To Be American, Female and Muslim

Panel on being American, Female and Muslim at the Brooklyn Historical moiety on July 12. From left to right: Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Amani al-Khatahtbeh, Kaye M., Laila Alawa, Negin Farsad (Photo by Sumeja Tulic for Voices of NY)

Panel on being American, Female and Muslim at the Brooklyn Historical Society on July 12. From left to right: Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Amani al-Khatahtbeh, Kaye M., Laila Alawa, Negin Farsad (Photo by Sumeja Tulic for Voices of NY)

What is the experience of being American, female, and Muslim? A panel on the subject was hosted and organized by the Brooklyn Historic Society on July 12, introducing the audience to five Muslim-American women who, in the words of the organizer, “look at their multilayered identities through comedy, literature, fashion, and Twitter.”

The panel moderator, Dr. Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, educator, and community organizer, opened the panel discussion by asking the audience “Do any of them seem to you like they are subjugated, submissive?” A burst of laughter was the audience’s response.

For the panelists, the overwhelming everyday sensations they spoke about were exhaustion, struggle and danger.

“It’s quite the experience,” said Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who was the first veiled woman to be acknowledged by Forbes as this year’s 30 Under 30 “brightest stars” in the media category. Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl, the leading online magazine for Muslim women in the U.S. “We don’t know when we leave our house in the morning if we are going to face violence because of our gender or if we are going to face violence because of our religion.”

Last December, following a reported increase in attacks on and threats against Muslims in the United States and in the wake of Donald Trump’s remarks about creating a Muslim-database of Muslims in the U.S., Muslim Girl published the Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women.

The defining aspect of Muslim-American women’s everyday experience, according to Al-Khatahtbeh, is what she referred to as “micro-defenses”: a number of precautions women take to survive the day. In explaining her point, Al-Khatahtbeh recounted how on last year’s anniversary of Sept. 11, she chose to wear a “religiously ambiguous” turban instead of the traditional hijab.

The head covering that some Muslims wear seems to provoke a wide array of offensive reactions. “I was told if you take ‘that thing’ off your head, you will think better. That was right after I created a viral hashtag that was in the news for months,” said Kaye M., a diversity advocate and a member of the Muslim Squad, an online initiative gathering creative young Muslims.

Following the 2014 Isla Vista killings, Kaye M. created a viral Twitter campaign #YesAllWomen in which examples and stories of misogyny and violence against women were shared. Also in 2014, Kaye M. began a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #NotYourStockMuslim. The hashtag is still widely used by Muslims on Twitter to denounce stereotypes.

“Negative feedback inspires me more than positive feedback,“ said Laila Alawa, founder and CEO of thetempest.co, a website dedicated to issues of concern to millennial women of different ethnic backgrounds.

Last June Alawa received multiple online threats after The Daily Caller published an article titled “Syrian immigrant who said 9/11 ‘changed the world for good’ is a Homeland security advisor.” The article referred to a tweet by Alawa, and the role she played on the subcommittee of a Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council that drafted the report Countering Violent Extremism. Alawa, who is a naturalized American citizen of Syrian and Danish origin, clarified, both on her website and on Twitter, that by “for good” she meant “forever,” not “for the good.”

“While it was difficult to be attacked on my perception, it taught me how important it was to have a voice, to make sure that other voices are being amplified straight on,” said Alawa, adding: “We need to move towards the United States where a girl like myself or a woman can sit on a panel like the panel that I sat on without the fear of backlash.”

“Have we all got death threats?” jokingly asked Negin Farsad, author of How to Make White People Laugh, who has been selected as a TED fellow for her work in social justice comedy.

Farsad spoke about the pushback she has faced in her work as a comedian eager to take on and dispel prejudices against Muslims.

To promote her 2013 comedy documentary, The Muslims are Coming, which includes appearances by Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black, David Cross, Russell Simmons, and Janeane Garofalo, Farsad approached the MTA to place ads in subway stops. After months of negotiations and numerous alterations to the poster-ads that featured statements such as “Beware! The Muslims Are Coming! And they shall strike with hugs so fierce that you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her!” the MTA approved a set of ads only to withdrew its approval soon after. The MTA cited its new advertising policy that prohibits ads expressing “disputed political content” as the reason for withdrawing their approval. Farsad and her collaborators sued the MTA in June 2015 and won in October 2015. The posters were soon after placed in subway stops across the city.

Farsad described her aim when it comes to reclaiming and reshaping the narrative about Muslim women and Muslims in general as “really just to have Muslims associated with comedy.”

In her closing remarks, Almontaser reminded the audience of some of the outstanding Muslim women from around the world, include the three Nobel Prize laureates: Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman, and a prominent leader in the Arab Spring, and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education activist whose 19th birthday coincided with the date of the panel discussion.

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