Columnist Shaheen Pasha: Finally being seen as a Muslim-American woman

  • Columnist Shaheen Pasha

Published: 1/9/2019 4:26:03 PM

I was 14 the first time I saw someone on the screen who remotely looked like me. She was dark-skinned and beautiful. A Muslim woman who was independent and fiery. But what really struck me was how strong she was. She was willing to fight for what she wanted in life and against those in power who were corrupt. In this woman, I saw a strength that reminded me so much of the real Muslim women in my life, who didn’t fit the mold of the oppressed victim that I was too often forced to watch on television.

Too bad she was a cartoon figure.

For many years, Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie “Aladdin” was the only representation that I could relate to as a Muslim woman in the United States. True, I have never worn harem pants, and the movie itself was fairly racist in some of its portrayals of Arab culture.

But the animated character in my limited world embodied many of the attributes of Muslim feminism that I was raised with from the community of strong Muslim women around me. For that gift alone, I was willing to be put up with being called Princess Jasmine as a nickname for years. At the time, it was the best compliment I could receive amid a dearth of positive female Muslim role models.

Luckily, my 15-year-old daughter has more options. The election of the first two Muslim women congresswomen in the United States is more than just a positive step forward for diversity in our government. It is a game-changer for the many Muslim women and girls in this country who have long felt sidelined as Americans.

With the election of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to Congress, my children can finally see Muslim women leading the charge in politics here in the United States. Frankly, it’s about time. Muslim countries around the world have elected women to power for decades. Pakistan, where my parents emigrated from, had a female prime minister. Bangladesh has had two women prime ministers. Turkey, Senegal, Indonesia — all of these countries have not only boasted Muslim women politicians, but elected them as heads of state.

Here in the U.S., we have sadly lagged on that front. And it’s not because Muslims in America are an anomaly. Muslims have made up the American landscape for centuries. Between a quarter and a third of African slaves brought to the U.S. were Muslim. While the religion was stripped away as part of the brutalities of slavery, there were many pockets of Muslims who continued to practice and pass down their faith in secret. There was a revival in African-American Islam following the world wars, amid a great migration of black Americans from the South to the North. African-American Muslims actually make up roughly one-third of the Muslim population in the country.

Muslim immigrants, particularly from Lebanon and Greater Syria, also made their mark between the 19th century and early 20th century. The oldest surviving mosque in the country, which was built in 1934, is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And then a huge wave of Muslims — including my parents and siblings — arrived in the U.S. after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which brought over skilled professionals from South Asia and the Middle East. 

You wouldn’t know of this long, storied history of Muslims in the U.S. by looking at Congress. I certainly didn’t while I was growing up. And, yes, while I could always have looked towards female leaders across the world to see myself represented, it never felt the same for me because they weren’t Muslim-American. That is a unique identity, tied to the soil of this country.  

But when I look at our newly sworn-in Muslim congresswomen, I see a shared bond. These are women who learned to navigate the complexities of being Muslim in a country where we were often seen as oppressed, voiceless or just plain weird. Where we were seen as “other.”

While I don’t wear hijab, like Ilhan Omar, many of the women in my community, including family members, do choose to cover. I understand how that often plays out in school and, in the workplace. I know the looks that my Muslim-American sisters get for choosing to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion by covering their hair. I know the assumptions that can come with being visibly Muslim: terrorist, backward, un-American. I know all of this because my friends and I have lived it as Muslim women in America. 

So, in seeing Omar’s hijab and hearing her heartfelt declaration of “alhumdulillah” or “all praise to God” in her election night victory speech, I feel a kinship to her experience and her struggles. I feel like I am being seen as a fellow Muslim-American.

But what I love about our Muslim congresswomen, in particular, is that, much like our religion, they are not monolithic. They don’t fit any one mold of Muslim woman. On a basic level, one is Somali-American, the other is Palestinian-American. One wears hijab, the other doesn’t. One gets hammered with criticism for throwing down profanity against the president in a bar, the other catches heat for stating her support for BDS, which is a movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over human rights violations concerning the Palestinian people. 

Agree or disagree with their decisions and stances, they are independent women with strong opinions, much like every Muslim woman I’ve ever known. And now they have a voice in mainstream politics. 

That’s a huge step forward, not only for other Muslims in the country, but for true representation of all people. Until a country truly reflects the image of all of its constituents, it is failing society as a whole. When a young Muslim girl can only see herself reflected in the cartoon renderings of a somewhat racist Disney movie, that is a shame.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.




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