I’m a feminist. I’m also a proud Muslim woman. Some people believe I can’t be all of these things at the same time.
“But doesn’t Islam oppress women?”
“Isn’t the hijab just another way to tell women what to do?”
“How can you really be a feminist if you believe in Islam?”
Believe it or not, I learned that men and women should be treated equally from… Islam! I sure didn’t learn it from the classmates who called each other (and me) tomboys and girly girls. And I sure as hell didn’t learn it from television, where women are constantly objectified and told they are only worth anything if they have something to offer men. Nope. I learned how to be a feminist from Islam.
From a young age I was taught to dress modestly – not because I was being oppressed and body-shamed, but because I was taught that my body was my own and only I should have control over who can see it. Wearing the hijab isn’t synonymous with being oppressed or unable to express sexuality. Instead, covering myself gives me the power to control who can see my body, and when. It literally means that I, a woman, control my own body. Isn’t that what every feminist is asking for?
Now, I’m not saying every woman should cover up. I’m just saying that Islam doesn’t oppress women – people oppress women. More specifically, men (and women!) who believe women should or shouldn’t dress a certain way are the ones who oppress women. As a Muslim feminist, I strongly believe that women should dress the way they want to. This can mean covering from head to toe or walking around in the nude. It doesn’t matter to me as long as you are the one who’s making that decision for yourself.
Here’s another question I get way too often:
“If you’re Muslim, then why don’t you wear a hijab?”
Wait, what? It may seem weird that Islam taught me about feminism through the hijab, and yet I myself don’t wear one. Muslim girls make the decision about whether to wear the hijab around the time that we start middle school. So why did I choose not to?
I was in the sixth grade the first time someone called me a terrorist. I was sitting in English class, quietly doing my work when it happened. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. I remember my eyes starting to sting and tears rolling down my cheeks. But not why you would think. I wasn’t crying because of what my classmate had said; I was crying with the sudden realization that this person genuinely meant it. She wasn’t just saying it to be mean or to hurt me. She was saying it because that’s what she believed. When it hit me that this person actually thought that Muslim equals terrorist, I was so shocked — shocked at her ignorance and shocked that she hadn’t been able to use her common sense to deduce otherwise. The actions of one can’t be used to judge an entire population of people. At the young age of 12 I already knew this, but this classmate somehow didn’t. That’s why I was crying. It made me so sad that she was unable to understand this simple concept of individuality – a concept that is ingrained in American society.
That may have been the first time I was called a terrorist, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Over the years I have put up with horrible comments from classmates, teachers, random strangers, and even friends. I didn’t – and don’t – deserve that. Nobody does.
I chose not to wear the hijab because I didn’t want to be targeted. It’s not easy to guess that I’m Muslim just by looking at me. Sometimes I call myself an “invisible Muslim” for this very reason. I have the power to choose when others find out my religion. So, I decided not to dress in a way that would make my faith clear to all those who saw me. Maybe this is just an extension of what I learned from the hijab – I wanted to control who knew I was Muslim, and when they got this piece of information about me. But deep down, I just really didn’t want to be called a terrorist again.
It’s not fair that I had to make that difficult decision at the age of 12. It’s not just that I can’t practice my religion the way I want to because I’m afraid of being hurt by someone who doesn’t understand Islam. It’s not right that people don’t think I can fight for women’s rights and practice Islam at the same time.
But that’s the reason I’m such a strong believer in feminism.
It’s not fair that women are paid less than men for the same work. It’s not just that women are not given equal access to education. It’s not right that men seem to think they can stop women from making decisions about their own bodies.
My feminism is rooted in my religion. Without Islam I wouldn’t be the women’s rights advocate that I am today. The misconceptions about feminists and Muslims need to be erased. I’m going to do my part by continuing to be an activist for social change. I can only hope the rest of the world will acknowledge this and the contributions of the millions of other Muslim feminists around the world.