Rabab Jafri: Not a damsel in distress

BY RABAB JAFRI

Published March 31, 2015

On Thursday, March 26, the Muslim Students’ Association and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality co-hosted an event titled “Confronting Islamophobia.” The event was a panel followed by a question-answer session with guest speakers Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Fatina Abdrabboh, the director of the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee; and Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, who is on the advisory board of the Islamic Studies program at Claremont Graduate School.

The panelists covered many aspects of Islamophobia and its effects on Muslims and American society. One aspect that the speakers highlighted was the problems associated with oversimplifying Muslims and how Muslims, in turn, deal with their Muslim identity.

When asked about the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim identity, Walid explained that he has seen a mix of responses from Muslims. He reflected on how after 9/11 many Muslims changed their names to hide their Muslim identities, but he also explained how he saw Muslims embracing their identities. Walid said, “I also saw this, especially in Dearborn, where there was a group of younger Muslim ladies who weren’t wearing hijab who also began to start wearing their hijab almost as a form of resistance and showing off their identity.”

Walid’s example highlighted an instance in which Muslim women decided to wear hijab voluntarily, another narrative not commonplace in the media. Abdrabboh expanded on the media’s oversimplification of Muslims, using Muslim women as an example: “Somehow there is a green light that our very womanhood can be described as cheap, or as you know, with one sentence, genie in a bottle or you know burkha head to toe, abused, the whole stereotype.” She then continued to explain how this stereotype should be viewed in the broader context of women’s issues in America.

So, let’s talk about the stereotypical Muslim woman in this context of women’s issues in America.

The idea that somehow the only way a woman can be liberated is if she abides by the impossible expectations set by society is a problem that women in America face. Women are expected to be proud of their bodies and put them on display as people point out every flaw and imperfection. A confident woman is seen as someone who dresses a certain way with the right body.

The stereotype that the Muslim woman who wears a hijab is oppressed and in need of saving is a misconception that portrays the idea that a Muslim woman isn’t capable of making her own choice — specifically to wear the hijab. The idea that a Muslim woman is in need of saving is parallel to the narrative of the damsel in distress ingrained in society.

I am not a damsel in distress and I do not need saving.

So when I tell you that I’m very aware of the decision that I have made to wear my hijab, I would hope that you understand that it was an informed decision that I am completely capable of making.

Wearing hijab to me is an act of servitude to God and my understanding of His infinite wisdom. Everyday I wake up and am reminded that I am a Muslim as I carefully pin my hijab to ensure that all my hair is covered and check my clothes to see if they are loose-fitting. It keeps me aware of my faith and away from being influenced by the media, which places impossible expectations on women’s beauty. People continue to view the Muslim headscarf as oppressive by separating it from the long standing tradition of women of faith covering their head.

When you meet me, you confront my faith — my success in explaining to others why exactly I wear hijab has had varying success.

When confronted about by my hijab, people often ask me what I am. If you ask me what I am, I’ll tell you I’m human.

If you ask me where I’m really from, I’ll explain again that I was born and raised in America and that my first language is English.

In frustration, you ask me where my parents are from; I’ll tell you they are South Asian.

Finally you can whisk away my previous remarks and put me in one of your boxes, although the answer you were hoping for was Arab.

You may think that my hijab is slowing me down, but it only makes me focus more on what is really important to me. I am one of those snowboarding, poetry slamming, fun-loving hijabis that will not be constrained by stereotypes.

And so when you ask me who is making me wear my hijab, I’ll explain that it is a choice I made as I believe it as the command of God to dress modestly. With a concerned look you reply, “But you are in America, you can be liberated here.”

In my eyes there’s nothing more liberating than the feeling I get when I wear my hijab. I put it on with the hopes to impress God and no one else. So when people confuse something I see as a beautiful act of worship with something inherently oppressive, it’s distressing. I hope that people will begin to learn more about hijab and Islam before making such assumptions.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.