“I think Islam hates us.”
–Donald J. Trump, March 2016
There is no singular Muslim story, no definitive identity for the entire religion. Instead, there are 3.3 million Muslim voices in the US—all as rich and sad and boring and joyful as any other. Some are immigrants, others were born here. They have careers and families, or not. They practice their faith differently, if at all. Islam is not a monolith, it’s just a part of life, which has been harder in the sixteen years since September 11, harder still in the eight months since the election. And perhaps even more difficult for Muslim women, who must contend with both a pussy-grabbing and an anti-Islam rhetoric in the US.
Here, four women discuss what it’s like to be a minority in America in 2017, post-9/11 and post-Trump.
“I feel like a whole country let me down,” Jamila says of the 2016 election. “I feel like there should be more people who don’t really agree with this. Where did they go? Where are you? Why didn’t you vote? What happened? This is fucked up.”
Jamila (whose name has been changed) has always considered herself American, though she moved to the US just before college and didn’t become a citizen until she was in her thirties. She attended American schools and speaks with an American accent. “I wasn’t really American on paper, but in my heart I was.”
Jamila was born in Egypt, though her Egyptian parents lived in Kuwait at the time. It may have been nostalgia on her mother’s part, a connection to home that made her travel to Alexandria, so that Jamila would be born in the same hospital as her mother and sisters. Like all Egyptian birth certificates, Jamila’s lists Muslim under religion, though she takes after her father and identifies as an atheist. “My dad’s side of the family is very scientific and academic. They’re all doctors and professors and researchers and they’re like, if there’s no proof of god’s existence then there’s no god.” Though she may not subscribe to Islam, many Americans don’t differentiate between Arabs and Muslims, and she shares many of the same concerns as those who practice: fear of a Muslim registry, feeling attacked by anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric, anxiety that family members will be detained when flying to the US.
Jamila has seen more war than the United States’s Commander-in-Chief ever has. Late one night in 1990, she woke up to her dog barking and the sound of thunder. Now, she knows that night was the beginning of the Gulf War, that the thunder was really the sound of bombs on the border of Kuwait. “Somehow, I had a concept of what war was that young, because I was so upset by it, but I don’t know what I understood.” Soon after that she and her parents evacuated, driving through Iraq and Jordan. When Israel wouldn’t allow them to travel through by land, they boarded a livestock ship and crossed the Red Sea to Egypt.
Jamila’s extended family has witnessed the Egyptian revolution, a word that means something much different to her than the way it’s been used recently in the US to describe peaceful protests. When she showed her Massachusetts-bred boyfriend the documentary The Square, which tells the story of the Egyptian Crisis, he was devastated.
“There are really graphic scenes of dozens of people being plowed by tanks, and their heads being smooshed. And you see all of that violence and it’s like, that’s revolution. What you’re talking about is kind of nonsense. You don’t really understand what that word means. [Revolution] means you’re so fucking desperate that you’re willing to have your head smashed by a tank. And are you willing to have your head smashed by a tank for your cause? I really don’t think so.”
Jamila is petite, with electric-blue winged eyeliner and the small dark dot of a former Monroe piercing above her lip. She is a photographer and owns a small business in the fashion industry. Her designer clothes nearly always show her tattoos, all of which are based on Egyptian symbols. The most recent is a large piece on her shoulder and back, an intricate battle scene between bees and ants. The bees are taken from ancient Egyptian drawings, and the ants are taken from her childhood, when her dad would take her to the park to feed the ducks, but she fed the ants instead. In the battle, the ants are winning.
After leaving Kuwait, Jamila’s family stayed in Egypt briefly, then moved to Saudi Arabia, then Dubai, where her father has lived for twenty-five years. In 1999, she moved to Washington, DC to attend George Washington University, just two years before terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon. Like everyone, she was horrified and saddened by the attacks. Unlike everyone, she had another upsetting thought: “I was like, oh shit, this is gonna be us. It’s gonna be Arabs.”
After college Jamila moved to Brooklyn, where she has lived longer than anywhere else. Though she says it sounds cliché, she never felt more like she fit in anywhere than she did the minute she set foot in New York. “[Dubai] is kind of where I go ‘home,’ quote unquote, but it’s not really home. Home is here,” she says, meaning New York, and meaning America.
For Jamila, fitting in as an American is complicated in 2017. “I feel more entrenched in my identity now… I’m defining myself as Arab American where I never used to do that. And I was never as aware of being nonwhite, for all intents and purposes. On the census, I’m Caucasian, technically. I check the ‘white’ box. But now, I don’t fit the white box when I hear stories of people speaking in Arabic on a plane and getting kicked off, or of Muhammed Ali’s son being detained. It’s like, well no, I’m not white if I’m treated this way, so what is that definition?”
Recently when she was visiting a friend on Long Island, it became clear that she didn’t look like everyone else in town. “The woman at the car wash was looking at me and I couldn’t tell, is she looking at what I’m wearing, does she like my shoes, or is she just looking at me like, ‘you don’t belong, you have curly hair and brown eyes, you’re not Irish.’ I couldn’t tell. And I was questioning. She could have just been like, ‘you have tattoos, tattoos are bad.’ Or ‘I like your shoes and I’m really examining, looking for a tag to figure out what brand they are.'”
Jamila says that since she passes as white, so she’d probably be safe in Islamophobic communities. But she’s questioning. Before November, these questions had never occurred to her.
After September 11, “I remember feeling very brown in my skin,” Zareen says. “It’s wrapped up in this awful resignation towards misogyny where it’s like, am I being looked at because I’m an outspoken girl or am I being looked at because they’re afraid of me, or they suspect me of something. You just never know. But the common thread is always unwanted attention from sketchy people.”
Zareen grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, and went to Catholic school. Her devout Muslim parents wanted God to be a part of their children’s daily lives, even if it wasn’t their religion, and since they had gone to convent schools in their home country of Pakistan, Catholicism was familiar to them. After school, Zareen would discuss what she had learned in religion class, and discovered that there were more similarities than differences between Catholicism and the Shia Islam her family practices. “Catholics are to Christians what Shias are to Muslims. So in that way there were nice parallels with a lot of traditions, and what other people might consider ceremonial rites. It was a very pluralistic upbringing, comparative religions, and a lot of my identity was tied up with being Muslim. [But religion] wasn’t something I talked about a lot, mainly because I didn’t feel like I was knowledgeable enough… I didn’t want to be the reference point for a lot of people, since I was the only Muslim person they knew.”
In Connecticut, people assumed she was Indian. “India was much more familiar to people than Pakistan ever was.” She turns sardonic: “That’s changed now in the post-9/11 era. Everyone now knows where Pakistan is.” At that time, she also felt emboldened to be open about her identity as a Muslim, and the need to clear up people’s misrepresentations. She had felt a tangible shift not just in herself, but in the country around her. “As an adult I feel like a third culture kid in a lot of ways, and I realize it’s because my adulthood was post-9/11, and [America now] feels like a different country.”
Zareen lived in Manhattan’s financial district after September 11, and occasionally prayed at Park51, where she would pass people protesting what they called “the Ground Zero mosque.” Throngs of people stood outside with signs like “ALL I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISLAM I LEARNED ON 9/11.”
“It was just an empty Burlington Coat Factory at that point; there was nothing there. People were literally just going in there to pray. And so it created a hostility and a feeling of, in this place where I was born and this place where I’ve spent so much of my life and contributed to the community, people did not welcome me and my family.”
Zareen runs an imprint of children’s books that feature Muslim characters (full disclosure: the author of this piece also works on this imprint). She now lives in Southern California, and the scene isn’t much different than when she was in New York, despite the miles and the years. “Anti-Muslim protestors come to some of our religious celebrations with their horrible yelling and vile commentary with bullhorns, and there are kids there, and they act like we’re the problem.”
During the holy month of Ramadan, the anti-Muslim rhetoric gets worse. “Part of the preparation for Ramadan this year requires mosques to keep in mind the potential risk of arson. National Muslim civil rights groups, like Muslim Advocates, have provided the community with best practices,” which includes illuminating entrances and removing anything that could fuel a fire.
Zareen goes to the mosque with her family, including her young nephews, who are experiencing Islamophobia firsthand. “One of my nephews was on a playdate and the mom asked him, he felt in a sneaky way, ‘what church do you go to?’ And he was like, ‘somewhere around here.’ He didn’t want to get into it because he felt very cornered.”
Her nephew also refuses to have friends come over to his house because it’s decorated with Qurans, prayer rugs, and prayers on the wall in Arabic. After the election, many people in the Muslim American community made sure they and their children had up-to-date passports. “It’s the necessary logistical precautions you have to take. And even as you’re performing them, you’re like, This is crazy, I was born in this country. But the reminders of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are never too far [from our minds], especially living in California.”
Zareen is concerned about the mental health impact on Muslim kids and adults, because their anxiety is very high. She’s concerned about the Islamophobia and racism that is now out in the open and even more public than it was post-9/11. She believes that the election rhetoric validated public prejudice against Muslims. She’s concerned that gun violence has become something people just accept. She’s concerned for Muslims she knows who have been asked to be informants for the US government. And she’s concerned about her family friend, a hijabi woman who lives in a red area of the country. This friend’s neighbor, with whom she shares a backyard fence, has been hostile to her in the twenty years she’s lived in the house, and has become even more volatile since the election, and since the recent death of her husband. Zareen’s friend is afraid for herself and her teenage daughter, but she’s trapped. She can’t afford to move and is afraid to call the police, assuming they’ll side with her neighbor, a Gold Star parent whose son was killed in Iraq.
Hiba says she knows people who were arrested by the FBI with secret evidence. She says that before September 11, Muslim people and organizations felt more comfortable protesting or disagreeing with politics. “9/11 squashed that. I don’t think it’s ever going to resurface because the people in my generation have been through so much and are so scared. And they’re still scared of being arrested.”
Hiba, who is in her early thirties and is comfortable speaking out politically, is in the minority. Since the attacks, she says, Muslim discourse is very apologetic. “But I don’t need to apologize for something that doesn’t even represent me remotely.”
Hiba is a quintessential third culture kid: she’s Pakistani and was born in Saudi Arabia, where she lived in an American compound and went to an American school. After a brief stint with family in New York, she moved to Virginia during the height of the Gulf War, when everyone knew where Saudi Arabia was. But at her new elementary school, people didn’t know how to pronounce her name, and she had to explain why she didn’t wear shorts in gym. Once, in art class, she spilled a jar of black paint. A classmate shouted, “There’s an oil spill in Saudi Arabia!”
“And that was one of my first days in Sterling, Virginia.”
Hiba was in fifth grade when the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and even then she thought, Please don’t let [the bomber] be a Muslim. The terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center two years earlier had been Muslim, and she was already afraid of how Islam was being perceived. A couple years later, a civics teacher told her class that “jihad” was another word for Islamic terror. Hiba corrected him, which led to a heated argument.
“There are children who are named ‘Jihad’ because it’s a beautiful concept in Islam,” Hiba explains. The word denotes a struggle within oneself or as Hiba now defines it, “check yourself before you wreck yourself,” but has been redefined to mean a struggle against non-Muslims. The teacher sent her to the principal’s office. She never saw the principal. She just waited in his office until her next class, then left. In high school, Hiba started a Muslim Students Association, but after September 11 in her senior year, the faculty sponsor bolted and their Friday prayers were shut down.
Hiba is now the mother of twins, Summer and Serene, who are just over a year old. She and her husband went out of their way to give them “really white names,” which have meanings in both English and Arabic, in hopes that they’ll be less likely to be targeted as they grow up. “We’re trying to raise very aware, critical thinker babies. We’re not trying to raise people to assimilate just to fit in and just to be wallflowers.”
On a night soon after the Women’s March, Hiba was having dinner with two other Muslim women in DC before going to a Lauryn Hill concert. At a table next to them, a family sat decked out in pro-Trump hats and clothing. “We have to do something,” she said. “Should we talk to them, hug them, what do we do?” They decided to pay for the family’s meal, and wrote on the receipt, “Muslims love America, too.” Afterward they were afraid of the family’s reaction so they didn’t talk to them, and ran out of the restaurant.
“I don’t know why I felt we had to do this but I felt like to be a Trump supporter you have this idea of a Muslim and I wanted to counter it somehow. I want to kill everyone with kindness. I want to pay for everyone’s dinner and be like, guys, let’s just talk. We all want the same things. We all just want a good country.”
Still, she takes issue with feeling like she’s constantly speaking for the religion. “I’m the only Muslim, sometimes the only minority in the room. It’s definitely problematic because I don’t feel like I should represent the entire area of people that are calling themselves American Muslims. But at the same time, I don’t want to shy away from it. I don’t want to hide it because I don’t feel like I have something to hide.”
Aisha was born and raised on Long Island, NY, but when she was twenty years old, she had to force her way back into the United States. That summer between her junior and senior years in college, she traveled to India, where her parents were born, for the family trip they took every two years. She had been living at home while commuting to college, and for the past year, tensions had been high with her parents. They were disappointed that she was staying out after class (she was working at the campus’ writing center), they didn’t approve of her friends (especially the gay and transgender ones), and they generally thought she was a bad Muslim, a bad Indian, a bad daughter. Her mother repeatedly told Aisha that she was going to hell.
Throughout her childhood, Aisha had a hard time fitting in at her school, which was predominantly white. She was ten years old on September 11, and after that she rarely told anyone about her faith. As her parents clung to their Indian culture, Aisha’s Indian and American identities clashed within. “I always wanted to integrate into American culture and they wouldn’t let me. So many times pop culture-wise I wasn’t up to date on the latest TV shows or movies. I would see trailers on television while I was watching my cartoons so I knew what was coming out, but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. And it sucked because the kids at school would talk about it and I wouldn’t really know anything. And that’s still unfortunately something I’m catching up to, even now. Because it feels like all this stuff is a long-lasting thing. The stuff that you grow up with impacts a lot of the rest of your life.”
Before the trip to India, Aisha withdrew a large sum of money from her bank account. It was packed away with her, hidden, though she didn’t yet know for what purpose. It just seemed safer to have it. She sat next to her father on the plane to Ahmedabad, while her mother and seven-year-old sister sat across the aisle. “My dad told me that I was a terrible person and that he didn’t want me anywhere near my sister because he didn’t want her to get influenced by me,” she says. “Those are probably some of the most painful words I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Early into her stay in India, it became clear to Aisha that her family didn’t plan to return to the US. When she left her cell phone in a room with her mother and grandmother, it recorded them saying, “We have to get her married off so she’s not our responsibility anymore.” Her parents cut off her Internet access and told family members not to let her use their phones. She contemplated running away, and tried to sneak glances at the map on someone else’s phone to find her way to the airport. Her father returned to New York to finish preparing the move: he painted the house so that it could be rented, he threw away the furniture, he un-enrolled Aisha’s younger sister from school, and told her teachers she wouldn’t be returning in the fall.
Aisha almost completely stopped eating , waging a near-hunger strike until her family agreed to take her back to the US. Instead, her grandmother took her to the doctor in India, who “was basically trying to figure out if I had depression or not, which, at the time, yeah.” Afterward, Aisha’s grandmother told her mother that the antidepressants the doctor prescribed were vitamins, since mental illness has such a stigma in Indian culture. Ultimately, Aisha’s uncle convinced her parents that if she were to run away in India, which she had still been considering, the stress would kill her grandmother.
Even after returning to the US, Aisha never felt safe at home. She had nightmares of people tying her down and forcing her to marry. She told her school what was going on at home and was granted emergency housing. Slowly she took necessary items out of her bedroom, hid them in her backpack, and deposited them on campus, before eventually announcing to her parents that she wouldn’t be coming home. She did move back to their house after graduation, but even now, five years later, she still doesn’t have any furniture in her room. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor, in case she has to leave again.
Aisha is not her real name. She prefers not to share it, for fear of making her parents look bad. With the hindsight of adulthood, she understands their perspectives, even if she finds it hard to forgive them. Now twenty-six, she wears a knit hat, with two curtains of dark hair on each side, like an Indian Angela Chase from the ’90s TV drama My So-Called Life. Her eyes are wide and dark as a fawn’s. She’s a Starbucks junkie who collects the chain’s gift cards; giving up coffee is part of what makes fasting for Ramadan so hard. She smiles easily and speaks quickly, with so much to say. She sounds happy. But since the election, she’s not just uncomfortable at home; she doesn’t feel safe in New York. “I’m always afraid. For example, being on the subway, I’ll never go close to the edge of that yellow line because I feel like somebody’s going to throw me overboard just because I’m Muslim, or because I look brown and they assume that I’m Muslim.”
Aisha is quick to specify that her life isn’t typical of Muslims or of Indians. Even friends from the Muslim Students Association at her college couldn’t relate. “They were like, Aisha, your parents are really extreme.” Of course, while Aisha’s story is her own, it’s worth noting that many Christian homes in America are similarly strict, unsupportive, or even abusive.
Her friends tell her to leave her childhood home. “They always have one response to me, and it’s, ‘Aisha you have to get out of that house’. And that’s what everybody’s response is, get out of that house. I totally understand, that’s the most practical thing to do, right? But it’s not that easy.” Her mother struggles with depression, and it takes a toll on her when Aisha isn’t home. “My mother breaks down in tears if I say I’m hanging out with a friend because she’s like, ‘So you don’t love me and that’s why you don’t want to be home.'” Aisha lives in a neighborhood of Trump supporters, and she doesn’t always feel safe there. Instead of that pushing to her leave, it compels her to stay. If something bad happened to her family and she wasn’t there, she worries, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself.
Aisha spent months trying to stay in America, and her entire life trying to be American, and now it feels like she’s not wanted. “Those people do not appreciate that I went through all of these different things just to [try to] kick me out like I’m not even human. I worked so hard. I feel betrayed.”
“Many times people base a religion off of a certain person and you can’t do that. You can’t look at one person and then peg the entire category of people a certain thing. You can’t.”
Aisha still struggles with feeling unwanted, both in her family and in her country. “I’ve been fighting for my basic rights to have a career for the longest time, and I always had a feeling that my friends would support me or that people in America would understand where I’m coming from. And now it doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
As she is talking in a Manhattan Starbucks, a man walks up to her. He is tall and black, with a large belly and big headphones around his neck. She is sitting and he towers over her, but his demeanor is soft, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. He’s Muslim, too.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt but salaam alaikum. I just want you to know that it is awesome that you shared your story because it’s really, really hard to hear women’s side of it. So Allah be with you, be encouraged, I just wanted you to know that so that you’re not saying it in vain. People are listening. I was watching and so was He. So that’s all—””
Aisha cuts in, “You just made my day!”
“I just wanted show you some love, that’s all.”
If any place were to feel like home to Aisha, it would be a Starbucks. Outside, there is the subway platform she avoids, the house she can’t tear herself away from, the family she tries to get along with, and the people who don’t think she belongs here. But here, in Starbucks, in America, in this moment, she is talking to someone who knows her and someone who doesn’t. Right now, she may not be afraid for someone to know that she’s Muslim.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.