As someone who immensely enjoys arts & crafts, it's always a relief to see an art project on the class syllabus – the perfect grade booster. Art projects provide a creative outlet without exhausting my mental supply; a common symptom of more technical endeavors. This isn't to say you can't learn from art projects, however, quite the opposite, in fact.
Artwork is a reflection of the artist's internalized ideas about the world, and seeing your own can be rather jarring. This week, I had an art project due in my Women, Gender, and Islam class, and the transformation my project endured taught me a lot about my own positionality and ended with me turning in a blank canvas.
The image of a brown woman in hijab has been reduced by Western society to symbolize female oppression, particularly when contrasted to the "ever-so liberated" Western woman. When I began this project, I wanted to utilize this archetype, by painting a brown Muslim woman in hijab. I then cut words from Daily Tar Heel newspapers that were overwhelmingly negative and have been used in adjunct with anti-Muslim hostility.
Many of the excerpts I chose were from articles detailing racist activities on UNC's campus, but when taken from context, apply to nearly every marginalized community. I then left the hijab white to starkly contrast the black and sinister background. I then realized that my choice of woman and backdrop were manifestations of stereotypes and oversimplification. Stereotypes that do exist but are in no way representative of the Muslim population as a whole. For this reason, I decided to scrap my first idea.
My next thought was to change the race of the woman in the painting. I considered painting a black Muslim woman without hijab, drawing from Amina Wadud as my inspiration, and then discussing the duality of the background words in application to both Muslim and African American communities, and how a black Muslim woman may be vacillating between identities, but ultimately, will still be "othered" by the American populace.
But upon further consideration, I realized that my only real motivation for selecting a black woman was to remove myself from presenting the overused image of a woman in hijab, which is problematic in itself. The only demographic I could draw a personal connection to would be a white woman, but I don't want to pretend that a white woman in hijab faces the same prejudice as a woman of color. The more I deliberated, the more I realized trying I was trying too hard to define The Muslim Woman.
In all honesty, I've spent most of these religion classes a little lost, trying to grasp abstract ideas with no concrete basis of Islam. But these abstruse discussions have taught me that Islam is not meant to be definite, and instead is constantly evolving, as is The Muslim Woman. Therefore, my project was futile. Instead, a blank canvas was the best representation I could provide of the typical Muslim woman because such a thing does not exist.
Becoming aware that I had fallen prey to the exact societal structures that I often strive to alienate myself from was not a particularly pleasant experience. This moved me to consider a quote from the 2018 Vanity Fair article on Republican women at UNC, but originally appeared in Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger: "White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy's most eager foot soldiers."
While far from Republican, here I was, a white woman, using my privilege to exacerbate the stereotype of a veiled woman, contributing to the Western patriarchy's image of oppression. Knowing this, however, I can continue into the world more cognizant of my own positionality, while more willing to question my own instincts. All this, from a simple classroom art project.