Written by Irtefa Binte-Farid.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology. My job is to read, write, and think critically about the world, including but not limited to issues of gender, race, citizenship, and power. I am also a brown hijabi Muslim woman. For some people, these two identities are mutually exclusive.
I am often asked how I can hope to be an academic—an “objective” expert—when I have clearly been conditioned by Islam and therefore am not even willing to challenge my own oppression by Islamic patriarchy. To answer these people, I wanted to share some thoughts about my faith, my career, and my commitment to justice as an activist.
I chose to start covering my hair in 2003 during America’s intervention in Afghanistan on the premise of the “war on terror.” My parents were quite surprised by my decision as no one in my family covers their hair. They asked me reconsider because they were worried for my safety in an era of rising Islamophobia, but I was adamant.
In part, my decision to wear the hijab was fueled by the American media. For the first time in my life, I was inundated by images of veiled (and therefore oppressed) Muslim women who needed saving—deliverance from the grasp of brown Muslim men by the white male savior. As the rhetoric of “just” war played out on television sets in America—centering the images of covered Muslim women—I remember being deeply disturbed by the simultaneous silencing of Afghan women’s voices: never once did I actually hear an Afghan Muslim woman talk about whether she wanted to be saved.
Perhaps these images bothered me so greatly because I had grown up surrounded by strong Muslim women in Bangladesh. Many of them did suffer under a patriarchal system, but they relied on Allah and their Islamic faith to give them the strength to keep fighting—for themselves and for their families. They were not silent victims. Therefore, to be suddenly told that Islam was the source of the Afghan women’s oppression was quite disconcerting for my teenage self.
That is not to say that Islam isn’t used as a tool by oppressors to justify their atrocities—Daesh is a case in point. But such distortions are not unique to Islam; slavery was justified using Christian theology at a time in history. However, even as a 14-year-old, I refused to believe that human misinterpretation of God’s words should take precedence over the divine principles of justice and mercy that I had been taught to live by. To this day, I try to ground my activism in the belief that God is both Merciful and Just, and that as Muslims, we cannot achieve personal salvation without a firm commitment to justice for all.
In terms of my academic career, I have never found my anthropological training to be at odds with my Islamic faith. In fact, as a Muslim, I was explicitly taught that belief does not equate to blind faith. Instead, faith and the deepest of doubts must naturally go together: to believe in God, we must be willing to question all human categories. Only arrogance allows man to claim “I know” and ignore all other views: just the Divine Truth is permanent; all human truths are open for questioning. My faith-inspired inquiries led me to the study of anthropology, a discipline that at its best iteration takes no category for granted, that respects a multiplicity of views and values difference.
In fact, my anthropological training helped me understand my teenage reactions to the images of Afghan women during the “war on terror.” Without having the vocabulary to speak about it, I had recognized the asymmetry in power relations inherent in the portrayal of Afghan women as silent victims: they were not given the chance to represent themselves in their own terms. That is an inherently violent act, and my instinctive reaction, born of my Muslim faith, was to take action to remedy the situation.
My Prophet (PBUH) taught me: If you see injustice, act to remedy it; if you cannot act, speak out against it; if you cannot do even that, then know it is wrong in your heart and try not to reproduce in your own life. I could not change the course of the war, but I could do my small part to affect how Muslim women were viewed in the US.
So to me, there is no paradox between my identity as an academic, an activist, and a person of faith. My decision to wear the hijab grew out of the desire to resist the imposition of the narrative of oppression and victimhood onto my brown female body. I wanted to use my limited power to frame the terms of my own representation: I wanted to be seen as proudly Muslim, fiercely opinionated, and unafraid to speak my truth. I continue to wear the hijab today for the same personal and political reasons: because putting it on in the morning reminds me to recommit to the divine principles of mercy and justice, to question my own assumptions about the world, to check my privilege, and to stand up against injustice—both against myself and others.
Feature Image: moosleemargh