Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Life as a Muslim Woman in America

What is it like to be a Muslim woman in America today? My friends Nawal and Tasneem, both from Malaysia, graciously agreed to answer my questions about their experiences. It has been an honor for me to get to know them through our Daughters of Abraham connection (a book club designed for Muslim, Jewish and Christian women to grow in our understanding of each other as we discuss faith-related books). I hope that their responses will both encourage and challenge you, as they have had a great impact on me. My heart's desire is that as a global community we would work together to transform Barriers into Bridges.

with Tasneem (left) and Nawal (right) at a Daughters of Abraham picnic

What has been your best experience living in America? Your worst?

Nawal: The best experience living in the US would be to meet new people and to make new friends from all walks of life who had no idea where I was from. To engage in a conversation where people are interested to know about me and my religion is a breath of fresh air. My worst so far would be an account with a man who thought I was part of terrorism.

Tasneem: The best is being able to see more of the world. I’ve always been a traveler, and have lived in 3 different continents before moving to the US. The worst would be Islamophobia and microagressions in daily life.

How does your experience as a Muslim woman in America compare with your experiences in other places?

Nawal: We basically think that we're in a spotlight most of the time. Whenever we hear things on the media about terrorism or another killing by any other Muslims, we will feel that all eyes are on us. But that was how I felt in the beginning of my years in the USA. Now, I don't really feel/experience the "look" from masses anymore.

Living in Malaysia on the other hand, is pretty easy. Since it's a Muslim country, daily rituals are carried with ease (prayers, halal food, etc). There are certain expectations to behave in Malaysia for example: People know that you are wearing hijab so it is not acceptable to ride on a motorcycle with your boyfriend and your skirts can't be adjusted to reveal part of your legs.

Tasneem: I am just shocked by how ignorant some people here are about Muslims and the Islam faith. We are not a monolith - culture plays a huge part in how we live and practice our faith and I think a lot of people forget that.

How are you treated differently when you wear the hijab or not?

Nawal: It really depends on where you are at. The West? The East? Before, we always associate the ones with hijab as quiet, less creative, backward, book smart, less fashionable, traditional, close minded, not outspoken. Those were the misconceptions about hijab wearers. After donning the hijab in 2011, my perceptions have changed and took a 360 degree turn completely. You can be empowering, world changer, creative extraordinaire, basically anything you can be regardless of the hijab. 

Before wearing the hijab, I have men coming to me asking me for my numbers etc. This can be super annoying. After wearing the hijab, that stopped completely. Maybe they were not interested in ladies covering their heads but who cares. Less drama! People that come up to me and talk to me, I feel that they are more genuine and want to know me more as a person and not by how I appear in front of them. It creates more genuine conversation and friendship. In Malaysia, Hijab is so IN! Hijab businesses flourish where one has a vast selection of hijabs and brands. You can look good at the same time guarding your modesty.

Tasneem: In a hijab, I’d been given suspicious looks, and have seen people quickly look away when I look at them, even though I wasn’t doing anything.
It is also amazing how some people would be bashing Islam/Muslims with me standing right there (when I am not wearing a hijab) then suddenly change their tune once they find out I am Muslim. I see you.

What do you wish your non-Muslim neighbors/friends/family understood about you?

Nawal: That I am friendly, happy go lucky human being just like anybody else. We despise terrorism and we are a peaceful community who cares about each other.

Tasneem: That we are just regular people like you – we want a good life, a happy life, space to practice our faith and raise our children, acceptance. That it is not okay for them to tokenize me and my child as their token POC (person of color) friend/family to excuse their –isms.

What is hard for you to understand about your non-Muslim neighbors/friends/family?
Nawal: I pretty much grew up in a very diverse background where we respected each other's norms and traditions. Coming to the USA, I've met and known personally people in abusive relationships and despite how the other party treated them...they kept on being in that relationship. They complained and did nothing about it. This I find hard to understand. People that "enjoy" it.

Tasneem: How they can be apathetic about what is going on in this country, and how they can turn a blind eye to other people’s suffering because it doesn’t affect them directly.

What are your hopes for your own future and that of your husband and children?

Nawal: My hope for my family and my future is that we grow to be strong, caring and loving Muslims who follow the Quran and emulate the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).

Tasneem: We have freedom to practice our faith without fearing for our lives. May Allah protect us all from any harm, insya Allah.

What are your fears?

Nawal: People losing their empathy and stop educating themselves about issues that evolve around them. The fact that being ignorant is ok.

Tasneem: That bad things happen because ‘good’ people sit and do nothing as the world crumbles around them. Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.

What do you most want to pass on to your children about their identity?

Nawal: Being proud of who they are. Practicing their beliefs with utmost pride and love. I want to provide them a strong foundation that they will take with them that shapes them to be strong, focused, caring for one another and loving towards the environment and God's creation.

Tasneem: That our faith and cultural traditions are the roots to who he is as a person, and he should cherish that. Recognizing his intersectionality is very important as well - he will have his own challenges as he navigates this world, and as his parent, I will be there to guide him insya Allah.

What does your faith mean to you? And what does freedom mean to you?

Nawal: Faith is belief in my creator and belief that He alone is sufficient. Freedom is to be able to practice your religion wherever you are and being able to be who you want to be. 

Tasneem: My faith guides me as I navigate the world. It teaches me I should always be kind to others, and to fight injustice, whether it is inflicted on me or others. Freedom to me means being able to do something without fear of persecution. That we will be able to pray at the mosque, wear our hijab, go for Friday prayers without fear of being harassed, assaulted, or killed.

Related posts:
Crossing Cultures
To Be a Foreigner
When I Was the Foreigner Who Was Welcomed
A Better Understanding

Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the Theme of Savor 
I am savoring these cross-cultural friendships,
because they help me to grow and to see the world through a different lens.



  1. Jodie, I like how living as a foreigner builds an appreciation for other cultures. Thank you for highlighting your friends!

    1. Thanks Patty. I do have a special interest in how foreigners feel about being in America because of my years of being a foreigner. And because of our friendships with Chinese Muslims our last 5 years in China I also feel a burden to help those without Muslim friendships to see Muslims as potential friends instead of the enemy.



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