Muslim women have been wrongly painted for decades in our country as universally oppressed and silent. Partly that’s because of the outrageous real-life polices of Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia. But also it’s due to Hollywood feeding us a diet of Muslim women depicted in movies and TV shows as fearful, timid, and covered in a burka whose only sound is ululating. (The high pitched “la-la-la” sound.)
And this horribly false representation of Muslim women has also made its way into American political discourse. We saw an example during the 2016 presidential campaign after Donald Trump was called out by Gold Star father Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention with his famous line directed at Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one."
Trump responded by playing on the stereotype Muslim women are not allowed to speak by noting that Mr. Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who had been on stage with him didn’t say a word: “His wife… if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say… She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."
Mrs. Khan responded days later to Trump’s dig in her own Washington Post op-ed, explaining that she was asked by her husband to speak but declined because she was concerned about becoming emotionally overwhelmed speaking of her late son, Captain Humayun Khan, on stage.
But the myth of Muslim women being silent is thankfully being shattered before our eyes. In fact, newly sworn in member of Congress Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) may have destroyed that image forever with just one word: “motherfucker.” That of course refers to Tlaib last week saying about Trump, “We’re gonna go in there and impeach the motherfucker,” which triggered a national uproar (of sorts.) Tlaib’s comment even got under the skin of Trump, who remarked that her words were not just a “dishonor” to her and her family but somehow were also "highly disrespectful to the United States of America."
Tlaib responded to the firestorm with the tweet, “I will always speak truth to power. #unapologeticallyMe” and later taunted Trump during a TV interview, saying, “I think President Trump has met his match.” You get a sense Trump may have preferred the silent Muslim women over what he’s now facing!
And then there’s Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab in Congress, who like Tlaib is an outspoken champion of progressive policies like Medicare For All and increasing the national minimum wage. Omar has been equally as bold as Tlaib, slamming Trump’s border wall as being "deeply rooted in xenophobia" and taking to Twitter, where she now boasts over 400,000 followers, to slam both Trump and his policies, such as with her tweet Tuesday: “We are literally watching a manufactured crisis, designed to divert attention from this criminal and dysfunctional administration. Stay woke America, Individual-1 is not one to sleep on!” [“Individual-1” as a reminder is the way Trump was identified by federal prosecutors in Michael Cohen’s sentencing memo submitted to federal court in December.]
Omar has also upset some with her outspoken views in defense of Palestinians and in opposition to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But agree or disagree with Tlaib or Omar’s policies or words, one thing is clear: These are bold, brash and fearless women.
Now for those in the Muslim American community, and for our allies who have worked with us, this comes as no surprise, as we have long seen strong, outspoken Muslim women in our community. They are our leaders. I fear even mentioning some names because there are so many.
But just a few include lawyer Farhana Khera, the president of Muslim Advocates, author/activist Dr. Debbie Almontaser, and Maha Elgenaidi, the founder/director of ING, which works on building bridges to the heads of various CAIR chapters across the United States. Add to that countless others including millennials like MuslimGirl.com founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh or activist Linda Sarsour, who has been called a lot of things by a lot of people but timid is not one of them.
And the 2018 election saw even more Muslim American women elected to offices across the United States who are equally strong voices for change. For example, there’s 27-year-old Safiya Wazir, who fled persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan and scored an upset victory to the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Plus Sabina Zafar, the first Muslim women elected to the San Ramon City Council in California. And Aisha Wahab, who achieved a similar feat in Hayward, California. As Wahab told the local media, “I was told not to run, to consider a different seat, and to wait my turn.” But she didn’t. She ran on a progressive platform and she won. So much for the image of Muslim women afraid to speak out!
Clearly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, there are laws that oppress women—those are not just morally wrong but also un-Islamic. But in nine other Muslim-majority countries, Muslim women have been elected leaders of their respective nation’s governments, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia.
Hopefully one day the United States will break that gender barrier and elect a female president. And who knows—maybe the first female president in American history will be Muslim? Inshallah!