The Way We Talk about Muslim Women is All Wrong

Image source: Pixabay
Image source: Pixabay

By Tim Brauhn

It’s Women’s History Month, which means I’m watching the Millie Dresselhaus ad on repeat and crying my eyes out while I think about my own scientist mother. I’m also ruminating on the current public discourse surrounding women, generally, and Muslim women, specifically.

At the Islamic Networks Group (ING), we highlight incredible Muslim women from ancient history to the present day. Philanthropists, military leaders, scientists, activists — they all get their time in the sun. Most importantly, we tell stories of Muslim women beyond the stereotypes (see our curriculum of the same name).

If we’re not careful, this work can turn hyperbolic: “MUSLIM WOMEN ARE SUPERHEROES WHO CAN BREATHE LIGHTNING AND ARE IMPERVIOUS TO EXTREME HEAT AND COLD. Yeah, that’s not true. But, thankfully, every year the list of  powerful Muslim women we highlight grows longer and longer. This is our exercise in hero worship.

We have no shortage of such heroes. Kameelah M. Rashad, pioneering researcher and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation. Linda Sarsour from MPower Change, who is probably standing behind you right now. Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is a literal swordfighter with dual degrees in international relations and African and African-American studies from Duke University.

And, of course ING’s Founder and Executive Director, my boss Maha Elgenaidi, a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum, one of Silicon Valley’s “Women of Influence” in the San Jose Business Journal, and a recipient of the “Citizen of the Year” award from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors — and a graduate degree in religious studies from Stanford University. She also makes a mean ful mudammas and refuses to give me the recipe.

And yet, there are many voices we ignore when we only focus on the superwomen. These voices are … normal, like any cross-section of any religious or cultural group.

Homemakers. Homebuilders. Mail carriers. Doctors. Day laborers. Painters. Shoe models. Hand models. Model aircraft enthusiasts. Pilots. Acupuncturists. Home cooks. Professional chefs. Potato farmers. Fishers. Seamstresses. Bosses. Teachers. Employees. Mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. All of it.

We have a responsibility to the cohort of Muslim women who are doing their best to be good people in their everyday lives: the Somali Bantu woman who drives for FedEx and always looks surprised (or scared?) to see me dashing across my lawn toward her to grab a delivery (but always smiles when I do).

The Chicago mosque president’s wife, who gave me a plastic shopping bag full of bagels for no particular reason. The Tanzanian mother who patiently and gracefully answered my prodding questions about her access to healthcare while her infant son lay in the hospital bed next to her, stricken with malaria. All women, all Muslim, all with important stories to tell.

Unfortunately, the media often ignores the voices of these Muslim women. The focus is usually on superheroines or sometimes the other end of the spectrum — victims who wield no agency themselves.

The lack of nuance in our news cycles and Facebook arguments is a dangerous flattening tool that either mythologizes or dehumanizes the subjects at hand. It turns complex ideas like “women,” “Islam” and “single-payer healthcare with Medicaid block grants” into black-and-white caricatures devoid of real information.

We’ve got to add some color back into the conversation.

This is why ING wants to hear and collect the stories of Muslim women, and not just the ones with flashy biographies. As the Communications Manager at ING, it’s my job to help promote these stories. So send them our way. You can reach me at tim@ing.org or on Twitter @ING_org. We’ll pick some of the stories you send and share them on the ING website.

We hope you will join us.

Tim Brauhn is the Communications Manager for Islamic Networks Group (ING), a national nonprofit that counters prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of American history and religious pluralism. He holds a Masters Degree in International Studies with a concentration in Religion in the Middle East and Central Asia from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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