This question was posed to me by a middle-aged Arab-Moroccan woman whose full identity I will not disclose. This is not due to the sheer abundance of my benevolence or an attempt to role play the good Samaritan. I simply do not think those details will impact the wider message this piece is trying to communicate.
It is very rare that the specific ways in which anti-blackness is experienced by a non-hijabi black female Muslim is explored in depth within conversations surrounding anti blackness within Muslim communities. Apart from combatting the gendered, orientalist assumption surrounding – ‘The oppressed third world Muslim woman’ (Abu‐Lughod,2002) and the Islamophobic hatred incited on my hijabi sisters- the black Muslim female experience, particularly that of the non-hijabi is rarely looked at with enough depth, within wider discussions of not only what it means to be a Muslim woman but also a black Muslim woman. I understand that certain conversations are more urgent than others, due to the magnitude of the threat and physical violence that arises simply from being a visible Muslim woman. However, it is also important to turn to how the dominating effect of such discussions not only sideline, but essentially silence other experiences of being a Muslim woman.
Met with a profound level confusion, upon hearing what appeared to be a question but also an unprovoked interrogation, I was unable to give a response other than ‘Yes I do!?’ Aside from completely ignoring personal boundaries, what shocked me more was the entitled way in which she spat the question – followed by the shock and disbelief of me taking the affirmative. She simply would not allow me to speak the truth. As already discussed by others in various other discussions on anti-blackness within the Muslim community, the entitlement to the religion and by extension what it means to be a Muslim, is rooted in Arab- supremacy; the idea that because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was of Arab lineage and the Holy Quran was sent down in the Arabic language, being Arab somehow, by default, makes you a ‘better’ representative of the religion. This is despite the Prophet (PBUH), in his farewell pilgrimage, dispelling this ignorance and affirming the equality of all Muslims regardless of language, color, race and ethnicity. Although this is a fact in principle, in practice it is important to understand the social stratification that exists within Muslim communities, particularly in the west and the role that anti-blackness plays within existing hierarchies. The aim of this piece however is not to repeat points that have been exhausted on racism and more specifically anti-blackness within Muslim communities more generally, but to highlight the specific way in which I experienced anti-blackness from my subject position as a non- hijabi black Muslim woman.
Firstly, the assumption that the physical expression of my individual form of blackness, (i.e. short afro, hoop earrings and a dark brown lipstick that accentuates my melanin) coupled with my not wearing a headscarf seemed for this woman to have played a part in her disbelief that I carry out the fourth pillar of Islam. That one must look and act a certain way to perform religious duties that is ultimately between God and the individual. With reflection, I realized that this statement would make one digress into the factual limitations of her statement and why this is ignorant and disappointing at her senior age. Nevertheless, I am more interested in how I felt in this moment and as with others like myself, the fact that I was missing the tools of language to oppose the invalidity of her question. In Foucauldian terms, my inability to respond adequately for me stemmed from how I- as the subject – was a direct creation of an existing discourse and the disciplinary power discourses hold in terms of categorizing people into hierarchies of what is considered ‘normal’(Foucault,1973). As the subject I was unable to communicate outside of the discourse in a meaningful way, due to a pre-existing notion or idea of what a Muslim woman who fasts should look like. The subjectivization continued when she confidently went onto explain what Iftar and Suhoor was.
Also, for me this incident highlighted how this specific form of anti-blackness was further propelled by the ignorance of the intersectional female Muslim experience. This arises from the mental compartmentalization of various intersecting identities and the inability to see how categories of female, black and non hijabi Muslim can coexist and blend together meaningfully. As Audre Lorde famously stated there is no hierarchy of oppression(Lorde,1983) – one aspect of a person’s identity whether its race, gender, disability, class or sexuality does not make the other more or less important(Lorde,1983).
How one is impacted by gender as a black woman is just as important as how racism is experienced as a black Muslim woman. In many ways the need to compartmentalize various identity markers and how they should appear in society, stems from the institutionalized rejection of difference which has been a necessity across the history of capitalism and the maintenance of the profit economy(Lorde,1984). There is a need for a creation of a surplus or an extra group as the ‘other’(Lorde,1984). The silencing of different experiences of being Muslim, is a direct result of a need to maintain the status quo. The notion of an institutionalised rejection of difference was used by Audre Lorde to argue that a global brand of feminism cannot exist, because traditionally what she refers to as the women’s movement often lead by white women have ignored their inbuilt privilege of whiteness within scholarship and movement by defining the category ‘woman’ in terms of their experiences alone(Lorde,1984). Like the women’s movement in the past and present, conversations on the black female experience(s) within the Muslim communities are often centered around ‘So how do we eliminate these differences? How do we ensure that equality is upheld? One suggestion, as Audre Lorde argues is that the issue does not lie in the differences themselves, but the refusal to recognize those differences and the distortions that result from misnaming them(Lorde,1984). Eluding to a single or ‘universal’ experience of not only being a Muslim but a black Muslim woman, is a form of erasure and reflects that the dominant voices within Muslim communities, are insistent on practicing an institutionalized rejection of difference. This stems from the refusal to see how the category of religion alone is not enough to understand someone’s experience of being Muslim. Instead, it is a necessity to see how race, gender and other forms of identification shapes and impacts our/my subject position as a black non- hijabi Muslim woman.
In my humble opinion, within most discussions, when a member of a wider social group, points to a lived experience that can be classed as oppressive, the listener often minimizes the impact(s) of their experiences or starts talking about solutions like it’s a prep meeting for the next group presentation. Empiricism and the insistence for the popular opinion to constantly demand ‘evidence’ to ‘claims’ regarding the lived experiences of oppression(s) of different kinds is colonial in nature and very much oppressive. In my conversations and everyday living, I am more interested in the meanings and interpretations of experiences and what this means for the collective – and truly understanding the causes and effects in every possible way (I absolutely do not mean cause and effect used within positivist methodology as this is the very tradition I am criticizing, but cause and effect in their actual meaning and definition).
As the amazing black actress, producer and director Gabrielle Union stated during her recent appearance on the daytime show ‘The Real’- ‘we are no longer going to be asking for a seat in the table, we will create our own table.’ Until then, I will rock my premature wonderful afro and hoop earrings.
Abu‐Lughod, L., 2002. Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others. American anthropologist, 104(3), pp.783-790.
Foucault, Michel (2002) The order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences . London. Routledge.
Lorde, A., 1983. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Bulletin: Homophobia and education, 14(3/4), p.9.
Lorde, A., 1984. ‘’ Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’’ in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 114-123.
About the writer:
Mariam is a freelance writer, poet and an overall creative Spirit. Her day time job is working as a Student mentor supporting university students across London who are on the Autism Spectrum, and is involved in other grassroots work noting the experiences of marginalised groups who identify as neurodivergent. She has a B.A.(Hons.) in International Relations from SOAS University of London, as well as currently completing an Msc in Psychology. Her main goal within the next couple of years is to write full-time, whilst travelling. You can follow her writing/poetry page on instagram at: i_mariam_ali, and email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.