Oppressed. Fundamentalist. Unassimilated. Voiceless Victims. Conservative.
These are deeply entrenched ideas about Muslim women that frame what we hear and see in the media in Western societies. Muslim women in the media headlines are often represented as the “victim of men’s violence.”
For example, the well-known writer and Somali-Dutch American, Ayaan Hirsan Ali, was embraced by right wing politicians as a brave hero after renouncing her faith and criticizing the West for not doing enough to “save” Muslim women from Muslim men’s misogyny.
Ghazala Khan was reproached by President Trump for not talking about her deceased son, a former Army Captain at the Democratic National Convention, because “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” as he assumed both her faith and husband didn’t allow her to speak.
My research in Gender & Society follows an untold story of Muslim women. Many of them are leftist, smart, politically astute, and powerfully working at the helm of social movement organizations for justice and social change.
My research provides the story of 75 young women involved in social justice organizing in the United Kingdom and the United States during the intensity of President Trump’s Muslim Ban and the UK’s passage of Brexit. These respondents were, fighting against a fierce racist climate in xenophobic times. They are among a generation of young Muslim women born to stateless Palestinian exiles, working class Pakistani immigrants, Somali refugees, and immigrant Arab and Black communities.
While incredibly diverse, the thread my research identifies is their collective political organizing and commitment to social justice. They have been involved in the decolonize movement and solidarity struggles. They fight against gendered Islamophobia, state violence, war, and surveillance. They fight for immigrant rights and racial and gender justice. They organize on university campuses, in the community, in mosques, civil rights organizations and nonprofits, and alongside other grassroots social justice struggles.
The young Muslim women activists that I interviewed made it apparent that they are simultaneously experiencing and resisting multi-faceted challenges in their lives. My research shows how Muslim women’s position in society provides an important and unique place to explore how they contest power and domination. For instance, in response to the US Muslim Ban, women activists were an integral part of confronting this new terrain of state sanctioned Islamophobia. For example, Rasmiah, a socialist and Palestinian activist was arrested while challenging the detaining of an immigrant, Iraqi woman with breast cancer as she was to de-board a plane at the Los Angeles International airport, demonstrating collective solidarity with immigrant Muslim women globally as they oppose unjust state policy.
In the UK, Muslim women activists in my sample opposed PREVENT, a national counter-terrorism security mandate. They were core organizers in kickstarting the “Students not Suspects” campaign that contested the widespread surveillance and criminalization of students, which was commonplace on university campuses, a form of political tracking of students’ viewpoints. Their organizing also took on new meaning when they confronted public attacks on women wearing hijab, and the political smearing of Muslim women activists in the media.
While I was interviewing Sana, a National Student Union organizer who also organized with a community organization representing mosques in London, she pointed out that “we can only be victims of sexism, but never racism.”
Sana discusses the dominant portrayal of Muslim women as worthy victims to be “saved” by the West only when it is from Muslim men’s patriarchy. However, this pervasive idea obscures the racism they routinely experience within British (and US) society. Without wanting to lose sight of how they experienced multiple forms of domination, a collective of Muslim women student activists started a campaign in the UK, that focused on organizing a gendered Islamophobia tour, where Muslim women could articulate their experiences at the structural intersections of racism and sexism.
Experiences of inequality permeate Muslim women’s lives but are also distinct based on their diverse backgrounds. Particular experiences vary depending upon one’s racialization, immigration background, socioeconomic status, and whether she wears the hijab/niqab, among other factors. There is no singular, monolithic Muslim woman. There is no one story.
These are 75 compelling stories of the complex lives of young Muslim women activists living in the US and the UK. My research reports their hard work, frustrations, political analyses, ethical disobedience, and hopes for social change. Their experiences and insights inform us of new ways to understand domination, resistance and social justice.
Dr. Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. During this research, she served as an Honorary Research Associate at the University of College London, Centre for Muslim Education and Research. She publishes on the topics of racialized surveillance and counterterrorism, gendered Islamophobia and state violence, and capitalism and the privatization of the domestic War on Terror. To find out more about her research and teaching, please visit Dr. Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson. You can also follow @DrSabrina_Ali on Twitter.