From 2008 to 2015, I lived in Cairo, Egypt, and taught at The American University in Cairo. In the spring of 2011, about midway through my seven-year stint in North Africa and only two months after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office by an enormous uprising of fed-up Egyptians, I met Azza, a born and bred Cairene and the woman who would become my wife less than a year later.
When I met Azza, she had a successful catering business, specializing in Italian food. Now that we are living in the US—in interesting San Antonio, Texas, a place that feels a little like an American city with a whole lot of Mexico mixed in—my wife is once again considering starting her own enterprise. This time, though, she’s looking at opening a home bakery. (The Lone Star State doesn’t heavily regulate the cottage food industry, thus incentivizing those who wish run such a business out of their own kitchens.)
We just finished up with the Christmas holidays. By the way, my wife is a Muslim and she just loves this time of year. In fact, she single-handedly destroys all the ugly stereotypes that many close-minded people—I’m thinking mostly about the Trump Evangelicals as I write this—have about practitioners of Islam. I bring all this up because she did a ton of baking in the run-up to the twenty-fifth of December, and as is usually the case, because she is such a professional in the kitchen, she wrapped a turban around her head to keep stray hair out of the food she was preparing.
One morning I saw her with such a wrap on her head and told her she looked like Aunt Jemima. Knowing that wouldn’t understand such a reference, I tried to explain who this person was. As luck would have it, I went to the grocery store a few minutes later and found the appropriate aisle—the one where they kept the syrups for pancakes and waffles and such—and took a picture of the label with America’s beloved Aunt’s photo on it, only to discover (and quite surprisingly too) that the Jemima of today bears little resemblance to the Jemima of old.
The conspiracy theorist in me immediately jumped to the conclusion that they took her turban off because it looked too much like a hijab. I figured that Quaker Oats didn’t want to feature a character who looked too foreign or too exotic or too Islamic. After all, this is Trump’s America and the rest of us are only living in it.
As it turns out, there was a reason for the company to modernize Aunt Jemima’s image, but it had nothing to do with them trying to make her look less like a Muslim. I’ve included a video that explains the whole interesting story about the politics behind the revamping of the image of this cultural icon.