News Culture Comment Video


The Muslim women fighting back

Wednesday 22nd February 2017

The biggest victims of Islamophobic attacks are increasingly young Muslim women, so it’s no surprise they’re now leading the movements against Trump and others.

Muslim Women are leading the resistance against Islamaphobia in the age of Trump.

Photo: AFP

“Whaddup New York City?”

A roar of applause rose and filled the open space connecting Broadway and Seventh Avenue, drowning the allure of supermodels and actors overhead. In the heart of the square, on a makeshift stage at the exact spot where Mariah Carey stood only weeks ago to usher in a new year, a hero had come along.

“Cummon New York, you can do better than that...assalamu alaikum...peace be upon you all.”

This wasn’t a concert. There was no music. The thousands gathered here had one thing in common: they were all Muslims, at least for today. In the middle, standing against an American flag backdrop with a fist raised as far as she can stretch it, was Linda Sarsour. She griped the podium with both hands and stared fiercely at the crowd chanting her name.

“We will not be intimidated, we will not be silenced, and you know why?” she asks the crowd, her demeanour as Brooklyn as her accent.

“Because we’re on the right side.”

Thousands attended the I Am A Muslim Too rally in New York City.

Photo: AFP

For most American Muslims, Sarsour has become a household name. She was the head of the Arab American Association of New York who campaigned successfully for the state’s public schools to close on Muslim holidays. She campaigned for Bernie Sanders and introduced him at several rallies during the primaries. A day after Trump’s inauguration, she organised the Women’s March with two other female activists, leading a 500,000 strong rally in Washington DC. There she stood surrounded by women of colour in the shadow of Capitol Hill to proclaim, simply:

“I will not respect an administration that won an election on the backs of Muslims and black people and undocumented people and Mexicans, and people with disabilities, and on the backs of women.”

It was a Sunday afternoon in Times Square and rap mogul Russell Simmons had organised his second #IAmAMuslimToo rally, a stand against the sweeping tide of Islamophobia that was now resting atop the altars of power. The timing was poignant, as Muslim America held its breath to see if a registry, once shrugged off as outlandish campaign talk, could now become real.

“Sisters and brothers, today is the 75th anniversary of the executive order signed by Franklin Roosevelt that began the internment of Japanese-Americans,” Sarsour tells the crowd.

“I ask you New Yorkers to commit to being the true ‘Never Again’ generation.”

Sarsour had been an activist most of her professional life. She was of a generation thrust suddenly into the spotlight following the September 11 attacks and forced to fight for a place in society. In the wake of the last presidential elections, FBI figures showed a 67% spike in anti-Muslim attacks in 2015. Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab, were often the easiest targets. Last year, a 60 year old Muslim mother was stabbed to death down the street from her Queens home. In Chicago, a young woman running to catch her train was tackled by police officers, who tore her hijab off and arrested her. In the 48 hours following the election results, several women took to social media to describe being followed, sworn at and their hijabs pulled off by strangers.

LISTEN > Mohamed Hassan checks back in with Muslim Americans after the first few remarkable weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency:


Shakira Hussein, author of ‘From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11’, said there was a recent shift in public perception due largely to the visible success of women from Muslim backgrounds. What initially began as pity and sympathy for those perceived as oppressed and submissive members of the community soon turned into open hostility.

“Communities which are seen as failing are obvious targets for racism because they’re seen as losers or dragging their own communities down with them and so on. But then most vicious forms of racism are going to be directed at communities which are seen as succeeding, which are seen as getting ahead. And getting ahead is always seen as happening at someone else's expense.”

She said Muslim women who were now being seen visibly as lawyers, as politicians and public figures were breaking down those stereotypes, and that made people uncomfortable, because they now had the power to change society.

Linda Sarsour speaks onstage during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Photo: AFP

Following a vicious campaign of online attacks against Linda Sarsour and her role in the Women’s March, supporters began tweeting messages of support using the hashtag #IStandWithLinda.

She’s not the only Muslim woman on the frontlines. Across coasts, in Los Angeles, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council felt like the last 15 years had prepared her for this moment in time.

“I am personally devastated and professionally functional. I feel for my community, and half of America is as appalled as I am. This is what’s different, this isn’t just an attack on Muslims, this is an attack on our democracy. I can’t lie, I still have moments of daily panic about how we’re going to get through this, but I have to believe that we will. And I have to do everything in my limited ability to move that along.”

Lekovic called herself a “morning-after girl”. For years she was the face of the community on news shows and panel discussions in the direct aftermath of any attack that swung the spotlight back on Muslims. During the elections, she worked with grassroots organisations to get Muslims out to vote in large numbers. She started an internship program to get young Muslims into Hollywood, as writers and as actors, in order to shake out tired misrepresentations. Her work is paying off, with the likes of Aziz Ansari winning an Emmy and shows like Quantico writing a main role for a female Muslim.

She also spent more than a decade running interfaith summits to build strong bonds with Christian and Jewish leaders. For her, this work was not only the best way to fight back against divisive and aggressive government policy, it was the only way.

“To a certain degree it feels like we’re standing for each other. I’m acutely aware that standing in public like we did at the Women’s March, and at airports, these are fundamental ways of coming together, and our challenge is going even further.”

Muslim women pray before a protest in lower Manhattan against the polices of President Donald Trump on February 1, 2017 in New York City.

Photo: AFP

A Pew study in 2014 showed only 38% of Americans knew a Muslim first hand, and for Lekovic that was where the work needs to be done to dispel the fear and anxiety fuelling Islamophobia. For Muslims it’s about recognising they’re not fighting alone.

“I hope we can mobilise American Muslims to show up for other communities. There’s intersectionality there. For example, the biggest Muslim group in the country is African Americans, so when we think about Islamophobia and mass incarceration and police brutality, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Within the first two weeks of taking office, Donald Trump signed 10 executive orders, many with direct effects on marginalised groups. Among them was implementing the refugee and migrant ban on seven Muslim countries: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Yemen and Sudan. The policy blindsided US Customs, and sent airports around the world into frenzy, affecting more than 100,000 travellers. Families were torn apart at terminals, handcuffed and interrogated and left with no clear answers.

Thanks to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ban was quickly suspended by a federal judge order, a decision then backed by the Court of Appeals. As it stands the policy is being redrafted, but with the same seven countries still listed.

When news first broke of the ban, protesters rushed to fill airport terminals around the country to resist. Immigration lawyers turned up to help those stranded in transit, or with family on the other side of the TSA unable to get in, or detained and questioned despite being citizens. One of the most iconic images was a small group of Muslims performing a group prayer in the arrivals terminal of Denver International Airport. One of them was Nadeen Ibrahim, a community organiser and medical student from the tiny Colorado township of Wiggins.

“It was beautiful. A lot of our allies donated their jackets for us to pray on. The security told us to leave and to pray in the interfaith space but we stayed. It was one of the most relaxed prayers I’ve ever had. A lot of our allies crossed arms and protected us to make sure no one interrupted us.”

Ibrahim has been burning both ends over the last four weeks. She spoke at nearly every rally her city put on. She was an organiser for a 35,000 person march for Muslim rights, and a buddy system for Muslim women so they don’t have to travel alone at night in fear of assault. She speaks before the state senate at every chance she gets, to champion the concerns of her community, the rights of homeless in Denver, improving health legislation. At night she studies for her last year at University, stopping to take calls from Syrian refugees desperate to understand what the new travel ban means and what it means for their family members stuck on the other side of the world.

“It’s been very emotionally draining. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t have multiple meltdowns in the last few months. I don’t think I’ve ever had my mental health be so compromised ever in my life, but we refuse to back down. To me and a lot of people, silence is a form of acceptance, and we refuse to be silent about this. It’s crazy to think how much we have to fight for justice and civil rights to be upheld.”

Protesters at the I Am Muslim Too rally.

Photo: AFP

But there’s hope, she said, drawn from those around her. The thousands of non-Muslims who have continued to turn up to rallies, fought alongside her and called up senators to pressure them to represent all communities. As a Muslim she put her faith in god, as an American she looked to her peers.

“Another aspect is American history. We’ve gone through tough times in the past, and we’ll continue to be the resilient people that we are. I just want to know that when I look back in the future I will know that I did everything I could around this, and as long as I know that I did everything I could, to me that’s enough.”

While anti-Muslim rhetoric stretched far beyond America’s shores, the election of Trump emboldened those who shared his world view. The Quebec mosque shooter cited Donald Trump as an influence. Vocal anti-Muslim politicians Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, both fans of Trump, could become the leaders of France and the Netherlands in the next two months.

The Australian parliament is currently debating a bill that would give the immigration minister the power to revalidate visas for ‘special class of persons’ or halt travel altogether from certain countries if it was in the public interest. One Nation senator Pauline Hanson, who campaigned for a Muslim ban, posted a video of herself toasting Trump with a glass of champagne on the eve of his win. Tasmanian senator and anti-burqa campaigner Jacqui Lambie said the government should go further than Trump and deport all Muslims who supported Sharia Law.

On the panel show Q+A, activist and television personality Yassmin Abdel-Magied made headlines when she found herself head-to-head with Lambie. In an emotional response to the senator, she said she was fed up with people talking about her religion “without knowing anything about it”.

“They are willing to completely negate any of my rights as a human being, as a woman, as a person with agency, simply because they have an idea what my faith is about?”

Mehpara Khan, whose video of an Islamaphobic attack in Huntly went viral.

Photo: Supplied / Jessie Casson

Another video to go viral in recent days was that of New Zealander Mehpara Khan, who was pelted with beer cans and sworn at while driving through Huntly with friends. Shaken by the attack, Khan took out her phone and started filming, then posted it online saying “Who said Islamophobia doesn’t exist”. The video resulted in the conviction of Megan Welton who pleaded guilty to the assault.

In an interview with RNZ, Khan said she decided to film the incident because it wasn’t the first time she was the victim of a racial attack.

“The last time that this happened to me it was a couple of years ago in a McDonald’s…at the time I just remember feeling like I should’ve done something and should’ve said something and that was very much in my mind when this was happening again.”

The incident sparked debate about racism in New Zealand and calls from the Islamic Women’s Council and the Human Rights Commission for the police to start collecting statistics on hate crimes, something the police commissioner was now considering. Khan said it was important to her the conversation was now happening not just within the Muslim community, but within New Zealand as a whole.

Join the discussion »

“"Nothing says women’s liberation like sharia law activists in hijabs"” — Chris Hall

Login to post a comment

Login or Signup


In accordance with our Comments Policy, all comments are moderated before they appear on the site. This happens 7am to 7pm each weekday.

Mohamed Hassan is an Auckland-based journalist for RNZ.
Join the discussion

Discuss, comment and read comments about this article.