Thursday morning, Tan Nazer cut class. But the 18-year-old student wasn’t out with friends, avoiding an assignment or suffering from a recent, reverberating wave of senioritis.
With thick black curls swept up into a ponytail and a colorful deck of large poster boards nestled between her arms, Nazer paced the quick walk down Main Street from her boarding school dormitory to just outside the local New England town hall.
With the Iowa caucus but a fossilized memory now, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is officially in full swing. National attention now directs our focus toward the next state holding primaries — New Hampshire. The candidates have sealed their breadbaskets and flown east to take a final hack at the Granite State before Tuesday’s events.
This past week, the town hall of Exeter, N.H., has exhibited a notable lineup of speakers in preparation for the coming days. From Cruz to Bernie to the reason Nazer stood ground on Thursday, it seems as if almost everyone has made an appearance at this regional political nucleus.
In a town that is 95.5 percent white, Nazer stands out from the local population more than just slightly. She is not a native of the area — but rather a student at the boarding high school embedded within the town.
Her roots are anchored in a home more than 6,000 miles away in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. But a childhood a few years abroad has kept this strong Muslim woman anything but shielded from American Islamophobia that is only increasing in plague.
Nazer enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in the fall of 2013 as a sophomore to pursue academics abroad, where she quickly grew caught between a school that voiced a high regard for diversity and the, whether maliciously intended or not, interactions that breached far past the point of racist.
“I had never experienced Islamophobia until coming to Exeter,” she said. “In my three years here, I’ve come across a fair share of hate, discrimination and unapologetic bigotry — even remarks like, ‘How does it feel to be a supporter of genocide?’”
Were people serious? Curious? The boarding school attracts a student body from around the country and world — some who have never before met or otherwise interacted with a Muslim. But defying stereotypes was nothing new for a varsity athlete who before contested in national Saudi swimming competitions as one of only two women in the sport.
These, however — these new encounters weren’t just rigid religious rulings or subserviently swallowed sayings.
“For 16 years of my life, I thought I knew what it meant to be Muslim — but it wasn’t until I was in a community that was largely not that I truly began to question the values that had for so long defined me. ‘If you’re such a feminist, how are you Muslim?’ These were the kinds of questions I had never really considered before. Ones that didn’t inherently diagnose my religion as incompatible with the new ideas I was learning at a school like Exeter, but did call into question how I wanted to define my identity, especially now that it lay at a crossroad of two separate worlds.”
Rather than cowering in the face of frustrating, painful ignorance, however, Nazer emerged as a leader in her school community. Many national interviews and studies have shown that Americans quick to bash Islam who are then reminded of a close Muslim friend or colleague immediately retreat with a claim like, “Oh well, not them.” Or “Well it’s not Muslims I have a problem with, just Islam.”
Several of those stagnantly steadfast in their Islamophobic beliefs are not close with, perhaps do not even know, a single actual Muslim. Nazer has served as a voice and friend who all those around her — from national to international peers and faculty — can point to as a strong, selfless Muslim representing her community and faith.
It often takes no more than one person to be the friend that reminds someone to reconsider Islamophobic rhetoric as nothing but hate and a catalyst of violence. At the Academy, Nazer leads several local sub-communities — such as being a resident leader in her dorm of 40 students, in addition to facilitating larger school conversation.
Nazer has added her unique voice while featured on a school panel entitled “The Modern Muslim Woman,” co-founded and led an Islamic feminist, political student club to discuss the contemporary climate for Muslims around the world, and just recently, spearheaded a large deal of logistics for the peaceful protests that met Donald Trump’s campaign Thursday, Feb. 4.
Nazer employed the help of her Islamic discussion club Baraka to craft a variety of posters, which only added to other independently created Trump-protest sign sessions around campus.
Along with several classmates and local citizens, Nazer lined the winding asphalt and brick outside the historic Exeter Town Hall while Trump, inside, spewed on inappropriately about immigrants, minorities, “anchor babies,” and far more. After a peak inside the gathering at the end, Nazer summarized the comments she heard ever so simply: “How ridiculously offensive.”
As the national climate only grows more and more charged toward minorities like Muslims, Nazer thoroughly comprehends that the obstacles have only begun. Despite her immense contributions to the minds and attitudes of the world around her, she remains disheartened by, yet accustomed to, the assumptions others still harbor.
“To the outside eye, I am either Muslim, or not. Veiled, or not. Feminist, or not,” she said.
“It is a suffocating binary that refuses to acknowledge my nuanced experiences and perspectives. When I have tried to speak, I’ve been talked over. When I’ve tried to engage, I am ignored. I am written off with 800 million other Muslim women as one body and one homogenous voice.”
Nazer acknowledges the vacuum from which these labels and pigeonholes sometimes arise — but reminds that this serves as no excuse for their legitimacy, noting, “Perhaps it was ignorance, perhaps a mechanism to make sense of something so alien. But either way, these feelings, these assumptions, these stereotypes — imprisoned me. They prevented me from discovering a path in which I reconciled my traditional religious belief with my modern life and instead directed my attention to constantly having to explain and justify myself.”
As we trudge through the remainder of winter and into spring, the United States will follow as the ensuing primaries unfold. Some of us will watch-rewind-repeat debates or ravenously rush through as many articles upon articles as possible.
Others may maintain quiet and deliberate personally. Several of us may find ourselves caught, uncomfortable, uncertain or scared. What remains, however, is that our impact in society is but limited to a vote. It is not the congenital responsibility of a Muslim to act as a community ambassador to the rest of the world, but it is a noble choice that even teenagers like Nazer are able to assume.
As Muslims in 2016 in America, we are inherently politicized, as unfair or undesirable as it seems. Yet this offers the backhanded gift of a stimulus to reclaim our narratives and spread our own stories.
Muslim-American communities have collectively and historically held a weak interest or value in their U.S. politics — local to especially national. Whether this derives from lack of a connection versus difference in the culture versus cynicism in a system no longer holds substantial significance.
Today, it is simply impossible to live in an isolated world that keeps segregated our religious beliefs and political systems. There is no such thing as church and then state when half the state is attacking your church, or mosque, or what have you.
There is both privilege and power in voting, yet simultaneously, one’s impact on government spans far beyond the confines of a ballot box — and just as Nazer has so respectfully rendered, no one is ever too young, too old, too anything, to be a voice of change.
Feature Image: Provided by Alayna D’Amico.
Image: Provided by Cesar Zamudio.