Without missing a beat, he replied, “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Despite research showing that Muslim women in America are highly educated and high-income earners, the stereotype of the oppressed and foreign woman persists. This “otherizing” is what allowed that young man to be so surprised to learn I was a Muslim. And it’s what informs too many narratives about Muslim women in this country.
My novel is about the kinds of Muslim women I know—smart, opinionated, warm, confident. Because I married into a Pakistani American family, many of the Muslim women I know happen to be South Asian like my two main characters, Amra and Zainab. In many ways, the book is about their experience as second generation Indian and Pakistani Americans and the ways they navigate their bicultural identities. For example, they don high-end western clothes as they scale the corporate ladder, but can still rock a gharara or a sari at South Asian weddings and parties. Zainab, who is a brash, beautiful campaign strategist, even wears a red lehenga to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, causing Amra to ask if her attire isn’t “too ethnic.” Part of this might be because Amra is a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, and law firm culture is notoriously conservative. But politics is, too, and Zainab’s sartorial choice probably has more to do with her confidence: In this as in all matters, Zainab is radically and unflinchingly committed to being herself—a very American and very South Asian feminist.
Of course, Painted Hands also explores issues many non-Muslim women can relate to as well. My characters balance high-powered careers and the desire for a family. They are attracted to compelling and complicated men. They confront the glass ceiling, the pressures of the western beauty myth, and the fissures even close friendships face when people change. At the heart of the story, then, is that whatever our roots, whatever generation of “immigrant” we happen to be, our struggles and triumphs are strikingly similar. There are differences, of course, and I hope Painted Hands illuminates a bit about what it’s like to be Muslim woman in America. But I hope it also shows that universal truth the brilliant Maya Angelou spoke of in her poem “Human Family”:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type
but we are more alike, my friends
than we are unalike
Thank you to Jennifer Zobair for this excellent post about the characters in her novel, their immigrant stories and the universality of that experience. Her first novel is Painted Hands (my review).