[News] The Hoodie & The Hijab — Our Common Struggle for Human Rights

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     The Hoodie & The Hijab — Our Common Struggle for Human Rights

Social Justice
March 25, 2012

The Hoodie & The Hijab — Our Common Struggle for Human Rights

Written by: RoyaAziz

s a good friend prepares to put together a book 
on the topic of hijab in America I referred her 
to an incident during then-Senator Barack Obama’s 
televised presidential campaign rally in Detroit 
when two hijabis were barred from sitting behind 
him. The event occurred at a time when there was 
close scrutiny of Obama’s identity: the phonetic 
similarity to Osama, his very Arab middle name, 
Hussein, and, of course, the rumors that he was 
actually a practicing Muslim, not that there was 
anything wrong with that, to borrow the 
inappropriate disclaimer. Obama apologized to the 
women and vowed to fight discrimination of this 
sort. To many American Muslims it was perplexing 
because much of the racism directed at Obama at 
the time was being couched in anti-Muslim bias. 
At that moment he was not Obama the inspiring 
candidate, but Obama the typical American who showed his own anti-Muslim bias.

In the wake of 9/11, American Muslims took to 
Islamophobia with some borrowed humor: ‘driving 
while black’ became ‘flying while Muslim.’ And 
so, as it is with wearing a hoodie, wearing a 
hijab elicits similar prejudices, as Geraldo 
Rivera reminded us during his TV appearance last 
week. In the same commentary where he claims 
Trayvon Martin was killed because of his 
sweatshirt, Rivera cites Juan Williams’ comments 
about being scared when he sees Muslims in 
religious garb at the airport (one presumes hijab 
is among the articles of clothing that terrify 
Williams). Rivera writes that Williams was 
copping to his fears, but it was a cowardly cover 
— if a black man like Williams, whom Rivera 
pointedly refers to as “among America’s sharpest 
commentators” can say he’s scared of Muslim 
women, it should be valid for him to say that a 
black kid in a hoodie had it coming. The 
implications of his comparison are unsettling.

While anti-Muslim bias is nowhere near on the 
same level as the racism encountered by 
generations of black Americans, for American 
Muslims there are some clear parallels. My veiled 
friends are often regarded with looks of 
confusion, disgust and/or plain fear. As a former 
hijabi, I know the stares. Shaima Alawadi, who 
wore a headscarf, died Saturday after being 
brutally beaten with a tire iron in her own home, 
ostensibly because she was Muslim and Arab, which 
are often erroneously conflated to be one and the 
same. She was just 32 and a mother of five. The 
Southern Poverty Law Center details similar hate 
incidents against Muslims dating between 2001-2011.

Interestingly, one of America’s earliest 
introductions to Islam came from the Nation of 
Islam. This introduction was accompanied by 
American fears of Black Muslim militancy. Decades 
later, public awareness of Islam has expanded 
beyond the NOI, but the associations and fear of 
violence remain. For Muslims — converts, 
immigrants and generations born here, Latinos, 
Asians, whites and others — Muhammad Ali and 
Malcolm X are among our few mainstream 
representatives, but their black identity and 
struggle for civil rights is more established 
than their identity as Muslims. When Yassin Bey 
(Mos Def) raps “Black like the veil that the 
Muslimina wear 
 black like the slave ship belly 
that brought us here,” young American Muslims 
identify with the lyrics. We see a blending of 
Muslim identity with American history, but these 
representations are not quite cultural 
mainstream. Islam is primarily associated with 
Muslims outside of America, inspiring images of 
foreigners from strange lands, which in turn 
shaped perceptions of Muslims in America. Edward 
Said in his 1997 edition of Covering Islam 
details how U.S. media representations of Muslims 
contributed to negative public perceptions in the 
years before September 11. As DoNY contributor 
Bilen Misfen recently wrote, a large part of the 
problem is that a culture of fear continues to be 
reinforced by the media, contributing to the 
presumptions of guilt and suspicions, of black 
people as criminals and American Muslims as terrorists.

The hoodie and hijab also converge with the issue 
of civil rights. My generation was taught in 
American schools about melting pots. For a girl 
whose family migrated from xenophobic Germany to 
California in 1989, it was the kind of message 
that shaped my myth of America. Yet today 
American Muslims do not contend with Islamophobia 
alone, but with the very real possibility that a 
donation to a charity or a monitored phone call 
could warrant “material support” for terrorism. 
The surveillance of Muslim-owned restaurants by 
the NYPD and FBI programs that will be 
declassified in the distant future recall the era 
of COINTELPRO. Civil rights attacks are sometimes 
framed as controversies. They are not 
controversies — they are violations that apply to 
everyone, Muslim or not — and they’re a reminder 
of the scary powers of law enforcement when certain communities are targeted.

In the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, 
Shaima Alawadi and others like them, I recall 
Malcolm X’s words: we don’t face a black problem, 
a religious problem, or even an American problem — it’s a human problem.

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