In research studies, rarely have Muslim Americans been asked how prevailing attitudes toward Islam affect their identity and shape their worldview. So Elsadig Elsheikh and Basima Sisemore, two UC Berkeley researchers, decided to conduct a national survey of “people living with Islamophobia, documenting their collective experiences and registering their voices.” Their findings are in the recent report “Islamophobia Through the Eyes of Muslims.”
About 3.45 million Muslims reside in the United States. The Bay Area has the largest concentration of Muslims, totaling 250,000 people or about 3.5% of the area’s population. Explaining why the survey was critical, Elsheikh said prejudice and discimination against Muslims in the United States is not well understood. “Islamophobia has a long history. It did not emerge after 9/11, but 9/11 amplified it,” he said.
For Sisemore, it was unsettling to learn from the survey that Islamophobia affects Muslim American women more than Muslim American men.
The study from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute surveyed 1,123 Muslims living and working in the United States. Over 60% of the respondents were immigrants and most were college graduates who spoke English fluently. While 42 states were represented in the survey, almost a third of the participants came from California.
Results indicate most Muslims in America believe women are more at risk of experiencing Islamophobia than any other group. That stands to reason as Muslim women, particularly those who wear the hijab (a headscarf covering hair and neck) or niqab (covering head and face but not the eyes), are seen more obviously as practitioners of the Islamic faith.
Case in point: Even while President Donald Trump criticized the four vocal women Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives — the “Squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — he focused much of his Islamophobic ire on Ilhan Omar, the hijab-wearing, Somali-born Muslim lawmaker.
“Muslim women are seen as belonging to an external or opposing culture, which is to say, Islam or the East, and the prevailing narrative is that Islam is at odds with Western ideals and democratic values,” said Sisemore.
The study revealed Islamophobia makes it difficult for Muslims, especially Muslim women, to build community. More women (82%) admitted feeling inhibited than men (76.4%) when asked about forming friendships and community ties. Notably, 68.8% of women participants reported Islamophobia prevents them from building social connections with other U.S. Muslims.
Nine out of 10 women surveyed admitted to censoring their speech or actions for fear of how people might respond or react to them. “They try to stay away from speaking their minds when it comes to general issues of society,” dreading it could lead to expressions of hate or violence, said Elsheikh.
One of the drivers of Islamophobia, according to both El Sheikh and Sisemore, is the media’s portrayal of Muslim women as downtrodden and needing to be saved by Western culture and ideals.
Sisemore pinned this attitude on “liberal and imperialist feminism” — an extension of Western imperialist ideology — that feeds into a false and dangerous narrative of Muslim women in need of saving from violent and oppressive Muslim men. This feminist narrative has helped politicians garner public support to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2001, for example, the Bush administration claimed the war on terror waged in Afghanistan was “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
“Even prior to the declaration of the War on Terror, the veil had come to signify tyranny, and conversely, unveiling had become a symbol of freedom and democracy,” wrote Janine Rich, a University of San Francisco researcher in a paper titled “’Saving’ Muslim Women: Feminism, U.S Policy and the War on Terror.” According to Rich, within this construction of Muslim women as passive victims, there is no room for a critical examination of reason and context.
Both Elsheikh and Sisemore passionately declaimed the narrative of “white saviorism” and false generalizations about women’s roles in Islamic societies.
It is true that in some countries women must wear head coverings or need to be chaperoned outside the house. And it is also true that in Afghanistan, women are being prevented from working, and the Taliban is brutally cracking down on women’s protests. However, Sisemore argued the media tend to emphasize these stories. “I think part of the issue is that the world needs to look like the United States,” she said.
Sisemore acknowledged the media has a responsibility to uplift the voices of the marginalized, but portrayals of Muslims in the media tend to highlight war, violence, poverty and struggle. She noted it’s not accurate to always present the most extreme cases, which then becomes the whole truth for many readers.
To her point, the countries with the largest Muslim populations — Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh — all have elected women prime ministers, while the United States is yet to elect a woman as president. The current prime minister of Bangladesh is Sheikh Hasina, a 74-year-old woman who has been in office since 2009.
Elsheikh remarked that in Afghanistan before the invasion of the Soviets and the intervention of the United States with the mujahideen, women held several important positions in government. He added that he comes from a Muslim country in the heart of Africa, and “our women led the struggle against dictatorship, against invasion. So I really reject completely this idea that Muslim women are oppressed in Islamic societies. There are people oppressed in Western democracies and women in particular. Today we see how Texas tried to strip away the right of women to have ownership of her body.” How do we contextualize that, El Sheikh asked?
The survey illuminated how Islamophobia creates rigid boundaries for the community. The fact that Muslim women are often the primary targets of Islamophobic incidents (74.3% of the time) should be a matter of concern for all of us. Ironically, Islamophobia undermines and weakens U.S. Muslim women’s rights, the very reason used to condemn Islamic societies.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, author and director of programs at Ethnic Media Services. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.