Muslim Feminists Use Art to Tell Their Story
Mason Gross students aim to dispel myths about Islamic religion and culture through first exhibit
“The concept of giving women equal rights and a voice has been part of Islam since its inception."– Zahra Bukhari, co-founder of Muslim Feminist Artists
Islamic feminism may sound like an oxymoron to some.
But anyone who understands Islam knows those terms are in concert – not conflict – with one another, said Zahra Bukhari.
“The concept of giving women equal rights and a voice has been part of Islam since its inception,” said Bukhari, a senior at Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Mason Gross School of the Arts who co-founded the Muslim Feminist Artists collective this fall with twin sisters Usra and Sarah Attalla. “This group is being unapologetic about those two words. We are about proving they are synonymous with each other.”
The six-member collective approached its first exhibition, “Hello My Name is,” with the goal of introducing the Rutgers community and broader audiences to the concept of Muslim feminism while representing Muslims in the arts.
“We are using art as a universal language and tool to reach people from diverse backgrounds,” said Bukhari of the exhibition, which is on view Nov. 13-17 in the Civic Square Building and will showcase print, painting and design works. “Each member’s piece is meant to communicate our narrative and dispel myths in the media about what Muslim women are supposed to be.”
That includes myths linking head coverings to oppression and honor killings to Islam, said Bukhari, of South Brunswick, and upending the notion that a Eurocentric brand of feminism is the only brand of feminism available to women around the world.
“The idea of the white savior – women and men injecting themselves into a culture and religion and imposing on it their own ideals of what feminism is – is a way to justify labeling those who don’t look like you as ‘other,’” the visual arts major said. “Can’t oppression mean having to wear a skirt up to here and shaving my legs?”
Because Bukhari chooses not to wear hijab, she said she felt more of a responsibility to represent the women of her faith who do. Though she has not personally experienced discrimination because of her religion or gender, she said watching anti-Muslim and anti-feminism sentiment gain traction in America solidified her decision to make use of the resources she has access to as an art student and build this platform.
“My image speaks louder because it already defies the stereotypes of what a Muslim woman looks and acts like,” said Bukhari. “We have a responsibility to do something.”
Muslim Feminist Artists cofounder Sarah Attalla, who does wear traditional Muslim head coverings, said she, too, feels a sense of obligation to share her story. Taking advantage of this outlet makes up for a missed opportunity to start a dialogue in South River, where she and her sister were the only Muslim students in their high school who wore hijab.
“I was afraid to speak up for myself, but people knew that I was Muslim because of the way that I dress,” said the Mason Gross junior. “I graduated and realized that nobody was left to give the town that diversity that I had given. I should have used my voice, because I did not break many stereotypes by being silent.”
When the group approached Barbara Madsen, associate professor of visual arts, last spring for help organizing, she agreed to become their adviser.
“They came with a sense of urgency and the need to respond during these tumultuous political times,” said Madsen. “Their fundamental need to have their message heard is a democratic right that co-aligns with the history of activist print media and social justice.”
The collective also hopes its existence will spark conversations within the local Muslim community and help legitimize the arts as a viable professional pursuit. Many Muslim families in Central Jersey value careers in health, science and law over the arts, said Bukhari, because those fields ensured stability in their countries of origin.
“I want them to know we’re lucky enough to live in America,” she said. “And we can succeed in this field.”