Beyond the Headscarf: Let's Discuss Social Justice Issues Muslim Women Actually Care About

Photo by Carnage NYC, Creative Commons. 

Three months ago, I found myself in the middle of an FBI interrogation.

Josh, a white gay male Republican Christian friend of mine who loves Ann Coulter, had never met a single Muslim person until he met me. So, in the summer of 2013, after over a year of communicating on Facebook, we finally met for the first time at a week-long political conference in D.C. After he moved to the nation’s capital to work at a libertarian nonprofit, his interest in Islam grew. I started sharing my experiences with him on what it’s like being a Muslim woman in the United States and recommended texts and articles for him to read.  Our friendship grew as we talked about our grievances with American foreign policy. His exposure to Muslims and Islam continued to expand as I introduced him to several members of the community. He began learning the Arabic language on his own and decided he wanted to visit Lebanon sometime soon. During the month of Ramadan, we visited a mosque, attended potlucks for the breaking of our fast, and went to events held by Arab and Muslim nonprofit organizations. Things were going well until Josh got a phone call early one morning in the beginning of August: The FBI were heading straight to his house.

Two FBI agents had gone into his office and demanded to know his whereabouts. When they showed up at his house, they didn’t give Josh an opportunity for Josh to contact a lawyer or to refuse his interrogation until he got an attorney. As many people do when contacted by FBI agents over “suspicious activity,” Josh panicked. He didn’t call a lawyer, but he called me and another friend instead. When I got his phone call, I ran over to Josh’s home to ensure there was at least another witness for the interrogation. I have heard too many stories from friends about family members getting imprisoned without any evidence or confession. But when I got there, the FBI agents loosened up their stern demeanor and abruptly ended their questioning.

The questions they asked Josh were invasive. “You’re critical of U.S. foreign policy. Don’t you support your country?” “You read Arabic? Are you thinking about converting to Islam?” and “What’s your association with Sarah Harvard?” They started to intimidate Josh by asking him about his boyfriend and his employer. They brought up private Facebook and Twitter conversations dated back to 2011. I’m still not sure why they were grilling my friend. But the FBI agents’ questions made one thing clear: America’s freedom of religion, speech, and privacy are no longer applicable to Muslim-Americans or individuals who associate themselves with the community.

• • •

The reason I’m telling you this story is this: There are many, many social justice issues Muslim-American women face every single day. We live in a police state. But in the mainstream discussion about our lives, our voices are often limited to a very small issue: headscarves. With the 2016 elections underway, Muslim-Americans have become a hot topic of discussion. With a candidate like Ben Carson thinking a Muslim is unfit to be President and a Donald Trump supporter questioning when America is going to “get rid” of Muslims, the 24-hour news cycle perpetuates Muslim-Americans as the “other.” It’s not just right-wing politicians who are critical of Muslim women: Feminist activist group FEMEN staged a high-profile protest in 2013 where topless women shouted “No to hijab!” “Freeing” Muslim women from the headscarf is a cornerstone of American political debate and a hot-topic issue around Europe—some countries, like France, have even outlawed headscarves.  

After witnessing how one of my best friends became a subject of interrogation, simply for associating himself with Muslims like myself, I’ve made it a mission of mine to show how the issues facing Muslim communities are so much bigger and more pressing than whether or not women cover their hair. Violent War on Terror policies can haunt anyone. I have many friends dealing with living nightmares because of counterterrorism policies. A college friend’s father was falsely imprisoned on terrorism charges. He was finally released, only to be deported to Turkey. I also know a grieving mother who frantically spent six years trying to find a way to get her son back after he was unjustly arrested to conspire “violent jihad.” With stories like those swirling in our heads, the ongoing, mainstream political focus on headscarves just stings.

Many Muslim women find the way we’re discussed in mainstream media to be extremely problematic. Take Darakshan Raja as an example. Raja is the Co-Founder of the Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum and is on the forefront of challenging America’s War on Terror programs. While the issues most important to her are on resisting and dismantling systems of oppressions from state violence, gender-based violence, and the War on Terror, she doesn’t believe the increased discussion of Islam and Muslims in election coverage will create a positive outcome.

“Within this election season, I find that as an immigrant Muslim woman, my identities are demonized on the larger political stage and are being used by both parties to win political points,” says Raja. “It has been difficult to watch the political conversations because it’s a display of my dehumanization, and a constant reminder that for many Americans, Muslims are seen as the perpetual ‘other.’”  

Darakshan Raja holding a sign at a protest

Darakshan Raja, at left.

The 27-year-old activist doesn’t only credit the GOP for their dehumanization of minorities like her. The “xenophobic, patriarchal, and Islamophobic remarks made by the candidates on the Right” certainly dehumanize women, Muslims, and immigrants, she says, but the Democrats in power aren’t much help on these issues, either. “They evade criticism and an honest examination of their brutal policies that also institutionalize xenophobia, patriarchy, and Islamophobia. We have ways to go in terms of building political power,” Raja added.

For other Muslim women, there are a variety of different issues that take top political priority. For 21-year-old Syrian-American Shaza Loutfi, immigration and job security are the issues she’s most worried about.

“I have family that has been attempting to receive a visa for the past 10-plus years. I also know that immigration policies and ‘foreigner’ or ‘illegal alien’ rhetoric fuel xenophobia and increase hate crimes related to certain stereotypes: stereotypes that often include the hijab or dressing culturally,” says Loutfi, who works as a researcher of Muslim-American identity.

Like many other Muslim-American women, ethnic and religious stereotypes can hurt her job prospects—this is precisely why my entire family changed our last name to something more “white-passing” (I wasn’t always Sarah Harvard). While Loutfi understands that Arabic is a high-demand language for employment, she’s aware that being both a Muslim and a woman will sometimes prevent her from being hired due to discrimination in the hiring process. And in avoiding that situation, she often keeps her religious identity low-key and refrains from exercising her first amendment rights to ensure she’ll still be employable.

“I know Arabic is always a plus for the jobs I apply for and I don’t hold back in advertising that skill,” Loutfi said. “However, with employment discrimination a common occurrence for Muslim women, I never indicate I am Muslim early on and I don’t visibly pray on the job.”

It makes sense for Loutfi to not make her religious faith public. While many Americans and white feminists love conversing about how the headscarf is a symbol of oppression or a sign of terrorist proclivities, the real discussion that should be taking place is the extent of bias and discrimination Muslim women go through when they wear the headscarf. Muslim women who wear the headscarf are often the flag-bearers of Islam and there’s data supporting how it’s made them face discrimination and harassment in the United States. Instead of being worried about women being oppressed because they wear a headscarf, people need to pay attention to how non-Muslim people discriminate against Muslim women for the way they dress.

• • •

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Muslim women reported 154 cases of discrimination or harassment in 2006 where their headscarf was the factor that “triggered the incident.” Forty-four of these cases were Muslim women who were prohibited from wearing a headscarf, mostly in their own work environments. The most high-profile legal case about headscarves in the United States revolved around exactly this issue: Abercrombie & Fitch recently lost a Supreme Court case arguing that they had the right to not hire women who wore headscarves because it didn’t jive with their “look.” In an amicus brief for the highly publicized case, a report dating back to 2008 found that 69 percent of women who wore the headscarf reported at least “once incident of discrimination” compared to 29 percent of women who did not.

That rings true for Zeynab Ahmed, too. Ahmed is the daughter of Egyptian immigrants and distinctly recalls the racial tensions she grew up with in Michigan in the 1970s. Now living in a suburban town in Pennsylvania, the 48-year-old recalls how the focus of racism has shifted for her, personally, from her religious garments—after 30 years, she stopped wearing the headscarf—to her skin color as a brown woman. Ahmed believes she was rejected from employment multiple times for wearing her headscarf. Now that she’s stopped wearing it, she’s still a target in other ways.

“My biggest concern as a Muslim-American woman is racism and discrimination,” Ahmed said. “I wore a hijab for about 30 years of my life. I choose to no longer wear it. The discrimination I encountered was ridiculous. The countless interviews for jobs that I didn't get due my hijab. Fast forward 30 years later, when I no longer wear hijab, and the focus again is back on my skin color.

But another growing concern for Ahmed is around social services. After a serious car accident, Ahmed has a disability and is living on the brink of poverty. With the decline of job opportunities and instances of racism and discrimination, it’s been extremely difficult for Ahmed to stay above the poverty line.

“My hope is that in this next election we get someone in office who would actually deal with the issues of poverty, racism and discrimination in this country and not just offer lip service,” says Ahmed.

• • •

For Chrissy Gonzalez—an 18-year-old Irish-Hispanic transwoman—the stereotypes and perceptions of Islam by non-Muslims are a major concern for her. Originally from Long Island, Gonzalez initially converted to Islam when she was 13. She left the religion when she felt she couldn’t reconcile her gender identity and sexual orientation with her faith. It was only after she learned of the growing LGBTQ Muslim community that she decided to convert to Islam once again. This opened her eyes and encouraged her to work on challenging the misconceptions of her new faith.

“As a Muslim American woman, and especially as a convert, I want to dispel the misconceptions about what a woman's place in Islam is. The community is very diverse and women have a very important role in it that's constantly evolving,” Gonzalez said. “Today in many mosques, including my local one, women are in leadership positions. In some around the country there are women that are imams and lead prayers.”

This is true. Muslim-American women are revolutionizing their own communities by taking leadership roles and creating initiatives to ensure gender-equality in mosques. In the United States, Muslim-American women are making headlines for creating female-only Friday prayers highlighting issues of concerns within the community. 

But what’s the most frustrating for Muslim women is that their issues of concern don’t seem to be discussed to the general public. Far too often, these voices expressing concern about discrimination and racism are overshadowed by political focus on the hijab and portrayals of Muslim women as a monolithic community.

“There are some exceptions where we hear about the stories of individual Muslim women and the presence of Muslim women leaders,” says Raja. “However, there has been no discussion in the mainstream media or political platforms on how policies such as the War on Terror, mass incarceration, criminalization, war, imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism are destroying the lives of millions of Muslim women across the world... Reducing Muslim women’s liberation to pieces of clothing is problematic and a distraction from addressing the root causes of the oppression.” Raja finds the voices and stories of individual Muslim women are erased in the political and policy spheres and are often associated with the redundant stereotypes of oppression by religion. She points out the gendered aspects of Islamophobia in the United States.

“Too often, in my experience, I have found that part of the negative stereotypes associated with Muslim women include the belief that Muslim women choose their oppression by being Muslim. Hence, it's easy to exclude Muslim women from discussion of justice and resistance because of these negative gendered stereotypes, despite the powerful resistance Muslim women are putting up all over the world,” Raja says.

She’s right. Muslim women are not only on the forefront of powerful resistance, they’re also highly educated to take on missions of implementing social change. A 2009 Gallup poll found that not only are Muslim women the most highly educated religious group in the United States, they’re more likely to be educated than Muslim men. But Muslim women are still portrayed as an oppressed minority by their own religious faiths.

One way Muslim women are overlooked in mainstream discourse is the lack of opportunities for Muslim women in media and entertainment. However, when they do have the rare chance of becoming a part of a big hit television program or film, they’re often in roles reaffirming the negative stereotypes of Muslim women: headscarf, oppressed, and/or terrorism-inclined. For example, while the new ABC show Quantico has everyone rejoicing, it reaffirms the same Muslim stereotypes found in the rising trend of national security dramas fixated on September 11 by making the only Muslim character (and actress), Yasmine Al Masri, as the initial main suspect of a massive terrorist attack. In the United States, the most acknowledged female Muslim thinkers and writers are those who denounce or criticize Islam to a point of alarmism. From ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Muslims like Asra Nomani, a platform is often given to Muslims who reiterate old, and often times inaccurate, narratives that reaffirm the negative connotations with the identity of a Muslim woman.

“Sometimes the only Muslim voices we have seen validated or respected are those who play into the narrative peddled by Islamophobes,” says Deanna Othman, a 33-year-old journalist based in Chicago. Personally, as a journalist, there have been countless times where my story idea from a Muslim feminist perspective were dismissed, because I felt certain editors and publications didn’t think my faith gave me much credibility. Othman has experienced the same thing. Throughout her experience in journalism, she has felt Muslim-American women were often not considered “trustworthy” to write on issues related to Islam.

“It seems that many in the media or even academia believe that a Muslim can never separate her religious identity from her identity as a human performing any other task, whether it be reporting on an issue or researching a subject matter related to Islam,” Othman added. “Your Muslim identity becomes viewed as a handicap impairing your ability to report objectively, rather than as a combination of experiences and knowledge that could potentially enrich your work.”

The essence of the Muslim-American woman is far too complex for any non-Muslim to understand. Our main issues of concerns, ranging from the War on Terror to job security, are often ignored or still put under-the-radar as Muslim-American women are continued to be confined into a small world of headscarves and hymens. The only way we can ensure our voices are heard and our stories are told is for our allies to elevate them. Here’s a starting point: Listen to Muslim women.


The name “Josh” in the beginning of this article is a pseudonym used to protect his identity. Top photo is by CarnageNYC via Creative Commons. Text illustrations are by Bitch Media. 

by Sarah Harvard
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Sarah Harvard is a journalist based in Washington, D.C focusing on national security, civil liberties, and Islam.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

This is SO important. I am

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