Muslim Women and Multilingualism: When Religion and Gender Converge
Dear IGALA community,
We are very happy to be back again this month with a new blog post on language, gender and sexuality-related research. Below you can read about multilingualism and gendered immigrant identity in the context of Catalonia, a post written by Farah Ali.
Farah is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at DePauw University, in the USA. Her research interests include media discourse, language ideologies, migration and diaspora, multilingualism, language policy and planning, language and identity. Farah discusses the topic of this blog post more extensively in her recent book publication, Multilingualism and Gendered Immigrant Identity: Perspectives from Catalonia (Multilingual Matters, 2022). If you want to know more about Farah work you can check out her university or personal pages.
We aim to publish posts on our IGALA blog regularly, if you want to share your research or thoughts about any language, gender and sexuality-related topics drop an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy the read!
Muslim Women and Multilingualism: When Religion and Gender Converge
By Farah Ali
The concept of intersectionality has become increasingly present across different disciplines and discussions surrounding identity and how it shapes social experiences, interactions, and oppression. This term was originally conceptualized by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), who argued that all aspects of social and political identity overlap and are situated in power dynamics, thereby affecting those who are most marginalized in society. While Crenshaw used the idea of intersectionality to provide a more efficacious framework for understanding the multiple layers of oppression experienced by Black women, this notion has been applied many times over to different types of identities in order to better understand their interconnectedness and interaction with systems of oppression.
While slow to gain traction in the field of linguistics, current research on language and identity has become more receptive to engaging with this framework in the examination of both spoken and written discourse. In the areas of language, gender and sexual identities, the intersection of interest often includes a study of racial, ethnic, and/or heritage identities (Block & Corona 2016, Cashman 2017, Levon & Mendes 2016). However, other types of identities are examined to a lesser degree. This became pronounced for me when I worked on my doctoral dissertation, and still later when I reworked my dissertation into a book (Ali 2022), which focuses on multilingualism among Muslim women in Catalonia, Spain. While there is no shortage of research and discussion on gender and religious identity (and certainly that which focuses on Muslim women), little exists within the realm of linguistics. However, religious identity can be significant in shaping one’s worldview, socialization, and - depending on the role and power of a given religion in a society, and the prevailing attitudes towards the religion - religious identity can also be very relevant to language. Moreover, when we consider the ways in which religion can construct gender roles and expectations, the intersection of gender and religion can be doubly pertinent to discussions about linguistic behavior. Ayala Fader (2009), for instance, has explored language use among Hasidic girls and women in New York City, and how religion interacts with gender identity in the context of language socialization and access to languages like Hebrew, Yiddish, and English, arguing that linguistic boundaries are tied to religiously-informed and gender-specific community boundaries.
Similarly, my own research has shown that religion and gender are intertwined identities that are connected to language use, such that Muslim women reﬂexively or intentionally use language to perform these identities. This was especially notable through several participants’ discursive construction of a “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomy, where such polar identities were marked by the extent of formality and distance Muslim women maintained while interacting with Muslim men (rather than men of any other background). I also recall my firsthand experiences with this: conducting my fieldwork as a Muslim woman, every interaction I had not only served a communicative purpose, but also a performance of identity. Sometimes this manifested through language choice, though it was even more evident through register choice. The extent of (in)formality I employed often depended on the gender of my interlocutor, and was a reflection of my own experiences and nonliberal upbringing as a Muslim, where formality with male contacts marked distance and boundaries, and was at times a necessary component to maintaining “appropriate” interactions with Muslim men.
Additionally, the intersection of religion and gender is made more apparent when examining how non-Muslims within a community perceive their Muslim counterparts. Again, language choice can be an indicator: several Muslim women - particularly those whose identities were more visible because they wore a hijab/head covering - indicated that they were often positioned as outsiders or “foreign,” which - in Catalonia - resulted in people automatically using Spanish with them instead of Catalan, even if they had been born, raised, and educated in Catalonia. Such impositions can also be reflections of racialization. While this process informs discrimination and racial violence in their most extreme cases, it also relates to what are often regarded as “microaggressions” that point to the common othering sentiment of “not one of us.” Moreover, racialization can go well beyond language use, and can often be used to impose speciﬁc identities on hijab-wearing women: victims of oppression who are in need of saving, and who have anti-feminist values incompatible with Western culture (Selod, 2018). These impositions are then used as justification for discrimination and naturalizing the structural inequality experienced by Muslim women. With this being the case, it is evident that systems of oppression must be examined not only in terms of the internal impacts that external forces have on individuals and groups, but also with regard to how systems of oppression are constructed in the first place, and how a collective effort is required to dismantle them.
Ali, F. (2022). Multilingualism and gendered immigrant identity: Perspectives from Catalonia. Multilingual Matters.
Block, D., & Corona, V. (2016). Intersectionality in language and identity research. In The Routledge handbook of language and identity (pp. 533-548). Routledge.
Cashman, H. R. (2017). Queer, Latinx, and bilingual: Narrative resources in the negotiation of identities. Routledge.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8).
Fader, A. (2009). Mitzvah Girls. Princeton University Press.
Levon, E., & Mendes, R. B. (Eds.). (2016). Language, sexuality, and power: Studies in intersectional sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press.
Selod, S. (2018). Forever suspect: Racialized surveillance of Muslim Americans in the war on terror. Rutgers University Press.
Photo credit: Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash