What It Means to Be a Muslim Woman in Today's America


There’s never a dull moment in the life of a member of an American minority. In my case, being the member of an ethnic and religious minority is all the more exhilarating. As a Muslim American woman who dons a headscarf, it’s easy to become emblematic for what "my people" stand for. I have to be cognizant of driving too fast, or showing frustration in a slothful line at the store, since that will leave an indelible impression on the minds of those who perceive us. As Peter Beinart writes in the Daily Beast about the Tsarnaev brothers: "Because in public conversation in America today, 'Islam' is a racial term. Being Muslim doesn't just mean not being Christian or Jewish. It means not being white." And as history has shown us, not being white in America can lead to certain complications. 

Every experience of a Muslim woman is unique and none can be taken as anything more. A new online exhibition by the International Museum of Women is showcasing this individuality and diversity within the Muslim global community. It's called Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices. This dynamic exhibition includes a "collection of thought pieces and artwork from contemporary Muslim women who are defining their own identities and, in the process, shattering pervasive stereotypes." It's a sincere and nuanced window to the world as these very different Muslim women perceive it. No two stories are similar, no two revelations converge.

One of the major topics discussed in the exhibition is appearance. As a Muslim woman who covers my hair, I can very easily find myself at the end of many assumptions. Can she play sports with that? Can she speak English? Here's the bottom line: I cover my head not my mind. A lot of the misconceptions are rooted in mainstream media, which, for the most part, portrays Muslim women as exploited and helpless. Sadaf Syed's piece iCover: A Day in the Life of a Muslim-American, shows us just some of the countless numbers of hats worn by Muslim women, from truck driver to athlete.

But being a Muslim woman in America isn't only about wrestling with stereotypes. American diversity and civil liberties have led to a new version of Islam. Young Muslims born in America have brought together the best of what American and Islamic cultures have to offer. This fresh and vibrant American Islam offers new perspectives that have been colored by the American experience -- something immigrant Muslims may not have necessarily indulge in. Malcolm X's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz discusses this phenomenon in an interview with Muslima.

The Muslim-American experience is more than can fit into this short piece. It's about educating those who may be misled by stereotypes and misinformation in the media. But it's also about being actively engaged in all aspects of society, from politics to sports, the workplace to the hip-hop scene.

In the words of Samina Ali, Muslima curator:

"In a world that's grown accustomed to denying the rich diversity of Muslim women's thoughts and contributions, of erasing their complex differences and reducing them into an easy stereotype of an oppressed group, into lesser human beings, this exhibition title highlights the singular form of muslima in order to celebrate the unique passions and accomplishments of each and every Muslim woman who contributes."