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“I Want to be the First Hijabi to…”: The Dangers of Becoming the Token Hijabi

“I Want to be the First Hijabi to…”: The Dangers of Becoming the Token Hijabi

The undercurrents of this issue have been rumbling throughout the community this past year, and it’s time someone got up and spoke up about it. Granted, don’t read this if you’re looking for something sugary sweet and devoid of reality. I don’t have time to waste when it comes to an issue as tangible, problematic and immediate as this. Nor am I here to backbite, so if you’re looking for quick gossip, check out Perez Hilton. Last I heard, he’s still going strong.

I’m here to confront the issue of the phenomenon that has begun gaining traction in our Muslim American community, the chance to be the first hijabi to do “something.” I’m talking about the women that want to be the first hijabis to be news anchors, the first to be professional photographers, basketball players, the list goes on. These women aren’t shy about sharing their dreams, either, and people go wild over their goals. She wants to be the first hijabi to fly a plane? Let’s feature her everywhere! The women gain online fame quickly, their fans doting Muslims from within and outside America, predominantly young women that look up to them. But there are a few serious repercussions as a result of this phenomenon, and it’s time they’re addressed.

The beautiful thing about being Muslim American women is that we have women of all walks of life, backgrounds, levels of faith, and interests. Our community boasts women that choose to wear hijab — and those that choose not to wear hijab. In the “journey” to be the “first hijabi something,” our community has begun conflating that with being the “first Muslim American woman something,” in effect, telling Muslim women that do not cover and are already first at the scene of achievement that they weren’t Muslim enough. Alienating part of our community is a loss to us all. There are so many women in the community who have “made it” on the basis of work and talent, but we choose not to bring them to the forefront, passing them over instead for those that fit more nicely in the perfect Muslim American woman paradigm.

You’ve got Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim American woman in space in 2006. There’s Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to compete for the United States in the Olympics. Yuna Zarai, quickly rising to fame in American pop culture, is a world-renowned musician that performs predominantly in America. All made it to where they are through hard work, skills and perseverance. In the greater American diaspora, Oprah struggled to make it as a TV personality, an achievement she gained on the basis of her work. Mindy Kaling, an actress and screenwriter, is prominent today after years of working up the ladder. These women’s achievements are lauded, not because of their identity – which, while, important, is not the focus – but because of their hard work.

In calling out women trying to circumvent the hard work system, it is important to recognize that this is not an attempt to delegitimize the advancements that we, as Muslim Americans, are making as a community. I believe that trying to be the “first hijabi something” fails to allow for a more genuine discussion of our progress. What one person achieves does not take away, ultimately, from the infinite pool of potential achievements. In trying to advance the community, however, we need to begin critically examining what we give merit to. Instead of giving prizes to every individual trying to make it in the world based on faith identity (and that includes the hijab), we need to begin fostering the advent of hard work and perseverance.

Claiming your identity (faith or otherwise) as being the impetus for your success instead of your hard work and skills means, quite simply, that if you fail in the endeavor, it’s so easy to accuse the world of failing you because you are a hijabi/Muslim/vegetarian, rather than failing because you just are not there yet.

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Furthermore, it’s time that we move our community beyond being happy simply with the “Rah! Rah! Diversity feature!” phenomenon that many of us fall into. This happens when you put your identity first, instead of letting it peek through around the talent and work you put in to get to the next level. While many argue the benefits in tokenization, the truth of it remains that making it based simply off your hijab/faith/ethnic identity and not your experiences, work and skill creates a hole from which you cannot escape: forever will you simply be a token of your identity, tapped to speak ONLY on your identity. Serving as the diversity quotient means that you will not be able to make a true change to the community, since you are stuck in your inherent identity, unable to cause real ripples in the larger community beside your initial diversity debut. It was something even the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) saw, underscoring the need for Muslims to be enmeshed in the larger society they are a part of.

In any aspect of life, regardless of where or who you are, this remains true. In order to get to where you want to be, you first have to lay down the groundwork. You cannot just jump the system and expect things to be anything short of precarious. Granted, this route is the harder one. Making it based on talent, experience and work is more difficult than the quick burst of fame gained through identity. Yet, that is the only way we can expect the Muslim American community to make strides forward. When the day comes that we have a Muslim American woman make it, it’ll be the day that her identity is just another part of her, not the reason she was catapulted to fame. Otherwise, we really have not made it. We just will think we have, and that’s what needs to be changed. Period.

View Comments (24)
  • I think the reason people are proud of the first “hijabi somethings” is because they regularly face so many more barriers in getting their… discrimination etc. It does not mean that you have disacknowledged the hard work others have done to get there. I don’t see the problem in having them as role models just like any other women high-achievers may simultaneously be a role model. Hijab might simply be part of someone’s identity and it means one can relate to them and their struggles and be inspired.

    • I believe that you are missing the point of this article/misunderstanding it. The writer is not saying that someone who has worked hard and made it (while being a hijabi) is the problem. That is something to celebrate of course. The writer is a hijabi herself and is a hard worker, she understands the struggles that can come with hijab (discrimination etc. as you say). However, the point the writer is trying to make is NOT to make the fact that you are a hijabi be the focus of why you want to be/should be a news anchor or whatever. In the last year or two, we have seen a lot of muslim women who go viral on social media because they play the card that they are hijabis and they have a dream and ask for the help of the muslim community. Being a hijabi should not be the thing to get you where you want to get, but your hard work and dedication. Plus, there are other problems with this that this article brilliantly explains such an alienation of muslim women who do not wear the hijab and have been able to achieve a lot through hard work. So I would encourage you to reread the article and try to understand the point that it is trying to make

      • I understand the article but I just don’t see how using hijabi tokenism is a common amongst Muslim women and I have met many professional hijabis. If anything I find hijabis are more reluctant to be the first hijabi something’s because it’s difficult.

  • I think you’re missing one point: why are hijabis getting recognized when non- hijabis are making the same achievements? Because they are not afraid to reach those goals, to be in the eyes of others, WITH a hijab on. The courage she has is why people are focusing on her. That WOW she did that, WOW other women have done this too, but WHOA! she did it with hijab on. Now, THAT’s an accomplishment a step above the rest.

      • Yes. Because the hijab girl strives harder in the cause of Allah. We should praise them until every muslimina has the same taqwa

        • We are not qualified to know how much a person does or does not strive “in the cause of Allah.” That striving is something that comes from within and isn’t necessarily something that can be identified by external factors (like clothing choice).

          • The fact that she is able to knowingly take on the discrimination of the hijab makes her that much closer to god. Stop with the bs about ‘it’s about what’s on the inside that matters’ yes the inside matters but this person isn’t wearing the hijab to impress others, she is wearing it to impress god. She is taking on the role of being a Muslim while willingly accepting the discrimination that comes with it. And yes philpt, the accomplishment of a woman with a hijab is more praiseworthy than a woman without go read the quran if you need more help with that question : I suggest you to start with Suratul Ahzab. (And no I’m not the original poster of this comment).

      • We all know it’s extremely difficult for an American Muslim + hijab observing woman to live in the United States without facing discrimination at some point in her life. Why is it wrong to praise her for it? I don’t think people should see this as degrading non-hijabi Muslim woman at all. Why can’t we be just happy for them? It’s tough out there.

  • Preach, girl. I find it so infuriating when these folks use this “othering” factor to highlight any achievement. It’s tokenism, they are expecting preferential treatment because of something that shouldn’t be used to define them. They are who they are–consisting of talents, and skills and that what should bring forward their success. Not with a company/corporation trying to add some “flavor” to their posters.

  • I think it’s nice that we’re trying to minimize the alienation of some Muslim women, however, I think that there is so much alienation that goes on within the community without anyone saying “I’m a Mipster” or “I’m going to be the first hijabi to” or “I’m going to be the first American Muslim to”. Declaring any of those things may in effect cause Muslims within the community to think ‘x’ is higher than ‘y’ but that is not an absolute effect in the face of the broader picture where Muslims who look like ‘x’ and ‘y’ or come from family ‘x’ or ‘y’ end up being more revered than others. And these are simplistic at their core. One has to make an analysis to determine whether or not it is detrimental when someone who says “I want to be the first hijabi to”. The question here should be ‘Does this mean we shouldn’t make broad statements that may alienate the community despite the fact there being an existence of alienation anyway?’ I believe the answer is simple, but it doesn’t remove the footprint of disunity. For the record I am a Muslim and I never heard of any of my friends or family mention every single one of those ‘celebrities’. Declaring “I want to be the first hijabi to” is nothing more than making a wish, and hoping that you’ll make it.

  • I get the point and agree in general, but I couldn’t help notice – didn’t she sorta backbite Perez Hilton there?! Just a mental note to myself, when declaring that I won’t do something bad, let’s not name someone specific as an example of one who does do something bad, even if it were to be true. Because then I would have done something bad.

  • You are pretty much assuming that the intentions of that “first hijabi” whatever is purely based on a piece of cloth on their head, when really you have no idea what their intentions are for accomplishing such a goal. What you are really writing about is marginalizing a group of women who happen to be on the front of social media based on assumptions that their intentions for success are not clean.

    PLUS – accomplishments made by ANY Muslim woman should be celebrated, and if they HAPPEN to wear hijab- let them token the praise to Allah. What a marvelous way to shed light on Islam.

  • Sure, being in the spotlight and becoming the “token hijabi” shouldn’t be what drives someone to do something; it should ideally be based off of your passion for that field. That said, you can’t really regulate someone’s motivation for such things. What if their desire to become that icon or their passion to express their identity is actually what makes them successful? It may not be the highest or maybe even the subjective “right” motivation to have propelling you forward, but it is what it is. Additionally, we can celebrate both Muslim American women that wear hijab or not, as women in general incur discrimination in the workplace. However, you cannot deny that hijabis *often* (maybe not always) incur discrimination simply based on the fact that they wear hijab, because the hijab doesn’t fit the image of the company, is not seen as marketable, etc. Maybe things are changing now as some companies want to seem more diversified and appeal to a greater clientele, but let’s not be naive and pretend that image, connections and charisma don’t play a role in the hiring process. Hence even for those who don’t wear hijab, it’s simply not a perfectly merit-based system.

  • What I celebrate about the “first hijabi” is that it’s a step towards making hijab a normal thing, a more available choice for Muslim women who want to wear it and still be accepted in the general society. That it’s a step towards non-Muslims accepting Muslims as normal people that one can have a normal conversation with. I celebrate every Muslim who openly discloses their faith to others (well it’s part of the First Pillar), but being visibly Muslim is a brave thing to do.

    I find the not so subtle implication that a “first hijabi” does it for her own egoistic reasons and as a shortcut to bypass hard work to be quite objectionable. We are supposed to assume the best of our sisters (and brothers) in faith, and I see much good in hijabis being more visible in western societies. It’s not a matter of who is a better Muslim, because only Allah knows that.

  • Laila, I get what you’re saying and I agree with your argument. However, I just wanted to say that as a Muslim woman who wore the hijab as an adult, I am much more hesitant in advancing in my career/education because I am worried about how my scarf is perceived by non-Muslims, that Muslims are constantly looking at me waiting for me to err so they can tell me what a bad Muslimah I am, and I am the only woman of colour, let alone hijabi, in my field of study. Whether anyone agree with it or not, Muslim women who wear the hijab have a much harder time in the workplace, universities, etc.

    Personally for me, I felt so much more confident when I see other hijabis achieving things, which is why women like Yuna Zarai make me incredibly proud because she is doing something creative and fulfilling without compromising her hijab. I’ve thought many times about taking off my scarf because I think it holds me back, but it is precisely the recognition of achievements of hijabi Muslimahs that keeps me going because it tells me that you CAN survive in the Western world today without assimilating.

    • Wow. Mashallaah, thank you for this. A role model for me because I also happen to be a BMW (black Muslim woman), I hope not to sacrifice my hijab in pursuing a teaching career. May Allah be with us all AMEEN

  • We all know how hard for a american muslim/hijabi women to fit in the american society without getting judged , and we all know how difficult for her to achieve her goals in the US , facing religious discrimination everyday , everywhere…
    I don’t understand Why is it wrong to praise her for her achievements ?!
    Actually , Being a hijabi in a non muslim society is a huge struggle and it’s a big accomplishment already.

  • I think young hijabi girls need more representation, to be honest. I have never seen a hijabi women on mainstream American TV. And I also think the idea that the hijabi women are somehow to blame for the focus they receive from white mainstream media is illogical. I also think it’s insulting to somehow assume that hijabis are somehow using their hijab to get into fields that they would not be able to get into through talent alone – it’s completely ridiculous considering how difficult it is to get even a job while wearing hijab.

    • I agree, it’d be nice for a change to see Muslim women portrayed positively in the media. It sure would help in raising the self esteem of young Muslim girls. 🙂

  • Thank you for the article Layla 🙂 I am a muslim but not living in the american society. The only important thing for every muslim is to not forget what she s asked for. I mean that whatever crazy thing she wants to do, she has to be sure that it’s acceptable in Islam and doesn t have bad consequences on her and on Ummah. I say that because when i see the picture of this post, for me it s just paradoxal, It’s the same about some new clothing trends and some Fashionista Hijabi that wear beautiful clothes BUT..; unfortunately not always appropriate. Hijab means also modesty and a specific behavior. When the clothes are attractive, that absolutely breaks the goal of the Hijab.

  • The girl with the hijab is playing guittar wich is haram, does she just chosse to wier the hijab to say she is muslim but then not care. The picture just say to me that eather you know nothing of your religion or chosse to not follow it.

  • I think this article is both spot on and a little premature. I think girls say they want to be the “first hijabi something” because they don’t know about any that already exist. I didn’t know about ANY of the women you mentioned. I googled them after reading this article and have been brought to tears. God bless their efforts and bring them success. In fact, I only discovered your blog today by accident and have been going through it. I only learned about the Qahera comic last night. I feel like I have been living under a rock in darkness. It turns out what I was looking for was already there. I would appreciate it if you could maintain a list of Muslims breaking through in industries they haven’t before. I think you are right to say that the focus should not be on religion/ethnic identity but rather on talent and hard work. But it doesn’t hurt to help increase knowledge/awareness of them and support/fans for them. Also, thank you for being a good writer. I love to read and write and am rather good at it, and I would just like to point out how exceptional I find the writing on this blog. It’s not disorganized rants, but well thought-out opinion pieces. I look forward to reading more.

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