On Being Muslim, the Hijab, and Social Activism

Editor’s note: we are republishing this entry as it sheds light on something that happens all too often – tokenization.

Originally published at shergawia

I’ve spent some time at Occupy LA in the past few weeks. I was there as an observer and journalist, not as an Occupier but the movement has my respect — as do the people keeping it alive. I identify with their grievances and admire their spirit which is why I will include this disclaimer before I say what I need to say: not all Occupies are alike, nor all Occupiers alike, and this is not a criticism of the movement.

But some of my experiences at Occupy LA are indicative of prevailing attitudes towards Muslims from non-Muslim/non-Arab activists and are consistent with my experiences in other social activist communities. I have met some incredible people through this movement and some not-very-incredible people through this movement and I have this to say to all of them:

Stop treating me like your Token Muslim Friend.

I know you mean well. I know you’re trying to make me feel welcomed. I know you want to tell me how “great, really great” that a Muslim girl, like me, a hijabified brown girl wearing dirt-grazing skirts, would make it out to “our” movement/protest/charity event. I appreciate the thanks and the gratitude. I know you’re not trying to make me uncomfortable.

But I am. 

There’s this scene that plays out over and over in my life. It happens all the time that I’ve developed a sixth sense for it. I can tell you when it’s coming because I’ll be at one of these events, among these really cool people and someone, inevitably, will come up to me, the smile wide on their face, and I just know. Sometimes they will take my hand or touch or shoulder and then they say, “Hi, I just wanted to come over to you and tell you I think what a beautiful person you are for…” *gestures to my head* “and I really respect you for it.”

And I know this is supposed to make me feel warm and fuzzy and welcomed. And sometimes I appreciate the sentiment. But usually it just makes me feel patronized and objectified.

Because the entire encounter was based on this (maybe subconscious) premise that, as a Muslim Arab woman, I’m not self-actualized. That, as a Muslim Arab woman, I need this external gratification, crave this public acceptance of the way I look and the way I dress. That I probably don’t get this kind of appreciation from elsewhere. And at the end of the day, it achieves nothing except to give me the feeling that I’ve been once again reduced to my appearance.

It’s also interesting to note, while I’m at it, that when I am at these events, it is automatically assumed that I am apart of them. Despite the fact that I visibly carried with me a reporter’s notebook, pen and recorder, people took it for granted that I was part of the movement, surprised that I’m not there to “contribute”.

I’ve always been conscious of how politicized the hijab makes me appear but I never feel more politicized than at these events — like I have some Angry Muslim Woman archetype I’m obliged to embody. Like I’m some kind of novelty, some requisite bauble to add to the landscape of Social Justice Activist Stereotypes: The Hippie, The Socialist, The Anarchist and The Muslim.

Social justice people, by virtue of being people intensely involved in the struggle for equal rights and universal human dignity, assume themselves immune to the prejudices common to The Masses. I myself am guilty of it. For people so immersed in the fight to eradicate inequality, it’s so easy to forget that we are *equally* capable of instituting it ourselves.

And I understand the need to overcompensate for the failings of others — to make me feel EXTRA-welcome in case someone else doesn’t.

But I don’t need the constant validation of others — especially male-others — to feel good about myself or feel motivated to participate in activism.

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