Curing the Muslim Crisis of Identity, Ladies First

In a talk I recently gave about understanding Islam and the Muslims, I received a question in the Q and A session from a Muslim woman who is the mother of a young girl.

The woman asked what she can do to teach her daughter to view hijab in a positive way when she receives so much discrimination for wearing it?

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I told her to tell her daughter what my mother told me when faced with difficulty deciding between my faith and what my peers thought was cool. I told her teaching her daughter: what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.

But months after giving that facile answer, it nags me. I felt that my answer failed to give the attention such a difficult situation deserves and I obsess about what advice I should have given.

In a time where people are becoming increasingly anti-Muslim, Muslim women are progressively the focus of discrimination. Cowards feel safe in picking on women because they think we are weak. Bigots feel safe to discriminate against Muslim women because they think we are silent creatures.

While many of our brothers shave their beards and change their names to “fit in”, we women need to pick up the flag of Islam and lead. We need to show our brothers how to be brave. We must show the cowards that we are strong. We will show the bigots that we can be loud.

Only then will our society understand that we will not be intimidated into hiding our Muslim identity, that we will claim our freedoms and our place in Western society. We must walk the same path of the African Americans, the Japanese Americans, the Catholic Americans, and the Jewish Americans; and so many others have walked.

What Is Said vs. What Is True

We all know the stereotype of what a Muslim woman is “supposed” to be to the Western mind. We are allegedly weak, submissive, and usually oppressed. But what does Allah tell us we are, what we should be?

Allah tells us to be recognized as believers.

{O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.} (33:59)

Standing up to be recognized as believers is incongruent with being weak. And Allah does not tell us to do something of which we are incapable of.

Allah has told us that we must think. Time and time again in the Quran Allah tells us directly to: “Think!”, “Will ye not then understand?”, “Do they not ponder?”, “Look!”, “do they not look?”, “Take warning then, O ye with eyes (to see)!. Thinking, pondering, using our own mind is incongruent with being submissive. And Allah knows we are capable.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has told us to help our co-religionists when they are being oppressed or doing the oppression:

“Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is oppressed.”

The Prophet was asked: “It is right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?”

He replied:

“By preventing him from oppressing others.” (Al-Bukhari)

This is explicitly incongruent with being oppressed. It is our responsibility to advocate for the oppressed and we cannot allow ourselves to be oppressed.

Why Muslim Women

There is a small, but loud, group of Westerners who target Muslim women. They want us to leave behind our faith, take off the flag of Islam, and change our identity, because it is hard to ignore a woman who does not follow society blindly.

It is hard to ignore a woman who does not seek approval from those around her. It is hard to ignore a woman who has her own strength. And they see the Muslim woman who is strong in her faith and identity as a threat, even while they perpetuate the stereotype of us being weak.

We, as Muslim women, make bigots uncomfortable with our courage of conviction. We make cowards fearful of our strength. We make the stubbornly ignorant angry for challenging their false perceptions. It is easier for these groups to want us to change than for them to change themselves.

But we cannot leave Islam behind or hide our identity as Muslim women just because of ignorance, discomfort, or fear of others. We have every right to our religious identity.

While there is nothing wrong with identifying as a Westerner or participating in Western culture (the parts that are not haram), we cannot leave behind our faith identity just because it is easy for other people.

Pulling our unique thread out of the fabric of Western history and society would be a disservice not only to ourselves but also to the rich tapestry that makes our Western societies unique.

If change comes from Muslim women, it will be hard to ignore. If this activism comes from us, who are perceived as weak, we will destroy myths. If this advocacy comes from women who are thought to be submission, we will challenge stereotypes. If change comes from us, who are thought to be oppressed, we will liberate the ignorant mind.

What We Can Do

We have a responsibility in changing the climate. We cannot just hide in our cliques and complain and think that the situation will just change. We are not the first group in the US to be a stigmatized. We are just the newest. Those who came before us included Catholics, Jews, Irish, African decedents, and so many more.

When JFK was campaigning for president in 1960, journalists would ask him where his loyalties lied. They worried that he, as a Catholic, would try to establish Canon law and over throw the constitution of the US. Just replace Cannon with Shariah and this sounds eerily familiar.

Japanese Americans were stripped of the US citizenship and put in internment camps and denied due process and human dignity during WWII. Guantanamo is a smaller scale of this same event. We all know how horribly the African American community in the US has been treated.

But these out groups did the work. They kept their identities and fought for their standing in society. They didn’t let anyone speak for them.

We, as Muslim women, must do the same. We must look at the difficulty that our communities in the West are facing as an opportunity to claim our identity, to be in the front lines of the clash of ideas.

We must speak for ourselves in social gatherings, in our work places, on social media. We must follow the examples of Ingrid Mattson, Tayyibah Taylor, and recently Tahera Ahmed, Samantha Elauf, and many others in this respect. Who will speak for us if we don’t speak for ourselves?

We must speak out against oppression and help those suffering not only in our own communities, but when it happens to other groups. We must emulate the work of Linda Sarsour, Malika MacDonald, and Jane Aslam and many in this respect. Who will listen to our cause, if we have no compassion for others’ causes?

We must realize that each of us has the power to change perceptions about Muslims, by simply claiming and owning our Muslim identity, by being proud of our tradition. Our place in society is there for the taking if we just follow the sunnah in helping the neighbors, if we just become a part of the larger community of Americans, and if we just return evil with good. This is our responsibility.

Let’s take on this challenge of changing hearts and minds firstly for the sake of Allah. Then to make it safe to own our identity in our own lives, in the lives of the brothers and sisters next to us, across the country, and in generations to come. Then let’s take on this challenge to establish our identity as a part of the complex culture of the West.

This is what we should tell our daughters.

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for AboutIslam.net and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.