Where is the model Muslim woman?

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed looks at two very different stereotypes that both misrepresent Muslim women.

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What do you do if the man you’re cooking for is on the front line for ISIL and you believe it’s your job to fill his belly and fire up his muscles? Don’t worry. ISIL has a special “finishing school” for the dedicated jihadist wife.

At Al Zawra school for ISIL women, you can learn all about domestic work such as sewing, cooking, medical first aid, Islam and sharia, weaponry, social media and computing. And for the worried housewife, Al Zawra has just published the first chapter of a cookbook. Now you can fill your man’s lunch box with date balls for snacks throughout the day.

It’s ironic that at the other end of the spectrum, as far away as you can imagine from the inhumanity and horror of ISIL, we are currently in the final stages of the World Muslimah Awards 2014.

In a world where imagery and descriptions of Muslim women fit to a homogenised, oppressed and voiceless stereo­type, the women of the awards provide a colourful, energetic counterpoint. For young women in particular, seeing Muslim women in the public domain, unafraid to be visible and vocal can be highly motivating.

The website, media material and finalists really do live up to the look of the “world’s inspiration”, as the organisation describes its participants. Glowing beauties in elegant stylish, modest wear and headscarves, they are assessed by four criteria: Sholeha (reciting the Quran beautifully), Smart (a one-minute presentation about their achievements and dreams), Stylish (answering questions about leading an Islamic lifestyle) and Mizan (100 underprivileged children judge who should receive the Crown of Modesty).

Based on this intention, I want to support the event. Raising the profile, voices and images of Muslim women is vital to break the stranglehold on popular stereotypes and give space to a variety of models and stories of Muslim women.

But in the end, this is a competition that is squeezed into the format of a beauty pageant and offers one mould of Muslim womanhood. Despite the organisers’ excellent intentions, there’s a strong whiff of putting women onto idealised pedestals and turning them into trophies. I hope this aspect will be eradicated over time.

As for the jihadi finishing school for women, it is a throwback to the 19th century when the role of a woman was to be a simpering back drop to men. If I were a woman considering such a career, I’d look at the words of ISIL’s head of communications in a video documentary produced for the Vice website. When asked about his wife and his family, he was dismissive of them. They were just a drain on his time. That’s not the kind of organisation that any woman should be joining.

These are two attempts to create a new model of Muslim womanhood. But they are failing, because they still see women as second fiddles, prizes and handmaidens to those with real influence, and both of them offer a sanitised model of the “perfect” Muslim woman.

Women come in more than two formats. And not all of us care to make date balls. Unless we’re going to scoff them ourselves, of course.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk