Donald Trump amplified those stereotypes when he suggested that Ghazala Khan, the Muslim American mother of a slain U.S. soldier, had not been permitted to speak when she appeared alongside her husband Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention. (She subsequently clarified that she did not speak because she was “in pain” over the death of her son.) Muslim American women denounced Trump’s comment on social media using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow. Facing a climate of Islamophobic rhetoric, and a rise in anti-Muslim violence, Muslim women in the U.S. are laying the groundwork for Muslim women to achieve greater visibility in American political life.
The 2016 election inspired Naaz Modan, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student, to start writing about politics and Islam. Modan said used to get defensive when she heard anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by Trump or his followers. “I feel personally attacked in this election,” she said in an interview. But after a while, she started proactively speaking out against Islamophobia and about her beliefs. She began writing for a website called Muslim Girl. “It’s my way of saying, ‘What you think about me does not define me,’” she explained. “I define who I am.”
Sarwat Husain, the 57-year-old president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and national board member, believes Muslim women can do even more to counter negative stereotypes about Islam than men. “If you wear a hijab, you are much more likely to be harassed walking down the street, but there is also much more to gain by being so highly visible,” Husain said. “As Americans and Muslim women, we need to make our presence known so that people will see we are a part of the community, and we love this country. We are not what people think—uneducated, oppressed, and incapable of serving society.”
Muslim women might be able to help dispel anti-Muslim sentiment in American politics. Data from the Pew Research Center suggests that non-Muslims are less likely to hold negative perceptions of Muslims if they know someone who is Muslim. By getting involved in politics, Muslim women can actively shape public policy and create a political climate less overtly hostile to their religion.
There could also be unintended consequences. Pressure to be model citizens in order to counter stereotypes could be frustrating, painful, and exhausting.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Are you American first, or Muslim first?’ And these are very unfair questions,” said Nausheena Hussain, the 39-year-old founder of the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based organization Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, which aims to amplify the voices and power of Muslim women. “I don’t think any person is one identity. I hope one day I don’t have to worry about the fact that if I wear a scarf on my head, I’ll be targeted, or people will think I conform to a certain set of ideas they have in their head.”