Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post by Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, blogger for Tikkun Daily and The Islamic Monthly, and a speaker on American Muslim issues. She lives in Houston, Texas and is currently writing a collection of short stories set in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi
Being an American Muslim woman today means having a world of opportunities and freedoms like nowhere else in the world. We have all the rights of our male counterparts, we have educational and employment options like none other, and we are still privileged as Muslim women with a sense of tradition and history of our Islamic ancestors. Whether we see that in our own lives or not, this fact is acknowledged by the highest officials of the country, including President Obama.
The Office of Public Engagement at the White House recently convened an unusual event to bring home this point to all Americans in general and Muslim women in particular: an “emerging leaders” event especially for Muslim women. Many thought it was just a public relations stunt around the much-celebrated but never acted upon Women’s History Month. In reality it was far more than that, for it was partly organized by the Muslim Public Affairs council (MPAC) whose mission is to bring Muslims into mainstream America through positive relationships and pluralism.
What did the event at the White House really hope to accomplish in terms of American Muslim women? First and foremost, it aimed to “celebrate their aspirations and honor their contributions to our nation to bring progress in our time” – some of the key elements of a female population that is involved in every aspect of its country’s progress. And we are definitely involved, there’s no doubt about it. From local politics to national diplomacy, from social services to business, from education to academic scholarship, Muslim women are a part of every field and industry in the United States. Along with their male counterparts, they are bounding forward in virtually every aspect of their lives, and collectively helping improve conditions in the country like no time in the past. Almost as affirmation of this claim, the US State Department released its 2014 digital publication American Muslims on April 1, 2014 which contains numerous examples of American Muslim women making waves in every walk of life.
Yet there is still much to be done, many women whose lives do not match those of the women portrayed in this report. Many immigrant Muslim women are disenfranchised because of language or cultural barriers. Many are discriminated against due to their hijab. Many are unable or unwilling to use their talents or skills. Worst, many are victims of domestic violence and other social ills. That is where our true contribution is: Muslims, both men and women, who do have opportunities should help those who don’t, through social services, political activism or even resource sharing.
And perhaps most importantly, through parenting. After all, what future role do the Muslim girls growing up in America today envision for themselves? They are part of the fabric of American society, culturally straddling two very different worlds, uncertain of where they fit in. Muslim parents like myself typically focus our efforts on religious teaching, as it should be. But we often forget the important role our daughters have to play in their societies when they grow up. We should not only guide them in their religious growth but also their academic and career choices. While many immigrant parents want their children to be doctors, teachers, engineers, this is no longer a fully feasible model. If Muslim women are to be active and equal participants in our nation’s progress, they should do so in a variety of fields and industries.
As parents we should be encouraging our daughters – and our sons – to study not just the sciences but the liberal arts, to enter not just professional but social and political fields as well. When we see Islamophobia rampant in our society, we should understand that our daughters are in a unique position to help improve our relationships with fellow Americans, because they alone can help break the gender-based stereotypes that fuel Islamophobia. Perhaps that’s why the White House event earlier this year included talks from Administration officials about opportunities in government, media, business, as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
We should be giving our daughters the same message at home. In the United States, you can be a good Muslim woman and still make a huge impact socially, economically and politically. The sky is the limit.