When I was seventeen, a local journalist asked to interview me after I had been selected to attend a prestigious leadership program. During the interview, the journalist asked me questions regarding my college and career aspirations as well as my service work in the local community, but the tone of the conversation quickly changed as soon as he saw my scarf-clad mother.
At the time, I did not wear the hijab — the Muslim headscarf — but my mother did. Realizing that we were Muslim women, the journalist went from asking me questions about my leadership roles to more personal, though unrelated question. Did my dad “force” my mom to be a homemaker? Would my parents “choose” who I would marry? Would my father “require” me to wear the hijab in the future?
It was clear through his questions that the journalist was making one huge assumption about Muslim women—that we have no prerogative. As soon as we put on a scarf, our brains fall out and we are consequently at the mercy of our oppressive fathers, husbands and sons. When the article came out, I was disappointed with what I saw. Despite my insistence that my parents would only be facilitators in my future nuptials to a husband of my choice, my mother enjoyed her role as the caretaker of the home and I would choose to wear the hijab when I was spiritually ready, none of these points came across. Since I was a Muslim woman, I could only be a pawn of my parents, my future husband, and my community.
Four years have passed since that interview, but not much has changed in the way Muslim women are portrayed by the media. The automatic equation between veiling, oppression and passivity has led to a mischaracterization of Muslim women’s contribution to society. The irony is, despite the under-representation of Muslim women voices in the media, Muslim women make up one of the most educated religious groups in the U.S. and tend to be more active in their communities than their male counterparts. And this is not “in spite” of their religion. For many, including myself, faith has been the catalyst for their educational and professional aspirations. A famous saying by the Prophet Muhammad is “It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge.”
This year, Islamic Awareness Month at Boston University coincides with Women’s History Month. As a student of history, I am aware of the fact that historiography is too often reduced to “his-story”—that is, men’s roles are well documented, but women are largely left out of the picture. Consequently, it appears that women have not made any valuable contributions to society, which is far from the truth. As a Muslim woman, I am even more painfully aware of the negative consequences of undocumented or wrongly documented history. This Women’s History Month, I will be celebrating the lives of these “forgotten” Muslim women—women like Ayesha bint Abu Bakr, the famous wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who played an instrumental role in the early development of the Islamic civilization. She was a scholar of jurisprudence, an educator and orator. By celebrating her legacy, I hope to not only correct the misrepresentation prevalent in the Western media of Muslim women as inherently uneducated and oppressed, while also reminding those Muslims who do oppress women of the historical precedent they are working against. In this way, history will serve not only as a source of “remembering”, but also as a way to empower today’s men and women.