2006 Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan recently wrote an article highlighting the personal and professional journeys of two top international models: Hind Sahli from Morocco and Hanaa Ben Abdesslem from Tunisia. The title of her piece: The New Faces of Islam. Right from the outset, I was worried about the direction of the article. Are there really faces of Islam, and if so, what do they look like? What are the faces of Christianity, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism, etc? Givhan’s troubling language and Orientalist thinking becomes even clearer as the piece continues.
My guess is that Givhan’s intentions were to celebrate the models’ achievements and to provide the largely western reader base of the Daily Beast with an “alternative” perspective on Arab Muslim women. Unfortunately, Givhan did just the opposite, placing a western standard of sexuality and culture on a pedestal. Givhan equates the ascendency to international modeling status as an empowering process for all women and makes it sound absolute.
Though they have crossed paths only a handful of times, the two women are now inexorably linked through timing, culture, the assumptions others make about them, and their desire to represent 21st-century Arab women to the world.
Unless I’m missing something, the article never quoted either model as believing they represent 21st-century Arab women. “It’s given me independence…it’s given me confidence in myself as a woman,” Ben Abdesslem is quoted as saying. Both Sahli and Ben Abdesslem are undoubtedly proud of their personal accomplishments and believe they are providing western audiences with an alternative conception of who Arab women are, but for Givhan to assume that they think they represent all 21st-century Arab women is absurd. For starters, not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab. There are 20 million Arab Christians worldwide, with 6 million living in Brazil, over 1 million living in both Lebanon and Syria, and 700,000 in the United States. Using Givhan’s logic, African-American models would represent the aspirations of all black women worldwide—in North America, Europe, and Africa.
Sahli’s mother was frightened by the prospect of her daughter going abroad; her father was grudgingly open-minded. Her older sister, who works with a local group that encourages women to be more modern, was her advocate.
This quote highlights the crux of my problem with this piece. Givhan’s value-laden characterizations equate a stylish, western-dressed female with success, empowerment, happiness, and modernity. My point is neither to avoid the reality that many women living in Arab societies do not have the same degree of freedom and mobility as their male counterparts, nor to judge the life decision of Sahli, Ben Abdesslem, or anyone else. Rather, I argue that to define what empowerment means for anyone is arrogant, and a misunderstanding of the complexity that defines basic human social behavior.
Givhan’s attempt to give Arab women a “voice” was thwarted by her own failure to recognize the specific worldview and cultural hierarchy she imposed on the reader. And this is all the more disturbing given that Givhan, an African-American women, spent her childhood in the 1960s and 70s in a racially divided Detroit.
What do you think? Is my characterization of Givhan’s article too harsh? Do you feel that Sahli and Ben Abdesslem represent 21st century Arab Muslim women? As a woman or a man, what does women’s empowerment mean to you? Please share your thoughts below.