Opinion | Op-eds

Marching together, marching Muslim

The Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday was an incredible feat of unity, planning, and resistance. Across the globe, women and allies marched together to support one another and indicate their ability to win the upcoming fight against inequality and discrimination in its numerous forms.

An image of a woman whose face was beautifully framed by an American flag hijab floated around the internet. The image was shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of people and was visible throughout the march. While clearly not all Muslim women don the scarf, it is still an important symbol of the faith. The We the People campaign, from which the image originated, demonstrates the numerous identities of the American people and their individual pride in their nationality.

The Women’s March on Washington was much more of an inclusive affair than has previously been seen—especially of Muslim women. From the appearance of a “fake Muslim registry” in rejection of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims, to the sheer number of non-Muslim women donning headscarves, the march broke down barriers and bodes well for our collective future.

For many organizations which advocate for women’s rights, issues centered on women of color are often ignored while other issues, such as the wage gap, are addressed more directly. Issues of violence against women are often at the forefront of protests, but the prevalence of hate crimes against Muslim women is rarely ever recognized—yet because it is generally easier to identify a Muslim woman than a Muslim man, the increasing number of hate crimes is a predominantly female-targeted epidemic.

In elementary and middle school I participated in demonstrations to advocate for one of these often overlooked groups. By protesting against the scheduling of New York’s standardized tests on Eid holidays, we hoped to create a more inclusive environment for New York’s enormous number of Muslim public school students. Even though I attended a private high school and would not experience the effects of such a change, I went to protests and helped organize an event rallying for the closing of public schools on Eid. Both endeavors were fruitful and the changes in the city’s educational priorities were implemented. Rallying for these rights was imperative to the city’s mission to institutionally demonstrate the vast diversity of its residents.

However, what is just as, if not more, diverse than the great city of New York is womanhood itself.

Women of all races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, ideologies, and orientations exist, but this diversity is not always represented in organizations that claim to speak on behalf of all women. I am a woman of color, a woman of Arab and North African descent, and a Muslim woman. However, it seems that generally—even at Columbia—these identities and the ways I choose to manifest them disqualify me from a place in the fight for women’s rights.

For example, there is an international movement in women’s fashion which acknowledges the vast market that exists for the fashion-conscious Muslim woman. The common response to this phenomenon—from both men and women—is evident in the comment sections of the many articles addressing it: We, Muslim women, are now not only victims of our faith and our men, but of capitalism as well. These assumptions strip Muslim women of our agency and effectively oppress us much more than our apparent faith-based constraints.

The victimization of Muslim women is regressive, widespread, and often perpetuated by other women.

Conversations regarding my understanding of the hijab are recurring and can begin almost anywhere. Even at a Halloween party I was approached several times, mainly by other women, only to be congratulated on the artistry and apparent authenticity of my costume. My guise? An Arab Muslim woman.

In actuality, I wasn’t wearing a costume and my scarf was nothing more than my regular style. I was forced to explain my presentation of faith. What I see as the feminist aspect of my hijab was quickly rejected by many and I was told that I was simply perpetuating female subjugation to the male gaze and the sexualization of the female body.

I am frequently told that the only way for women to truly take ownership of our womanhood is to uncover our bodies.

My feminism is open and accepting. I acknowledge the aforementioned diversity of womanhood, and it follows that pride in femininity must also exist in different forms, all valid and none more effective than others. Whether we choose to cover or uncover, what is important is that it is our choice. The Islamic hijab in America, if anything, ought to be seen as a symbol of female resistance. The easiest thing to do would be to hide one’s adherence to Islam in a time when identification with the religion is so dangerous, not showcase it.

The hijab is defiant, womanly, and a symbol of pride and strength. I am often asked if non-Muslim women can try the headscarf or if it is permissible. My answer is always the same: of course. To me and to many, the hijab is not simply a symbol of Islam but of pride in self and in womanhood.

While the march was itself triumphant in many respects, it is important not to assume this semi-inclusivity is indicative of a larger and more prevalent change. Dozens of articles have already been published, enumerating the oppressive qualities of Islam and berating non-Muslim women for allowing Islam to infiltrate their feminist fight and for fighting in the first place. Even during the march, the disregard of non-cis women’s issues, for example, demonstrates the need for a change in the very vernacular of these movements. Columbia students are (in)famous for our willingness to fight and resist—it is crucial to ensure that we do not further oppress others in the process.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore studying political science and anthropology and a former columnist for Spectator.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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