My value as a woman is not measured by the size of my waist or the number of men who like me. My worth as a human being is measured on a higher scale: a scale of righteousness and piety. And my purpose in life—despite what fashion magazines say—is something more sublime than just looking good for men.
Knowledge is the greatest tool against ignorance, and Islam has liberated women and girls in every walk of life through education. Muslim women have borne the brunt of Islamophobic rhetoric, one that perpetuates the notion of oppression in Islam. Perhaps this rhetoric would change if we listened to real Muslim women worldwide speak about their experiences with Islam.
SOURCE: Muslims of the World by Sajjad Shah
Shahad 23, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
On the evening of January 29, 2017, six men lost their lives in a terrorist attack at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City.
The mass shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, expressed his hatred of Muslims and immigrants by murdering people who were peacefully praying with their children and loved ones. This violent event shocked Canada and sparked many serious conversations about Islamophobia and xenophobia. I was a political staffer for my local member of Parliament at the time, and I had accompanied her to a roundtable of faith leaders in the region, other members of Parliament, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. There were no Muslim women at the table.
As the roundtable shared thoughts on how to move forward, create interfaith and intercommunity dialogue, and change policies, I could not get over the fact that no Muslim women were asked to be part of this conversation. Muslim women are the most visible members of the Muslim community. When I walk into a room, I know that the first thing anyone sees is my hijab, and that everything else comes second. Hijab is also accompanied by stereotypes of vulnerability and weakness, which is why Muslim women are more often targeted by violent acts of Islamophobia. So why were those who face Islamophobic violence at a disproportionately high rate not at the table, talking about their own experiences and suggesting ways to make change? Are we not the true experts on the subject?
I decided to break one of the unsaid rules of being a political staffer: I took the mic. I asked those present to be more mindful of the importance of representation, and how it influences the decisions we make and the policies we create. I shared my experience as a Muslim woman and how being so visible affects me every day.
A few months later I attended a lunch hosted by one of the most senior women in our government. She invited us to share our experiences as women in politics. She started the session with a relatable story: A young Muslim woman approached her after an event and raised the same concern that I had. “When our community is consulted, you speak to organization leaders and Imams,” the young woman said. “But women are often in the driver’s seat of our community, and spearhead many of its battles, so why do we not get a seat at the table?”
The host reflected on how that interaction affected the way she sees our government bettering its process of consultation, and how it had shown a need to be more intersectional in our fight for female voices.
It takes courage to bring your voice to an issue, especially when no one has made room for you. Maybe you’ve even been pushed out. It’s a battle to get that seat and the mic, to project your experiences and thoughts, and get those in power to listen. But the battle is worthwhile. The battle starts when a young woman casually brings her concerns to the senior official. It starts with being vocal about the unacceptable composition of a roundtable or consultation room. Little by little our voices become louder, and gradually they are heard.
Rana 24, Palo Alto, California, USA
I was ten years old the first time I saw a man lift his hand and slap his wife across the face in a public space. As I watched her eyebrows scrunch together in pain, a dark silence enveloped the street as bystanders continued on with their own lives. No one said a thing. That same year, boys at school started making sexualized comments about the shape of my body, and I learned about sexual control through hearing murmurs about female genital mutilation practices within my own community. When I was fourteen, my best friend told me that she had been sexually abused when she was seven.
I was just a girl when I began to volunteer at a domestic violence organization, and I eventually founded my own nonprofit that trains Muslim women in self-defense. Over the past seven years, I have built a movement with dozens of other girls, from both my community and around the world. I spent several months in Jordan’s largest refugee camp with girls who escaped the Syrian civil war. I helped them heal from abuse and sexual violence so that they could feel strong again and raise their siblings and children. In Madrid, Muslim girls bore the brunt of discrimination and racism in classrooms and walking around their own neighborhoods. Their families had immigrated to make their lives better, and now this is what they had to face. In Tunisia, the girls I met during self-defense instruction made jokes about what they would do to men who tried to attack them. These same girls then participated in a revolution that overthrew a tyrannical regime. And just recently, we all witnessed how powerful a girl can be as Malala Yousafzai enrolled in her first year at Oxford University. She was only fifteen when she stood up against the Taliban by demanding to continue her education.
When I listen to the stories of the girls I work with, I sometimes feel a prevailing sense of hopelessness. There is so much work to be done! But then I see their resiliency—how they overcome challenges with grace. We heal, we learn, and then we aspire to create changes for our sisters that will start a ripple effect around the entire world. This is the hope I have for our future. This is the power of a girl.