Last Thursday I sat in the Interfaith Center’s reading room munching on a Milano. I was taking a break from my banal routine of studying for midterms to participate in the weekly Chai Chats, a discussion group for Islamic women at Hopkins. Chai Chats isn’t exactly a forum or even a debate. Mostly, we just sit around and talk animatedly about any given topic pertaining to Islam or to Muslim identity. (We also have snacks — hence the Milano.)
Last week the topic was white feminism. White feminism is the term broadly used to describe feminism centered around the white woman’s struggle. White feminism doesn’t account for the nuances in identity, particularly in race, but also in disability or sexuality. As one of my Muslim friends pointed out, white feminism was the feminist telling Muslim women to stop wearing a hijab because, “Don’t you want to be free?” It’s the feminism that believes the only path toward freedom is the path toward westernization, that in order to reject oppression, immigrants like ourselves should give up parts of our identity and conform. Don’t wear the hijab. Wear tighter clothing. Drink a little. Be more American.
At the risk of being a cliché, I might say that white feminism is one branch of a larger tree, a tree that has survived for centuries. As another friend pointed out, white feminism is the continuation and repackaging of the eternal “West versus East” debate. “The debate is so internalized at this point,” my friend said. “They don’t even realize they’re doing it.” The debate manifests in questions about how much we love America, seeking answers along the lines of, “I love America, because it gave me a better life, one that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
That answer isn’t wrong. America did give me a better life, and in all fairness I have been proud of being American. What the question neglects, however, is the context in which the United States became a haven for those seeking a better life.
Would my family have had to move to Maryland if the Indian subcontinent hadn’t been colonized; if the partition hadn’t divided India and Pakistan and drained their resources? Why is it that the Indian subcontinent, once the most economically advanced region in the world, is now poor and lacks basic resources that the United States and Western Europe use abundantly?
I think the answer to those questions is fairly obvious (hint: It begins with ‘c’ and ends with independence from Great Britain). But I don’t think it’s discussed enough. Instead I am expected to smile and stand behind other white women, carrying flags for their independence while neglecting my own history. But my history is not easily erased: It is written in my skin, my hair and my face. It is forever found in the name my parents gave me, “Maha.”
And in the same way that I cannot erase my history, I refuse to walk away from my religion. Every Friday I walk to the IFC to pray with my fellow Muslims. I cover my head with my dupatta, unconcerned about any stares I might get. I prostrate to God, facing the direction of Mecca, and I find peace when I do. There are things that I will apologize for — making a mistake, hurting someone’s feelings, being ignorant — but my identity is not one of them. In today’s world of white feminism, of Islamophobia, I am unapologetic, in every sense of the word.
When the time comes to march, when the time comes to demand equality and fight against oppression, I will do so not just as a woman or an American but as a Muslim-American woman. I will wave the flag of my identity proudly. I will not march behind any other women but beside them. My hope is that one day that will not be an unusual thing to do, that as the landscape of America continues to change, I will be able to mark out a permanent place for me and for others like me. Until then I am content being the Unapologetic Muslim.