Meet the Women
In the past, she was oppressed, subservient and theoretically mute. At least, that’s how she was portrayed by some media outlets. Today, she is a feminist and not submissive to men. She is educated and not fearful. But she is also true to her culture and faith. Sometimes she wears the hijab, a headscarf symbolizing a woman’s modesty within the Islamic community. Sometimes she does not, depending on where she resides.
She is the new Muslim woman.
Even with the evolution of the Muslim woman, Western media portrayals are often one-sided. Usually, you see a hijabi Arab woman who looks like she needs to be saved. Or she’s in a Burka with only her eyes revealed, making her appear "dark and mysterious.” Like other women, however, Muslim women are not monolithic. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. They have varying degrees of education and life experiences and perhaps most importantly, are attempting to draw a distinction between Islam and cultural traditions. The Arabization of Islam has blurred the lines between culture and religion. The two are very different but are seemingly one-in-the-same when it comes to media portrayals.
Destiny Gammage jokingly described herself as a "black girl from the hood." She grew up Muslim for the majority of her childhood after her father converted to Islam from Christianity. Even though she strongly believes in her faith, she chooses not to wear the hijab.
"It's 2016, like we're not going to be wrapped up and that's not taking away from my religion. It's just more so that I'm not as conservative as people think I should be," Gammage said.
Despite the fact that almost half of them do not wear the hijab,if you do a Google search on Muslim women you will find the vast majority will be donning the headscarf. They are either wearing hijabs, abayas, or burkas and appear to be of Arab descent.
“Most media tends to be reductionist and simplistic and sensational and interested in conflict, and when you put all that together it means that they usually go with the lowest common denominator and if you want something that’s an icon, showing a woman in a hijab or burka everyone is going to know what it is,” said Diane Winston.
With her white skin and blue eyes, Edina Lekovic, the Public Affairs Consultant at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is not the typical Muslim you see in the media. She also wears a headscarf that can either be perceived as a hijab or simply just a stylish accessory.
“It’s the number one assumption that people make about me is that because I’m white and I have blue eyes and I don’t have an accent that must mean that I’m a convert, said Lekovic. “There are Eastern European Muslims, there are Chechnyan Muslims in the world, and the vast majority of Muslims are not Arab or South Asian they are from everywhere else and so I happen to be part of that majority of Muslims,” she said.
Europe is home to 6 percent of the world’s Muslims. The population is expected to increase by 63 percent by 2050.
Skin color is not the only thing that influences the way some Muslims are portrayed. People tend to confuse cultural traditions with tenets of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. For example, Saudi Arabia operates under Sharia Law, meaning Islamic Law, and is derived from the Muslim holy book. In Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from driving. However, the Quran never states that women aren't allowed to drive. That is not Islamic law, that’s Saudi Arabian law.
Like Saudi Arabia, many Middle Eastern countries require women to wear abayas and dress modestly when in public. The Quran does encourage women to dress modestly, but that is up for interpretation.
Some Muslim women have different understandings of what “modesty” means.
Noorhan Maamoon is an Egyptian Muslim woman, who currently lives in the United States, but her home base is in the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. is far more progressive than other Middle Eastern countries when it comes to women and attire.
“I don’t think people should tell me either way whether I’m dressing inappropriately or dressing the way they think is appropriate because my religion is something between me and God, and honestly I don’t care what people say,” Maamoon said about people’s opinions regarding her modesty.
Ahmed Buyuksoy is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Southern California. He said that it is not unusual for the dress code to vary from country to country. According to Buyuksoy, in some countries the hijab means covering everything from head to toe, and in others it could be just a headscarf.
“It differs from people to people or from scholar to scholar, that’s why we have different ways of practice,” said Buyuksoy.
Alanoud Hamad spent the first five years of her life in Saudi Arabia and believes that location influences the way she practices her faith. “I feel like because we live in America, they’re a little bit more liberal in terms of my choice to wear one or not, and they understand that that’s a personal decision,” she said. “I know if I lived in a strict Islamic country at this age, and being a woman, I’d have to cover up.”
Muslim women are not the only women who suffer from media misconceptions. They are, however, undergoing image issues because of global terrorist attacks and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It has impacted the way they live and dress.
Wearing the hijab in the United States can be problematic and sometimes serves as an easy target for harassment, particularly when there’s a terrorist attack anywhere in the Western world.
Jahlani Smothers-Pugh is the three things you would never expect a Muslim to be. She is a bisexual Afro-Latina Muslim woman from the South. She recalled a time when she was attacked for wearing her hijab.
“When I was a full-time hijabi, that just means wearing the scarf full-time, I was often verbally attacked. In middle school I was pushed down, and told to go back to Pakistan or Iraq and all these other countries that I wasn’t from because I’m from America,” said Smothers-Pugh.
Friends who had known her pre-hijab, all of a sudden began distancing themselves from her. “They were just scared of Islam and Muslims. They didn’t really know anything about it so they judged me off that,” said Smothers-Pugh. “This was after 9/11 so it wasn’t good timing to start wearing hijab,” she said.
A similar situation happened with Maamoon when she was out reporting in downtown Los Angeles. She was approached by a man who kept yelling the word "terrorist" at her. She has only been in the United States for nine months and has already been called a terrorist at the University of Southern California and around Los Angeles.
"I've had to change the way I wear my hijab actually. I used to wear it the traditional way, but after one very frightening attack in downtown Los Angeles where a man came at me and was yelling at me I had to wear it this way," Noorhan said. "My mother was so freaked out she thought that if I wore it this way people won't recognize that I'm Muslim. Which is painful because I'm very proud of being Muslim, I'm very proud of my hijab."
It is not just mainstream media that is creating issues for Muslim women, they are facing discrimination in their own communities as well. The Arabization of Islam has blurred the lines between culture and religion and sometimes causes the umma, the Muslim community, to believe that Muslims only look and practice a certain way.
Rawan Galaidos is an Eritrean-American Muslim woman and has been traveling back and forth between Saudi Arabia and the United States since the age of two. Although she doesn't wear a hijab, she is a devout Muslim. She recently graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles where her parents allowed her to live away from home, but only if she had Muslim roommates.
Galaidos was never into the college partying and drinking scene. If anything, she would be coming home late from studying or attending college club events. She didn't exactly have anything to "hide" from her Muslim roommates, but still she felt uneasy being completely herself around them.
"In Islam, unity and sisterhood is so highly emphasized yet I never felt comfortable enough to be open with my Muslim roommates because of how harshly I would see them judging other Muslim women," she said.
Razzan Nakhlawi, on the other hand, had no qualms about being completely open about her lifestyle. However, her openness didn't make her immune from being judged. Nakhlawi is the perfect fusion of Western culture and Islam, which doesn't always sit well with her Muslim community.
Unlike most Muslim women's parents, Nakhlawi's are aware that she drinks and has a non-Muslim boyfriend. They are perfectly okay with their daughter's lifestyle, but their major concern was how the rest of the community would start to perceive their family.
"Especially in the Muslim community, there's no way to coexist with your own personal views and be a Muslim. You either are a Muslim and you aren't acceptable as a Muslim, or you are a Muslim and you follow things incredibly in this homogenous way," Nakhlawi said. "And that's not cool, I am a Muslim and I do these things."
Unless you embody the qualities of the ideal perfect Muslim woman, chances are somehow, someway you will find yourself the subject of ignorant comments from the community.
Even though Maamoon wears a hijab, prays, fasts during Ramadan and doesn't drink, she still faces judgments from the Muslim community.
“I’ve had conservative Muslims tell me that I’m not dressing properly. That my jeans are too tight, my shirt is too short, my hijab is not right,” said Maamoon.
The media constantly bombards us with images of the same Muslim woman. She is Arab and wears a hijab. She becomes the symbol of Islam. The scapegoat for terrorist attacks. The butt of terrorist jokes. She becomes the spokesperson for the Muslim community. The one to shame when she isn't acting Muslim enough. The one to direct your "Why does Islam oppress women?" questions at.
“I don’t think Muslims should have to take the blame. White people definitely don’t take the blame for all the atrocities their people have done, so why should we be expected to say ‘I’m sorry that this happened.’ I’m sorry that human life was lost, but I refuse to take that responsibility. My soul is already too heavy to take on another burden that has nothing to do with me,” said Smothers-Pugh.
In a way, the non hijab wearing, non Arab Muslims become invisible in society. They are your neighbors. They are your coworkers. They are your teachers, friends and gym partners. They are the ones that can't possibly be Muslim. They don't look Muslim. They don't act Muslim.
Muslim women, hijabis and non hijabis alike, are just plain tired. Tired of being judged. Tired of representing the entire faith. Most importantly, like most everyone else, they just want to be seen for more than their religion.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world with 1.6 billion followers. It is quite impossible for all of them to look the same and practice the exact same way.
“I hope the future for Muslim women will be a future that is more accepting. I want Muslim women, including myself, to be able to openly identify with Islam in America without any fear of being targeted or violence,” said Hamad.