Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani-American writer, interfaith leader, and author of Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. She edits Blue Minaret, an online literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. Her thoughts about the global Muslim experience can be read in NBC Asian America and the Huffington Post, among others.
Fem: What is your definition of feminism?
Saadia Faruqi: I was born and raised in Pakistan, and only moved to the U.S. in my early twenties. So my concepts of feminism are different from a typically-western or typically American ideology. I’m also a Muslim, and so what it means to me to be a woman is informed by my religious beliefs as well. For me feminism is female empowerment and agency. For me, it means making my own choices in my life as an individual but also ensuring that those choices don’t hurt anyone else. It is a world view where women are equal to men, even when they are different. So I’m not the kind of person who would demand that men and women do everything exactly the same, but one that celebrates the differences between the two genders as valuable and positive. I’m proud to be a woman, a Muslim woman, a South Asian woman, an American woman. As a feminist under that lens, I’m able to take my place in society, contribute to my nation’s progress and still be feminine and womanly.
F: How is the hijab an act of feminism?
SF: It’s interesting how the hijab is seen as a tool of oppression by many. Here in the U.S. and Europe, there is a popular narrative of “saving” women from the hijab, and that is so opposed to everything the hijab really stands for. In fact, you’ll find this concept popular amongst some Muslims as well, and the main reason is because in some parts of the Muslim world, women are forced to cover themselves. That’s a situation where they lose their agency and their sense of self, because they no longer choose to cover or choose to remain uncovered. But for me, and millions of other Muslim woman, hijab is the ultimate form of empowerment because we have chosen to cover ourselves, even while living in a society that celebrates nudity or near-nudity. Western society for the most part judges woman on very worrying body image criteria, and being covered up is not seen as “normal” unless it’s the middle of winter. I often get questioned, even from strangers on the street: “aren’t you hot in that?” and my response is not a denial, but rather, yes I am hot but I’m going to wear it regardless because it’s a symbol of something greater than me, of something I strongly and passionately believe in. In our kind of environment to wear the hijab is like refusing to bow down to societal norms of what women should do. Covering myself allows me to be judged not for my physical features but for my intellect and my abilities. It says, don’t look at my body, look at my brain. Don’t assess my worth based on how pretty I am or how thin I am or how big my breasts are, but on how well I write or how kind a human being I am. It’s a complete shift in how we view other people, and it’s my choice. Nobody has forced me to wear the hijab, in fact nobody else in my family wears it.
F: Can you discuss a little bit about what it means to be an interfaith activist? Do you ever feel pressure to educate others?
SF: An interfaith activist is just a fancy name for a person who brings people of different religions together for a conversation. I suppose the term activist applies to me because I feel really strongly about it and go to great lengths to ensure that people around me are having conversations, learning about each other and sharing their own experiences. I started out about a decade ago, inviting my community to visit my mosque and visiting other faith communities as well. That quickly expanded to the point where I was organizing several events for a number of groups, and some of them have had long-lasting effects on the participants. Definitely being a Muslim in America I have often felt like the representative of Islam, especially in the early days when there weren’t as many Muslims participating in dialogue. But that comes with the territory and I welcome and celebrate those questions. Since I’m a writer, much of my activism also takes place online writing for publications about interfaith harmony, for instance I was a 2014-15 contributing scholar for the State of Formation, which is the online presence for the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue, and many other similar organizations. It’s been a very rich and eye-opening experience for me, because I have learned so much from other faiths and cultures. I really believe that the path to peace in our world today is through interfaith cooperation and mutual respect.
F: Who are your literary influences?
SF: As a child and teenager, some of the old literary giants made a huge impact on me. When i was in high school we studied a lot of Shakespeare’s plays and I was really enamored of the old bard’s style of writing. It was the first time I realized that words could have such a profound effect on someone, that they could be used to effectively to tell stories that would change a reader’s life forever. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of South Asian American and British writers, especially the up and coming ones, because I think they bring a very unique voice to the literary world today, one that I fit into better than the old literary giants think.
F: Tell us about your book, Brick Walls.
SF: Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan is a short story collection that was published in the summer of 2015. It is set in my birth country of Pakistan, which Americans typically know almost nothing about except through tired media stereotypes. Although it’s fiction, I wrote it with the intention of interfaith or intercultural dialogue, because my aim was for readers to get to know the real Pakistan, and by association, real Muslims. The collection has seven short stories, and each story has a brick wall, which refers to an obstacle or challenge faced by the main character. Each story is set in a different part of Pakistan and addresses a different socio-economic, political or religious issue… poverty, religious extremism, aging populations, gender discrimination. It is my way of showcasing the reality of living in a country like Pakistan, the hopes and dreams of everyday people, all the things we never see in mainstream media.
F: What is your work with Blue Minaret Literary Journal?
SF: Blue Minaret is a result of several epiphanies I have had over the last couple of years. When I began my journey as a writer, I wrote several short stories which I submitted to a bunch of literary journals. What I found was that rejections are the norm for all writers, but more so for Muslim writers who may be writing about unpopular or uncomfortable topics. At the same time I also was finding out how important being published in literary magazines was, not only for the self-esteem of a writer but also to build a resume and following. The third issue I faced was the dearth of writings about being Muslim that weren’t religious in nature, in other words, writings about actual human beings and real situations. I found myself thinking that we need to have spaces where one could go to learn about the Muslim world that are completely devoid of stereotyping or popular topics.
So I started Blue Minaret which is an online literary magazine about the Muslim journey. That doesn’t mean you have to be a Muslim to submit, and it doesn’t mean you have to write about Islam-appropriate topics. For instance, we have published some science fiction, and interviewed an author who writes about time traveling and the supernatural, and right now I’m reviewing a book about the sexcapades of Kuwaiti youth. It’s really a way to use storytelling, poetry and art to shatter stereotypes and paint a vibrant portrait of the diversity of Muslim thought.