Muslim American City: Gender and Religion in Metro Detroit
By Alisa Perkins
New York University Press, 2020
This academic book is an ethnographic study of Muslim communities within Hamtramck, a small incorporated city within the boundaries of greater Detroit. As such, the subtitle is somewhat misleading, as Detroit has differing demographics and ethnic and religious dynamics from Hamtramck, and the two are, in fact, compared periodically by the author. Alisa Perkins lived and worked among Hamtramck’s Muslims — primarily women — during 2005-2007, with follow-up research through 2017.
Hamtramck offers unique possibilities for this type of ethnographic study, as the city’s immigrant Muslim population has grown considerably since the mid-20th century: in 1940, Polish Catholics comprised 81% of its population but broadened immigration policies of the 1960s led to increases in the Muslim immigrant population, primarily from Yemen and Bangladesh. Today, only 8.8% of Hamtramck residents claim Polish ancestry, and community leaders estimate the Muslim American population to be more than 40%.
Perkins focuses on how Muslim women have created a “civic purdah” in Hamtramck and how Muslims negotiated a couple of city ordinances that affected their communities. The most interesting aspect of the research, and the richness of this book, is in her observation of behaviors of Muslim women in their embodied (such as dress) and locational (spatial) practices of what she calls “civic purdah.” Interpretations of that behavior tend to reinforce theories favored by the author and, at times, to accept interpretations by her interlocutors uncritically.
Perkins devotes a chapter each to Muslim women of Yemeni and Bangladeshi backgrounds. She was a volunteer assistant ESL instructor, befriended some Yemeni female students, and formed relationships with some Bangladeshi women through contact at a social service agency that served mainly Bangladeshi women. She offers several comparisons between the two groups. The Yemeni women seem more socially conservative, less educated, and more concerned about how they appear to other Yemenis, especially males. The Bangladeshi women are more flexible in their dress and behavior, educated, and ambitious to work outside the home. Both ethnic communities offer opportunities for women to develop in mosque roles, and women’s halaqahs from both communities often collaborate on volunteer projects in the city.
The Bangladeshi teenagers and women seem to be more resourceful about establishing what Perkins calls civic purdah — maintaining gender distance within the larger non-Muslim community. The teen girls who created an alternate female prom for high school learned to have fun and celebrate a rite of passage on their own terms.
Perkins is careful in parsing Muslim women’s behaviors. For instance, some Yemeni women would prefer to frequent non-Yemeni male businesses because they like the anonymity they provide: “The avoidance of Yemeni men’s public spaces, such as corner stores, cafes, or other unfamiliar spaces, functions as another negotiation of privacy in an otherwise public space.”
On the other hand, she at times gives Muslim women too much credit for creating a comfortable civic purdah in Hamtramck (which Muslims there often described as having an open and welcoming ethos, to begin with): “The construction of Hamtramck as a zone of safety and familiarity for Yemeni women has been accomplished by these women themselves through the way they have consistently and creatively negotiated their embodied and locational forms of civic purdah across various spaces of the city, making themselves legible, respected, and valued.” Creating an acceptable civic purdah also depends on the mainstream society, how they view their Muslim neighbors, and how much they want to interact with Muslim women. As Perkins herself claims elsewhere in the book, “It is especially important to point out that when using the country or city of origin as a reference point for how to organize gender and space, Muslim women in Hamtramck are not referencing a fixed, stable point but rather a dynamic range of processes.” Yes, those dynamic processes continue between Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors in Hamtramck.
Perkins also examines the role of Muslim communities in promoting and resisting two city ordinances subject to referendums, showing how they have learned to participate in U.S. politics in ways that promote Muslim values. The first example is a 2004 ordinance regulating the public adhan, or call to prayer, broadcast from the city mosques. This was the first time the adhan had ever been “named and described in city legislation” in the U.S. It presented unique challenges, as sound cannot be avoided, and opponents found it irritating, proselytizing, or imposition of private religion on the public sphere. Proponents compared the call to church bells, which had long been part of the Hamtramck soundscape, and an expression of freedom of religion and diversity within U.S. culture. The referendum on the ordinance passed, though with the caveat that the call would be regulated by the city, which meant the city had the power to lower its volume or even suspend it. Regardless, for Muslims in particular, it represented a public recognition of Islam; and its passage was partly the result of an interfaith coalition working for its adoption.
The 2008 Human Rights ordinance was more problematic because it included sexual orientation as a protected class. Because most Muslims in Hamtramck viewed homosexuality as a sin, they were disinclined to support this ordinance. They found interfaith allies in local Christian conservatives; political progressives felt betrayed after supporting Muslims in the call to prayer initiative. Some Muslim leaders bemoaned their constituents’ attitudes, especially, as one of them said, there were more openly gay people in Arab countries than in Hamtramck. (One might question this, though anonymity in a big Arab city might provide more cover.) Several dialogues were organized to try to work through the differing perspectives, but no views were changed. Some proponents of the ordinance couldn’t understand the Muslims’ lack of support, given that Muslims, too, could be victims of discrimination; Muslims felt that they should stand up for their own values. The ordinance was repealed.
“The refusal to recognize shared difference was represented as hindering Hamtramck’s idealized progressivism,” says Perkins. One can agree. But in her concluding chapter, Perkins elaborates: “As our analysis shows, breakdowns in cross-cultural communication concerning these issues can happen because of an inability — or refusal — to approach these points of consternation through a framework other than liberal secularism.”
This is where the academic bogeyman of hegemonic liberal secularism rears its ugly head. It isn’t necessarily liberal secularism that is at fault here, but an irreconcilable difference in values among community members. The Muslims were just as rigid as the “liberal secularists” in holding to their ideals. Who decides what values our society upholds?
It’s somewhat simplistic to see liberal secularism as a straw man of rigid viewpoints and categories, antithetical to Islam because it derives from Protestantism. The very fact that Muslims find Hamtramck to be a relatively welcoming place attests to the success of Muslim/non-Muslim interactions and relationships — and in all probability, to the liberal secular pluralism that Perkins critiques.
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