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On Hybridity, Head-wrapping, and Halal Singlehood: Detroit-Based Scholar and Activist Creates a Buzz in Western Michigan

By Dr. Alisa Perkins, Assistant Professor, Western Michigan University

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Dr. Alisa Perkins

A talk by Detroit-based scholar, artist, and activist Zarinah El-Amin Naeem on “American Muslim Identities and the Cultural Wombs that Bore Them” recently generated a great deal of excitement in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  About one hundred students, faculty, and staff from Western Michigan University, along with residents from the surrounding community, gathered to welcome Ms. Naeem this past Thursday evening, Feb 6th and to trade ideas with this WMU alumna during her seminar-style, interactive presentation. Ms. Naeem’s talk was the third of eight “Islam in Global Perspectives Speaker Series” lectures hosted by the WMU Department of Comparative Religion this semester. The event is co-sponsored by more than a dozen other departments and centers, including WMU Office of Diversity and Inclusion, WMU Muslim Student Association, and the Kalamazoo College Department of Religion.


Zarinah El-Amin Naeem

Zarinah El-Amin Naeem’s talk was based on several years of ethnographic research that she carried for her master’s degree in anthropology at Western. Her unique and eminently readable work was subsequently published in book form as “Jihad of the Soul: Singlehood and the Search for Love in Muslim America.” This text represents dynamic teaching tool about Muslim American Youth which is increasingly being used in college classrooms across the country.  Since graduating Western in 2008, Zarinah El-Amin Naeem has gone on to become the Founder and Chief Spiritual Advisor of of  Niyah Publishing,  Niyah Creative Living, and Beautifully Wrapped. These organizations support anti-racism and cross-cultural understanding through a range of community-centered, creative and artistic endeavors. For example, on the day after her WMU talk, Ms. Naeem displayed her “Beautifully Wrapped” photo exhibition and headwapping demonstation in downtown Kalamazoo as part of the city’s monthly “Art Hop.”  Ms. Naeem’s ongoing, travelling exposition takes participants into an material and multi-sensory exploration of the ways in which women across the globe reference Muslim tradition and innovation in crafting public selves.

Ms. Naeem’s work on how Islam, American identity, and ethnic/family influences shape Muslim American life-worlds aptly reflects the “Islam in Global Perspective” series theme, which seeks to offer multiple perspectives on how people use Islam in situations of minoritization, plurality, and social change.  Future speakers for this series include University of Michigan-Dearborn Assistant Professor Dr. Sally Howell, who will present on the early history of Detroit-area mosques; MSU Assistant Professor Mara Leichtman who will address Shi’i conversion in Senegal; and University of Texas at Austin doctoral scholar Nathan Tabor who will analyze the intersection of ethics, politics, and poetics for Muslim minorities in North India.  For a full list of future talks, and more information about the series please visit http://www.wmich.edu/religion/islam-speaker-series-overview. To make a tax-deductible donation in support of this or other Islam Global Forum events, please visit: MyWMU.com/IslamGlobalForum or email Dr. Alisa Perkins, convener, at alisa.perkins@wmich.edu.


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