Muslim American City
Gender and Religion in Metro Detroit
- ISBN: 9781479892013
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: July 2020
Alisa Perkins’ Muslim American City is an ethnographic study of how Muslim women make and navigate space in Hamtramck, Michigan. Located in the Detroit metropolitan area, Hamtramck is a city of just over 20,000 inhabitants, and has historically been a very diverse and welcoming space to various immigrant populations. The work focuses on Yemeni and Bangladeshi women specifically, with those nationalities making up sizable portions of the population of Hamtramck.
The approach in the work focuses on space, and while this is explained clearly in the introduction (particularly so on page 9), the way in which space is explored through different levels of analysis is subtle and complex. Perkins focuses on movements and physical, sonic, and behavioral cues that show its subjects navigating the city space, but also constructing it. The analysis is spatial and material in orientation, which lends a very different feel to the work than other ethnographies. At times, I was hoping to hear more directly from the women being discussed, especially how the Yemeni women would explain their own movements and practices, or respond to Perkins’ analysis, but the spatial orientation overall is a rich lens for exploring everyday life in the city. In the book, “space” and “making space” are explored in both physical and figurative senses—meaning, the analysis demonstrates not only how physical space such as geography or the layout of a house might shape and be shaped by its use, but also how citizens might make space for themselves in a metaphorical way, meaning through public policy, the use of sound, and a broad range of other types of practices.
The body of the book (leaving aside the introduction and conclusion) is organized into roughly three large sections. The first two chapters provide background on the place (the history and makeup of Hamtramck) and the people (Muslim women in America and their negotiation of space, specifically in Hamtramck). Chapters 3 and 4 provide portraits of Yemeni and Bangladeshi women’s communities specifically, discussing and contrasting how these groups of women navigate spaces and make space for themselves in Hamtramck. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on specific instances and issues on which Hamtramck’s Muslim communities have come into conflict with other residents. These two chapters build on the backdrop set in the preceding four, and are the strongest part of the work, where the analysis moves from establishing the space and different women’s movements therein, to exploring the boundaries and complications that arise from this. It is a feat of thick, descriptive ethnographic analysis and clear writing that Perkins is able to accomplish all of this in six tightly structured chapters. Perkins sets the stage, guides us through it with different groups of women, and then begins poking at the boundaries. This is done through thorough discussion of history, public policy, ethnographic accounts of her own movements and experiences in Hamtramck, and interviews. The breadth of materials integrated into the book is impressive, and even more so, this breadth is easily overlooked because the writing is so clear and concise.
A note on language usage would have been an interesting and helpful addition to this book, and I was surprised to find that this editorial detail was absent. The context of the book seems to be linguistically diverse. Given that it covers at least two immigrant communities in America, it seems much information was conveyed to Perkins in English, but there are also multiple registers of Arabic present (Modern Standard in technical terms, as well as Yemeni colloquial vocabulary), and Bangla. Language is an interesting issue as it cuts across the spatially focused analysis, and would be a fruitful opportunity for further research on Hamtramck or similar communities and locations. What language would be spoken in what spaces? Who has access to what spaces by virtue of language usage? Perkins’ research hints at these complexities on many occasions, to interesting ends, and her footnotes are often helpful in parsing some of the details of language and pronunciation. While this is a relatively minor detail, a note clarifying the systems of usage for different languages and registers of language throughout the book would be helpful in clarifying this for readers. Similarly, it could clarify and systematize the transcription of colloquial terms that may not have consistent written spellings; for example, the diacritics on the Yemeni term balto (the colloquial term used in Yemen for the abaya, the long dress, most commonly black, worn by many Yemeni women) are shifting throughout the work.
Perhaps the strongest and most accessible section of the book is the fifth chapter on the call to prayer, which would make an excellent addition to an undergraduate syllabus on the issues of sound and space, particularly in relation to Islam and US law and the complications of liberal secularism. Perkins explains the complications of American religious freedom particularly clearly in this chapter, and the ways in which sound both uniquely creates space as well as provokes a wide range of reactions from its listeners. It is through this chapter that the book makes its most forceful intervention, which is a critique of liberal secularism and its complications along the lines of religious freedom, immigration, and diversity. The focus on space brings these issues to the fore in a particularly clear way. Muslim American City marks an important development in the study of American Muslims in such a way that could be of use for readers at many levels interested in religion and law, gender, and modern American secularism.
Lauren E. Osborne is associate professor of religion at Whitman College.Lauren OsborneDate Of Review:February 28, 2022