By Frank Kineavy
A new generation of Muslim feminists is emerging in America, dedicated to reshaping how the Western world views their culture. Attempting to combat stereotypes and create their own brand of feminism, these women are fighting against Islamophobia, racial profiling and surveillance, as well as promoting immigration reform, women’s access to mosques and justice for other civil right violations.
In a CNN interview, when asked what common stereotypes Americans might have on Muslim women, answers included “subjugated, voiceless, victimized, always covered from head to toe, not intelligent, evil, violent, oppressed by male relatives, forced into marriage.” Many call Muslim-American women terrorists, subservient to men, or lacking their own agency.
One of the women fighting back against these stereotypes is 23-year-old Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. She was named one of “Forbes 30 under 30” and is the founder of MuslimGirl.com. Displaying the tagline “Muslim Women Talk Back,” the website states, “We are pioneering our own paths as Muslim women living in today’s modern society.”
In an attempt to change the way Islam is perceived, Al-Khatahtbeh stresses the importance of finding out what Islam means to the individual, parting ways with being told what Islam should mean. “I think that for us as Muslim women, we’ve been robbed of the opportunity to just cultivate our own identities, especially for millennial Muslim women like myself that have grown up in a post-9/11 era,” she explained. “All that we know is this assault on our identity, on our characters in the media.”
Al-Khatahtbeh is only one of many Muslim women who are freeing themselves of stereotypes. Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first fencer to compete in Olympic games wearing a headscarf. Muhammad was recently asked to remove her headscarf while being photographed during the registration process at the well-known SXSW 2016 conference held in Austin, Texas. Conference organizers issued an apology, but only after Muhammed shared the dispute on twitter.
Although there have been small amounts of data analyzing the number of attacks against Muslim women, research conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino showed that following the attacks led out by Muslims in Paris and San Bernardino, 40 percent of anti-Islamic hate crimes and attacks were against women, causing hijab wearers to feel like targets.
Wearing a headscarf is a feminist or political statement, says Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A&M who has written extensively about stereotypes facing Muslim women after 9/11.
Following 9/11, a stereotype hatched that Muslims were a threat and co-conspirators of the attack. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump commented on sectors of this religion and its members following the San Bernardino attacks, with one quote catching the attention, with both praise and criticism, of many. “Those wives went home to watch their husbands knock down the World Trade Center.”
Trump went on further to defend his statement, saying, “We are having a problem with radicals in the Muslim group I’ve been saying it loud and strong. If you have people coming out of mosques with hatred and with death in their eyes and on their minds, we have to do something.”
Aber Kawas, a Muslim and youth organizer for the Arab-American Association of New York, has voiced her views about her concerns for the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has grown increasingly more common, particularly in the presidential race. “Today, presidential candidates are openly saying racist statements, Islamophobic statements, and anti-immigrant statements in order to get votes.”
Kawas also explained the problems faced by women who choose to wear headscarves: “For any woman who decides she wants to wear hijabs for a religious reason, that’s a very personal decision, but when you step out in the street, that personal decision that you made for your religion now becomes a political statement.”
Countries like France have banned Muslim women from wearing a veil or headscarf in public, citing cultural supremacy. Women like Aziz and Al-Khatahtbeh justify the decision to wear a hijab, claiming it is an action that shows self-respect. According to Aziz, Muslim women “find that some of the dress codes in the U.S. or the expectations of what women should be wearing does sexualize women, does objectify them.”
“Until we can get to that point where we’re treating minority groups the way that we’re treating majority groups,” she said, “then we have a race problem, we have a religious problem, we have a biased problem.”
Some women are taking a more creative approach to combat the discrimination. Sana Amanat, director of content and character development at Marvel Comics, fights the societal stigma against Muslim women through “Khamali Khan,” the first Muslim American character to have her own Marvel comic series. From being expected to write about child marriage to terrorism and other Muslim stereotypes, Amanat instead writes of pressures in society for Muslim women: “The images that we see out there, telling us, ‘these are the images that we are supposed to look like, because those are the images most strong and beautiful’ and the images that are demonized happen to look like me.”
Despite the negative stereotypes they face every day, Amanat, Kawas, Aziz and Al-Khatahtbeh are proud of the way the look. “The way that other people see Muslim women, directly impacts the way Muslim women see themselves,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “When Muslim women change their own perception of themselves and they build up their self-confidence, and their self-esteem, and their worth, their feeling of belonging in society, obviously that’s going to completely transform the way that they act and the way they contribute to the world around them.”