Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Who You Are

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Things have been fairly quiet on the feminist front lately—at least on my feminist front. I haven’t written a post for Femagination for a week.  But that’s partly because there hasn’t been much to inspire me. And frankly I’ve been more focused on my journey as a new Muslim. (If you’re curious about that, check out I, Muslimah.)

The Burqa Controversy

That doesn’t mean that my being a Muslim has nothing to do with feminism. On the contrary. As a Muslim woman, I’ve been very aware of the controversy about the recent ban in France on the burqa. I don’t wear the burqa and can’t imagine ever wearing one, but I’m solidly on the side of a woman’s right to wear one. I think those who claim that it is a sign of oppression (and that includes some feminists) need to talk to the women who wear them, especially in the West. If they’re so worried about Muslim women’s welfare, shouldn’t they be asking the women what they need and want?

People who are concerned about terrorism are somehow reassured that they will be safer if Muslim women’s faces are clearly visible. What does showing one’s face prove? And what are they going to ban next? If they start banning the abaya (a long over-dress) or the jilbab (a long overcoat), shouldn’t they also ban all long coats, dresses and skirts? But of course they won’t do that, because it’s only Muslim clothing that is threatening. Is it just me, or does anyone else see that as profiling?

Racial Profiling

That’s what is surely going to happen in Arizona when its new immigration laws take effect. Hispanics will be targeted as “suspicious” and more likely to be illegal. No matter that they may have lived in Arizona longer than most of the white population. It will be interesting to see the statistics after these laws have been in place for awhile. Anyone who is “foreign-looking” (meaning not white) is either a terrorist or an alien (hence the name “alien”?).

I’m sick of the white people in this country acting as if they’re the only ones who belong here. That’s just ludicrous. With the exception of Native Americans, we’re all immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants. That’s hardly a new observation, but some people can’t seem to get it through their thick skulls. You’re an American if a) you were born here, or b) you live here. (Technically you’re not an “official” American unless you have American citizenship, but I’d argue that you can live here long enough without becoming a citizen that you start identifying as American.)

I’m in a somewhat unique position of not looking like a “typical” Muslim. I’m fair and have blonde hair and blue eyes (plus I don’t have an accent). Even when I’m wearing a hijab (head scarf), I’ve had people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, ask if I’m a Muslim. They’re profiling, too. But the Muslims who find out that I’m one of them are delighted, while non-Muslims are mostly just surprised. I suppose one reason why I wear the hijab is that it is harder for me to be recognized as a Muslim without it.

Gender Profiling

But there’s another kind of profiling that goes on largely unnoticed: when all women are put into a box of shared(usually negative) characteristics. I noticed this especially after President Obama appeared on “The View,” which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is a panel of five women who discuss issues of the day. Apparently various pundits and newscasters made the comment that it was an undignified thing for him to do. And why is that? If the panel had been made up of men, would they have said the same? Of course not. But “The View” isn’t taken seriously merely because it showcases the views of…gasp!…women! The “respected” shows are those which are made up of all or primarily men. If it’s all women, or one woman alone, it’s not taken seriously. (Even “The Oprah Winfrey Show” is mostly seen as a “feel good” rather than a politically important show.)

Almost everything is taken more seriously if a man says it. I think it’s  interesting that the main parenting expert of the 20th century was a man: Dr. Benjamin Spock. I’m not saying that he didn’t have good advice—he practically revolutionized the way we see children and parenting. And to his credit, he always insisted that parents were the real experts about their own children. That didn’t stop generations of mothers from being afraid to make a move without consulting his book first, however. Would people have followed his advice so devoutly if he’d been a woman? I don’t think so.

Taking Yourself Seriously

I have trouble taking myself as seriously as I would like. I don’t present myself as authoritatively as a man would. I hesitate to contradict men, let alone tell them off. For example, by the time I had was in labor with my fourth baby, I knew my body’s signals better than anyone. When I tried to tell the doctor that I was ready to deliver, he wouldn’t listen to me. He decided to wait a while longer. And of course I ended up being whooshed down the corridor to the delivery room where I delivered a few minutes later. I was the expert, not the doctor, but I didn’t have the guts to tell him that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

One reason why being a Muslim, and especially a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, appeals to me is because I have to be prepared to present myself as an expert about my own beliefs. I don’t have to be a sheik or a scholar to defend Islam as far as I understand it. I have the right, the knowledge and the ability to stand up for myself. It’s a good lesson to learn.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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