I am often asked the question of how I can be a Muslim AND a feminist as if the two cannot co-exist. As if the mere thought of a woman practicing Islam and fighting for her basic human rights are on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Today, I can proudly say that my intersectional feminism is rooted in my identity and my lived experiences as an Indian-Muslim woman.
It was not always this way, however. Growing up in an area of California that is very politically conservative, instilled in me a great deal of fear and shame of my religious identity. I watched the way in which boys in my classes spoke of Muslims. I did not want to become another target of their ignorant words. During most of my years in elementary school and junior high, I would often lie about my religion because I was afraid of the judgments that would be made about me and my family. Afraid of being called a terrorist. Afraid of being seen as “the other.”
Soon enough, this Islamophobia that I experienced first hand, became internalized. I started to pick apart every aspect of the religion and scrutinize it for what I mistakenly thought was misogyny. What I did not realize, however, was that many of the gender normative values that I saw around me were not products of Islam itself, but they were products of the cultural understandings of Islam intertwined with my Indian culture. Only until I had this epiphany, did I come to understand that many non-Muslims regard Islam as oppressive to women, without any knowledge of the patriarchal structures that allow such practices to prosper in the first place.
Social media and news outlets spearheaded by White feminists constantly told the narrative that a woman’s choice to wear the hijab was being forced upon her and that she was sacrificing gender equality, as a byproduct. As a Muslim woman, who herself does not wear the hijab, and who has many family members who also do not wear the hijab, I can wholeheartedly say that through my own religious faith, I have ALWAYS been given a choice. Society, however, does not give me a choice. What we wear is constantly politicized. What we wear is constantly controlled by social norms, the fashion industry, cultural notions of conformity, and propriety. Enough is enough.
What were once feelings of shame and fear, blossomed into feelings of embrace and empowerment. I can proudly call myself an Indian-Muslim feminist and hope other women who have had similar experiences to mine can also embrace their identities. Through my own lived experiences, I hope to uplift and empower my fellow Muslim women while also dismantling the false stereotypes of the female Muslim identity. A conversation about the lived experiences of Muslim women needs to be had in order to be in solidarity with one another. Rather than making presumptions, why not talk to Muslim women? Why not listen to their stories? If we choose not to listen, then we will reduce ourselves to the very oppressors that we want to silence.
Blog by Sufiya Manju, Vice President’s Office/Accounting intern at the National Organization for Women.