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2010-11-20

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March 3, 2011 - 4:31pm

At event, Muslim women speak out against stereotypes

BY KAITLIN WILLIAMS

LSA junior Eman Abdelhadi decided to wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering, when she was nine years old. The night before she wore it to school for the first time, her mother warned her that she would now become a representative of the entire Muslim community.

“You are not Eman,” Abdelhadi quoted her mother. “You are 1.5 billion Muslims.”

Abdelhadi and three other female Muslim students spoke about their experiences as representatives of Islam to a crowd of about 50 University students and alumni in Lane Hall Thursday night. The event, titled “The Politicized Voices of American-Muslim Women”, was sponsored by the University’s Muslim Students’ Association and moderated by University Prof. Nesha Haniff.

In an interview before the event, Haniff said that the discussion would be focused on what Muslim women experience as a result of stereotypical views of Islam.

LSA junior Annie Sajid, MSA’s social justice and activism committee chair, said in an interview before the event that Haniff approached her to organize a discussion that focused on women and Islamophobia. Sajid, a panel member, said the panel does not represent all Muslim women, but it is able to shed light on some misconceptions about the role of women in Islam.

“I think there’s an idea that Islam is inherently patriarchal and barbaric when it comes to women’s issues, and we’re trying to deconstruct that with the dialogue,” Sajid said.

The event, which was co-sponsored by the University’s Women’s Studies Department, had a large turnout, with attendees standing along the back wall before the beginning of the discussion. During the discussion, people continued to stream into the room.

Changing the tokenization and marginalization of Muslim women were main themes during the panel discussion. Three of the four panelists said they don the hijab for a mix of political, spiritual and cultural reasons. Hannif said Muslim women are oftentimes “reduced to garb.”

Sajid said she chooses not to wear a hijab, which she said causes people to question her faith.

“I think there’s a level of victimization,” Sajid said. “There’s a way to avoid that victimization by granting ourselves agency, but we need to, I guess, affirm the fact that we are still marginalized, and it’s really hard to do that.”

Panelist and LSA sophomore Laya Charara responded to a question posed by Haniff about racial profiling.

“Muslims have such a homogeneous identity when it comes to the American public,” Charara said.

LSA senior Noha Moustafa, the fourth panelist, explained that she experienced racial discrimination growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich. Moustafa was born in Egypt, but has spent most of her life in America. However, she said her identity as an American is complicated and that she continues to identify herself as a Muslim first.

“I can’t say I’m American until I have the benefits of being American,” Moustafa said.

In a question-and-answer session after the talk, University alum Leo Sitruk asked the panelists about what benefits they associate with being an American.

“Why try to be American?” Sitruk asked.

Abdelhadi answered the question by remarking on how she identifies as an American, but thinks America could use a change of perspective on Muslim women. Abdelhadi explained that Muslim women need to be active in society in order for this change to happen.

“I think that investment in any society is the way to change it,” Abdelhadi said.

Hannif asked if the panelists felt they are exceptions to the general population of Muslim women because they are educated and willing to speak out about their religious beliefs. The women shook their heads and responded with a resounding “no”.

Sajid responded that although Muslim women around the world don’t always have the opportunity to speak at university panels or have the chance to voice their thoughts and experiences, Muslim women are leaders in their communities.

Any Muslim woman could compile a list of 1,000 exceptional Muslim women, Moustafa said.

During the question-and-answer session, the panel was asked about the lack of African American Muslim women represented at the event.

Sajid said MSA reached out to African American Muslim females, but none could participate in the panel. Hannif said she hopes to make this panel part of a series that will include Muslim African Americans, males and other diverse panelists in the future.

LSA junior Tooba Siddiqui said even though the event was missing the voices of African American Muslims, the discussion promoted diversity.

Engineering freshman Aliza Hirani said she rethought her identity as an American after hearing the discussion. Hirani said she feels there are misconceptions about her as a Muslim Texan, and events like this are necessary to change people’s beliefs about her and her culture.

“It’s necessary for people of all different types of backgrounds to be conscientious that there are people who have these emotions,” Hirani said.