September 21 2021

Gender-Based Violence and Muslim Communities: Trauma Processing through Art

Juliane Hammer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

illustration of a group of masked people

In my upper-level “Gender and Sexuality in Islam” course, we begin the second week of the semester with a reading by Rochelle Terman titled, “Islamophobia, Feminism and the Politics of Critique.” In it, Terman discusses what she calls the “double bind” and develops ideas for responsible critique of gender-based violence.1 The article is built around a controversy that played out on Jadaliyya about a music video by the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, released in late 2012. The song video, “If I Could Go Back in Time,” shows the killing of a Palestinian woman by male family members. I assign the video along with the article and links to several opinion pieces on Jadaliyya written by scholars Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi, with responses from the members of DAM. The link to the video has a trigger warning that says: “Trigger warning – graphic instance of gender-based violence.” I also mention the reading assignment in the class before it is due and repeat that the video contains violence which could trigger some students, so watching it is optional. My students in this course write a weekly journal that reflects both on discussions from the previous class and the readings for the coming week. For this week of class, that journal is a challenge because it is the first one they submit, so the understanding of the purpose and format of these may not yet have been established.     

I begin that class session with a five-minute free-write exercise in which I ask students to jot down their responses to the reading and the video. I encourage emotional processing and acknowledge that in my classroom and as a feminist, I do not prefer thoughts over feelings but think of them as interconnected and valuable for our learning process. I do not ask the students to share what they have written down so as not to put pressure on students who might have linked the topic to their own experiences of gender-based-violence trauma. The free-write exercise allows for some reflection and may help students become aware of connections they are making to their own trauma.

The students then work in groups to formulate what they see as the central argument(s) in Terman’s article. I encourage critical thoughts on the piece as well. In the third step, the students share their formulation of the arguments and we untangle some of the complicated language in the piece. I provide some background on the Palestinian context of the music video in order to avoid a homogenized representation of Muslims on the other side of the world as simply foreign and other. The connection to “here” also comes through the location of the scholars Mikdashi and Abu Lughod in the US academy. Towards the end of the class, we move to a discussion of art and artists’ responsibility for the political impact of their work. This point has come up every time I have taught this course. I end class with an invitation to reach out if a student is struggling with their response to the class conversation.

Later in the semester, during a week on domestic violence in Muslim communities that is built around my own research and book, Peaceful Families, I show the students a Powerpoint with artwork from a 2011 exhibit called “Healing and Empowerment: Violence, Women, and Art” which showed pieces by American Muslim women from the Muslim Women in the Arts collective. The chapter I wrote about the exhibit did not make it into my book, but the students would have read the introduction to my book. The virtual art exhibit in class brings back the reflections and conversations on gender-based violence and trauma from the beginning of the semester, and this time, the women artists are also in the United States and what they are depicting and working through in their visual art pieces is both local and global.

I mention the upcoming art exhibit in the preceding class and describe some of the art pieces as potential triggers. This allows students to miss the class if they are concerned, and I do not ask for an explanation for their absence. The art pieces are powerful in their visual impact, and I explain some pieces in more detail, partly to talk through the tense and emotional atmosphere in the room. I also explain my own experience of third-level trauma from my research, and that I am deeply affected every time I look at these pieces. In this class, I offer time for reflection and trauma processing at the end of the class, and again use a free-write exercise. The students also reflect further in their journal for the next week.

I have always had a keen interest in art and many of my classes contain an art assignment in which the students themselves produce a piece of visual, written, or virtual art. The connection between the Terman article, the DAM music video, and the art exhibit later in the semester developed organically over two different times of my teaching this course. I used to teach the article towards the end of the semester, hoping that, by then, students would have arrived at a critical understanding of Terman’s notion of the double bind: “In an age of Islamophobia, how does one engage in a feminist critique of women’s status in Muslim contexts without providing ideological fuel for undesired political ambitions? When the US invokes the oppression of Muslim women to justify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening orientalism and imperialism?”2 I realized that the course needed an introductory framing through the focus on Terman’s article because various forms of anti-Muslim hostility and racism are justified by instances of gender-based violence in Muslim contexts presented as exceptional (and not like us), and my students often follow those patterns of explanation many weeks into the semester. Terman also frames these questions as inherently political, which is now something I can embrace from the start of the course.

The topic of “honor” in relation to the murder in the DAM video, which is discussed in the responses as an honor killing, is complex but important in analyzing how we study gender and sexuality in Muslim contexts.  

Trauma from exposure to gender-based violence is ubiquitous in our society and among our students. Any course on gender and/or sexuality, even if not related to Islam and Muslims, will have to contend with the presence of such trauma in our classrooms. Over my many years as a teacher, I have learned that students, like other members of society, do not always know that they have experienced such trauma because they have not even been able to recognize and name it as such. It is infinitely harder to work with and through unacknowledged trauma from gender-based violence, and I admit that I have struggled with how to prepare for class situations when trauma responses are triggered even when I knew that it could happen. I am not a counselor or therapist, but in my research on Muslim efforts against domestic violence, I have participated in many awareness events that provided counselors and facilitators to address trauma responses in the room. I do not attempt to replicate their work but offer students access to university resources should they realize they need them. The very presence of these resources in the syllabus alerts the students to the possibility of triggering material and topics, and it also signals my openness to acknowledging the trauma experiences of my students present in my classroom.   

While I now teach at a large public university, the art-making assignment is a well-developed part of my courses that I retained from my time at a liberal arts college at the beginning of my teaching career. This assignment, usually due in the last third of the semester, asks students to reflect on our readings and discussions on gender, bodies, sexuality and what all that has to do with religion/Islam, and specifically with religious practice. In turning a specific idea, reflection, or thought into an art piece (keeping in mind questions as diverse as representation, critique, self-reflection, and comparison), they are asked to consider how art becomes a vehicle of communication and what they are attempting to communicate. Art pieces can be visual, textual, and also audiovisual, and there are few limits to their creativity. The students submit their projects together with an explanation of both process and meaning so I can appreciate the effort and thought that has gone into the making of the pieces.

The art assignment allows students to further develop their understanding of the course materials, but it focuses primarily on reflection and creative expression, thereby providing opportunities to work through potential trauma triggered by class content. In connecting the music video at the beginning of the semester, the art exhibit in the latter part, and the student art assignment which we view together in class, I have made art and artistic expression a thread that runs through the entire course. This thread allows students to reflect on gender-based violence in Muslim contexts and in their own lives and to do so in different registers that allow for arguments, opinions, and emotions to be expressed as the students need and want to call on them. 

While other educators do not have my collection of images from the 2011 art exhibit, the Terman article and links to the music video and Jadaliyya debate are accessible to them. My reflections on the incorporation of visual art, by viewing it and by making it, however, can certainly be adapted to other courses and instructors. In our quest for trauma-informed teaching strategies, visual art as well as poetry and creative writing offer the students ways to work through the complicated emotions and embodied reactions to trauma we discuss in class. Rather than avoiding such discussions and topics, which is virtually impossible with the ubiquity of gender-based violence trauma among us, I have searched for openings to process such trauma individually as well as collectively. For the collective processing, privacy is definitely a concern and so is secondary trauma from exposure to someone else’s triggered responses. In a positive scenario, students build a class community through their own courageous sharing and through garnering the respect of their classmates, but also through recognizing their own experiences as part of shared communal trauma and the emergence of solidarity as a way to connect to others.


Notes

1 Rochelle Terman, “Islamophobia, Feminism and the Politics of Critique,” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 2 (March 2016), 77–102.

2 Terman, 2.


Julianne HammerJuliane Hammer is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of gender and sexuality in Muslim societies, race and gender in US Muslim communities, as well as contemporary Muslim thought, activism and practice, and Sufism. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (University of Texas Press, 2005), American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012), and Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts against Domestic Violence (Princeton University Press, 2019). She is also the co-editor of A Jihad for Justice: The Work and Life of Amina Wadud (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and the Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013).