On Feb. 6, your newspaper ran an article called “City Council hears concerns from protest over Ann Arbor’s status as a sanctuary city” with the image of my hijab-clad face in focus. There are many reasons why this came as a surprise to me. However, after some thought, perhaps I should not have been surprised at all.

I am a graduate student from Bangladesh at the University of Michigan on a nonimmigrant student visa. I am neither undocumented, nor am I seeking immigration. I do believe in my fellow undocumented and immigrant community members’ rights to civil liberties and to this land that they have helped build on their backs.

Due to the many particularities of my identity that the photographer seemed to have brushed off or not taken the time to investigate, I could not be and was not present at this event representing the undocumented/immigrant community of Ann Arbor. I did not officially belong to any of the protest groups either. I was quietly standing at the back of the room as a concerned, temporary Ann Arbor resident taking notes on the proceedings. There were active protesters with meaningful signs at the front of the room. Ann Arbor resident Julie Quiroz gave an impassioned speech and made a substantial case for Ann Arbor to become a sanctuary city. When I saw my face on your Feb. 6 issue of The Michigan Daily, I wondered why my muted, demure face was deemed a better representation of the sanctuary city movement than the faces of all the colorful and vocal protesters.

I wondered what the photographer thought when they plastered my face to the article. Were they catering to patronizing white liberals? (“Look, this oppressed soul is who you are ‘saving’ by making Ann Arbor a sanctuary city?”) Were they trying to inspire hostile alt-right rebuke? (“Look, this symbol of Islamic terrorism is who you are inviting into your homes.”)

My hijab-wearing identity is always a tool of political dissonance, never individual, never personal and never complex. My image in your article will never be interpreted as an image of an ardent ally, a participant like the rest of the audience with personal views and opinions on the issue at hand, but always as the dehumanized object that is being debated, fought over.

We, Muslim hijabi women, are made to lend our molded (reshaped to meet the Western audience’s rhetorical comfort) faces to movements, without regard to what our personal politics might be or where we might want to place ourselves in the spectrum of the movement. The whitewashed and unapologetically jingoistic image of the American-flag-wearing hijabi woman in Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” poster series is a recent example. The June 1985 National Geographic cover of the young Sharbat Gula, reduced to being called the “Afghan girl” with “haunting green eyes” is another.  

I am not making a case against any form of representation. I am making a case for nuanced, contextualized representation. I am inquiring the motivation behind each cycle of representation, the political functionalities and audiences each representation serves.

I could go on and on about the appropriation of the hijab in Western media. In an effort to not shift focus from an otherwise-important piece on the state of sanctuary cities, I will leave you with this request: As a media institution, ask yourselves what role you play in politicizing my face. Ask yourselves if your use of my face is further legitimizing dominant narratives about Muslim women, or if it’s challenging them. Ask yourselves if you are dehumanizing my face by stripping it out of a holistic context to make your larger, oversimplified political statements. When you wage your political wars on Muslim women’s bodies, ask yourselves if you have counted the casualties.

Ansha Zaman is a Natural Resources and Environment graduate student.

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