Last week, I
took my six-year-old niece to Central Park1.
As I was watching her play in the sandpit with three other American girls, I
overheard one of them whisper to her, “Does your aunt have to wear a scarf
around her head all the time? Why is she forced to cover herself?”

 

This reminded
me of my own growing up years. I grew up an Arab Muslim in New Jersey, in one
of the most Islamophobic times in American History! In the aftermath of the
9/11 tragedy, a political rhetoric and atmosphere of war against terrorism emerged
in the West. However, it became widely accepted that most, if not all terrorists,
are associated with Islam!

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I was only nine years old when the 9/11 attack took
place. This was the first time I actually felt the power of media narratives
and the constant ‘commodification’ of Muslims. I felt alienated by society, and
hid the fact that I was a Muslim. None of my relatives wore the hijab,
including my mother, and neither did I. That year, in the fourth grade, I encountered
my first racial slur. One of my classmates taunted me by stating that ‘my
people’ throw rocks at tanks, just like he had read and seen all over the
media.

 

However, I think we can all understand
his response, as it was only what his impressionable mind had ever seen or
heard about Muslims. Media
coverage makes us believe a single story, and that is the issue. It repeats and
engraves one image or story over and over again, until that is what it becomes.
The media controls how the stories are told, who tells them, when they’re told,
and how many of them are told.

 

Over time, prevalence
of Islamophobia2 in
Western societies has continued to escalate! Well-recognised media outlets such
as Al Jazeera and the Guardian reported the increase in physical and verbal
hate crimes against Muslims towards the end of 2015, particularly in France and
Britain. But what is most important to note is- that according to them, a
larger fraction of these crimes was committed against “visible” Muslim women,
who wore a veil.

 

This set me
thinking. What is the first image that comes to a person’s mind when they see of a Muslim woman
wearing a hijab? What did each of you think as I stepped onto this stage
tonight wearing one3?
If the words ‘veiled,’ ‘submissive,’ ‘oppressed,’ and ‘victim’ crossed your
mind, then you are not alone. But why is this such a common notion of the
masses?

 

If you ask
me, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is a brave and independent one. I began
wearing the hijab at the age of thirteen, as a symbol of my religion. A religion
I take pride in, and identify myself with. It is my way of expressing myself – my
rejection of the male gaze, my rejection of the over-sexualisation and
objectification of women in my immediate surroundings, and most importantly, my
rejection of Islamophobia.

 

Before you
even know my name, you will know that I am Muslim.

 

According to
a recent infographic study by International Museum of Women (IMOW)4
in partnership with Miss Representation5,
the media packages Muslim women in three common ways: veiled, oppressed and even
homogenous. To be honest, this is exactly what I thought the hijab was before;
a symbol of oppression. It was only till I visited the Middle East for the
first time with my family, and saw the hospitality and kindness of the people
there; witnessed a loving Muslim community that was so far from what I’d read;
that I realised how misrepresented we are by Western media.

 

This
demonstrates, I think, how vulnerable and accepting both, you and I are, of a
single perspective and case.

 

Contrary to the
popular Western perception of hijabs and burqas as controversial symbols of
backwardness and repressiveness in Muslim societies and threats to a country’s
national security, there are millions of girls like me, around the world today,
who wear their hijab as a proud statement of who they are.

 

Unfortunately,
Muslim women are now synonymous with ‘helpless victims.’ This means that our
rich diversity of opinions, appearances, occupations and every other hint of
cultural richness is painted over by a distorted and untruthful mass-produced
image of us.

 

All of you
here today may recall ex-President Bush’s urgent call in 2003 for the
“liberation” of the “fully draped” women in Afghanistan, while the American
troops entered their territories. “They became the victim in need of rescue by
U.S. democratic values,” read the statement.6

 

Even
recently, President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim retweets have not gone
unnoticed.

 

Ironically, the
media fails to realise that by stressing the critical need for regulating the
clothes worn by Muslim women because of our ‘inability’ to distinguish or
decide what to wear by ourselves- they are restricting our very independence
and daily choices that they claim to propagate!  

 

However, I do
not mean to say that Muslim women face no hardships at all!  As the founder of the blog MuslimGirl, created
to empower my Muslim sisters in all parts of the world, I am the last person to
ignore or deny the oppression felt by some of them… In Saudi Arabia, women are
forced to wear veils and until very recently, were not allowed to even drive
cars. Iranian women are forbidden from watching men’s sports in stadiums, and
in Yemen, women still aren’t allowed to leave their houses without their
husband’s permission! But, we need to ask ourselves, does this mean that all Muslim women, irrespective of
residence, age and family, hold a subservient role in society?

 

To quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
a Nigerian author, “The
problem with stereotypes are not that they are untrue, but that they are
incomplete.” It is absolutely imperative to see Muslim women from a different
perspective, from multiple stories. I’m not ‘submissive’ because I wear a
hijab, a choice piece of clothing on my head. I am an American author, tech
entrepreneur, activist and recent graduate of Rutgers University. But how would
you know that, if you had just accepted what the media has generalized of
people like me?

 

I truly believe
that the best way to find out about the state of Muslim women’s rights, is to
ask a Muslim woman. It’s just that simple! I urge each one of you listening
today, to think about how this negative portrayal is directly impacting and
limiting the day-to-day lives of Muslims all around the world, who by 2050 are
expected to be a whopping 2.76 billion people.7

 

That’s 2.76
billion people, consisting of our current generation and the next few, whose
lives we can try and change for the better by getting rid of these stereotypes
once and for all.  

Are you in?

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