Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Más, Por Favor: Stereotypes of Latina Muslims

There’s a trend in the Americas. Latina* women are getting tired of Catholicism. They’re sick of being called “mamacita” in the streets. They don’t want to deal anymore with the chauvinistic pigs otherwise known as Latino men. So they’re throwing away their tank tops and their statues of the Virgin Mary and pulling on the hijab and ‘abaya instead.

Or so the media would have you believe. I’ve seen a stream of articles about Latina women converting to Islam, and they overwhelmingly rely on stereotyped images of Latino cultures as well as Muslims. The topic has been covered by MSNBC, NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, the Houston Chronicle, and more.

Here’s the standard lead:

woman is walking down the street. It’s a hot day, and she’s dressed in a full-length skirt (dress, coat, etc.) and a hijab. She passes some Latino men. They look towards her and don’t scream at her. She sighs thankfully and reflects on the days of the past, of catcalls and shouts of “Hey, mami” as she walked by in her skimpy outfit.

The article then explains that in Latino culture, men are macho jerks and women are sex objects. In Islam, they are covered up and immediately respected. The author retells the woman’s decision to leave Catholicism for Islam, her experience putting on hijab, and the sad reactions of her family. If the journalist tries to dig a little deeper, there may be some theological reasons for choosing Islam, but they’re usually an afterthought. Some articles will note that Latina women like the strict gender roles of Islam because that’s what they’re used to.

Of course, not every article follows this mold precisely, but none stray from it completely. They paint monolithic pictures of both Latinos/Latinas and Muslims. It’s especially unfortunate in a time when both groups are often vilified and misunderstood in the United States.

From reading any one of the articles on this topic, someone without much knowledge about either group could easily assume that it’s impossible to be a Latina woman without rocking the halter top and being objectified by the men in your community, or that it’s impossible to be a Muslim woman without knowing your place — which is, of course, to subordinate yourself to your husband and be respected for covering your body and hair. You’d think sexism and patriarchy are non-issues for other races and religions. Articles on converts of other ethnicities rarely spend this much time on the sexual harassment they received pre-Islam — if at all. I mean, I know machismo is a Spanish word, but come on — patriarchy isn’t limited to Spanish-speakers. Consider this quote:

"The way Latin men portray women, it's terrible," Avelar said. "You look at Spanish CDs, and you see women in bikinis on the cover." (Washington Post)

Yes, Spanish-language media frequently sexualize women. But since when do American media not? I don’t know what part of the U.S. you’re living in if you’re never seen women’s bodies used to sell products. The bikini-clad woman in the wine glass… the bikini-clad women reclining on sports cars… I could go on. But that issue rarely seems to be an issue brought in white convert stories.

But for Latina women, it seems to be the biggest issue. It’s as though Latino cultures have the monopoly on men who make crude comments in public, and Latina feminism doesn’t exist. It’s also as though only Muslims are allowed to dress conservatively. Most articles paint Latinas as perpetually clad in tank tops, shorts, and mini skirts, unless they become Muslim — at which point they always, always wear hijab... unless they choose niqab instead. Come on, the world is not the dichotomy it’s portrayed to be:

On a hot summer day, Stefani Perada left work for the day in West New York, N.J., and stepped outside in her long jilbab, the flowing clothes worn by many Muslim women. Meanwhile, other Latinas in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood were taking advantage of the warm day, walking around in shorts and midriff-exposing halter tops. (MSNBC)

It’s easy to make everything so simple. Latinos disrespect their women; Muslims respect them. Latinas show off everything; Muslim women cover up completely. This simplification seems to be hard to avoid when discussing Latina converts. Another article wrote,

While some Latinas her age try to emulate the tight clothes and wiggling hips of stars like Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera, Ms. Pinet and others are adopting a more conservative lifestyle and converting to Islam.
(Christian Science Monitor)

It should be obvious that not all Latina women want to be sex kittens, and the world isn’t so black and white. Let’s not forget that emulating the “tight clothes, wiggling hips” look happens in white America too.

It’s frustrating that the Islam the women profiled turn to is consistently the same. They put on clothes with Arabic names, attend Qur’anic study groups at the mosque, and marry men they meet there. (By the way, there’s never any mention of Muslim men who sexualize women, because that’s apparently the domain of non-Muslim Latinos.) There’s nothing wrong with doing these things, but you’d think there’s no room for Muslim women to do anything else. These articles never mention Latina Muslim activists, or writers, or anything, really, but the archetypal domestic woman who fulfills both the Latina stereotype pre-conversion and the Muslim stereotype post-conversion.

And that brings up another assumption. There’s the idea that all Latinos are Catholic — or even religious. Although Catholicism is clearly the dominant faith of Latin America, there do exist Latinas who follow Protestantism, indigenous religions, or, in smaller numbers, other religions — including Islam. And to be Muslim and Latino is not always to convert to Islam. I think I may have once seen an article somewhere — nowhere to be found again — about a Latin American woman who grew up in a Muslim family, but that was the exception. Let’s not forget that Islam isn’t new to the Americas; slavery brought it here centuries ago. And neither should we forget that non-religious Latino families also exist.Unfortunately, the majority of coverage of Latina Muslims works from a framework that sees both Latin American cultures and Islam as strange and different. I guess the only way to explain how the two could meet is to fall back to the tired stereotypes and extreme dichotomies.

*The term “Latino” or “Latina” includes the Portuguese-speaking country of Brazil, but I’ve seen almost no coverage of Brazilian Muslims, except for
this article, explaining why Brazilians aren’t Muslim.

For more information on Latino/a Muslims, see

Photo credit: MSNBC