How Can You be a Feminist and Muslim?: Confronting multiple identities
unconscious bias; prejudice; ethnocentrism; intersectionality; stereotypes; perception; assumptions
The context of this case addresses multiple identities, which can sometimes seem contradictory from an outside perspective. The case specifically deals with how the assumptions people make about other’s identities influence their perceptions of them. In this regard, the case confronts the ways in which people are socialized to see the hijab, and subsequently the identity of a woman who chooses to wear one.
Sadaf is complex. Like many people, she is a member of various groups and assumes multiple identities that construct who she is. Sadaf also wears a hijab. A physical marker of her identity as a Muslim that seemingly prevents others from noticing all of the layers of Sadaf’s identity.
Growing up a Muslim-American in a post 9/11 world proved burdensome. She was often targeted and called out for being a supporter of the Islamic faith, as the evidence of such was pinned around her face. As she grew up her parents made clear that she did not have to wear a hijab to support her religion, but Sadaf took pride in wearing it. Although others viewed her hijab as a concession of her singular identity, Sadaf knew that she was so much more. By participating in karate and feminist societies that contradicted a static view of an Islamic women, she aimed to show others that the scarf upon her head was not a mechanism of oppression or representative of her whole persona.
Regardless of what activities Sadaf choose to participate in or the ways she tried to layer her identity, her hijab signaled to many her perceived single affiliation to Allah and Islam. In this view she was not even an American, although she was born and raised in the United States. Nor was she seen as a women without the caveat of being a Muslim women. Beyond that her status as a black belt in karate or a feminist were somehow branded as diametrically opposed to her identity as a Muslim, and thus ignored.
Throughout her time in high school the stares and assumptions tied to her hijab, that supposedly defined Sadaf, followed her into every room and space she entered. There were so many layers to her, yet she could not seem to express that to others who continued to see her identity as static and fixed. These actions left Sadaf feeling uncomfortable, excluded and dejected, but never weakening her resolve to prove to people that she was so much more than the scarf wrapped around her head.
When she entered college, she thought it would be a new frontier in discovering her identity. Surely here others could look past the neatly placed hijab on her head, and see all the shades of her being. She would not have to be simplified, but would simultaneously be seen as an academic, a feminist, a black belt, a women, and all of the other affiliations that made Sadaf’s who she is.
That hope though for a detached space from the glares and hushed conversations of high school seemed to deflate after her first week. One day during a class discussion in her Women’s Studies course she noticed one of her white, female classmates staring her up and down with a particularly curious look. Sadaf sat and twisted the end of her Hijab around her finger, something she had developed as a nervous habit. The way the women glared at her was reminiscent of those stares she received walking down the street in her hometown or down the hallway in high school, instantly making her feel aware of the hijab framing her face.
The conversation was about feminism and what feminists in the 20th century were trying to accomplish. Despite the continuous stares and whispers from her classmate, Sadaf actively participated in the conversation and contemplated what it meant to be a feminist with the class. After Sadaf finished her statement regarding how feminists in the early 20th century focused on equality for white women rather than fighting for equality for all women, the woman raised her hand. Without wasting time she questioned why Sadaf wore a hijab. More specifically she asked how Sadaf could be a feminist yet wear a hijab. How could she possibly hold these two apparently contradictory identities? Such a question brought back the negative experiences of her past and the importance society placed on her claiming a singular identity. The question reiterated to Sadaf the blatant need for her to be defined in a static manner that signaled oppression. Why couldn’t she be more than a Muslim in the eyes of her classmates?
As you consider this case discuss:
- Why does Sadaf’s classmate only register her as a member of the Islamic community, rather than recognizing that she has multiple affiliations and identities? Is there a problem with her classmate(s) doing so?
- What societal institutions, norms, or values could have contributed to the development of the unconscious bias of Sadaf’s classmate? How do these biases operate in the larger context of society?
- In what ways could Sadaf respond to the question posed by her classmate?
- How do you think the professor should respond or intervene, if at all, in this situation?
- What could be done on the institutional level to prevent unconscious bias and stereotyping of different groups?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.
- Yassmin Abdel-Magied, What does my headscarf mean to you?, TED Talk
- Homa Hoodfar, The Veil in their Minds and on our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women
- Maheera Zubair, Opinion: If the Hijab Is Such an ‘Oppressive Tool’, Why Do I Feel so Empowered?
- Amartya Sens, Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny
- Calvin Lai and Clara Wilkins, Understanding Your Biases
Sette, Marisa, American University School of International Service, Washington, DC, United States of America.