From the 'Burkini Ban' to U.S. Olympic Fencer Ibithaj Muhammad: Changing the Conversation on Muslim Women

Two headlines from the past week underscore the challenges Muslim women around the world face.

First, U.S. fencer Ibithaj Muhammad made history at the Rio Summer Olympics as the first American athlete to compete at the Olympics in a hijab--and she helped her team win a Bronze medal to boot.

At the same time, Cannes and four other French towns banned the 'burkini'--the full-body bathing suit worn by some Muslim women--from their beaches. Their reasoning ironically mirrors that of hard-line clerics in some Muslim-majority countries which require women to wear those very burkinis at the beach--that they might incite disorder.

Despite the hoopla around the burkini ban, in reality it's just the latest in a long line of bans that have emerged from both Muslim-majority countries and Western nations alike, aiming to control how Muslim women appear in public.

The notion that Muslim women need outside guidance in order to dress appropriately--and I dare any of you to say that to Ibithaj Muhammad's face--is one of countless belittling attitudes about Muslim women that I hoped to challenge in the global exhibition I curated for Global Fund for Women.

Entitled Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices, the rich, multimedia project highlights world-renowned artists, courageous change-makers, riveting poets and writers, and powerful leaders who are all, in one form or another, rising beyond the denigrating distortions about Muslim women, which were created precisely to hold them back. In the process, they are shattering stereotypes of what it means to be Muslim women, both in their local communities and around the world.


For many people, the exhibition was their first encounter with Muslim women outside what they'd heard and seen in media. For them, it was a memorable, eye-opening experience to realize that Muslim Woman did not necessarily equal: Victim or Arab or Terrorist.

But in recent months, the scales have tipped historically askew as increased fear of and hatred towards Muslims has been stirred up by presidential candidates and media coverage alike. Given the terrorist acts of a select few, it's easy to see why so many of us are swallowing the Islamophobia and bigotry that's being passed off as nationalism.

But a counterbalance to this narrative is needed. So with the aim of once more disrupting the rhetoric of fear and hate, Global Fund for Women is reviving the Muslima exhibition--which first launched 3 years ago--by highlighting the vibrant art and diverse voices of Muslim women from around the world in an exciting new campaign called #MuslimaMeans.


While it's true that not all Muslim women are as strong or independent-minded as those we feature, and that some Muslim women truly are constrained by their local community's ideologies, it is also true that this same can be said about women of all religions and backgrounds. The point of #MuslimaMeans is not to put forth a simplistic counterpoint to simplistic stereotypes.

The purpose of #MuslimaMeans is to reveal what we don't ordinarily see in the media: the true, complex realities of Muslim women.


For instance, I find myself looking at artist Saba Chaudhry Barnard's "An-Noor" series with the same excitement I did the first time I saw it. Her portraits of Muslim American women combine religious imagery with iconic poses, like that of Normal Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," to allow the inner strength and diversity of her subjects to shine through.


Soufeina Hamed's funny illustrations in "Less Different" reveal that Muslim women's everyday issues aren't that different from anyone else's. Singer and artist Rajae el Mouhandiz continues the rich musical heritage of Muslim culture but with a modern twist: her music is breaking ground in the pop industry. And Tasleem Jamila el-Hakim's "I AM" from her book Black Baptist Muslim Mystic, is a powerful and moving spoken word performance that explores her multinational, multicultural, multi-faith identity--a background that many can relate to, whether or not they are Muslim.


I spent several days with Italian-born artist Maïmouna Guerresi, enthralled by her ability to capture the beauty and mysticism of Sufi Islam in her visually-arresting photography. Guerresi was born an Italian-Catholic and converted to Islam as an adult. In an interview I did with her, she explained her draw to the faith in this way:

"The Islamic faith fascinated me, in particular for the extraordinary inner strength it teaches. It's probably something that can be said of all religions, but apparently at that time Islam was my way. It is a faith that has helped me, and still helps me, understand many questions."

That "extraordinary inner strength" of Muslim women is exactly what I hope shines through in the work highlighted in Muslima. Because the truth is that what a woman chooses to wear or not to wear on the outside in no way reveals that inner strength.

If you doubt me, take a look again at one of America's great athletes, Ibithaj Muhammad. Her words resonate through #MuslimaMeans:

"This is the America that I know and I love. The America that is inclusive, that is accepting, and encompasses people from all walks of life."

[Image credits (in order): Fighting Against Cultural and Religious Discourses, Nadia Helmy Ahmed, here; Praying Herself, 2005, Maïmouna Guerresi, here; Sophia (American Beauty) from An-Noor, Saba Chaudhry Barnard; from Less Different, Soufeina Hamed; Maïmouna Family (Mother of Two Cultures), 2006, Maïmouna Guerresi, here.]