I have always felt like people are putting me into a box when they find out I am Muslim. They are usually shocked, as if I do not fit within their ideas of Islam. Last semester, I was waiting with a classmate before class when the topic of religion came up. After mentioning I was Muslim, this classmate said, “I would have never thought that you are a Muslim. You seem so out there.”
I was taken back by that because I wondered what kind of conceptions they have of Muslims or Islam. I asked them to elaborate, but they could not respond.
I have experienced interactions like this so many times that it no longer bothers me on a personal level. Even at UC Berkeley, people apply this narrow understanding of Islam to me. The problem is that this is not isolated to me, and it reflects the microaggressions Muslim people constantly face. It bothers me that many educated individuals are so ignorant about Islam, especially because Islam is constantly featured in the media, online and in schools. UC Berkeley students need to be more inclusive and open to learning about religions such as Islam instead of viewing them as oppressive or problematic.
Islam, just like any other religion, is a personal belief. You cannot be forced into Islam because it is against our religion to compel someone. Yes, Islam has rules that we need to follow to be Muslims, but they are not very different from rules in other religions.
As a Muslim, I was taught that I had to be tolerant, patient and helpful. That should not come to anyone’s surprise because Islam is derived from the Arabic root “Salema,” meaning “peace.” Unfortunately, most people seem to be comfortable with the stereotyping.
Over the years, people have asked me many questions upon learning I am Muslim, and I have found that, as a Muslim woman, I feel as if I am put in another box when someone asks, “Why don’t you wear a headscarf” or “Don’t you have to wear one?”
I do not wear the headscarf, or hijab, because I choose not to wear one, which does not mean I disagree with other people who wear them or that I disagree with the concept of hijab. Most people do not know that wearing a hijab is desirable but not mandatory in Islam. Many Muslim womxn choose to wear the hijab for various reasons: for comfort or cultural reasons.
While there are a few members of my family who wear the hijab voluntarily, they are treated no differently from those in my family who do not. But many people who are not Muslim and even many folks who identify as “progressive” adamantly believe the hijab is oppressive. Their idea of empowerment for womxn seems to require that womxn and femmes show their bodies. But empowerment for womxn can come in lots of different forms — that includes wearing a hijab.
Another popular criticism is that Sharia law is oppressive. Sharia law is a body of law that is partially based on interpretations of the Qur’an that details how to fairly treat situations such as marriage, inheritance and criminal punishment, how to pray and when to fast. Many people believe that Sharia law is a synonym for Islamic law when that is not the case. Some countries have implemented and interpreted Sharia law in various ways, some in unfavorable ways. As a result, many people have misinterpreted Sharia law as extremist or oppressive and have conflated these practices with Islam and Muslims.
I witnessed this misunderstanding in a class I took in my junior year at UC Berkeley. We discussed international human rights violations against womxn in various countries, many of which were Muslim-majority. Many students, however, connected these violations to Sharia law and would discuss Islam and Sharia law interchangeably. One student expressed their frustrations in regard to the gender rights violations we discussed and exclaimed that they hated religion. I was hurt because I felt that our discussions constantly defined Islam as an oppressive religion that is “anti-womxn.”
According to the Qur’an, womxn have the right to learn, to be heard and to be treated fairly. In Islam, womxn have the right to ask for a divorce if they’re not happy. They have the right to study, work and to have an opinion. They even have the right of abortion, under a few conditions. I have read the Qur’an, and I have not come across a section where it says womxn have no rights.
The issue is not with Islam but with its problematic interpretations, usually by an all-male majority. But there are more positive ways to interpret the Qur’an to fight against the oppression many women in these countries have faced. In my gender and international human rights class, I was pleased to learn about “Musawah,” meaning “equality” in Arabic. Musawah is a movement that “empowers womxn to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, then push for legal reform in their respective countries.” Islam is more than a thousand years old, making it difficult to read and creating various interpretations. Therefore, one group’s Islamic practices do not represent the practices of the whole religion.
Religion is a choice for me as a Muslim, and it should be for anyone. It is a spiritual belief and should be respected just as we respect people’s political ideas, identities or sexual orientations.
I interpret Islam in the way I feel is right for my own life. I have learned about compassion, the importance of helping those in need, forgiveness and so much more from Islam. My religion is sacred; it is a part of me, and it should be respected no matter what someone thinks of religion.
Zena Amran is a senior at UC Berkeley studying political science.