Samia Assed is a longtime organizer, mom, and beloved elder in the Arab and Muslim community in the United States. Like so many other youth that look up to her, when I saw she was elected to the new board of the Women’s March through their announcement on Monday, I was overwhelmed with joy and love. I was consumed with happiness. I thought, “She is one of the people we always look to, now the nation will look to her.”
I felt the same for Zahra Billoo. Zahra is a tireless advocate here in California. She is with us in the streets when we are working with refugees in our communities, when we are sick with fatigue from knocking on politicians’ doors, when we are comforting the trauma of this work in our peoples. When there are no resources, and no help, she is there, and she is fighting. Fighting for us all.
With all the joy and excitement that these incredible women of color justice warriors, along with so many incredible others, would take the helm of the beautiful organization Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland — powerful leaders who have profoundly changed the material conditions of so many of our communities — built, I almost, for a moment, felt like we were free.
And then it came: the avalanche of attacks on Samia and Zahra.
The attacks were distinct. They were disguisable from the comments about the other people taking on these positions on the new Board. To put it plainly, they were overtly covered in racism by racists. They relied on Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes that are some of the most disgusting ways to attack a person of Arab and/or Muslim identity. And they were textbooks cases of racism.
A Washington Post hit piece completely lied about a press release about the new board and accused the Women’s March of cutting ties with its former leaders because of anti-Semitism. This literally is pure falsehood. As the leaders have said publicly, the board rotates its founders, as a measure of collective building, of accountability, and of growth; all things we should be applauding.
The Washington Examiner essentially doxxed Samia and Zahra, and portrayed them as anti-Semitic, Israeli-hating, extremists – all dog whistles for White supremacy. The constructions of these women in the articles would have prompted Edward Said himself to write a response. They were flagrant displays of anti-Middle Eastern racism and Islamophobia. Whenever a woman whose ancestry is from this region speaks, she is portrayed as barbaric, an extremist, scary, and hateful. The purpose is to disempower them, because power is afraid of them. These attacks cannot stand.
This isn’t new; this is the vile racism that any Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim woman attempting to confront power is faced with. And it is oppression in action.
They are the attacks so many of us know and so many of us face every day, and they must not be met with silence. Because silence is a rubber stamp of approval, it is complicit agreement.
The media needs to be held accountable, and I, like many young organizers, see that it rarely happens. They need to be condemned until justice happens. Every author of an article who has made these kinds of attacks needs to be removed from their position. The Washington Post article author, Marissa Lang, should step down, for the blatant propaganda in her piece, which in all measures, is unethical journalism — if it really could even be described as “journalism” at all.
Let me make this clear: private support of our various communities’ justice heroes isn’t needed now. Brave, public, material support is. Everyone in this country should know the names of these women, Samia Assed and Zahra Billo. Women who have been, under great personal sacrifice, organizing in our communities, and specifically Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim communities every day when the spotlights aren’t on and the accolades aren’t there. They have taken bold and unpopular stances for justice again and again. They are lifelines in their communities, and they are examples for us all as young women. They are the leaders I — and we — should all aspire to be.
I call on all young people to learn their names and show up for them in this time, and always. I call on Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Arab community leaders to publicly condemn the attacks on them, and for once stand with the women who always stand with us. I call on young women to name the intersection of patriarchy and racism at play in these attacks (and for White women to use their privilege as shields, and call for repair for these blatant racist smears.) The silence in the communities, the intersections of the identities I have, is abhorrent and inexcusable. The systems of power must be held accountable, and we must be the ones who do it.
From a Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King wrote something that has stuck with me my whole life: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
That silence is deadly. It kills our communities all around the world.
Sisters, we have your back. We will not be silent while our friends, the friends of the people, are attacked.
Update: As of last night, September 18, Zahra Billoo was kicked off the national board of Women’s March, Inc. by vote. In response, author Sophia Armen would like to add “The voting of the board to remove Zahra Billoo is a grave injustice that harms not only our community organizing efforts, but the feminist movement as a whole. Zahra must be reinstated.”
Sophia Armen is a 27-year old Middle Eastern-American social justice organizer born and raised in Los Angeles.