Written By: Members of SYMW
A few months ago, our members were invited to a local Jewish community center to enjoy and observe a dinner in celebration of a religious holiday. Through our interfaith initiatives, we felt as though this invitation to observe a religious ceremony was an incredible opportunity to learn more about a religion other than our own and to find appreciation in the similarities in values and ceremony that were presented at the event. After arriving however, the members able to attend were taken from their barely-touched plates and asked to stand in front of a group of 40+ women with a microphone to answer questions about Islam. In a matter of minutes, we were changed from welcomed guests to specimens expected to know every answer to every question about our religion. While not wholly unwelcome at the time, and while we did not feel necessarily unwelcome, we took our leave from the community center after about an hour of questions later, our still-barely-touched plates forgotten and cold.
Many of us left that night feeling a little confused. What was advertised to us as an invitation to a dinner, soon became an unexpected spotlight. We felt as though we had not been properly briefed that we would be attending not as guests and observers, but as a group of girls who would have to explain their religion to a room full of strangers with preconceived notions evident in the questions they asked. We are always open to spreading Dawah, or knowledge about Islam, but what we are not open to is being caught off guard and used.
Weeks later, almost immediately after the 2016 election results, we received notice that an article about our participation in the event had been published in a local newspaper. What was most shocking about this piece, beyond even the fact that it had been written without our knowledge or permission, was the blatant picking-and-choosing of quotes from each of the speakers as well as an over-share of personal information of our members including family information, places of employment, and educational institutions our members attend. In a time and place where our identities are misinterpreted and our voices hushed, this article was a stab of mistrust and hurt that resounded among our members. The next week was a blur of having the article retracted and promised apologies that, to this day, have never been received. We were promised an opportunity to rewrite the article in our own words to correct the statements that were wrongly misquoted and to explain the concepts in our religion that were completely altered. That opportunity however, was never actually extended to us and so, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Whether this is read by many or just a few, we believe that writing out our answers to a series of often misinterpreted topics in Islam and culture will be all the more powerful in our own narrative. We will not be linking the original article or providing any names involved in order to prevent further exposure to the source. Let’s begin:
At the dinner, we were uninformed that we would be a panel instead of an audience, and our members had to quickly create brief introductions which included names, place of employment, current schooling, and some other form of personal information that we shared from the stories about our experiences, families, and struggles. We opened up about our lives, not expecting that all of our stories were considered “on the record” information by a journalist, whose presence was unknown to us. We did not expect to be targeted, as there is no other way to describe how we felt when we read this article. This journalist not only twisted the meanings of our narratives but also jeopardized the safety and reputations of our members by either oversharing, simplifying, or assuming.
By publishing an article that described the employment of our members so thoroughly that even the town is mentioned destroys confidentiality between the interviewer and the interviewee (not that it was known anyways), and yet, this journalist believed that inserting specifics would not endanger our members nor cause any problems with employers. This journalist believed that sharing information, like the recent marriage of one of our members, made her an expert in Muslim relationships and felt the need to express that it can now be justified that the parents of Muslim daughters “[take] her opinions into account when selecting her husband.” However, this journalist then refutes her own assumption by falsifying what another one of our members shared about a different marriage and hints that Muslims families are torn apart by racism and cultural differences. This journalist then also included irrelevant information about what we shared, probably to demonstrate background information only for it to be executed incorrectly. Assumptions, made to sound factual, were made about our hijabs, our position on the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the lives that we live, but phrased in such a way that we felt victimized by the inaccuracy and mistruths.
We have had previous contact with the press and journalism and never was it so poorly conducted. Never were we unaware that we were being recorded until now. Never were we the victims of a journalist who forgot the etiquette of being an interviewer and decided to single out the privacy of our members until now. Never were we so wrongly represented in an article until now. Never were we so disappointed by what has become of journalism and how journalists receive their titles until now.
During the conversation we had with those in attendance, questions about the hijab and its significance were raised. While during the event we were able to articulate on the subject in our own words and freely, resulting in what we hope is better understanding of it from our perspective, the article decided to pick and choose on what was quoted. It was assumed, as it usually is, that the hijab was something required for our members, and that those who did not wear it were something of a rarity. Because of this assumption, it’s important that we set something straight - although many Muslim women do choose to wear the hijab, many others don't. Either way, that is the choice of each woman.
The hijab is the most iconic form of symbolism any Muslim woman could wear. When placing the cloth on our heads, the reality is, that become walking billboards. This tradition of covering has been taking place in the Muslim community for centuries. Unfortunately, as time has continued on, the hijab itself has become increasingly misunderstood. Here are some basic facts: The hijab is when a Muslim woman dresses modestly, including covering the head and whole body - usually with a scarf and long-sleeved clothing. The purpose of the hijab is to protect us from the societal objectification of bodies. It’s our way of being able to present our minds as our most valuable thing to offer, without the fear that we will be judged based on how we look instead. We are protected from the gross sexualization of women that has become a norm across the globe. The choice to wear or not wear the hijab is something that every woman has the right to.
With that being said, wearing the hijab doesn't make you more pious than anyone who doesn't wear it. It is simply a personal choice. A misconception almost always associated with women who do wear the hijab is that they were forced to. The hijab is a choice, not an obligation. You don't have to be a certain age to wear it. Muslims have the choice to where it whenever they want to. Wearing it does come with many responsibilities and challenges, but it is something that is completely up to any Muslim woman. The article undervalued what the hijab is and was written in a way that fit the stereotypical story conveyed behind Muslim women who wear it.
The article, of course, mentions the idea of “dating” in Islam and how "most did not participate in the dating scene familiar to non-Muslim women their age, though they acknowledged that even within the Muslim community, rules for dating and marriage could vary depending on one's family and culture.” Let’s start off by clarifying that there is no such thing as “dating in Islam.” This is a notion that is forbidden for all Muslims alike, no matter the culture or place we came from. This is also not something we are at all embarrassed to admit. Why? Well, in Islam, we believe that the choice of whom you marry is a very important and special decision that should not be based solely on hormones or attraction. It requires believing in God, praying to Him, involving one’s family, and careful consideration by those involved. Marriage is not a light matter, and hence, should not be treated like one. It is narrated in an Hadith (sayings of the Prophet peace be upon him) that “No man is alone with a woman but the shaytaan (the devil) is the third one present.”
However, courting in Islam is permissible as long as the two are accompanied by a third party. Although the two are not permitted to engage in a physical relationship, this period is spent getting to truly know and understand one another. Which, if you really think about it, is seriously beautiful. Then, if the two chose, along with the blessings of their respective families, they will proceed to get married. After they are married, the previous rules of courting no longer apply. Now that we have clarified the Islamic perspective on “dating” in Islam, it is also important to mention that humans are not perfect. So yes, there are Muslims who are dating, and there are Muslims who are married to people that they may have been dating for years. Here’s the crazy part: what someone has done, will do, or is currently engaged in is not anyone else’s business. Everything, whether it is right or wrong, is between that person and God.
Going off of what we addressed about dating in Islam, it’s important that we mention marriage even further, since the journalist made every excuse to assume and stereotype one of our members who had recently gotten married.
Many have the misconception of thinking that all marriages in Islam are arranged. The truth is, Muslim women and men are allowed to marry whomever they like, as long as it is with the right intentions. It is equally important however, to address that in certain cultures, arranged marriage is a tradition.
When the topic of our member’s recent marriage came up in the article, which was done without her permission, it stated that “although it was an arranged marriage, ---- said that her family took her opinions into account when selecting her husband.” Which is an entirely problematic sentence. Yes, it is true that her marriage was arranged. That is to say, however, her verbally agreeing to marry a man was not only her parents’ choice, but also her own. She had 100% say if she wanted to marry him or not, but by the way it was addressed in the article, it would be assumed that her marriage to her now-husband was limited only to the candidates that her parents chose for her and that she had not been given the chance to learn more about him before agreeing.
In Islam, a marriage is not valid until both parties agree to get married on their own will, whether it is an arranged marriage or not. A Muslim woman also has the full right to marry another Muslim man, regardless of race. So yes, love marriages are very common between Muslim women and men among the Muslim population, but an arranged marriage should not insinuate a barbaric ritual where the girl has no say.
Culture vs Islam:
Going into the stereotypes around marriage in Islam yet again, the journalist traveled another step further and onto the line of culture versus religion when, very unnecessarily, misquoting another member’s statements about her brother’s marriage. The article made a point to mention the difficulties or “problems” faced by her sister-in-law because she did not follow the “path” of an arranged marriage.
The statements she made about the marriage and subsequent events were totally taken out of context and/or fabricated. The point of her bringing up her brother's marriage was for it to be an example of how islam and culture differ - highlighting the fact that it’s okay as long as religion sits in a position of judgement over culture.
In explaining this difference, the member explained that her brother and sister-in-law were married to the dismay of her sister-in-law’s family–only initially–because the line between culture and Islam had been blurred for them–something that happens less frequently in the Muslim-American society today. Once her family took the time to look into the matter from an Islamic standpoint, the understanding developed into the now existing belief that there was nothing problematic about their union.
In the article, the passage ended with “The resulting family situation has been very difficult for her sister-in-law,” which is completely false. What was stated at the dinner, was that after her family had a better understanding of the religious aspects of the union, their two families became extremely close–and have become even closer still. The ending of the passage does nothing but nullify the weak attempt–if one can even call it an attempt–to normalize and bring a positive light to interracial marriages within the confines of islam. The way it was approached in the article however, was poorly written and grazed over an extremely sensitive and important topic with no attention to the necessary undertone for caution and turmoil.
Finally moving past the topic of marriage and dating in Islam, the article moved onto talking about how us, as Muslim women in America, hadn’t really dealt with discrimination or Islamophobia on a large scale. The journalist downsized our collective struggles against hatred and racism based on our religious beliefs into a few passing remarks and an isolated incident that occurred once in a cafeteria. By commenting on one or two incidences in passing and insinuating that no further discrimination had occurred in general or at the institution that most of the present members attended, the journalist’s words in the article made our struggles as well as the struggles of those who were not present and represented, unimportant and nonexistent.
Here’s the problem with that - attempting to downplay the experiences of someone who has withstood hardship based on their religion, race, ethnicity, skin color, etc. without properly allowing that person to speak about the experience in their own words, is what feeds into and begins to excuse the hatred they first experienced. To simplify, not allowing someone to explain what has happened to them in a hateful experience, and instead attempting to explain it for them, creates a bigger issue. It creates a loss of security, it creates a sense of oppression, and it creates an excuse for others to speak on the behalf of people they should definitely not be speaking on behalf of.
Additionally, the article deepens the issue by assuming that the girls present had not experienced discrimination at their schools. Most schools boast something about their campus being inclusive or diverse, or one that "actively fosters tolerance and acceptance and proactively addresses diverseness." but that doesn't mean patting the administration on their back and allowing them to believe they’ve done all that they can.
Schools in general need to be more active in combating hatred, yes, but also in fostering a mindset in the students that hatred is unacceptable and stupid to begin with. Make kids ask those fostering hatred and discrimination, “but why do you hate them?” so that they can challenge stereotypes once they go out in the real world. Make sure administration doesn’t get lazy in trying to teach inclusivity and awareness of what is going on in the world. Just because something isn’t awful doesn’t mean it can’t become awful with time and negligence and falsely commending an institution for having no issues regarding racism etc. is a huge over-generalization that allows administration to stop trying.
Finally, and perhaps the most unwarranted, the article also ventured into the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, which was not addressed at the actual event. The article said: "unlike most campuses, --- does not have any militant Palestinian groups and the boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) movement has never taken hold there. This makes the campus a more comfortable place for Jewish students, who are often put on the defensive by these groups.” Because Palestine and the BDS movement were not brought up during the actual discussion, it should not have been mentioned in the article. But since it was brought up, the Society of Young Muslim Women would just like to clarify a few things.
The mention of Muslim students at an institution does not qualify as permission to use said students to be token Muslims for your own agenda. In an article that seems like it was supposed to be addressing the Muslim American experience, interfaith relations, and Islamophobia, the article completely ignored our reality, and instead used our identity as a segue to talk about the Muslim majority Palestine, and the group that fights for Palestinian rights, BDS, and how the two made Jewish students feel uncomfortable. The article first brought in topics that were not discussed in order to shift the focus of the article to highlight the afflictions of Jewish students. The article then detached the Muslim student population from those “problematic groups” without knowing nor asking the Muslim group about their views, in order to place them into the category of “good Muslims”. Instead of discussing the sharp increase in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the ways in which Muslims students faced these incidents, the article constructed a passive, docile, nonpolitical Muslim figure in order to feel comfortable pushing pro-Israeli matters by using the words “militant Palestinian groups” while still trying to remain politically correct.
But as history shows - sometimes you have to construct such figures because justifying the murder and illegal occupation through settler colonialism by a so-called “democracy” for the past 50 years can be kind of tricky. An MSA’s job (which is separate from SYMW, as we are not an MSA or affiliated with a University), is not to make the campus more comfortable for any group of students. As Muslim Americans, we fight for social justice, which includes fighting for the rights of Palestinians.
We did not include any conversation about the BDS movement not because we do not support them, but because it was not the time nor the place. Had the discussion of Israel’s attacks on the civilian population in Gaza and the West Bank surfaced, then we would not have hesitated to talk in support of BDS and the importance of practicing our right to boycott companies who fund Israel’s ability to build illegal settlements and carry out other inhumane treatments against the Palestinians.
The article mentioned above sincerely was unwarranted, unnecessary, and unknown to us at SYMW and while we do not wish to add any fuel to their ignorance, we felt the need to speak up and set the record straight on various topics that were misinterpreted and misrepresented. We thank the Jewish community center for its hospitality and understand that the actions of one does not speak on behalf of all - because we as Muslims, are often subjected to such generalizations daily. Our intentions of writing this response were simply to set the record straight and to speak out against poor journalism. Most importantly, this article was written to prove that when promised a space that is not delivered - we will not hesitate to create our own & when promised an opportunity to use our voices that is not fulfilled - we will stand on our own podiums and speak even louder.