Ways of Seeing by Noor Traina: Time to tear down stereotypes

“I just wanted you to know that I hope you feel welcome here. And I wanted you to know that I am doing my part to battle Islamophobia.” A well-intentioned woman said this to me after our intense and engaging Zumba class. I was touched and surprised by her kind words.

However, upon reflection, I recognized the unintended bias behind her words, and how this encapsulated the mistaken American image of Muslim women.

She, like many others, unknowingly internalized an image of Muslim women as foreign, powerless, oppressed and uneducated, and thus unable to combat Islamophobia on our own. Due to the many negative connotations American media and press associate with Muslim women, many people carry offensive and inaccurate stereotypes about me.

Often, my headscarf prevents my fellow Americans from recognizing me as one of them. This is exemplified when I introduce myself to my fellow Vermonters. I am always asked, “Where are you from?” This question is often posed after I explain that I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.

For many people, this idea is unfathomable and so they ask again, “But I mean where you are originally from?”

Being Muslim does not make me any less of an American. Contrary to the average American’s perception of us, Muslim women are not all Middle Eastern, they do not all love hummus, and they do not all cover their hair.

Although American mainstream media often portrays us as new immigrants, refugees or foreigners, over a third of Muslims living in America are first generation Americans, and are raising a future generation of healthy, happy and productive Americans.

The other two thirds of the American Muslim community are not exclusively Middle Eastern either. In fact, according to the Gallup report, Muslims are the most ethnically diverse religious group in America. Our population is 35 percent African American, 28 percent white, 18 percent Asian, and 18 percent of other ethnic backgrounds.

We are Muslim and American and those identities are neither contradictory nor discrete. These identities are interconnected, and represent themselves in our love for a good burger, our enlightening belief in contribution, and the life and liberty within the diversity of our community mosques.

American media is constantly portraying Muslim women as oppressed and constricted in their academic and professional lives. In many conversations I’ve had, people are surprised to hear my seemingly lofty career aspirations that range from being the first Muslim woman astronaut to founding a worldwide institution. They respond with, “It must be tough. Do your parents support you?”

In fact, my parents implanted the seeds through which my aspirations were nurtured by constantly encouraging me to aim for the stars and work hard to get there. The Muslim women I surround myself with — my sisters, friends, mentors and role models — are highly educated. They are psychiatrists, doctors, professors, journalists, and writers.

Economically, Muslim women are doing just as well, if not better than their male counterparts. The Gallup Poll Report reveals that “Muslim Americans have the highest degree of economic gender parity at the high and low ends of the income spectrum.” This fact is in relation to Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and the general U.S. population.

Islamophobia and the negative perception people have of Muslim women can have detrimental effects on Muslim women’s personal lives. Many young Muslim American women face difficulty when confronted with the overbearing stares, condescending comments, and confrontational anger to which they are constantly subjected.

One day as I was walking to the grocery store, a man stopped me and shouted “ISIS” to my face. This was directly after the San Bernardino shooting, and really allowed me to internalize the way the people around me viewed and understood me. This angered me, and left me feeling confused and conflicted with my identity. Understanding the angry state of this man, I smiled, wished him a good day and walked back home.

Many times, when interacting with Vermonters, I have seen a sense of unease shadow their features upon identifying me as a Muslim through my scarf. Once, while fundraising for child refugees at a local mall, a woman was laughing until she saw my face when she suddenly appeared startled and gestured her child away from our booth.

Powerful, competent Muslim American women are not represented in American mainstream media. We are portrayed as uneducated, powerless, and oppressed even though our true reality defies this image.

As an American belonging to a religious minority, I ask my audience to treat that Muslim neighbor, employee, or classmate as one of their own. Essentially, this is what we all seek: acceptance, love and kindness from those that surround us.

Next time you meet a Muslim, ask them how the weather is, what motivates them, and how they find joy. In their response, you might find greater similarities than you might have imagined.

Formerly from Vermont, Noor Traina is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Southern California studying Religion, Philosophy, and Middle East Studies. Her research interests originate in the Middle East and include the exploration of gender through religion and revolution.


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