On Oct. 18, 2005, Mills College invited author Samina Ali to campus. Following the event, innumerable students came out highly disturbed and disappointed by the lecture. The negative images were not only offensive for many students, but disappointing to several others. The students on this campus have been fighting for a better understanding of their cultures, and representation in the form of a diverse faculty. It is a matter of grave concern that a campus that has always lacked South Asian, Middle Eastern and Muslim voices should invite a guest who further reinforces stereotypes and therefore does not help the issues of diversity on this campus at all.
Samina Ali reinforced the Western stereotypes of an “oppressed” Muslim woman and a “fundamentalist” Muslim man, completely ignoring that these aspects exist across faiths in all societies and do not correctly represent Islam itself. Ali’s lecture highlighted how she was the voice for the “suppressed” Muslim women, the women “oppressed” by the males, the “oppressed” women who were clad in “chadors” and innumerable overexaggerated images. She presented her book as a representation of the entire Muslim women body, the Muslim women who are “miserably oppressed!”
In Ali’s presentation there was constant reinforcement of the stereotypes that are already prevalent in our society. Her account was highly sensationalized and exoticized. It treated Muslim women as “others,” thus further reinforcing the “other” image from which Muslims are already suffering. We, as extremely concerned students, feel that bringing such guests on campus can only do more harm to the campus environment than good. Many of us are constantly struggling to improve the campus climate, to increase the sensitivity and fight the ignorance on campus. However, when guests like these are invited, each of our efforts are washed over and we fall several steps behind.
The purpose of this is not to simply criticize the speaker, but to also scrutinize the system developed on campus which so often claims to take pride in its diversity. It is a point of great shame that a women’s college located in such a diverse region as the Bay Area should not have one Muslim professor. The fact that such a large part of the world population is simply ignored points out the little bubble Mills College has created around itself, intentionally or unintentionally. Samina Ali’s presentation is only being used as an example of the grave threats the misrepresentation of a society can have on the minds of people.
Most offensive was the guest’s remark that appeared to support the U.S. military policy, saying that the U.S. had intruded into Iraq and Afghanistan in order to liberate women! This not only shows her lack of understanding of politics but also shows her lack of knowledge of the Muslim women that she so proudly represented. When asked by a member of the audience how she viewed the irony of women’s status in Iraq before and after the American occupation, the guest’s answer was vague and confusing. She tried to distance herself from the whole affair, even though she was on campus representing “Muslim women!”
None of us can claim to be “outsiders” because our votes and our taxes enable the oppression of people all over the world. Not only that, the author represented herself as a core member of a Muslim women organization in the United States. There was a constant connection between the lecture on her book and the concerns of her organization, thus reminding the audience that her book was not just her personal account but the voice of the entire Muslim population, which constitutes one-fifth of the world. As a core member of a Muslim organization and a U.S taxpayer, it was shocking to note that she had an “outsider’s” perspective to the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations.
Samina Ali’s event gives us students an opportunity to remind the Mills community how there is not a single Muslim full-time faculty member. Courses on the Islamic world, the Muslim world, the Middle East and South Asia are rarely offered on campus; the few courses that are offered are taught by professors who do not have an insider’s perspective. Keeping this deplorable situation in mind, when the campus invites guests like these, it magnifies the problem and allows negative propaganda inside the school. It leaves us students, from various backgrounds to bring up issues like these time and again. In the absence of genuine, authoritative Muslim voices on campus, we students must point out that that “diversity” does not simply involve inviting a guest whose physical appearance implies diversity; it also requires seeking genuine, unbiased and accurately diverse voices representing this religion of over a billion people.
A group of concerned students