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The True Threat Brewing Inside American-Muslim Communities: Women

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By Samina Ali

I agree with leading Islamophobes that TLC's new reality show "All-American Muslim" isn't entirely harmless. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, the 8-part series follows five American Muslim families as they get married, start businesses and play football.

What's so harmful about that? According to the Florida Family Association (FFA), the Muslim cast of "All-American Muslim" is all too American. That this show doesn't brand Muslims with the scarlet letter T for terrorist has led FFA to organize a boycott against the network for pushing propoganda and claims that Lowe's is not the only company to pull its advertisements. More than 25 companies have done so.

Yet the FFA is so concerned about the suface appearance that it's failing to see the true danger. This reality show, which by its very definition should be light entertainment, is actually stepping into taboo territory where even Muslims themselves don't often venture. One of its main themes is the treatment of women and gender (in)equality.

One of the ways it exposes double standards is through hijab. Of the 6 female leads, about half wear the headscarf and half don't. Three of those six women are sisters who belong to the Amen family and, though raised by the same parents, Mohsen and Lila, each has a unique personality that imbues her faith.

One daughter, Shadia, is a self-proclaimed rebel with body piercings, tattoos, and a white Irish-Catholic husband. At the opposite end is her sister, Suehaila, who is outwardly modest in the hijab even as she's a political mover-and-shaker: We see her striking poses for photo ops with U.S. Congressman John Dingell, Dearborn's mayor, Jack O'Reilly, and even the State Department's Farah Pandith. Somewhere between these two sisters is Samira, who begins the season without a head cover even as she confesses to feeling that she should begin wearing one. Her reason: she's having trouble conceiving and hopes hijab will bring her closer to god, who will then grant her a child.

But Samira's superstitous thinking shouldn't detract from the importance of what's just happened: viewers see a Muslim woman actively choosing to cover. She is not being coerced.

Samira's mother confirms this when she first sees her daughter in hijab. She questions Samira to ensure that her daughter has taken this step for herself and not because she hoped "to satisfy anyone outside."

Yet, listen to the kinds of things that come out of the men's mouths:

Upon first seeing his daughter covered, Samira's father says, "Now when I look at my daughter I see a complete Muslim woman."

A complete Muslim woman? Think of the dangerous ideology behind this insulting statement: Mohsen is not only dismissing the fact that learned Islamic scholars themselves debate whether or not the hijab is required but he's also dismissing the millions of women who believe themselves to be complete Muslims even though the headscarf was never part of their tradition, such as those in India and Pakistan.

Samira's brother, Bilal, is no better. One night, he goes out to dinner with his three sisters to a local cafe. It's been a week since Samira began wearing the scarf. She regrets that her earrings will no longer be visible. Although her two sisters, Suehaila and Shadia, are there to comfort her through this transition, it's the man, Bilal, who speaks up.

"For a girl, I understand you're wearing a scarf, your life is changing because of the way you have to dress." Have to? "But think of it like this ..." Ok, let's listen to his wise brotherly advice. "More people respect you now."

Really?

This type of patriarchal thinking isn't limited to Bilal and Mohsen. These two men represent a degrading way of thinking that's pervasive in the Muslim communities and which severely limits women. How can a woman succeed when she is judged and valued not by what's in her head -- her intellect, her accomplishments -- but by what's on it?

Remember that Mohsen's other daughter, Suehaila, does wear hijab yet she's anything but "complete." She laments that she hasn't lived up to her own aspirations: Turns out this political mover-and-shaker is really just a court clerk. Although she'd dreamed of better things -- like being in the foreign service -- every time she travels outside Dearborn, her father lands in the hospital as a way of emotionally blackmailing her. By dragging his daughter back to Dearborn, he's upholding an age-old patriarchal tradition that prevents an unmarried woman from striking out on her own.

Basically, an educated, capable 32-year old woman like Suehaila can't leave Dearborn to pursue her dreams because she has to live with Mom and Dad.

The men show no compassion. Nader Aoudes, who's thus far been presented as the "liberal Arab man" because he's willing to change the diapers of his own son, tells her: "If I was someone off the street and I heard you talking like this, I'd think this woman is using her family as a crutch."

Is Nader really blaming the victim? How can Suehaila pursue her dreams when men like him prevent her? Even if I've pegged Nader wrong and he actually is liberated, why doesn't he come out and support Suehaila's desire to leave?

Another man whose support is strangely absent is Nina Bazzy's husband. Alex. Of all the women on the show, Nina is the most reviled by Muslim viewers because she dresses provocatively, because she calls attention to her unveiled head by bleaching her hair blonde, because she has ambitions to run a nightclub and serve alcohol, and because, despite all this, she calls herself a Muslim.

While Nina has no problem flaunting her complex identity, her husband is no where to be found. How are viewers to read his conspicuous absence?

The truth is, we need Nina Bazzy on T.V. as much as we need Suehaila showing us that she's not the stereotypical conservative we envision when we imagine a hijabi. Together with superstitious Samira and rebellious Shadia, these women are breaking our notions of Muslim women.

At the same time, they're are bravely shaking things up in the American Muslim community, forcing Muslims -- men and women both -- to begin questioning age-old ideologies that infantilize women. And that's the first step to eradicating them.

The creators of "All-American Muslim" could have chosen families who better fit our stereotypes. But that wouldn't be a reality show. For the reality is: patriarchy and the subjugation of women is the greater threat brewing in the Muslim American communities. And watching women fighting back is inspiring.

Writer and Muslim woman activist Samina Ali is the author of the award-winning novel Madras on Rainy Days. Visit Samina on Red Room, where you can read her blog and buy her book.