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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

COLUMN: I Invited Islam’s Finest Women to Speak for Themselves

Last week I invited Muslim women to UMass Boston to speak at an event titled “Unveiling the Myths Surrounding the Veil”, because I had an agenda up my sleeve. The event got off to a late start, so I didn’t have the opportunity to go into the history behind the event-which was kind of an important element to the entire event. So if you will, allow me the opportunity to rant, and perhaps for all you who care, I might make a little sense.

I was born and raised in the United States to Pakistani immigrant parents who arrived in 1969. My parents, who consider themselves conservative Muslims, always told me I was fortunate to grow up in an ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse society. Since I was a child, my father would point to his favorite passage in the Qu’ran: “Oh mankind! We made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one other, not that you may despise each other,” (49:13).

Though there are cities more diverse than Boston, having friends of all backgrounds throughout life has served me well. I consider myself to be compassionate, striving to build harmonious connections based on similarities; at the same time, I am completely open to what makes me unique as a Muslim in America.

About a year ago, I had a run in with a student at UMB who felt it her duty to inform me that she believed that it was “wrong” for Muslim women to wear the veil. When I asked her why, she regurgitated the standard western feminist rhetoric at me: “Islam is a patriarchal religion,” “the veil is a symbol of oppression,” “Muslim women don’t have choice.” I rolled my eyes.

It’s unfortunate that such ignorance prevails at an institution like UMB, where the Muslim Students Association (MSA) consists of approximately 150 members. I am left pondering that while I strive to be considerate towards all types of people, why aren’t others reciprocating understanding towards people like me? There seems to be an assumption that because I don’t wear a veil that I was able to break from the “darkness” of Islam? Does this misconception about me bring people to make such unabashed statements in my presence? Perhaps. However, I believe there is something deeper brewing under the surface: imperial attitudes have seeped through the cracks of many self-proclaimed feminists.

After the incident I walked around campus with a massive chip on my shoulder. While people organize to protest the occupations of nations across the world to supposedly educate the “backward” peoples of the world about freedom and democracy, the same people feel it their civic duty to shove one-sided feminist ethics down my throat about what they feel is best for women like me. The worst part is that they don’t see the contradiction.

The most powerful female figures in my life are women who wear the hijab (veil). If someone told my mother that she was oppressed because she covered her hair, she would laugh in his or her face. Why? Simply because she made the choice to wear the veil independently, without pressure from her husband, father, and brothers. Furthermore, if I choose to wear a hijab later in my life, then I will do so, and it will be my decision out of my free will.

Then I realized that I couldn’t clear these misconceptions by sitting around and complaining. If I wanted others to respond with respect towards my culture and my religion, I had some work to do. I just wanted to give the women in my life the justice they deserve.

So on November 22nd, with the help of the UMB’s Women’s Center Coordinator, Natalia Cooper, I invited Islam’s finest women from the Boston area to speak for themselves.

When an audience member challenged speaker Milia Islam, a Masters student at Harvard University, saying because of the veil, Muslim women lacked sexuality, she responded astutely saying that those impressions “are a pure product of the American media.”

While the other speakers, Barbara Saleh and Zakiyah Bilal, enlightened the audience about their empowerment as women who wear the hijab, they were cautious not to excuse the women’s rights abuses plaguing the Muslim world. “As a human being, I cannot excuse the treatment of women living under the former Taliban regime,” stated Bilal.

The purpose of the event, to use the proverb, was to get “the information directly from the horse’s mouth.” As I listened to the women speak, I hoped that there were audience members similar to the woman I had the run in with last year. I hoped people would have the courage to dig deep into themselves and to see the erroneousness of those attitudes I confronted, attitudes that minority women confront daily.

As a woman, I owe a debt of gratitude to the feminist movements throughout the world. But the feminism I encountered last year, is unjust, closed minded, and offensive to the majority of the female population of the world.

That leaves me with a proposal: instead of burning bras, because I spend a lot of money on mine, how about we do away with the brand of feminism that isolates non-white, non-middle class, and non-secular women. I’ll get the bonfire started with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.