News & Politics

Muslim Feminist Punk: Helping Destroy Stereotypes of Gender, Religion and Race

Through the Muslim punk movement taqwacore, a self-described 'deaf punk playwright' found her voice.

Rabeya, a main character in Muhammad Michael Knight’s 2003 novel, The Taqwacores, is a riot grrrl who wears a burqa covered in patches, a devout Muslim and an outspoken feminist. The Taqwacores, once described as “Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims,” is the story of Muslim punks living in a house in Buffalo, New York. The world that Knight created sparked the creation of a real-life taqwacore scene, with the introduction of bands such as the Kominas, Secret Trial Five and Al-Thawra. While taqwacore involves Islam and punk rock, it is not a form of worship, but rather a form of self-expression that disrupts stereotypes of Muslims and critiques conservative Islam.

The punk rock movement, while initially serving as a space in the 1970s for DIY culture and living on the fringes of society, was eventually critiqued as being a space dominated by white men. As an answer to this, in the 1990s, the riot grrrl movement was formed, with the creation of bands like Bikini Kill. A new form of "punk rock feminism," riot grrrls focused on a fight for gender equality through expression. Taqwacore, while featuring many prominent male figures, can also serve as the road to growing a version of punk rock that confronts gender inequality based on sex and race. One of the most prominent female figures is Sabina England, an ex-Muslim, punk, playwright, mime artist, and filmmaker. Through her work, she dissects and challenges gender norms defined by religion and culture.

England first read The Taqwacores in 2003, while it was still the product of photocopying and free distribution. England says taqwacore taught her to stay faithful to her visions and opinions. She describes it as giving “a platform for Muslims to be able to criticize Islam or Muslims to other Muslims and feel secure about it, and not worry about being called sell-out traitors.” The primary appeal of taqwacore is as a space for those who exist on the fringe of the Muslim community. Safe from the “conservative attitude that’s somewhat common with older Muslim Americans,” she saw taqwacore become a safe space for “liberals, feminists, queers, and outcasts.”

In addition to writing plays and maintaining a blog, the most popular aspect of her work is her Youtube channel. One video in particular, titled “Allah Save the Punk,” is set in Pakistan. The main character, Zeena, is the daughter of a mullah who regularly warns against the evils of sinners, drugs and whores. Zeena rebels against her father with punk rock, and this character appealed to many of England’s fans.

“I’ve gotten so many messages about it from Muslims all over the world who said they totally related to Zeena,” England says. Social networking and other online spaces allow her to express her views and share her work as an “alt Desi Muslim punk feminist.” At the same time, her work helps other Muslim women feel that they are not alone.

England’s power is in her ability to inspire her fans to feel more confident in expressing their opinions and challenging patriarchy within Islam. However, her work and the work of other taqwacore artists is not to be confused with Islamophobia, or even an avenue of worship; rather it confronts the frustrations with being Muslim as a cultural identity. What is central to taqwacore is its ability to express the frustration associated with growing up in a Muslim community, encountering sexism, or racism.

England believes the notion of being a Muslim “has been turned into a racial, political and cultural identity.” Thus, while one may no longer have faith in Islam as a religion, it remains part of one’s identity -- which, in turn, makes the taqwacore scene “a safe space for Muslim punks who could express themselves and their dissatisfaction through music and art.”

For many Muslim women, who confront stereotypes of being submissive and sexism within their own communities, such a disruptive outlet can be very appealing. England believes that taqwacore may even be more appealing to women, because it provides them with a space to “express themselves as alternative feminists” and even as devout Muslims.

What is most significant about England’s work is its ability to inspire dialogue. Often times witty, sharp and truthful, England touches on some of the issues that many Muslim women struggle with. Confronting that loneliness and finding a sense of community is comforting. The Internet is a powerful space for women who identify as taqwacore across the globe. England may be based in the United States, but her fan base reaches as far as the United Arab Emirates (where her blog was banned for “having pornographic content” earlier this year). The movement has even picked up in Malaysia and Indonesia.

While some women may attend the shows, the most powerful voices of taqwacore exist online. Micropixie, a Gujarati artist currently based in the United States, toured with the Kominas in 2009. In a show titled "Arranged Marriage," she had the chance to perform within a predominantly South Asian line up, and interacted with many taqwacore fans in person and online. Micropixie engaged in many intense dialogues about art, racism and sexism. For some of the women she encountered, taqwacore provided them with a place to belong as “outsiders.” Her initial enthusiasm for the movement was fanned by that of fans, as they had a sense of community, and created ‘zines, where “they collectively recounted their experiences of identity.” While Micropixie does not identify as taqwacore, she still tackles some of the same issues of sexism and racism in her own work.

For Sabina England, the passionate online community helped her actualize her dreams of making a film, which will travel the festival circuit in 2011. She raised finances for Wedding Night through donations via an online fundraiser. The short narrative tells the story of an arranged marriage between a Pakistani bride and a Pakistani-American man. Expecting her to be an innocent and good Muslim woman, his expectations are shattered when he learns his wife had a promiscuous reputation back home in Pakistan. Shocked and disgusted, the film explores the realization through a Desi and feminist lenses. Through Wedding Night, England also critiques the idea of purity, and the sexist double-standards applied to women.

While England is a unique figure in taqwacore, it still helped her be more bold in her messages, as Muhammad Michael Knight encouraged her to be true to her vision and voice. Hopefully, as the movement grows, it will encourage more young Muslims to be more open about the challenges and struggles they face. The taqwacore movement plays a large role in creating a platform for shattering stereotypes of Muslims and also creating a space for marginalized identities within the Muslim community itself. The significance of taqwacore is its ability to encourage one to question and critique their own faith -- a lesson not unique to Muslims.

Sara Yasin regularly blogs for Muslimah Media Watch, and her work has been featured in Elevate Difference, Jezebel, and The Times Higher Education Magazine.
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