The research focused on how Muslim women are portrayed in the West and how the largely negative portrayal of them has been perpetuated by native informants. “These include former Muslim women who maintain the claim that Islam is inherently violent, oppressive, and misogynistic towards women, which they base off of their own life experiences,” Steinberg says. “By using a postcolonial lens, I attempted to explore that claim by looking at cases of honor-related violence and examining the reactions of Western governments, non-governmental organizations, and Muslim scholars.”
Steinberg’s findings concluded that while violence against women happens in Muslim communities in the West, it is not exclusive to those communities nor is oppression or misogyny the experience of half a billion Muslim women around the world.
Green says that he and Steinberg were astonished by how frequently the narratives of oppressed Muslim women disregarded the comparable struggles that women face globally.
“I was also amazed at how powerful and influential native informants really are,” Steinberg says. “For example, the women I looked at have been given honorary degrees, become high profile politicians in Europe, or work for highly respected think tanks that directly influence domestic and foreign policy. Policy-wise, they are incredibly anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism, often blasting Islam and other Muslims as unenlightened, violent people. They have one version of their story of Muslims, and they make sure that it is a story that Westerners will fear.”
Green feels that the project presented a challenge in how it was analyzed. “It involved the incorporation of some very sophisticated theory, particularly postcolonial theory.”
Steinberg agrees, and adds that it was also difficult to even engage people in the research. “Since the very words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ create apprehension or fear in others, I had trouble even getting people to truly listen to the research I had done.”
Green feels that this research is significant because it provided an important lens through which to critique this narrative. “Western politicians often invoke the narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman as a rationale for intrusive foreign or domestic policies. These same politicians look to native informants to lend legitimacy to these policies.”
This project also made Steinberg realize the importance of this research. “While I may be able to go about my life unconcerned about the way Muslim women are often portrayed–silent, unable to think or act for themselves, or even held captive by their religion–I know that many of my fellow citizens and human beings must live with this assumption every day. And that, to me, is unacceptable.”
Green believes that this research can give politicians and policymakers a more nuanced picture of the experiences of Muslim women both domestically and internationally. “This project draws attention to the biases we often have in the West about what Muslim women experience,” he says. “It also highlights the problems involved in making a case for war, such as the U.S. did in the build up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that invokes the need to liberate oppressed Muslim women. Finally, the project encourages majority populations in the West to pay more attention to the diverse voices and experiences among Muslim women and to be cautious about assuming that Muslim women lack agency.”
Summer collaborative research provides an outstanding opportunity for students to delve deeply into a topic and acquire critical research and writing skills that are invaluable for graduate school. As a professor, I’m in the position of giving students who do this research much more individual attention and feedback on their work than I could do during the academic year.
I now understand just how rare it is to be able to do research like this as an undergrad. Now that I have experience presenting, receiving feedback, and engaging with critics, I am a much stronger academic because of it.
—Maggie Steinberg '15
Steinberg presented the results of her research project both at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) and the Student Research Symposium at Luther.