Beyond the hijab: Narratives of Muslim women on campus

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

Injustice doesn’t always take the form of hate crimes on a national or international level. It surfaces daily as illiteracy, insensitivity and indifference to narratives on a campus that champions its diverse and politically engaged student body. The generalized and misinformed perceptions of Muslim women speak volumes to the way they are viewed on campus. Although my father was born into Islam, I am not personally engaged in the faith. I can’t speak to the these women’s realities from personal experience, but as a student at UC Berkeley, I feel a proximity to their concerns. The issue is fundamentally about a lack of understanding and engagement. It’s about a disconnect between ourselves and our peers, between students and administration, and between our campus and the rest of the world.

What the campus lacks is an informed perception of Islam and those who follow it. For many Muslim women on campus, such as sophomore Shahana Farooqi, sometimes the extent of those perceptions are the way they choose to dress and the headscarf, or hijab, they choose to wear. Muslim women often become reduced to their appearance and subject to the misinformed judgments of those outside the faith. Islam is not a rulebook and did not force Farooqi to act in any way. “It’s not just about how you dress,” she said, “it’s about how you conduct yourself and how you interact with others. The impression of Islam as an oppressive faith in which women are forced to dress modestly and silenced by men is so distorted it has become dangerous. The true Muslim narrative has to do with the ways in which Muslim men and women choose to live their lives, choices that are internal and self-driven.

For Farooqi, deciding to start wearing the hijab was part of an extended process of becoming closer to her religion. While it is the most visible step she took, rediscovering Islam and what it meant to her personally was much more than just that. She said it was about turning to prayer to improve mental health, finding fulfillment and direction, and achieving independence and internal happiness. While she was born into Islam, her discovery of it was entirely personal. “If I turned to it the way it was meant to be followed, I could thrive within it,” she said. “Not just exist within it.”

The identities and experiences of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are too often homogenized in western rhetoric. This is reproduced in the lack of understanding of veiled women on campus and their decision to wear the hijab, a decision that has little to do with external influences and everything to do with a personal decision to live life according to certain religious values. Farooqi described the hijab as not just piece of cloth but a representation of character. “It has something to do with the cloth because you’re covering your physical attributes,” she said. “But it’s also about being modest in what you do and who you are.” She explained that it is related to the very definition of Islam — the voluntary submission to god. Part of wearing the hijab means recognizing “there’s something larger than yourself out there.”

The hijab may be integrated into identity for some Muslim women, but many choose not to wear it at all. And when I asked about how the way that the hijab represents her identity, Farooqi suggested that, while it reflects something about her, preoccupation with it hides nuance in who she is. “Sure it can reflect something about you, but most of us have some internal conflict. The things you see on the outside probably only reflect one side of the conflict,” said Farooqi. “If we put so much significance on outside things, we are trivializing our own religion and the way to best follow it.”

“The Muslim woman narrative is so powerful,” said ASUC senator and UC Berkeley junior Alaa Aissi, “whether shown to the world or felt internally.” There are so many Muslim women at UC Berkeley who are outspoken and engaged in the issues close to them.

As long as these perceptions remain superficial, the strength of Muslim women remains overlooked. “The Muslim woman narrative is so powerful,” said ASUC senator and UC Berkeley junior Alaa Aissi, “whether shown to the world or felt internally.” There are so many Muslim women at UC Berkeley who are outspoken and engaged in the issues close to them. Wearing the hijab in itself puts Muslim women in a position conducive to activism because the religion they’re engaging in is so visible. But the conversation is so much deeper than what they wear or even the intolerance they face because of it. “The societal skills you need to experience social upward mobility don’t happen when only talking about the hijab,” said Aissi. The conversation should not be restricted to the negative attention they face from outside the Muslim community. Aissi said she would prefer to see the focus placed on the successes and accomplishments of Muslim women on campus and their contributions to a more informed university and a more tolerant nation.

Muslim men and women are an integral part of rebuilding a multicultural, multiethnic and religiously tolerant America. Their narratives are a necessary contribution to the inclusive and progressive objectives of our generation. Farooqi described her experiences being racialized by people who assume she speaks Arabic because they see her wearing the hijab. Similarly, Aissi described her frustration at a time when a professor asked her where she was “really” from when he didn’t get the original response he was expecting. Second-generation Muslim Americans and first-generation immigrants live on the intersection between western values and Muslim ideals. The two can and do exist in unison. “I grew up in this space,” Aissi said. “This is what I know.”

The issue with conversations surrounding Muslim women is that they are trivialized to conversations about religious dress. “In reducing that conversation,” Aissi said, “we forget all the things we’re trying to move toward.” In an environment like UC Berkeley where so many people have the platform to discuss and challenge social injustices, we have the opportunity to broaden the scope of that discussion. “Space could be allocated to more fruitful conversations about where we should be in society instead of what we should look like while we’re there,” Aissi said. Injustices toward Muslim women worldwide have recently become more prominent in the media, and, naturally, this has become a popular issue to discuss. Aissi said she would like the emphasis to be less on Muslim women’s wardrobe and more on “what they’re doing, the places they are and the successes they’re experiencing.” She also emphasized that Muslim values do not contradict feminist ideology. “Feminists that claim they’re feminists and claim that what I’m doing is wrong — undermine my experience as a female,” she said.

Her story, Farooqi’s story and the stories of the Muslim women on this campus are so much louder than the hatred that silences them or the ignorance that minimize them or any assumption that those stories are contained in the scarves on their heads.

“The narrative I want to tell my children is not that I wear this scarf,” said Aissi, “but that I did this.”

Contact Jasmine Tatah at [email protected]