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Diversity

"It Is Hard Emotionally To Be A Muslim In America"

More than a decade on from 9/11, young Muslim-American women still report experiencing suspicion and discrimination. Joseph Mayton talks to San Francisco-area girls about growing up Muslim in the U.S.

Standing in the light drizzle, 17-year-old Fatima packs groceries into her 1990s red Honda Civic. It’s the daily pick-up from a San Francisco Bay Area Middle Eastern market for her parents, who don’t get off work until 5pm. Fatima believes family is important. She’s not an immigrant, but over the past decade, she says, the feeling of being an outsider has become all-too-common.

“I was only five when September 11th happened. I don’t remember much,” she said as she placed the final two bags into the trunk, shutting the door calmly. “Everything seemed fine and normal until we were at Disneyland when I was eight or nine and someone just told us ‘go back to your country’. I was surprised because I am American and didn’t think about anything like that.”

These types of interactions went on for years, she said. Her darker skin, her mother’s veil and her name were all scrutinized—at school, with friends, at the cinema and almost everywhere. She had to grow up fast and develop a thick skin.

“It was hard for my parents to deal with the things people said to me at school. I was called a ‘sandni**er, a terrorist and other horrible names in middle school and even still in high school after the Boston attack,” she says. “I think it is getting better, but it is hard emotionally to be a Muslim in America.”

According to the United States government, some 65 percent of the Muslim-American population are first-generation immigrants, and 61 percent of the foreign-born arrived in the 1990s or the past decade. Seventy-seven percent of Muslims living in the United States are citizens, with 65 percent of the foreign-born being naturalized citizens. By way of comparison, only 58 percent of foreign-born Chinese living in the United States are naturalized citizens.

Fatima is among the millions of young Muslim women who have grown up in America following the September 11 attacks. Many of these girls say they have struggled to find their identity, facing verbal attacks for their ethnic and religious persuasion.

Salma, a 25-year-old university graduate working at a Los Angeles marketing firm, believes the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the media over the past decade has played a major role in the antagonisms directed against her.

“I wear a headscarf and this attracts a lot of attention,” she began. “When I go shopping, people look at me, kids stare and sometimes I get questions as to why I am supporting the Islamic oppression of women.”

Salma grew up in Orange County, California, went to UCLA and holds a job with the potential for massive growth. But as a Muslim-American woman, the aftershocks of September 11 have affected her daily activities.

“We Muslim girls have always struggled against America’s dislike of Islam and for those of us who wear the veil, it is a difficult situation. We are seen as anti-American just because we are Muslim. I don’t know how many times in school I heard my classmates accuse me of being al-Qaeda or a terrorist. Twice, boys in my class pushed me around, saying ‘Isn’t this the Islamic way?’ It was hard and I still struggle to make sense of what it means to be American and Muslim.”

Alisha recalls how, as a university freshman visiting Six Flags with her family, a man yelled at her father, “F**k you, Osama.”

Dozens of other young Muslim-American women voiced similar tales to me about facing down prejudice, racism and anti-Islamic sentiments during their formative years. Some rebelled against their Islamic faith, like Sarah, 22, who said in high school she joined the Christian student group on campus in order to “fit in.”

“I regret that now because my heritage and background is important to me as an Arab and a Muslim. We must fight against the bigotry that continues to be heard and seen in this country. The attacks on mosques, after I started to become more aware, were the turning point in my life because I felt the need to become an advocate for women,” he said.

For Sarah, that meant making friends and family aware of the struggle to be a Muslim girl in America. She said that in college, many of her fellow students would sexualize her behavior at parties and events.

“It was shocking. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re an Arab and Muslim, so where’s the harem and all the men?’ It was hard to deal with because the perception and understanding of Muslim women in our society is so limited to the oppression of women in Islam, even though other faiths and other groups are equally as restrictive,” she says.

Despite the negativity of being labeled un-American, these Muslim-American women still hope for a better future.

“Directly after 9/11 I definitely felt more on-guard and constantly defensive, as if I was the sole representative of Muslims and Islam,” said Alisha B., an environmental NGO leader in New York, who was 18 years old when the Towers fell. “People didn't know much about the religion back then just that it was bad and there was not much knowledge of different types of Islam.”

Alisha recalls how, as a university freshman visiting Six Flags with her family, a man yelled at her father, “F**k you, Osama.”

“People would also ask me offensive questions like if I hated Jews,” Alisha says. She is of Indian heritage, does not wear a hijab and doesn’t have a noticeably Muslim name, so “it was easy for me to just not discuss religion at work for a number of years. It was easier to not deal with a difficult conversation about Muslims, Islam and prying questions about why I do or do not practice parts of my religion.”

But Alisha also believes that America is changing, especially in the past few years as society moves away from September 11 and its legacy. She thinks that depictions of Muslims in the media have changed as more American Muslims speak out about their faith, and that acceptance can occur.

“I think we live in a much more accepting time than the immediate post 9-11 years, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I’m in an interfaith marriage with a Jewish man, and we are still struggling to find an accepting faith community.”

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