My Hijab Inspired My Feminism
I was 12 years old when I decided to wear the hijab and subsequently discovered my identity as a feminist.
It was a hard decision to wear the hijab, not because I was afraid that I would look different but because I was afraid of what others would think of me. In middle school, I was a daily target of bullying. I endured post-9/11 Islamophobia that greatly falsified the peaceful Islam I preached and experienced gender-based stereotypes that reinforced internalized sexism against Muslim women. My classmates thought I was oppressed, brainwashed, and thus incapable of pursuing educational and leadership opportunities. Though the hijab presented an additional hurdle for me to overcome as a woman of color, it didn’t stop me from leading in my community.
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Throughout my life as a Muslim Pakistani American feminist, I have gradually overcome barriers, challenged stereotypes, and become an example of intersectional feminism. My experiences overcoming gender bias helped me discover my passion for empowering women and girls and motivated me to pursue leadership positions at the University of Connecticut. At UConn, I developed a mentorship program for women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that addresses gender inequalities women in STEM face and started working at my campus Women’s Center. I also joined AAUW and was selected to serve as an AAUW National Student Advisory Council member alongside feminist activists across the country. I continue to be a vocal feminist leader in my community to fight back against harmful stereotypes about women who wear headscarves.
Many women who wear hijabs are not at all quiet or shy, a stereotype that leads people to believe we are a group of conservative women resistant to social change. Being a Muslim woman wearing the hijab and being a feminist are often seen as mutually exclusive. Hijab does not automatically mean quiet; many Muslim women want their voices and goals to be heard. My experience with wearing the hijab has led me to enlighten my community about how empowering it is for me. It makes me feel stronger and more connected to my faith. My advocacy is inspired by other women who challenge the status quo on how women who wear hijabs are supposed to act.
Muslim women like Dalia Mogahed and Malala Yousafzai are examples of Muslim feminists who defy what it means to wear a hijab. Despite having been the target of gender-based violence, Yousafzai is an advocate for women’s rights and is the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She has famously said, “We should all be feminists, because feminism is another word for equality.” In my opinion, this truly captures the goal of an anti-racist, intersectional feminist perspective and challenges traditional stereotypes and labels that Muslim women typically face.
Today’s societal value of beauty is often restricted to the visible physicality of a woman’s body. My hijab allows me to take on a nonconforming appearance that represents my own definition of beauty, feminism, freedom, and religion.
The 22-year-old me would give the 12-year-old me advice to search for what inspires her, to fall in love with it, to keep jumping over the hurdles of gender inequity, and most important, to lead. There are two things that keep me motivated to pursue leadership: my religion and my constant desire to bring change and improve the lives of women.
This post was written by AAUW National Student Advisory Council member Maha Saleem.
Her life story shatters many stereotypes about Muslim women and gives us a window into feminism around the world in the early 20th century.
These multilingual, multifaceted ladies are our future physicians, policy makers, community organizers, and leaders in business.
The SAC serves as AAUW ambassadors and advise AAUW staff on the needs of college students.