Unruly Souls: The Digital Activism of Muslim and Christian Feminists

About the book:

Amid growing digital activism to address gender-based violence, institutional racism, and homophobia in U.S. society, Unruly Souls explores the intersectional feminist activism among young people within Islam and Evangelical Christianity. These religious misfits—marginalized from traditional religious spaces due to their sexuality, gender, or race—employ the creative tactics of digital media in their work to seek justice and to display their fundamental equality in the eyes of God. Through an analysis of various digital projects from hip-hop music videos and Instagram accounts to Twitter hashtags and podcasts, Kristin Peterson argues that the hybrid, flexible, playful, and sensory nature of digital media facilitate intersectional feminist activism within and beyond religious communities. Drawing on work from queer theory, decolonial theory, and Black feminist theory, this study explores how those who have been marginalized are able to effectively deploy their disregarded status along with digital media tactics to cultivate empathetic communities for those recovering from religious trauma.

Podcast Interviews about book:

Interview on Exvangelical, October 6, 2022 –> listen

Interview on Pray for Micah, September 19, 2022 –> listen

Table of Contents:

Introduction >

Through a variety of examples in this book, I examine how young Americans raised in religions that reinforce traditional norms of gender and sexuality use digital media to celebrate their inherent value and dismantle intersecting forms of oppression. This book lays out a theorization of the current digital media moment by arguing that the hybrid, flexible, playful, and sensory nature of digital spaces facilitates intersectional feminist activism within and beyond religious communities. This activism often grows out of a desire to dismantle powerful forces of oppression within religions, but these cases illustrate how online media can help foster empathetic communities for those recovering from religious trauma. The distinctions between the cases allow for a specific theorization of the affordances of media, such as Twitter hashtags, photos, podcasts, and music videos. By examining different forms of religious expression, this book takes a wide-angle look at the deep trauma inflicted when religious teachings are fueled by patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy. Discussing these different cases together enables broader and deeper theorization of political activism in the current digital moment while addressing the specificities of religious expression.
          While previous scholarship has examined how digital media spaces encourage social action, this book specifically examines the religious dimensions of digital activism. The individuals in all of the cases presented here face intersecting forms of oppression within society based on their race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or ability, in addition to experiencing a deeper pain from being dismissed within their religious communities as inherently flawed. Rather than attempt to fit into the narrow symbolic role of the demure and pious virgin, the women embrace their status as religious misfits. The creative projects discussed in this book demonstrate how digital media provide hybrid styles and flexible spaces to insert critiques of religion from marginalized perspectives. My analysis of these creative projects draws on work from queer theory, decolonial theory, and Black feminist theory that examines how those who have been marginalized find innovative opportunities for resistance through various tactics. Building on these theories, I assert that the women are able to effectively deploy their disregarded status as unruly souls along with digital media tactics to construct a new religious understanding built on the equality of all people in the eyes of God.
          Although digital media spaces are highly structured by corporate forces; government oversight; and cultural discourses around gender, sexuality, and race, the women in these cases deploy creative tactics to contest dominant labels and binaries. While the playful and spreadable features of digital culture are also responsible for an increase in trolling and the harassment of marginalized voices, the women in this study enter this messy space fully aware that their words, values, and bodies will be scrutinized. Because they face physical threats and intersecting forms of oppression within religious communities and wider society, these women are unable and unwilling to remain silent. My analysis of these cases addresses this tension, as the women are deeply wounded and harassed within online spaces but still find digital media to be productive platforms to creatively resist patriarchal religious institutions and support each other.

Chapter 1: Dismantling the Hierarchy of Souls >

The first chapter in the book provides a historical overview of how religious discourse—specifically Evangelical Christianity in the United States—has been deployed to reinforce white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. The unique context of Islam in the United States is also discussed by examining both how Islam is positioned as inferior to Christianity and Western imperialist projects and how Muslim American communities often reinforce similar racist and misogynistic ideologies. Chapter 1 also looks at feminist critiques within Evangelical Christianity and Islam from second-wave activism around women’s role in religious spaces to contemporary discussions of racism, sexual abuse, and homophobia. This chapter provides an analysis of the overlaps between feminist activism in Islam and Christianity, while clarifying the unique context of these religious traditions in the United States.

Chapter 2: #KissShameBye: Textual Critiques of Evangelical Purity Culture >

Chapter 2 focuses primarily on textual spaces such as Twitter hashtags, blogs, and online forums, and on how creative language play is foundational to the burgeoning movement against purity culture within Evangelical Christianity. I argue that the clever and hybrid use of language in digital spaces enables the rearticulation of bodies and experiences in ways that celebrate instead of shame sexualities. Young people who feel harmed by problematic teachings around maintaining virginity and proper gender roles express these traumatic feelings through a variety of hashtags, organized Twitter discussions, blogs, and web forums. As the tenets of purity culture have often been conveyed through texts, especially the popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, those harmed by these teachings engage with textual spaces and the language of purity and shame to challenge these misogynistic, homophobic, and racist teachings. Activists against purity culture have created various spaces where others— deemed queer, impure, and unruly based on their sexuality or skin color—can share their experiences and feel supported.

Chapter 3: Bold and Beautiful: Images of Unruly Bodies Destabilize Pious Muslim Icon >

Chapter 3 addresses how dominant ideologies of proper Muslim femininity are perpetuated through Islamic fashion icons online. In contrast to these portrayals of glowing and bubbly Muslim women in flowing, pastel-colored garments, this chapter explores the activist work of several Muslim American women who insert their unruly bodies and vocal political critiques into the bubblegum aesthetic of Muslim influencers on Instagram. These women build on their intersectional experiences to call out the ways that this dominant icon of Muslim femininity defines women as immodest and immoral because of their skin color, body shape, sexuality, intellect, or independence. Through a discussion of the various Instagram projects of Muslim American women such as Leah Vernon, Blair Imani, Zainab bint Younus, and Angelica Lindsey-Ali, I assert that these creators engage with the visual tropes and malleability of Instagram to do more than share beautiful fashion images or dispel stereotypes of Muslim women. Instead, the women discussed in this chapter blend together photography, graphic images, videos, and captions to share relevant intersectional feminist critiques and deconstruct the icon of the pious Muslim woman. These activists transform their Instagram pages into supportive platforms, celebrating Muslims who fail to meet the unachievable standards of the Islamic fashion industry.

Chapter 4: A Seat at the Table: Podcasts Facilitate Dialogue for Marginalized Christian Perspectives >

Chapter 4 focuses on podcasts as open forums for dialogue on theological interpretations, often from marginalized perspectives. I examine the flexible, intimate, and authentic feel of podcasts and how they enable younger Christians to critique the white supremacist and patriarchal aspects of mainstream churches. After addressing the popularity of podcasts that expand theological boundaries, such as Exvangelical, Queerology, and The Liturgists, the chapter presents a deeper discussion of Truth’s Table, featuring three Black women involved in Christian ministry and theology. I assert that podcasting can be a productive medium for celebrating the spirituality of Black women, especially in the context of a society and church communities that diminish these women’s voices. The authentic aesthetics of this podcast reinforce the fact that Black women, who may feel displaced in other digital spaces, are welcome to “sit at the table” with the three hosts and talk about theological topics. The fluidity and openness of podcasts allow the hosts to present an oppositional take on Christian theology and to disentangle the legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy from biblical teachings.

Chapter 5: “We Them Barbarians”: Digital Videos Creatively Rearticulate Muslim Identity >

After analyzing texts, images, and podcast discussions, I turn in chapter 5 to highlight the convergence of the digital moment through an examination of digital music videos. Not only do these videos engage with the multisensory elements of digital media (such as lyrics, music, colors, gestures, fashion, movement, and fast-paced editing), but the remediation of videos in various online locations emphasizes the accelerated circulation of the digital moment. This chapter argues that these multisensory features and hybrid styles enable Muslim women to creatively insert intersectional feminist critiques into their videos while also demonstrating pride in their religious identity. Mona Haydar engages with tactics of mimicry and rearticulation in her videos to show how Muslim women have been demeaned as backward and exotic. By employing clever lyrics, body movement, bright colors, multicultural styles, and hybrid fashion, the women in Haydar’s videos embrace negative labels like barbarian and exotic to rearticulate their inherent value. Similarly, a multiplatform project from the creative collective, Mipsterz, allows Muslim Americans to engage with eclectic fashion styles, visual art, and music to formulate their own vision of a future free from oppressive misrepresentations.

Conclusion >

The conclusion analyzes what these cases taken together have to say about the current state of feminist activism, originating within religious communities but expanding into wider society. In many of these cases, activists realize that the oppression they face relates to white, heteronormative, patriarchal structures that extend beyond religious institutions. These dominant structures reinforce women’s subordinate position, the interpretation of female and queer sexuality as disordered, and the inferior status of both Black Christians and Black Muslims. By examining the through lines in all of these cases, I conclude that digital media enable collaborative political activism, particularly related to gender-based violence in religious spaces. Beyond these tangible political projects, I analyze the ways that these digital projects cultivate supportive communities for people recovering from religious trauma. Finally, the flexibility and creative tools of digital media encourage the development of faith communities, centered on the inherent value of these unruly souls. The playfulness and unruliness exhibited in hashtags calling out the hypocrisy of purity culture, images that counteract the bubblegum beauty standards of Instagram fashion, podcasts celebrating Black womanist theology, and digital music videos envisioning Muslim futurism are all efforts to chip away at the patriarchal and white supremacist structures of religious institutions and society. These young people are proudly building something new: an intersectional, complex, and nonbinary interpretation of religious faith.

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