The Muslim Women You’ve Never Met

Three years ago, on Feb. 10, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were killed by Craig Stephen Hicks in their North Carolina home. This horrific evening came to be known as the Chapel Hill Shooting, and is one of many hate crimes against Muslims. These acts of prejudicial aggression in our country have spiked following our most recent election year. An online piece called “The Islamic Administration” reports a “67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2016” and that “from the end of Jan. 27 through the end of March, there were approximately 32 anti-Muslim and anti-Arab incidents, or an average of one every other day,” (Brennan Center). The phenomenon is nothing new, we’ve seen it in the years following 9/11, but it has been fuelled more recently under the rhetoric of our new Presidential Administration. 

Still, we try to understand: Where does this prejudice stem from?

“It’s mis-information,” emphasizes Omer Bajwa, Chaplain of the Yale University Muslim Student Association. “Content producers and Hollywood story writers project mis-information to consumers. Media platforms recycle negative stereotypes, and so consumers internalize Islam as far off, foreign, against America.” Bajwa echoes concerns of the rising xenophobia in Western European countries.

Xenophobia is the fear of the other. Social media and news outlets continue to other Muslims with tendentious narratives and imagery. In a 2011 survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute, attitudes towards American Muslims were compared by trusted media sources. Consumers were asked if they agreed with the following statements:
• “Muslims want to establish Shari’a law”
• “American Muslims [are NOT an] important part of [the United States’] religious community”
• The “values of Islam are at odds with American values”
(The first statement makes a negatively generalized assumption and the other two imply anti-Muslim attitudes.)

According to the survey, the first statement was least agreed with among all consumers of the selected media sources. When looking at the number of people who believed in these statements - among the general public, those who watch broadcast news, watch CNN, watch MSNBC, and watch public television - all figures were less than half, approximating 20-40%. Those who watched Fox news were an outlier in the data set, with a high percentage of its consumers agreeing with the statements—all more than half, approximating 50-60%. And with the exception of those who watch CNN, the last statement was the most popular among all consumer groups (Public Religion Research Institute).
Viewers are often misguided and misinformed by headlines and imagery that perpetuate the religion as synonymous with terrorism, or inherently oppressive. And when viewers are never exposed to a counternarrative, the Muslim population is estranged.

The same PRRI study investigated how often those surveyed socially interacted with selected groups. It was revealed that 40% of Americans report they never converse with Muslims on a daily basis, merely 6% interact with Muslims everyday, and less than a third of Americans report seldom talking to Muslims or occasionally conversing - approximating 25%. People all across the nation either never meet with Muslim people in their everyday lives, or they rarely interact with those that they do meet. (These numbers are low but make proportional sense as, according to the Pew Research Landscape study, just 0.9% of the US population is Muslim.)

I had the privilege of speaking to a former University of North Carolina student who knew Razan and Deah before they died in the Chapel Hill shooting. Additionally, I listened to the stories of three other young collegiate students sharing their experiences being Muslim in America. And with that, I’d like to introduce The Muslim Women You Haven’t Yet Met:

Medina Sadat, Yale University, First-year Law School Student

Medina Sadat grew up in a rural area of North Carolina. Her refugee parents from Afghanistan recall liking the American South because its culture shares the same values they had back home: warmth and hospitality. In high school, however, Sadat did not feel that warmth, and instead recalls tokenization, even being exoticized. When discussing Osama bin-Laden’s assassination in class, her teacher asked her sophomore-self, “What does the Muslim world think of this?” She was taken aback. How could she, a 10th grader in high school, accurately articulate a single opinion for a community of billions worldwide?

She grew up in the same community as Razan and Deah, a group that was heartbroken to learn their own loved ones were shot execution-style just half a mile from her UNC campus. When some argued it was a mere parking dispute and not a hate crime, the truth was being denied - the hurt of the victims’ families were being denied. This was one moment that sparked action within the community, among others: Walkouts were organized in the months following the Presidential election, protests augmented support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and fellow activists took the initiative of speaking out against Islamophobia. The benefit to the administration’s lack of politically-correct rhetoric is that people have awaken to see the deeper issues; there are “different axises of oppression”, and the bonding between groups pushed to the margins strengthens solidarity.
When her university had invited guest speakers that tried to insinuate the MSA had connections to terrorism, again, the students were inspired to mobilize and counter that narrative. “It was risky to expose these societal power dynamics, because the stakes are always greater for people of color,” Sadat noted. “It is a huge burden upon a marginalized group, who are always caught between the tension of demanding people recognize their humanity and the fear that their positions might be compromised, to defend their Americanness. I was born and raised here, but by making me the other, my Americanness means nothing.” Alt Rightists and white supremacists tell us to go back to our home countries yet, “this is the only home I’ve ever known.”

Aaminah Bhat, Yale University, Senior majoring in Global Affairs & Global Health

Aaminah Bhat is from Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Like Sadat, she is a daughter of immigrants. However because she grew up with several other Muslims families, she admits her interaction with those from non-immigrant backgrounds was limited. While Bhat has made many friends in college, she recalls a time when one especially good friend of hers made a joke that struck way too close to home. President Trump once made a claim that Muslims from New Jersey celebrated 9/11, cheering in joy as they watched the fall of the World Trade Center on their television screens. The insinuation was false and unfounded. The friend asked her, in a room of 10 or 15 other Yale students, if her family was one of those celebrating. “I had to have a 45 minute conversation [with him] to unpack why such comments aren’t okay,” she told me. “I love talking about my culture, but if I have to [constantly humanize myself], who really needs to be humanized here?”

Bhat actively tries to help immigrants settle locally by getting involved in Yale groups such as SOS (Students of Salaam). Their goal is not assimilation, but to make integration a 2-way street. Students of Salaam prioritizes education and community engagement to create a safe space for dialogue and understanding. With their 70 tutors and a network of 300 students, they provide tutoring services to all ages, creating positive impact for children especially.  An example of the impact of SOS comes from the story of a student who had recently migrated to the US. His SOS ambassador was the first person he had truly spoken to at his school. Moving to a new place and trying to fit in is hard enough for young students - add a language barrier on top of that, and it’s easy to feel isolated. Bhat resonates with this struggle, saying, “Discrimination has become routine, normal, something I’m used to. When someone is exceptionally nice or open to me, those moments really stick out.”

• Esma Özer, Columbia University, Junior majoring in Political Science & Economics

And these moments do happen. Esma Özer is from Malatya, Turkey, yet through an international student exchange program she’s able to continue her studies at Columbia. I met her at the 8th Annual Ivy Muslim Conference where I got the chance to ask if she was ever exposed to Islamophobia when moving to New York. As expected, she had her fair share of stories. Once, when praying in Times Square, a stranger laughed while taking pictures of her friend (Özer found the mocking to be negative and distracting).

But Özer remembers many more positive experiences. She prayed in classroom buildings out of convenience, and on one of the first days of school, a girl had passed by as she was praying in a corridor. The girl was very sorry, worried she had disturbed her, but Özer was pleasantly surprised by her genuine approach - she felt anything but disturbed hearing the soft apology. At her university orientation she told her group leader she had to leave for salah (an Arabic term meaning prayers), and the leader gladly responded, “Of course you can go!” While watching Kinky Boots on Broadway, yet again, Özer and her friend needed a place to pray. A kind woman at the theater led them to a staff-only room that contained some props and costumes that weren’t in use. “It was very beautiful,” Özer recalled, and the woman divulged to her, “We share the same faith. I’m a Christian. I pray for my brother, sister, family. I, too, am religious!” Özer was very happy—it wasn’t that often that she had to privilege of praying in places as nice as the room backstage at Broadway.

The stories from these three young women remind us that Muslims aren’t so different after all. They value warmth and hospitality. As children, they, too, want to fit in and make friends at school. They, too, care for their families. They want to be seen as human, just as Americans do. They, too, are Americans.

So why does there seem to be a cultural disconnect? MSA Chaplain Omer Bajwa prefaced our conversation over the phone with the fact that he was aware he’s a man discussing the hijab, and checked his privilege in relation to the issue. Then he argued that mainstream American society is seeing a sharp trend in “liberating factors”. In the women’s liberation movement, there’s this notion circulating among certain feminists that America is getting involved in countries such as Afghanistan to liberate Muslim women, to free them from the burqa. Bajwa speaks of a white savior complex that assumes the hijab is oppressive, when in reality the cloth is another extension of self-expression.

Women around the world choose to wear their hijab, and they have their own reasons for doing so. The notion that Muslims who cover up shield their individuality, and as a result are limited to lacklustre clothing options, is completely untrue.

Don’t Believe Me?

My hijab is a tangible, constant reminder of my religion. It can provide comfort. It guides me to make good choices and prioritize values over regrettable fun. I don’t wear it for modesty. It’s powerful choosing to visually practice everyday, to proudly represent in hostile [social] environments, because that’s my right.
—Medina Sadat

Medina’s fashion sense evolved. In high school, she was edgy, punk, donned black and loud neon colors. Studs were on everything and to this day, the converses she decorated in sharpie hold a special place in her heart. Now, she uses any chance she can to incorporate art into her life, like through makeup! She gravitates towards big eye looks and black scarves, and traditional Afghan dress is her kryptonite.

My hijab is an act of worship towards God. It also represents my Muslim identity, my socio-political stance - it’s rebellious! It’s myself, my choice, and calling it a marker does a disservice [to the tradition].
—Aaminah Bhat

Aaminah describes her style as loud. “I like to be known,” she told me, “very trendy”. Her sense of fashion is performative, fun, enjoyable. She loves to wear big hoops as well as her leather jacket!

I’m wearing it because it was written in the Qua’ran. It’s here because Allah wants it to be the tool to talk with everybody, to see the good in humanity, and to care about all of humanity. It [allows you to focus more on the person] wearing the hijab. When they see me, [I want them to think] ‘she’s caring about issues, she’s on the side of poor people, she believes in equality’. It’s the thing that socializes me in society.
—Esma Özer

Esma prefers an outdoors style, especially sporty clothing. She’s a fan of cycling, and doesn’t like wearing long clothes, or wider cuts that limit her mobility. She balances these outfits with keeping her hair tucked under her scarf, and choosing shirts that go past the knee to cover her backside.

I have so much respect for the women I’ve met. It truly is brave to wear the hijab in our politically-volatile climate. The danger is very real; many Muslims can relate to being attacked, robbed, threatened with knives, or having strangers try to snatch off their scarves. These experiences are partly why I choose not to wear my own hijab - I’m scared. I don’t want what I wear to be a political symbol, because that’s not the hijab’s intended purpose. I don’t want to incite a debate every time I walk into a room, nor have to defend my personal beliefs and love for this country. But in meeting these strong, young women, I feel empowered to rebel a little - to push back against stereotypes that claim to know what laws we want to follow. To push back against ideas that say we are not important enough to be deemed human. To push back against the belief that we cannot be both Muslim and American, because we can.

I am one of over a billion, and come from a religion that has so many different cultures and histories intertwined into its roots. To shrink an entire population down to a caricature of terrorism, or to insinuate that the hijab is oppressive, is to contradict the principle that America was founded on freedom for all. Freedom of belief is indelible from our constitutional rights, and I believe that we are not others, but simply those you have yet to meet.

Natasha Ghazali (pictured) is a senior at New Haven Academy and the Educational Center for the Arts.

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