5 Things You Weren't Told About "Oppressed" Muslim American Women


Every so often I come across an article about Muslim women that makes me think, “Wow, what on earth did I just read?” To give you an idea of what I’m referring to, The Daily Beast published an “exposé” on the lives of Saudi women last week. Then there is Mona Eltahawy’s controversial Foreign Policy article blaming the struggle of women on the culture of the Middle East.

When VICE asked its fashion editor to track down a traditional burka, Annette Lamothe-Ramos took her assignment one step further and wore the garment around New York City for a day as a mini-social experiment.

“I Walked Around In a Burqa All Day (And I’m Not Muslim)” was intended to be an eye-opening experiment, but Lamothe-Ramos completely missed the point of why some Muslim women choose to dress modestly. One look at the photo captions told me that Lamothe-Ramos had little experience with centuries-old Arab culture and the religion of Islam.

The article could have been an episode of Sex in the City where Carrie Bradshaw eagerly buys an abaya and parades around town with it, taking pictures at landmarks and eating ice cream.

Take it from an Arab Muslim American woman, what Lamothe-Ramos was wearing was not even close to a burka. She was wearing an abaya, a long black cloak traditionally worn in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of North Africa by women, commonly confused with the Afghan burka. She was also wearing a face covering that exposes the eyes, called a niqab.

Unlike Lamothe-Ramos, I am careful to consider the perspective of women who wear the hijab because aside from wearing it on specific occasions, I don’t have much experience with it in everyday life. Not only did Lamothe-Ramos refer to the garment by the wrong name, she left out one major piece of research that would have helped her caused: speaking to a real Muslim woman!

So I enlisted the help of my vocal friend, Tasneem, for this article. I asked for her reaction to Lamothe-Ramos' article as a woman who wears the hijab. Tasneem studies Political Science and is a fellow of the Skadden Arps Honors Legal Program at the City College of New York.

“As a hijabi Muslim New Yorker,” says Tasneem, “I found Annette Lamothe-Ramos’ statements on the traditional garments worn by Muslim women extremely offensive and ignorant. The niqab and the abaya are more than just pieces of cloth that are thrown over the body. These garments help us fulfill God’s commandment upon us to be modest.”

She continues, “Ms. Lamothe-Ramos describes her hunt to find the perfect burqa as ‘a pain in the ass.’ The real pains in the ass are people like her who think they can parade around the city taking pictures in an abaya for a day and think they know what it’s like to be a Muslim woman." 

Tasneem got right to my point. “All I learned from this article is why you should hem your dresses so they don’t drag on the ground on a rainy day.”

Orientalism is a huge a problem in the West, and it’s making American Muslims miserable. Stereotyping Muslim women as “virgins” who dress up in “Grim Reaper” and “Batman” costumes isn’t helping the mainstream’s perception of Islam: It’s making it worse. In addition to being offensive, Lamothe-Ramos chose the ghastliest abaya possible to reinforce the idea that American Muslim women are foreign and unfamiliar. It was oversized, “bedazzled,” and tacky.

The original caption of this photo reads, “Oh you know, just hanging out with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (and Allah) on the subway platform.”

I was willing to forgive Annette Lamothe-Ramos’ ignorance, since she obviously has zero experience with Muslims in real life, but she should know enough to not insult the fundamental belief in God that nearly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world share.

But, then came her obligatory all-Muslims-are-terrorists jab.

“I didn’t realize the significance of visiting one of the tallest buildings in New York dressed in Islamic garb until we reached the entrance. I felt like a jerk,” wrote Lamothe-Ramos, referring to her experience at the Empire State Building.

Speaking as an Arab Muslim woman with experience living in the United States and a few countries in the Middle East, I’ve grown weary of Islamophobia, stereotyping, and discrimination.After reading enough Orientalist nonsense online, I’ve concluded that the typical Western media article reinforces five major stereotypes about Muslim women and Arabs in general:

1. The label “Muslim” is synonymous with “Arab,” and vice versa.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The largest Muslim population by millions is in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There are Arab Jews, Christians, and Atheists, so don’t assume we’re all Muslim.

2. All Muslim men oppress their women by forcing them to wear the veil, and the only way to get equality is for Western feminists to “liberate"them.

According to many of my veiled friends, the hijab is a liberating and spiritually cleansing garment. The hijab is a piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and covers a woman’s hair. Committing to the hijab is an independent choice that women all over the world make, and their “male oppressors” have no say in their decision. In my experience, no one will outwardly pressure a woman into covering her hair, because that goes against the teachings of Islam. Journalists who write about  hijab rarely consider the women they are writing about; instead, they focus on the fabric on their heads. Women who don’t cover their hair are treated with as much respect as those who do.

3. We come from backwards families that are determined to keep us from studying and pursuing professional careers.

Almost every Arab woman I’ve met comes from a family that encourages her to shoot for the highest possible degree, whether in law, medicine, biology, history, engineering or other fields in academia. Education is highly regarded in Arab culture, just ask any university student in the Middle East and they’ll tell you the importance of earning a degree. In the religion of Islam, learning for both men and women is held in high regard.

4. Muslim and Arab women lead elusive, but highly fascinating lives.

I’m here to tell you that our lives are just as stressful, rewarding, boring, and complicated as yours. We have demanding jobs and familial obligations. We travel, study at universities, go to college, and compete at the Olympics. Despite our prevalence in modern society, the media still reduces Muslim women around the world to what we wear, and what we don’t. 

5. And the pièce de résistance: we’re sold into marriage as teenage virgins to terrorists named Abdullah or Mohammed.

Yes, sure. We also have three arms and glow-in-the-dark hair, but you don’t see that when you spot us riding our magic carpets to the goat market wearing our oppressive abayas and hijabs. 

All joking aside, Muslims have love lives, but everyone approaches relationships differently. How Muslims approach love and companionship varies widely — from singles’ events and college flings, to marriages similar to those of our grandparents’ time. And I cannot emphasize this enough: The religion of Islam is not out to get you.

At this point, I continue to read uninformed articles about Islam and Arabs for a good laugh. Wait, am I too oppressed to laugh?