A few months into my journalism career, I wrote a piece for a UK-based magazine on how I found it easier to wear my hijab in London than I had in some situations in Pakistan. I’d pitched the piece myself and wrote from my heart — after all, it was a very personal situation and a part of me felt proud to get it out there. That was, until someone commented under my piece that I should’ve known better because the outlet that published my piece was part of a larger media group known to promote racist and Islamophobic narratives.
Despite having written the piece completely of my own volition, I began to question what it was that made me so excited to work on this story for a publication that probably knew very little about what my identity means to me, and why I felt the need to justify and explain a choice as personal as the hijab through my work.
Thinking back, I realized I’d pitched that particular piece on the backs of a few rejections of other religion-related stories — and while those ones usually weren’t a right fit, this one actually got a few different editors excitedly replying. I’ve come to realize that it’s because the Muslim woman’s hijab — and all the negativity it’s often associated with in Western culture — is easy for consumers to understand. It sells.
“Ask any Muslim woman who wears the hijab — nearly every one of us has faced microaggressions from people who are convinced that the hijab is oppressive, that it was forced onto us by a man,” says Husnaa Vhora, a media associate with the Indian American Muslim Council. “There is very little respect for our own freedom of choice, hardly any acknowledgment of our agency as women.”
In an effort to get a byline, I began to conform to expectations of what audiences would want to hear from me. While I’d been struggling to engage with online discourse around Muslim identity for a while, this incident that made me realize why.
So many people, including myself, have justified the lack of nuance in online discourse around Muslims and Islam as simply due to a lack of education on the topic — but the increase in deliberate disinformation that both users and experts have noticed recently points to a different story. The pressure on Muslims to present as a homogenous group because the west assumes us to be such is where much of the problem starts.
I felt myself exhausted from the constant effort to push back against the binaries that Muslim women are boxed up in. What made it even more mentally tiring was knowing that I wasn’t the only one.
Alya*, a young graphic designer in New Jersey, shared how she joined an online group of budding graphic designers, only for fellow members to be shocked that her work doesn’t focus on issues like the hijab or other talked-about issues in the Muslim community.
“My work, for me, has always focused more on marketing and advertisements, which is where my interest lies, but people automatically assumed that whatever I was doing would be about my identity because we’re expected to be justifying our identity all the time,” she says.
Common frameworks in western media that reduce Muslims to stereotypes contribute to misinformation and a growth in anti-Muslim discrimination.
“Most of what you see in the news really frames women located in Muslim-majority countries as victims and in need of saving,” said Dr. Hind Elhinnawy, a feminist, activist and academic who fought for changes in sexual harassment laws in Egypt.
According to sociolinguist Kamran Khan, the sheer volume of disinformation against Muslims skews favour against Muslim communities, because anti-Muslim hate isn’t just limited to one group. Whether it’s outright hate groups such as Hindutva supporters who paint all Muslims as violent terrorists or supposedly helpful white women’s rights groups who villify Afghan men in an effort to “save” Muslim women, these narratives spread false information and paint a picture of Muslim communities that many Muslims rarely relate to.
“One of the things that tend to happen politically is when powerful people legitimize particular kinds of discrimination, it just kind of takes over,” Khan said. “For example, Boris Johnson said ‘Muslim women who wear niqab are like letterboxes,’ and immediately hate crimes against Muslim women increased.”
Elhinnawy actually believes the constant use of the term “Islamophobia” on a global scale has harmed, rather than helped, when it comes to people better understanding discrimination against Muslims.
“I think islamophobia excludes more than it includes,” she said. “The definition talks about expressions of Muslimness and that boxes people up [into] a term that defines Muslims. ‘Anti-Muslim hate’ is a better term. Phobia implies sickness — when someone’s phobic, you don’t blame them, because it implies it is okay [to be afraid]. But hatred should not be forgiven. ”
In the two short years I’ve been working as a journalist, I’ve felt the need to put Muslim-feminist in my bio every time I get a byline. I’ve been afraid of being too feminist for Muslims and too backward for feminists.
All that’s done is let other people define who I am. It’s not a unique story, Vhora added. In her personal experience, she says, Muslims who grew up post-9/11 have always faced immense pressure to explain their identity to others from a very young age.
“I’ve had friends who have worked as youth counselors in mosques, and you get children in elementary school admitting that they are afraid to tell their classmates that they are Muslim, because casual Islamophobia exists everywhere,” Vhora said.
It’s created a choice for Muslims — they can either be Muslim or be “like everyone else”, and most spend their whole lives trying desperately to be both.
Just last month, two Muslim women were murdered by their partners, despite making it clear that they needed help and were being alienated by their communities. Their cases haven’t gained the same level of attention from western news outlets as the murder of white American women would — and they haven’t received the same support from traditional Islamic community leadership or mainstream feminist groups.
In fact, much of the coverage of their murders was limited to personal social media accounts or pages focused on Muslim women.
That’s reflected in the support and mobilization from Muslim women’s groups across the world — from scholars and academics to activists and changemakers who may differ from each other in their beliefs but are united in their approach to support Muslim women’s right to form their own identity. I’ve realized that it is these women who will help me understand myself, because they understand what it means to respect differences. Their work in amplifying otherwise silenced stories is crucial because it gives Muslim women a chance to feel heard and to feel like they have someone they can rely on where they can be who they are and present themselves however they want to.
Beyond those circles of respect, I’m coming to realize I don’t owe anyone any public explanations for what all the different parts of my identity make me, and it’s high time we awarded young Muslims across the world that same safe space.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Omar Rashad.
Anmol is a Muslim-Pakistani journalist and the Founder of Perspective Magazine. Her work focuses mainly on global gender justice, media representation and climate. She aims to amplify marginalised narratives across the globe through her reporting.