Muslim women and the power of representation

I distinctly remember as a child once telling my mother I was divided into “half Muslim and half American,” as if there was no overlap. My mother, understandably, was horrified, but I couldn’t understand why. It made sense to me. I couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7 years old, so it must have been around 2003. The pain of 9/11 was still a raw, open wound in the American psyche, and it colored my perception of society, even though I wasn’t even school-aged when those hijacked planes brought down generations’ of hopes and dreams alongside the towers. Because of it, I internalized the message I was hearing from the world that in order to be a real American, I had to be White and Christian; being neither of those things, I felt I had to compartmentalize my supposedly mutually exclusive identities. And so I spent years trying to make myself palatable by erasing my Muslimness and shunning my Pakistani heritage in the hopes of becoming worthy of belonging. Foolish. As if I don’t forever wear those pieces of me in my very skin.

Today several years wiser, I have come to embrace my hyphenated identity as Muslim-American, even when the reservations on my complete Americanness rub me raw. And I have realized I am worthy as I am— whole and unapologetically me. They are both irrevocably components of my identity and, rather than foregoing either, I’ve dedicated myself to carving a niche in my community for the burden of that hyphen. To some extent, I didn’t have much of a choice. Hating a part of yourself you can’t change because of what other people say isn’t exactly good for your self image. Besides, somewhere along the way I decided to become a hijabi and, if there’s anything that can break a desire to be more palatable, it’s choosing to go out every day in a scarf that literally makes some people want to kill me.

But old habits die hard, and I can’t entirely shake the idea I wasn’t necessarily wrong to think like that when, to this day, that’s how the world sees me. I’m too Muslim/Brown/Pakistani to be American, and too American to be Muslim/Brown/Pakistani. Can I belong?

And the one idea that underscores the cause of all of this— the reason this is something I have to struggle with in the first place— is a lack of representation. The idea I am some mystical creature playing a tug-of-war with parts of my identity for the right to exist comes from the fact that everywhere I look, Muslims are portrayed one way and Americans are portrayed another, and there is a vast, seemingly insurmountable chasm in between those two representations.

When we think of Americans they are White, Christians (and usually men). But the only time I see someone who looks like me on screen, they are either (a) terrorists, (b) apologists, or (c) casualties. The bomber whose face everyone has been texted to be on the lookout for could be my brother; the man on screen reminding the world that the terrorist does not represent Islam and apologizing on behalf of the Muslim community could be my father; the children ravaged by war in Syria or savaged by a drone strike in Afghanistan could be my sister or cousin. But never a positive representation in America. No, people who look like me only show up in the context of a crime. No wonder I grew up thinking there wasn’t space for me.

Even though I know better, the challenges of internalized underrepresentation and misrepresentation still plague me. I’m currently applying to law schools, but a year ago I had ruled it out from my possible postgraduate future. Noting that poverty exacerbates most other social justice concerns, the idea of working on civil rights issues pro bono had called to me. But a nagging concern stopped me short. What if, because of the way I look— because I am a hijabi— a jury would deny justice to my client? What if the judge took an immediate dislike to whomever I was representing because they couldn’t overcome the way I looked? What if someone else suffered despite the purity of my motivations merely because my appearance was an obstacle to their chance at justice?

In other words, the idea of identity-imposed restrictions held me back— the idea that because of the way I look, there are certain things to which I can never aspire. No one ever said it to my face, but I inferred it from my society. You can’t be what you can’t see. I’ve never seen a hijabi attorney in the United States before— in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, certainly, but never the United States. Perhaps this was why. So for a long while I abandoned the idea and resigned myself to a future working with an NGO or nonprofit where, so long as I was behind the scenes, my appearance could cause no one harm.

Recently, though I’ve decided I was being dumb. Those restrictions didn’t really come from the nature of my identity, but from me. I can’t subvert myself out of fear or cynicism or what-ifs; I’m just going to have to hold a little tighter to my faith in humanity. And in no small part, my about-face is because I want to change the system. I didn’t have role models to convince me I’m not crazy to aspire to this, but perhaps my story can convince someone else their dreams aren’t unattainable. That their hopes are valid. If I surrender to “this is just the way things are,” then who brings about “the way things should be”? Someone’s got to do it. And I’m too stubborn to give up.

On the flip side of the same coin, representation is also the catalyst for profound microcosmic change. Representation inherently carries the potential to empower. A few weeks ago, I bought Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age on a whim, being an avid fan of And although Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a Jordanian-Palestinian-American Jersey girl, and I’m a Pakistani-American Midwesterner a few years younger, I was astonished to see pieces of my story in the pages of her’s. As a child, I craved books with protagonists that looked like me, and I remember reading even the most bland and uninspiring things simply because one character had a vaguely “ethnic” name. And now there’s an entire book— a gorgeously written, candid memoir— that reflects pieces of me?!? I sent a series of incredulous messages to a friend, “I have never ever felt like my thoughts were written by somebody else’s hand. (She even likes lists!) Wow, the power of representation. Is this how most people feel when they just read most books?”

Immediately after I finished it the first time, I picked it right back up and began again. I was just so amazed to see experiences that so closely mirrored mine validated in black and white right there in front of me. She talked about respectability politics and the burden of representation as the Token Muslim Girl; I have struggled with that.

She talked about the challenges of first-generation Americans to straddle the lines of a hyphenated identity the world tells you is mutually exclusive and her perpetual frustration with the pathetic “where are you from” question; I have written these words.

She talked about when in elementary school the insults lobbed at her distinctly shifted to be racial slurs about “her people” and how she got the student suspended when she told the teacher; I was in the fifth grade the first time I had a student suspended for his racism.

She talked about the feelings of inherent inferiority that plagued her childhood as a girl of color and how difficult it was because of it to convince herself she was allowed to take up space; I intimately know that self-doubt.

She talked about those who try to challenge her feminist identity by claiming her status as a hijabi invalidates her quest for women’s empowerment; I fight that battle.

She talked about the constant vigilance as a visibly-Muslim hijabi that keeps her from saying certain phrases too loudly in public or standing too close to the train tracks; I self-monitor like that, too.

She talked about her infuriated exhaustion at having to asserting her humanity time and time again after each terrorist attack simply because she is Muslim; I know that anger.

She talked about how she was labelled “abrasive” when she, as a woman of color, spoke up too loudly for what she believed in; I wear that label.

She talked about the challenge of forcing White America to confront the pervasiveness of racism— even when people of color have never been able to turn away from that depravity— in the context of Brexit and Trump’s GOP nomination; I wrote that in the context of Trump’s election.

I still can’t get over the power of that book to validate what I feel, even though I spend hours telling other people time and time again what they experience is valid. I know it, but seeing it written in my hands helped me internalize it.

And there are thousands of stories other than these about the power of representation. Representation is the story of the Mexican-American father who was irrepressibly happy because in Rogue One, Diego Luna’s character unabashedly has a heavy accent like his and was still portrayed as an average person, not a caricature. Representation is the story of an excited young Whoopi Goldberg who saw a Black woman on Star Trek who wasn’t a maid and said “I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” Representation is the story of the beaming little girl who saw the protagonist in Home had dark skin and hair like hers and the adoring girl empowered by the all-female cast of Ghostbusters. Representation is the story of the now-iconic image of the little boy astonished to find the president’s hair felt just like his. Representation is the story of how a mere visit from Michelle Obama to a girl’s school seems to have boosted their tested scores as they realized “She made it. And so can we.”

I can’t help but think representation is one of those foundational issues that, once resolved, can affect change in so many areas. Imagine it. If when we looked around— at the media, at politics, at our neighborhoods— and saw people who looked like us looking back, stigmas could slowly disappear in the face of diverse narratives that portrayed people as humans, not labels. Without those stigmas, prejudice would lighten. With diverse narratives readily available, the burden of representation would ease. Having role models would help to ensure no child’s dreams were stunted by hopelessness or cynicism. Representation matters.

As I scrawled inside my copy of Muslim Girl, representation “is the difference between knowing at a rational level that I’m not crazy for what I think and how I feel, and KNOWING deep inside me that I’m not crazy in the least. I’m not alone. And representation is the light at the end of the tunnel that, if she could do it, maybe I’ll survive all this and succeed after all. This is the power of representation to inspire hope.”