialist definitions of "normal", "American" and "Western." In that process of searching for the space of normalcy, we create 'normal' and through that a 'good' Muslim. And in all of this, we might just lose that which makes us unique: our substance.
On Twitter, Saeed indicated that she spoke to several of the young women who appeared in the video and they weren't aware what the final product would look like. Several, including Noor Tagouri, were under the impression that they were being filmed for a Yuna video. On Facebook, she wrote that she thought that video's message would be "friendship and love." "I'll admit, I was uneasy about it at first, still a bit meh about it because the explicit version was used and besides the theme of being 'somewhere in America,' it wasn't relevant to friendship, love or empowerment," she said. "But the video came out and though there was/is much criticism, there is also a lot of good feedback, esp from people who viewed hijab as 'oppressive' and disempowering."
Others still have pointed out that a group of male Mipsterz likely wouldn't have attracted so much negative attention. After Arsalan Iftikhar posted the video with a positive caption on his Facebook page, several people expressed their lack of enthusiasm about the perceived (missing) message. "I'm wondering if this video was done showing how brothers with full on beards are hip and cool would everyone be up and about pointing out what's wrong and how this an that is not correct according to the teachings of Islam," one commenter wrote in response. "It never ceases to amaze me how fast we are ready to take the negative route when we see or read something about a Muslim sister and her hijab."
One Buzzfeed commenter put her optimistic takeaway from the debate succinctly: "In the end, if this video helped break down stereotypes about Muslim women and make people discuss about what it means to be a Muslim woman in America, that's great." The "Somewhere In America" video might not have been completely on-point, and its message may not have been accessible or comprehensible to everyone — but the quality of thought it's provoked is rewarding in its own right.
As Sana Saeed said on Twitter:
Seeing some great conversations on the #Mipsterz video and representation - grateful to the creators of vid for this, really.
— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) December 2, 2013
If anything, the vociferous, multi-faceted and thought-provoking response to a 2-and-a-half minute long video serves to show the need for more, and more varied, representations of the Muslim experience in mainstream (and alt, of course, as is implied by the whole "hipster" thing) American culture.