As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, I was seen as ‘foreign’, subordinate to someone else’s control, and any notion of my Palestinian identity or other Islamic politics were seen as threatening.
ACCORDING to some research estimates, up to seven million Muslims live in the United States. Muslim women are the most likely of any faith to wear the visible symbol of faith identity, namely the hijab, which presents them as visibly Muslim in all public settings. Studying the daily life experience of hijab-wearing Muslim women in America can serve as a case study of America’s socio-political perception and treatment of Muslims and Islam.
The political context of Muslims, Islam and hijab post 9/11
Muslims in America started to establish a presence in mainstream American society and politics in the 2000s, organising our communities and advocating for our rights in response to the racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia following 9/11. The hijab was one of the first symbols to be targeted and deconstructed as a symbol of Islam on the national and international stage.
American politicians, pundits and entertainers ridiculed the hijab within the context of the so-called ‘War on Terror‘, associating Muslim women covering their hair and bodies in subservience to God with women’s oppression – which many Americans perceived as a core theme of Islam and its ‘barbarism’. As scholar, literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri ChakravortySpivak called it, American forces deployed to Muslim-majority countries were the “white men saving brown women from brown men”.
While America’s messaging around the War on Terror cited human rights concerns and a political objective to liberating Muslim women, the material damage done to Muslim-majority countries showed not only reckless disregard for all Muslim lives, but sheer malice toward the Muslim population. In Iraq alone, during the course of military campaigns like ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ and others, just under three million Iraqis were killed by American military forces. The total death toll due to the direct and indirect impacts of U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan since the early nineties until now is estimated to be between three to five million.
U.S. forces bombed schools, hospitals, neighbourhoods and mosques indiscriminately as part of the War on Terror. They used depleted uranium in Iraq, causing severe deformities and birth defects for babies born during and even after the war. Iraqi mothers gave birth to babies in Falluja with hydrocephalus, cleft palates, tumors, elongated heads, overgrown limbs, short limbs, and malformed ears, noses and spines.
“We’re mounting a sustained campaign to drive the terrorists out of their hidden caves and to bring them to justice. All missions are being executed according to plan on the military front. At the same time, we are showing the compassion of America by delivering food and medicine to the Afghan people, who are themselves the victims of a repressive regime.”
He then identifies some of the victims in the targeted countries as “Muslim women”, who he called “women of cover”. Here, Bush built policy and media messaging on the foundation of a stereotype — that hijab-wearing Muslim women are oppressed and need to be liberated from the Muslim man and the Muslim world.
The hijab was one of the first symbols to be targeted and deconstructed as a symbol of Islam on the national and international stage.
Pakistani feminist scholar Saba Gul Khattak takes issue with the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan because the administration’s rhetoric of women’s liberation occurred simultaneously with the U.S. deployment of “approximately 20 kilograms of high explosive for every man, woman and child in the country.” Khattak questions the U.S.’s intentions for using women’s rights rhetoric since “advocating bombing in order to liberate them” is paradoxical and does more harm than good.
Muslim American youth, leaders and organisations chipping away at structural Islamophobia over two decades
Muslim American youth, leaders and organisations have worked for decades to educate the American public about Islam through community engagement, media, policy and legal work.
The non-profit organisation Muslim American Society, for example, has chapters in over 35 U.S. states and reaches more than 100,000 people a week with consistent programming that serves local Muslim communities and beyond. Muslim youth have also built power on campus, educating and lobbying for issues that are important to the Muslim community, such as the Palestinian cause.
However, nonpartisan American think tank Pew Research found in 2021 that many Americans still have negative views toward Muslims and Islam.
In a predominantly white field, my race and religion were and are the subject of microaggressions throughout law school and work.
I am a Muslim woman who was born and raised in the United States. My father is from Palestine, and my mother is from Syria, so I have done a lot of grassroots advocacy work on the cause of both countries, in addition to other causes relevant to the Muslim ummah. I now work as an attorney, and in a predominantly white field, my race and religion were and are the subject of microaggressions throughout law school and work.
My law school experience
In 2021, I was the first hijab-wearing Juris Doctor graduate from my law school. I went to law school in Seattle, Washington, and stood out like a sore thumb in a white-majority field, law school and city. I was aware of this every day of my law school experience, when staff would repeatedly refer to me as an international student (which I wasn’t), when my legal writing professor presumed and stated in front of the class that English wasn’t my first language (it is), and when another professor called me by the name of the only other Muslim woman in that class numerous times.
In class, we were taught foundational cases like the U.S. Supreme Court judgment in Ashcroft versus Iqbal (2009), where the story and political context of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant detained and tortured post 9/11 is only mentioned to teach a foundational case for civil procedure.
To equip young attorneys to change the status quo, and not simply enforce law predicated on racist standards (when they were explicitly the standard in their era), law students should be taught within the context of America’s real history. The students in law school will practise as government prosecutors, big firm attorneys and public interest lawyers. Each attorney in our society has a level of privilege with the education we earn and the access to the legal system that we have. To simply study and enforce the law as it is would be to not challenge the laws and policies that enable over-prosecuting, mass incarceration and targeting of Black communities, the surveillance and entrapment of Muslim communities, the detention centers and family separation at our border, and the everyday injustices that come with a system built on slavery, genocide and imperialism.
I was made hyper-aware of my race and religion when the first question out of fellow students’ mouths was ‘where I was from’. When in the course of conversation I would say that I was originally Palestinian, they would gush and tell me all about their trips to Israel. When a Palestinian flag was drawn as part of a hallway mural for a diversity event at our law school, the Zionists in my class engaged in a full on debate as to why that was offensive to them and why it should be removed. Birthright trips were a common topic of conversation with me, a Palestinian who will likely never be able to visit home due to my Palestine advocacy work.
At networking events, an attorney once asked me if I “had to” wear the hijab, implying someone was forcing me to.
These experiences in the aggregate interrupted the deep passion I had started law school with. I believe my opportunities were limited as a result, and as a Muslim woman in law school and the legal profession, I am the most disturbed by the false light of diversity and inclusivity when that does not encompass diversity of thought or belief outside of white American liberalism.
When I participated in clinics or internships, I was presumed by other attorneys to be the translator. This is a common experience for women of colour in court. In one instance, I was presumed to be the client’s wife, despite being present at the clinic and working with other attorneys for hours prior.
The law school staff would repeatedly refer to me as an international student (which I wasn’t), my legal writing professor presumed and stated in front of the class that English wasn’t my first language (it is), and another professor called me by the name of the only other Muslim woman in that class numerous times.
Microaggressions are not just superficial. The micro-aggressions I experienced, and continue to experience, speak to a deeper perception of how my fellow legal professionals view me. The statements made to me by my colleagues showed that as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, I was seen as ‘foreign’, subordinate to someone else’s control, and any notion of my Palestinian identity or other Islamic politics were seen as threatening.
To make any kind of substantive change in the legal field and in the law, these kinds of behaviours need to be properly investigated and addressed to create a positive environment for students and attorneys of colour. These behavioural patterns create an environment that stifles intellectual and career growth, one of the reasons why statistically, women of colour are more likely to consider dropping out of law school.
I worked for almost four years with a solo legal practitioner who practised immigration law, particularly with asylum seekers in a city with a large refugee population. I had great experiences with clients, many of whom came from the Middle East and Africa. Having religious and cultural competency equipped me to better serve these communities and ask clients the right questions to build their case.
My background as someone who speaks Arabic, wears the hijab, and is from a similar or close by region, I believe, made clients more comfortable in speaking about their circumstances without fearing prejudice or having to over-explain. One of my greatest strengths as an attorney now comes from that experience, in knowing how to support clients in telling their story authentically.
Our job as attorneys is to serve and represent our clients to the best of our ability. I believe that my faith and my hijab empower me to do this even better. The American legal field and most American attorneys have a long way to go in educating ourselves about the injustices of the tool of the law that we use every day in our work. Respecting and adequately supporting the lead of attorneys of colour already doing the work in challenging this system is a step in the right direction.