Written by Kristin Garrity Sekerci.
In the wake of the presidential campaign season and Trump’s election, many of us feared for our physical safety, particularly those of us who are visibly identifiable Muslim women.
I know this was true for me.
That being so, I had never feared for the safety of my young child in public. His humanity as a child, in my mind, was safely guarded – a non-negotiable social norm. From there, I reasoned that the innocence of my child would soften the hearts of strangers, strangers who may otherwise perceive me with apprehension. That through my son’s humanity, they would be reminded of my own humanity, and of the humanity of others who “look” Muslim.
The bar couldn’t be set much lower. Or, so I thought.
My (false) sense of comfort was abruptly checked last summer following a news story about two visibly identifiable Muslim women who were physically assaulted while walking with their babies in New York City. In addition to attacking the women, the perpetrator pushed one stroller over and shook the other. Inside the strollers were an 11-month-old and a 15-month-old, respectively. Thankfully they were not injured.
For other minority communities, which include some of my co-religionists, dehumanization is nothing new.
This attack shook me to my core. It reminded me that some people don’t care about us, or our young children. Even to the extent of resorting to physical violence against us and our babies.
Not a New Reality
But, I realized, I really shouldn’t be so surprised. For other minority communities, which include some of my co-religionists, dehumanization is nothing new. African American teens and children, for instance, continue to be killed by law enforcement. Trayvon Martin (17) was stalked and then gunned down by a neighborhood watchman in 2012. Michael Brown (18) was shot six times by a police officer in 2014. Tamir Rice (12) in 2014 was shot by a police officer within two seconds of the officer arriving on the scene (a playground). All were unarmed.
These tragic murders carry with them the legacy of another generation marked by violence against Black children. Children like Emett Till (14), who was brutally lynched in 1955 after (false) allegations of flirting with a White woman. Like Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), Addie Mae Collins (14) and Denise McNair (11), who were killed in 1963 when a Ku Klux Klan member bombed their church. Our history is full of Black children rendered disposable, their innocence cheapened and tragically silenced.
The Suspect of Black Motherhood
In addition to a childhood devalued, Black motherhood is often held suspect.
Charlena Michelle Cooks was eights months pregnant in May 2015 when she was arrested by a police officer. The officer handcuffed Cooks on the ground, lying on top of her stomach. The officer purported that Cooks had failed to identify herself.
In 1976, then-candidate Ronald Reagan made famous the term “welfare queen” during his presidential campaign.
Legally, she was not required to.
In 1976, then-candidate Ronald Reagan made famous the term “welfare queen” during his presidential campaign. It functioned as a dog whistle for Black women especially, formulating a gendered and racialized trope of laziness. The term came to presume the “femininization of poverty,” the explanation for which is twofold: 1) that women are the main recipients of welfare (they’re not, children are); and 2) that the impoverishment of women is due to their moral failings and abrogation of traditional gender norms. The pejorative remains in our political lexicon today.
Normative Whiteness (A Brief Theory)
It bears repeating that such levels of dehumanization and debasement are not new for Black women and Black boys and girls. Another iteration in a long history of prioritizing White Supremacy at the expense of Black bodies. Really, at the expense of whatever that which society has deemed and legislated to fall outside normative bounds of Whiteness. Here, normative Whiteness presupposes Blackness as its opposite, rigid gender and spousal norms, upward socioeconomic mobility, and outward practices of piety specific to certain faith traditions.
Where and when these norms are challenged, a threat is registered against normative Whiteness. Such perceived threats are contextual. Meaning, they are dependent on which target group happens to be positioned as threatening to Whiteness, and the particular historical context within which it occurs. I’ve already explained one such trope – the (Black) welfare queen – an internal threat to both gender and spousal norms, as well as to public benefits.
By contrast, external threats are perceived today as emanating from changing population demographics. Namely, that the United States will become a majority minority country within the next few decades. This fear, which first gained traction in the 1990s, largely served as a dog whistle for Hispanic and Latinx populations. Here, the perceived threat became the usurping of America’s normative cultures, values and traditions – what some refer to as American civilization – by civilizations deemed inferior to normative Whiteness. The perceived threat is that Hispanic and Latinx families are reproducing faster than White families. And when we are talking about reproduction, in it most essential form, we are talking about pregnancy and motherhood.
How Undocumentation Criminalizes Motherhood
Hispanic/Latinx motherhood converges on a stereotype of criminality (perceived status as undocumented immigrant or “illegal alien”), and on the perception of demographic threat by means of higher fertility rates. This leaves Hispanic/Latinx women in a particularly vulnerable station.
A few years before Charlena Michelle Cooks’ terrifying ordeal, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the ill-famed Arizonan Sheriff Joe Arpaio for “practicing discriminatory and unconstitutional law enforcement,” in addition to “ignoring violent and serious crimes in pursuit of undocumented immigrants.”
According to the DOJ lawsuit,
An MCSO officer stopped a Latina woman – a citizen of the United States and five months pregnant at the time – as she pulled into her driveway. After she exited her car, the officer then insisted that she sit on the hood of the car. When she refused, the officer grabbed her arms, pulled them behind her back, and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times. He then dragged her to the patrol car and shoved her into the backseat. He left her in the patrol car for approximately 30 minutes without air conditioning.
…there are an estimated 4.5 million children nationwide who are U.S. citizens by birth and live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented.
This incident and the lawsuit it informed demonstrate the brutality of immigration policies that normalize the separation of families. Particularly, the deportation of undocumented Hispanic/Latinx parents from their U.S. citizen children. One such mother, Emma Sanchez, who was separated from her family for ten years, poignantly asked, “What about my children’s rights as U.S. citizens to be with their mother?”
According to a 2013 report by Human Impact Partners, there are an estimated 4.5 million children nationwide who are U.S. citizens by birth and live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented. As a result, these children are more likely to experience poorer child health (including PTSD and decreased use of health care services), poorer child behavioral and educational outcomes, higher rates of poverty and diminished access to food. For their parents, especially after the loss (i.e. deportation, death) of a primary household earner, they are more likely to experience poorer adult health (which includes reproductive health services like prenatal and postnatal care), as well as a shorter overall life span.
In fact, the above-mentioned report cites a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress that describes how deportation “overwhelmingly creates single-mother households, who, unlike when a partner is laid off or hurt on a job, cannot rely on unemployment or worker’s compensation.”
Emma Sanchez’s question again bears repeating: “What about my children’s rights as U.S. citizens to be with their mother?”
Reformulated, what about any children’s rights, as human beings, to be with their mother?
The immigration bogey of the 1990s has since metastasized, targeting another group of presumed immigrants – Muslims.
When (Muslim) Motherhood Threatens National Security
In addition to the fear of changing populations and demographics, Muslim women are faced with the additional trope as national security threat. Namely, that Muslim women will birth and rear future generations of violence, or that even they themselves may resort to violence.
I’m reminded of the viral photo of a Muslim woman in the NYC subway nursing her infant. As the caption goes, “A Taoist (me) gives up his seat so a Hasidic couple could sit together. They scoot over so a Muslim mother could sit and nurse her baby, on Easter Sunday. This is my America: people letting people be people.”
While these gestures are heroic and beautiful on their own, what the Muslim woman was doing, and the deeper meaning of resistance behind it, is significant.
Let me explain (by way of paraphrasing some of my social media posts).
Muslim women are simultaneously fetishized as oppressed and as violent aggressors (whether in their own right or through the violence in potentia of their children).
Nursing in public – generally speaking – is too often considered taboo in U.S. society. Even today. Breastfeeding in public runs the appalling risk of harassment and intimidation. With the intersection of a Muslim identity, it’s important to understand that nursing while Muslim is perceived by some as a threat. A threat of demographic change coupled with a threat of national security.
Namely, Muslim women are seen as part of the perceived threat of majority minority population changes – minoritizing Whiteness. Muslim women are also Muslim, which carries the additional perception of violence and/or oppression. As such, Muslim women are simultaneously fetishized as oppressed and as violent aggressors (whether in their own right or through the violence in potentia of their children).
Unapologetically Pregnant. And Muslim.
The intersectionality of race, religion, gender, immigration status, class and national origin with motherhood yields a multiplicity of forms of oppression. Arguably, the dehumanization of motherhood is a critical tipping point in the moral debasement of a society.
If we have indeed reached such a nadir – or better stated, are reaching yet another such nadir – I take great comfort in public displays of Muslim motherhood like the woman in the NYC subway, and like Mona Haydar in her music video “Hijabi.” Some constructive criticism aside, I really appreciated the music video for its fierce portrayal of an unapologetically pregnant Muslim woman.
In Haydar’s own words, “Given our current administration’s insistence on demonizing and maligning the bodies of women and Muslims…I hoped that a pregnant woman who is obviously Muslim [and] creating art and speaking truth would inspire people and offer some levity, joy and hope.”
I know it certainly has for me.
 For all intents and purposes, I use “women” to refer to those who identify as women and/or female in a way that is significant to them. Disclaimer – much of this essay refers to the biological reproduction of women with female assigned reproductive systems and generalizes the ability/choice of women with female assigned reproductive systems to have children.
Kristin Garrity Sekerci is a researcher on Islamophobia. You can follow her on Twitter at @KGarritySekerci.