Yuna, The Hijabster

Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, widely known as Yuna, is a Malaysian born pop singer whose style and success is changing the way people view Muslim women. The New York Times recently published an article dubbing Yuna as the “Poster Girl for Young Hijabsters,” using hijabster as a spin off of the popular American term hipster. Hijabsters represent a new trend found among younger generations in predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia. This new fad offers a way for people to retain their Muslim identity while also keeping up with the latest fashion and modern, progressive attitudes. Yuna challenges many stereotypical assumptions surrounding Islam and is idolized by many because of her resistance to conform to conservative Islam views as well as to Western expectations.YUNA_SELF-TITLED_COVER1

How does she accomplish this?

Characterized by both a hijab and skinny jeans, Yuna prides herself on finding a balance between her devotion to Islam as well as to her personal style. She does so by her choice to wear red lipstick and trendy outfits with a hijab. The hijab itself is a current developing fashion trend in more progressive Muslim countries. The hijab signifies both reverence to the religion but also serves as a symbol of progressive Islamic feminism. Sociologist Jaime Kucinskas demonstrates in her research on Islam and gender egalitarianism how a reaffirmation of Muslim identity can coincide with progressive gender attitudes, especially among female youths in countries like Egypt.

Jen’nan Ghazal Read, who studies identity negotiation among Muslim women states, “feminist notions of standpoint, subjectivity, and bodily practice…suggest that discursive regimes provide social actors with important symbolic resources for identity negotiation and for the legitimation of everyday social and bodily practices.” Yuna’s choice to be a worldwide pop star as well as a devout Muslim woman and to dress both parts represents her negotiation of identity and legitimation of public modern Islamic style. Despite now living in Los Angeles, Yuna chooses not to conform to Western expectations in the music industry and uses the hijab as a way to symbolize this dedication to her roots and Islamic faith. Because American pop stars generally market themselves in a provocative way, many female Muslim entertainers often face a tough choice to uncover their hair and stay in the industry or cover up and be phased out. In Yuna’s case, she sings and entertains like any other musician, yet she does so in a manner that remains respectful to her faith, her country, and herself. In doing so, as a self-identifying proud Muslim woman, Yuna then serves as the primary role model for younger generations, especially among Muslim girls.


Yuna featured in Tory (Burch) Daily as “Best Dressed: Fall 2013”

Many feminists and scholars have long debated the place of the hijab, questioning whether this article functions as a source of oppression or empowerment. In Yuna’s case as well as many others, the hijab is no doubt deliberately utilized as a way to affirm and reinforce identity. In an interview with the New York Times, Yuna states that her choice to wear a hijab is a reflection of “[her] will to be a better Muslim.” Yuna’s popularity stems from this ability to confidently recreate her own cultural and religious boundaries.

While the hype around Yuna is exceptionally positive, this publicity can also be conceived as quite objectifying. In all of the articles I have read, Yuna is not being highlighted for her music but for her clothes. While her outfits are her trademark, the fetishizing of the hijab is taken to an extreme, which potentially results in a misappropriation of her cultural and religious identity. For instance, the article is in the International Arts section is titled, “A Malaysian Pop Star Clad in Skinny Jeans and a Hijab.” The article then begins with, “A few years ago, a young woman wearing a hijab..” In the title and this opening line, the article promotes not an aspiring artist but instead an artifact that entices fascination with its symbolic Otherness. Yuna’s success is undermined if it is only defined by her choice to wear a hijab. The fact is, Yuna has been a considerable force in contributing to a revolutionary phase among Muslim youths and as the Free Malaysia press puts it, a “feminist awakening.”


Evangelicals in America: Embattled yet successful in the secular world

American Evangelicals are a deeply religious group in society. They are the least likely to question or doubt their faith, have the highest levels of church attendance and participate more frequently in church activities than other spiritual tradition. This devoutness extends beyond the church, as they also listen to Christian radio and watch Christian television more often than any other group. Evangelical’s intense spiritual connection with God is a uniting force that can pervade all aspects of life.

With their religious beliefs as a backbone, Evangelicals form a unique subculture and moral agenda, which are distinct from mainstream American culture. They engage with broader society by conversion efforts and spreading their beliefs. Christian Smith (1998) argues that although Evangelicalism has the highest rates of member retention and recruitment compared to other forms of Christianity, they struggle to make a broader social impact on powerful institutions in American society. He suggests that Evangelicals rely on conversion on a case-by-case basis but members typically fail to target  and succeed within large-scale secular social structures. Contrary to Smith’s argument, the recent Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell decision by the Supreme Court proves that Evangelicals can make their mark on our judicial system.

Hobby Lobby is a home decor and craft store with devout Evangelical Christian ownership. In opposition to contraceptives under employer health care, Hobby Lobby fought in the Supreme Court case Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, and won. The Supreme Court concluded on June 30, 2014 with a 5-4 vote that for-profit corporations could be exempt from a law if the corporation religiously objected to the law. The corporation is now exempt from providing required birth control coverage, which was previously mandated under the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Using their own distinct moral code, Evangelicals strengthen and reinforce a group identity, which in turn propels their engagement in society. Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell illuminates how embattled Evangelicals engage with and impact the secular world by directly influencing our legal system.

Hobby Lobby also actively promotes Christianity in ways similar to other Evangelical groups.  The Hobby Lobby website states, “We are committed to: [h]onoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles” and, “[w]e believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.”  Hobby Lobby annually posts, in acceptance with their religious commitment, Christmas and Easter advertisements with messages aimed at converting others. For example, one ad ran: “If you would like to know Jesus as Savior and Lord, call the Need Him Ministry at 1-888-Need-Him (1-888-633-3446)” (Lake, 66). These bold statements are forthright in their Christian message, and this explicit religious ideology is central to many Evangelical’s sense of religious identity.


Evangelicals tend to see themselves as an embattled group within society. Smith argues that Evangelicalism “flourishes on difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat”, which further reaffirms group identity (Smith,121). In Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, the tension and conflict arise from  requiring employees to pay for birth control, which Evangelicals consider to be killing a life. Smith continues, “the implicit ‘us’ and ‘them’ is omnipresent in Evangelical thought and speech” (Smith, 124). The concept of “us” vs. “them”, inherently tied to Evangelicalism, prompted the owners of Hobby Lobby to take the case to the Supreme Court.  These clear distinctions regarding birth control create a sense of embattlement and strengthen internal Evangelical ties. The KCTV5 News Channel in Kansas City reported in January 2013 that “scores” of Evangelicals were prepared to support the Hobby Lobby in the case, either buy shopping in the stores or buying products online. These supporters are united by their belief in an ultimate truth and their own moral superiority. One Evangelical articulates his sense of moral superiority in stating, “in a Christian community you have more sharing, compassion, competition for others. A lot of the problems in the world stem from competition, putting down other people, self, concern, greed. And for a Christian, all that becomes less of a priority” (Smith, 130).

Hobby Lobby follows a different moral code based on religious values, but also challenges society to consider a religious perspective. Contrary to Smith’s argument that the Evangelical subcultural identity “limits their capacity to formulate appropriate and useful responses and solutions to social, economic, political and cultural problems” (Smith, 188), this case demonstrates the success of Evangelicals in a public sphere. By challenging the government, Evangelicals are not only just succeeding on a micro-level scale in converting others, they are achieving macro-level changes. Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell contradicts Smith’s argument, by showing how Evangelical mobilization can succeed in secular courts in addition to their case by case conversion strategy.

Christian Smith, Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving, 1998

Teenage Rebels

Teenagers do lots of crazy things to reel against authority. They dye their hair, they stay out past curfew, or may even threaten to run away from home to join the circus. However, there is a startling new addition to this laundry list of rebellious teenage acts. Now, young Western women are attempting to leave their homes to join the efforts of ISIS, from Colorado to the UK. Why are these women, some as young as 14 or 15 years old, risking their lives to travel to Syria in the hopes of joining ISIS knowing full well the dangers that await them?

Within larger society today, women are still not treated equally. They have fewer employment opportunities, less mobility, and less access to healthcare, to name it a few examples (Edmonds 2013). Of course women want to take an active role in their liberation, but this does not sufficiently explain such extreme measures. In Georges- Abeyie’s essay “Women as Terrorists,” he describes criteria explaining the growth of women’s involvement in terrorist operations. He says that “women may feel economically deprived or politically repressed. They may be encouraged by external forces… [or] have a historical ‘outsider’ to blame” (1987). However, this only offers a very limited view on why women join terrorist operations. It does not sufficiently account for this new wave of young, Western women participating abroad.

So if it is not because of their lower social standing, why do women join ISIS? Is it something more personal? Many studies on why women join terrorist organizations cite that revenge is often a main motivator, but that is not true in these recent cases of young Western women joining ISIS (Galvin 1983). The Farah sisters from Colorado had no personal ties to Syria or ISIS and therefore were not driven there under the guise of vengeance. Further research is imperative in determining the root of this troubling behavior. These new ISIS “fangirls” are hardly the ideal candidate for joining a terrorist organization.

Terrorists, male or female, “are a product of their environment,” even with differing ideologies and goals (Galvin 1983: 21). This is a terrifying statement because as Westerners we do not want to believe that we have raised our girls in an environment that fosters destruction and violence. However, this very environment allows the youth to gain access to ISIS’s ideals. ISIS does much of its recruitment through social media, painting a “‘Disney-like’ picture of life in the caliphate. Some young women were offered financial incentives, such as travel expenses or compensation for bearing children.” (Sherwood 2014). The internet affords this kind of guerilla advertising and access to the Western world, and these images often lead women to have an “almost romantic idea of war and warriors,” perpetuating this idea of leaving home to explore a dangerous, new land as an adventure. This gives these young women a sense of importance and respect (Sherwood: 2014).

This is why ISIS is so dangerous. They are adapting their recruitment style to fit a new generation that remains a mystery to the majority of society: the teenage girl. They are making a conscious effort to appeal to these young girls because of their youth. Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, believes that “ISIS is appealing to the youth because they are giving them a sense of purpose,” which is a common notion reflected in many religious conversion stories (Frej 2014). This notion is reflected in many women’s choice to convert in general. Religion provides a “more meaningful context in which to understand their lives” and becoming more involved in religion offers “order, meaning, and belonging” (Davidman 1991:90-97). In the tumultuous time that is adolescence, the youth often wants to be part of a movement making an important social impact. ISIS suggests to youth they will provide them with this opportunity, making information readily available online on how to become involved.

The reason people are so shocked to hear about these girls leaving their comfortable lifestyles to pursue a life with ISIS is that they never considered it an option. ISIS, on the other hand, saw these women as an untapped resource.

The Thanksgiving Meal: The Solidarity of a Sacred and Ritualized Culture

I was surprised to learn that Thanksgiving is rooted in American civil religious tradition, as I have always interpreted the holiday as a completely secular one. Backtracking to Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863, he states:

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God…[and this day is] a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”

Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout America and has shifted away from a day specifically devoted to giving thanks to God. What does hold true, just as much today as it did centuries ago, is that Thanksgiving is a day of “political-religious ritual of nationality” and solidarity (Siskind, 1992).


“Thanksgiving [has] become associated with homecoming…[r]eturning home for Thanksgiving [is] both a metaphor and a ritual performance of solidarity, renewing or validating family ties” (Siskind, 1992). As one of the approximate 46 million projected to travel for this holiday, I was unsure of what justifies this long, draining “pilgrimage,” all for only one meal. Perhaps I am indifferent because traditional Thanksgiving foods have never thrilled me? Even more so, I might have just been bitter because all of these foods that appear to lack any gastronomic attachment with my family, still reside at the table year after year.

As this momentous meal approaches, I thought I would task myself with answering two questions: (1) how is the Thanksgiving table a space with religious significance, and (2) what in fact does the Thanksgiving meal represent?

It is rare, especially as a college student, to sit at a nicely set dining room table in a leisurely atmosphere. Thanksgiving is focused around the communal meal that is celebrated strictly at the table, which sets it apart from most religious holidays. The Thanksgiving table is a place of vulnerability that provides an intermediated space to share and pass down dishes, traditions, stories, and memories. Wendell Berry reminisced about associations that represented food since ancient times—“mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, [and] religious ceremony.” Thanksgiving is an exception; I argue that these representations of food are very much alive at the Thanksgiving table. I contend that these meals have become sacred because modern culture has parted from the representations of food Berry nostalgically described as once inhabiting our culture.


Specifically, the dinner table and religious ceremonies offer a strong relationship. Both include a community of people gathering for the sake of tradition and celebration. Just as people devote time away from their busy lives to attend religious ceremonies, the same urgency is given for the gathering at the Thanksgiving table—a ritual devoted to the ceremonial community that surrounds the table. The table, in this setting, becomes sacred.


The inclusivity of the Thanksgiving meal is powerful. The slow and leisurely pace at which the food and experience is digested creates a foundation to learn about other people’s food traditions, and the stories which special, memory-triggering dishes evoke. As a holiday celebrated only in America, Thanksgiving creates national solidarity and most people celebrate it by cooking, eating with family, and sitting around a table set with fine china and a gleaming, robust turkey. Typically, the main Thanksgiving staples (i.e. turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing) are not replaced by culturally specific foods. Rather, these dishes are served in addition (Colman, 2008). Thus, the meal acts to unite us as a nation, inclusive of the multiethnic and multiregional adaptations and additions to the Thanksgiving menu. Perhaps this leads to larger implications that this meal ought to represent. Perhaps the sacredness of this meal, inclusive of the people, dishes, and community should be how we welcome, adopt, and incorporate the increasingly diverse population of Americans, as our classmates, colleagues, neighbors, citizens and dinner guests.


The Thanksgiving meal represents the opportunity that communal meals create, as a culturally binding and inclusive space that initiates bonds and a shared sense of community. So how come certain dishes are served every year: for the purpose of maintaining tradition. My family holds on to these traditional dishes because of the cultural, rather than gastronomic significance they hold. This meal helps unite and uphold the sacred and ritualized American table—comprised of family, friends, and for some, God.

Unveiling Gender Equality

A “fear of Islam” has swept through European countries thanks in part to a large influx of Muslim immigrants and a rising birth rate for Muslim families in the last decade (Douthat). This has led many nations to enact laws attempting to combat Islamic influence. In 2004, France banned conspicuous displays of religion in public schools, although this was mostly aimed at Muslim headscarves (Scott, Politics of the Veil 1). The French government then made further attempts to remove “conspicuous” religious outerwear in all public sectors in the name of secularization and gender equality. However, the French argument is flawed. It fails to address how, despite popular assumptions, secularization does not necessarily share a direct relationship with gender equality – and should not be called a direct cause of gender equality. Additionally, French feminists believe that headscarves, like the niqab, rob women of their femininity and personhood, while completely ignoring the reasons Muslim women give for wearing headscarves.

The French believe that secularization, the process in which religion is removed from the public sphere and from social significance, is the key to achieving gender equality. The problem is that the French have somehow conveniently forgotten their own history of secularization and how women have been treated. As Joan W. Scott points out (“Sexularism”), the French Revolution, which sought to remove the Catholic influence from the country, was fraught with misogyny. Women were accused of being easily seduced by priests’ fanaticism and seen as the embodiments of tradition and religion by the de-christianizing forces (Scott, “Sexularism” 3). Secularism and gender equality are in no way necessarily related, despite the French Stasi commission claim that “secularism can no longer be conceived without a direct link to the ‘equality principle between the sexes’” (Selby). As Joan W. Scott demonstrates, the struggles for secularism by the French government actually lead to more women being treated as the enemy (“Sexularism” 4).

When assembling a report on the niqab, the French determined that the use of face veils somehow inevitably leads to women losing “their dignity, their femininity, and their very identity as persons,” (Selby). One leader of a French feminist organization declared in front of the Gerin Commission, which was organized in 2010 to investigate the wearing of facial veils, how she, unlike her veiled fellow women, was not ashamed of her body (Selby). In this almost painful debate to remove ostentatious religious clothing from public spaces, the French are ignoring the voices of the women they are supposedly trying to defend. Almost none of the proponents for the ban on facial veils are Muslim women. This leads us to wonder if Muslim women themselves feel the subjugation that the headscarves supposedly represent? The French arguments against headscarves basically deny the possibility that Muslim women are freely choosing to wear facial veils. Facial veils can be a part of one’s spiritual relationship just like prayer is (Scott, Politics of the Veil 143). Some Muslim women found a sense of emancipation when wearing the headscarves. Additionally, some Muslim women argue that wearing a face veil is not about their submission to men, but to God (Scott, Politics of the Veil 145), which they choose in hopes of self-transcendence (Mahmood).

Perhaps it is time to ask if French Muslim women need liberation at all. Perhaps the French mentality of liberation ought to be adapted, especially given the complex relationship between gender and different religions. Liberation must be given a broader meaning. The veil is not a symbol of oppression to many who choose to wear it in Western societies like France, just as secularism is not the solution to gender inequality.

An Interpretation of Jewish Kosher laws: A Symbolic, Cultural Ritual, Rather Than a Religious Obligation

Food is universally embedded in religious traditions. Kosher dietary laws in particular shape Jewish identity and foodways—the history and traditions that shape one’s social and cultural relationship with food. As a strong adversary of genetically modified foods and a resilient advocate for “Slow Food,” I am interested in exploring how we can apply kosher laws to contemporary food choices. In particular, I wondered how Jews interpret Kosher laws with respect to genetically modified food.

Not only is the largest kosher certifier in support of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but a study conducted in 2001 found that among Protestants, Jews, Catholics and Muslims, Jews were the most in favor of GMOs. 55% of Jews favored genetically modified food while 35% opposed these products (Pew Trusts, 2001). Yet, the Torah prohibits the mixing of seeds and different species of cattle (Herzfeld, 2009). In order for food to be holy, kosher laws advice it should not be mixed or hybridized (Douglas, 1966).

Therefore, under what conditions do contemporary ways of eating become contested in Judaism? When I went to the dinners hosted by Hamilton College’s Jewish organization, Hillel, the quality of the food we were eating, concerns about GMOs, and foods adherence to kosher laws were not a salient concern. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration I attended, food was mentioned only once. People instead talked about how the holiday-specific pairing of sweet honey dip and round challah bread reminded them of family celebrations. The honey dip represents the start of a sweet year, and the round (as opposed to braided) challah symbolizes the circle of life (Greene). I concluded that one of the most salient aspects of Jewish meals is the interconnectedness of rituals, sacred meals, and solidarity.

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Based on the kosher meals I have had with members of Hillel, I noticed that kosher food is typically upheld during religious holidays. This, to me, is a clear indicator of cultural religion—or a religion that upholds traditions without religious beliefs. Many Jews identify with their religion and participate Jewish rituals. For some Jews, kosher rules are kept and practiced only for the sake of respecting and upholding tradition during holidays, rather than for faith-based reasons (Zuckerman, 2010).

Meals are a particularly sacred tradition for Jews and retain many symbolic meanings. For example, challah is used to “mark a sacred time” and is typically present at holiday meals in every synagogue and Jewish home (Prichep, 2014). Thus, the gathering itself, of family, friends, and the community, is more significant than what they are eating. Kosher food is upheld because it is part of the cultural religious tradition.

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The ritual aspect of sacred meals creates solidarity among Jewish people. Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a group which shares physical co-presence, exclusivity, ritualized activity, and shared symbols will have more social solidarity. Religious beliefs construct cultural boundaries that define which foods are and are not sacred (Beardsworth, 1997). The Torah’s exclusion of certain foods sets Jews apart and creates solidarity within their group. The dietary rules are very specific to them, so holiday meals, like Shabbat, give them the space and opportunity to join together and practice special traditions.

I approached the Jewish ritual of keeping kosher with the assumption, based on religious ideology, that the restrictions in the Torah would lead to an exclusion of GMOs. While that may be a concern for a select minority of Jews, I uncovered that the meals’ significance for most was more about the promotion of group interaction, celebration, solidarity, and the preservation of traditions. Despite this, I still believe the Torah is worth consulting when considering the integrity of the American kosher food industry, including the use of GMOs.

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This is What a (Catholic) Feminist Looks Like

Why is it more realistic for a young girl to aspire to be the President of the United States than to be a priest in her local Catholic church?

Despite progress towards gender equality and egalitarianism in many countries (Norris and Inglehart), the Catholic Church remains conservative in its practices regarding women’s rights. Women are still not allowed to hold positions of authority within the Church: according to canon law 1024, they cannot be priests, pastors, bishops, cardinals, or the pope. In a world where gender equality has become a prevailing standard or at least an important goal many of the patriarchal practices of the Catholic church no longer resonate with its members.


A Vatican delegation meeting in 2013.                                                                                                                       (Image from


Society is changing, but the Church as an institution has not adequately kept up. However, Catholicism is not composed only of top-down decisions made by the Pope and the Vatican. There are many people at the grassroots level making decisions and choices about how to weave Catholicism into their modern lives. Catholic studies scholar Robert A. Orsi asserts that there is “no religion that people have not taken up in their [own] hands.” Correspondingly, various Catholic groups have taken religion into their own hands to reconcile their religious practices with gender equality.

One way to accomplish this goal is to remain affiliated with the Church and work within its existing structure. Mary Katzenstein, in Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military (1999), studies feminist Catholics who bring gender equality to Catholicism. Instead of directly struggling against the Vatican’s overarching patriarchal power, feminist Catholics are creating alternative discourses. They hold conferences, workshops, liturgy groups, and form women’s renewal organizations to reframe and refocus Catholic ideas. The women that Katzenstein studied have succeeded in bringing kinds of feminist Catholicism into their daily lives, as they hope for gradual change at the institutional level.

An alternative way to reconcile Catholicism with gender equality is to break away from the institution itself. One church that successfully broke away from the Roman Catholic Church was Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, NY. Corpus Christi was dedicated to including all people: specifically women, nonCatholics, and those who identify as members of the  LGBTQ community. The church’s inclusiveness was reflected in its religious practices: women were allowed to lead services from the altar, marriage-preparation programs were available to gay and lesbian couples, and the Eucharist was open to anyone who wished to have it. These controversial practices led the Vatican to excommunicate Corpus Christi and all of its members in 1998. Since then, the church (which changed its name to Spiritus Christi) has thrived.


Mary Ramerman, an ordained priest at Spiritus Christi church, offers the Eucharist.                                                                                                                                                                  (Image  from


Members of Spiritus Christi still consider themselves Catholic, and understand their commitment to inclusivity as a direct manifestation of their Catholic beliefs*. Spiritus Christi’s system of inclusion accommodates traditional Catholic ideologies as well as contemporary social needs. This combination allows the church to appeal to many demographics that the Roman Catholic Church has alienated. Currently, Spiritus Christi has the most Catholic members in all of Rochester. In The Sacred Canopy (1967), Peter Berger helps to explain the church’s success: he argues that churches and religions tend to be more appealing when they correspond to current social structures and mainstream cultural norms.

In a rapidly modernizing, pluralistic society, should a conservative institution like the Catholic Church attempt to keep up with major societal changes? What does it stand to lose if it doesn’t?

*Reverend Jim Callan, the radical pastor who led the church through its transformation, interpreted the gospel as a divine sanction for the inclusion of all people. Callan explained, “Jesus was the most inclusive person who ever walked the face of the earth. He deserves to have His Church reflect His welcoming attitude” (from “Feminism in a Radical Catholic Renewal Community”).