MLA 2015 Panel: Muslim Women’s Memoir and Everyday Life

Panel Organizers:

Mosarrap H. Khan & Dr. Melanie Heydari-Malayeri


Prof. Susan Stanford Friedman, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.


Mosarrap Hossain Khan, Doctoral Candidate, English Literature, New York University, USA.
Kimberly Wedeven Segall, Associate Professor of English, Seattle Pacific University, USA.
Adam Yaghi, Doctoral Candidate, English, University of Victoria, Canada.

Time & Venue:

Saturday, 10 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 113, Vancouver Convention Center West, Vancouver, Canada.

Panel Description & Abstracts:

A renewed interest in Muslim women’s memoir in the West coincides with western intervention in the violence-ridden Muslim countries. Some of the critics (Dabashi; Whitlock; Booth etc.) have rightly argued that these memoirs have been used as ‘soft weapons’ to justify invasion of these Muslim countries in the guise of delivering women to ‘freedom’ from oppression. As many of these memoirs deploy the trope of ‘escape to the West’, the critical studies predominantly focus on Muslim women’s complex identity formation in the hybrid space between Islam and the West.

These memoirs do not circulate in a neutral space. Rather, their production and circulation are determined by the demands of global Anglophone cultural marketplace. Since the question of ‘freedom’ is often at the heart of a discourse about Muslim women’s emancipation, a struggle over access to the public space in everyday life becomes the dominant concern in many of these memoirs.

As everyday life in the public space becomes the site for ideological struggle between the state, extremists, and women, by focusing on literary and cultural texts, this special session intends to understand ways in which women’s memoirs depict the everyday through a mode of writing that is essentially public. Traditionally, there have been two ways that women’s life-writing has sought to depict the everyday – either by describing the minute details of everyday life in the private domestic space or by deploying the trope of the flaneur in the public space. As the public space is often under siege owing to violence and imposition of patriarchal and supposed religious laws, this session will address the following questions: What transformations have taken place in the everyday practices of Muslim women? If the public space is often fraught with peril, how might one theorize Muslim women’s everyday life? Do the resistances in the private spaces acquire dimensions of the public space? Since memoir is essentially a genre of writing which makes the self public, what elements of everyday life are foregrounded in these memoirs?

Mosarrap Khan’s paper, “Everyday Life and the Dialectic of Public and Private in Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Lahore with Love: Growing with Girlfriends, Pakistani Style”, theorizes Muslim women’s everyday life in South Asia as dialectic between domesticity and flaneur, between the public and the private. While set in the public spaces in Lahore, US, and Europe, Afzal-Khan’s memoir generates a discourse about the seductions and perils of the public space in everyday life, which is mostly framed through extraordinary moments of violence in a society that becomes increasingly Islamized. Since, following a lawsuit, after its initial publication, the memoir was pulped by the Syracuse University Press, this paper further illustrates the fraught relationship between a public form of writing and the private details of everyday life.

By focusing on a published blog by Riverbend, Kimberly Wedeven Segall’s paper, “Baghdad Blogs: Urban Witness to Shifting Spaces of Violence, Gender, and Resistance”, foregrounds the public spaces that shift during violence, for instance, from occupied territory to post-upheaval sectarianism in Baghdad. Hidden behind her codename, this female computer programmer details the changes in her vocational space and private realm, starting shortly after 9-11 and continuing into her exile in Syria. Tropes of domesticity pervade this published war blog, called Baghdad Burning.  Specifically, her daily actions become survival mechanisms as she records the shifting sentiments around her, and her computer is often personified as she tries to cope with violence. Watching street politics, this Sunni feminist also records religious shifts and the policing of the veil in the city. Not a leisurely flaneur, this urban spectator and observing participant tracks the gendered, political, and religious waves around her, recording her own private spaces of Sunni faith against a public space that has become hostile in post-upheaval sectarianism.

Shifting focus to Arab-American writers, Adam Yaghi’s paper, “Re-imagining the Nation, Bridging the Gap: Muslim American Women Writing the Memoir”, explores Leila Ahmed’s Border Passage: from Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey and Suheir Hammad’s Drops of this story.  Borrowing some of the inscriptive forms of identity from the contemporary ethnic American writers, who frequently invoke indigeneity, oral traditions, native religions, sacred ancestral landscape, or other collective identity-forming modes, this paper illustrates how both the memoirs represent a Muslim American effort to write the self anew and arrive at a practical yet liberating notion of identity.  The memoir genre, which allows them to re-examine under a magnifying glass minute aspects of their private life and investigate complex historical events or socio-political milieus, takes their readers on a tour of familiar, yet unfamiliar, places, faces, and socio-political challenges.  Neither romantic nor reductionist, their portraits de-familiarize the familiar and hence are effective at upsetting popular misconceptions.

By exploring Muslim women’s memoir from different geographical and cultural contexts, this session seeks to generate a more nuanced understanding of everyday life in Muslim societies.

Prof. Susan Stanford Friedman, University of Wisconsin, Madison, would be presiding and moderating this session.


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