What it looks like to bring 50 young Muslim women from across the US to Harvard University for political organizing training.
On the spaces we create for ourselves:
There are spaces said to be for us, with seats that were never meant to be ours. There are spaces we still have to claim. Muslim women are talked, spoken, written, filmed about without being part of the conversation. Faced with patriarchy with a twist of each of our particular cultures and Islamophobia, we are caught in the middle of a battle we did not ask for. Islamophobia is an extension of not only misogyny and the desire to control the Muslim woman's agency in all aspects of life with "liberation" but racism against brown and black people. Navigating in this world as a Muslim woman requires a means of balance and self-care, but it goes well beyond endurance, strength and composure. To be a Muslim woman is to find your sisters at the forefront for the liberation of everybody.
As I attended the Inaugural National Muslim Women's Summit at Harvard University, I saw power in a room full of leaders. Beyond the work everybody did to better their communities, there was a public narrative of a personal desire to make this country and world better than the way we found it. As we discussed the motivation each held inside her, faith was at the forefront. Each one of us was connected by a belief we all exercised personally and differently. The statement "Muslim women are not a monolith" was apparent and alive in that space. We were not all one image and our ways to make our communities better came with different focuses as well. For the first time there was a space which emulated the diversity of Muslim women and empowered us at once. With a political climate infused with Islamophobic rhetoric and fear mongering, 2016 was difficult. To see somebody who bragged about sexual assault in the most powerful office in the world was shocking. Violence against women continues to be normalized and at the height of the election, violence against Muslim women was headlines with a rise in hate crimes only 24 hours after the President-Elect was announced. Many would say it would have been easier to blend in, and go about the lives we live generally as Muslims in America avoiding politics. But that's a privilege, very little of us should stand to accept. For many in our communities to make such a decision is the best one for their circumstances. However, for many, such as myself the reality stares at me that I cannot shed the features of my tan skin and dark eyebrows. My hijab was not going to be negotiable. I could not stand idly by as thousands of people were doing the work, organizing, and after times of self care, and not find my space.
Through WISE and self-defense one can feel the vital necessity to gain skills not only “just in case” but “because.” Because it is an occurrence, and using our bodies for defense is another means of claiming our agency over what is ours. Dalia Mohaged, Director of Research the the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding spoke about Muslim women post-election, "stepping up to the plate." That stepping up to a plate was the work of Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment Rana Abdelhamid, Bushra Hamid, Zainab Kahloon and Dean Hattout. That stepping up to the plate was bringing over 50 leaders in their communities to learn how to be better leaders and connect. Stepping up to the plate was Darashkan Raja reminding us that we can do work for a niche group and act as support for the work of others. The reminder of humility and checking one’s self because our communities are the backbones of support and the reasons we week justice.
As I flew back to New Orleans from a weekend of a space that I have never been in before, reflecting was hard. Through my mind there was the reminder of how much women who looked like me, who were darker, who shared my faith since the times of colonialism, in the era of orientalism have endured. Being in a room with a diverse group who I felt connected to made me thankful for all the women who came before us. And then I remembered the feeling of the election of Ilhan Omar in the Minnesota State House, the images of the shifting dynamic of our politics in the United States, and how she, as was sworn in with a Quran in traditional clothes. Defying the political climate with the support of community, her political aspirations become a reality, and she did not ask for a seat at the table, she took a stand. The National Muslim Women’s Summit was a stand that was taken, one that seeks to inspire, connect, and a sisterhood was created.
Recently my little sister gave me a sticker to add to my laptop, and right in the middle, in white leaders it reads “I am my ancestors wildest dreams.” Created by New Orleans artist and curator Brandom Odums, this statement describes the summit, the sisterhood, and WISE mission of empowerment not only through one’s body, professional development, mentorship but mind and soul. We took a collective stand, we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams, and Blair Imani reminded us on the first night, that Muslim women empowered, together, yet individual and confident, is somebody, a bigot, a politician, etc’s biggest nightmare. As we stand with one another, for one another, an image comes to mind of the duty to recreate such spaces in our own lives, because not doing so, is an injustice, and injustice is not something, in my faith, we stand for.