For Muslim Women in Minnesota, Complex Identities

By Emily Dussault

emilydussault200hWhat does it mean to be a feminist? What does it mean to be a Muslim woman in Minnesota? The challenges and experiences of two local Muslim women give us an inside look into the complex identities of this growing Minnesota population. This piece originally aired March 17 on KFAI FM as part of its series “Muslims in Minnesota.” Click here to download the audio version.

Defining feminism can be tricky. It is a messy, complicated question with countless possible answers. “The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men” is how the dictionary defines it. But how do you decide what is equal when something can’t be quantified? And what’s equal about a culture that requires women to cover themselves in scarves? In this case, the dictionary just doesn’t do the trick.

I sat down with two women who challenged my ideas about what feminism is really about.

“I’ve been living in America for over 20 years,” said Rukhsana Ghouse. “I’m a stay at home mom, and besides trying to nurture my family, I like to take part in community activism.”

Rukhsana Ghouse photo courtesy KFAI
Rukhsana Ghouse is a stay-at-home mom and community activist. Photo courtesy KFAI

“I remember in 4th grade, I wasn’t covering in school, but we had class pictures to take,” said Naheeda Hirji-Walji, who works in Minneapolis public schools through an arts outreach program called Project Success. “I thought, I’m covering everywhere but school, so I can take this picture without covering, and then I don’t wanna give it to anybody. Because half of the people around me see me covered. So that was the first time I brought a scarf to school, and I quickly put it on for the picture and then took it off. And that was the first time people were like, Oh my God, Naheeda covered her hair, or, did you see what Naheeda put on her head.”

I have to admit that before these conversations, I had a hard time understanding how a Muslim woman could cover her hair and be empowered at the same time. But Rukhsana explained an element of covering that I had not considered.

“Only about I’d say ten years, or less, I’ve been covering my head with a hijab,” Ghouse said. “That was totally out of choice. I felt like, by covering, women become liberated in a sense, because then we’re judged for our minds and what we do as people rather than for our beauty or what God may have given us as a body.”

“When you work in a school, you think back to your time (in school), and definitely at that time I didn’t realize it, but I was actually very empowered in the sense that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I looked like,” said Hirji-Walji. “I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about dating. I just didn’t, because that wasn’t a part of being Muslim. So at that age, I spent a lot of time thinking about school. I didn’t realize it, but I think that helped me through that time period, being able to stay true to who I was.”

My little sister is in high school, and I worry about the images and ideas in the media that are influencing her and her friends, Bratz dolls and young pop stars seem to be playing into the growing trend of over-sexualized young girls. Although I don’t think religion is the only way to solve this problem, it was interesting to hear from a woman who had avoided all of those influences. It was a reminder that it is possible for a girl to grow up into a strong person no matter what is going on around her.

I asked Rukhsana and Naheeda if they considered themselves feminists.

“That’s a tough question,” Ghouse said, “because I constantly think about the definition of feminism. So I guess my answer to that would be depending on your definition of feminism. I definitely feel that women should be treated with respect and women should be treated equally. You know, humanity should be treated equally. If that makes me a feminist, then yes.”

“I believe that, as a Muslim woman, God has already given me those rights, to be equal to a man,” Hirji-Walji said. “We’re equal in the eyes of God, except we are different. Men are different from women, we have different roles in life. As far as basic human rights and courtesy is concerned, in that sense, I guess you could call me a feminist, in the sense that I do demand respect. I’m not going to be one of those women who is going to be dictated to by men. That has crept into a lot of cultures. It has nothing to do with any particular religion, Islam or otherwise. It’s just crept in through culture, and it’s not right.”

That was one of the big points that both of the women pressed. The oppression of women is not caused by a religion. It is caused by individual people. Women have been oppressed throughout history in many different places and by cultures practicing many different religions. And although they are not in the majority here in Minnesota, Naheeda and Rukhsana both expressed gratitude for the freedoms they have in America.

“I have to say, one of the best blends is being Muslim, being a woman, and living in America,” Hirji-Walji said. “I mean, those three things together–that’s one of the best ways to be an empowered woman. I got lucky, I was born here. There’s a lot of empowerment that comes with being an American woman. Being a Muslim woman, for me in a lot of ways has just added to that empowerment.”

One of the more surprising things Rukhsana told me is that she chooses not to shake hands with men.

“It became more of a problem when I started to become more politically active and do different kind of volunteer jobs,” Ghouse said. “When you first meet some man and they stretch out their hand in a very friendly way to shake your hand and you feel like you’re snubbing them when you don’t stretch your hand out. I immediately try to remember to put a smile on my face and I’ll tell them, please don’t take this personally, but as Muslim woman I can’t shake hands with men, but you know, not to take offense at it. It’s kind of a little awkward situation as soon as you meet a person, you have to explain, OK this is my faith, I can’t do this with you.”

There is such a fear of being different or ostracized in our society that we usually try to hide the thing that makes us stand out, especially around strangers. And Rukhsana stands up for her beliefs everyday, and with every person she comes into contact with.

I don’t know whose definition of feminism is the right one. I do not cover my hair, and I feel empowered. Naheeda and Rukhsana do, and they feel empowered. It occurred to me that perhaps the “right” definition isn’t what we should be looking for. Women show strength through diversity, and through coming together with different voices to make one. We may not all make the same choices, but we all agree that we should have them.

Emily Dussault has been a reporter and news host at KFAI Radio, 90.3 FM in Minneapolis and 106.7 FM in St. Paul, for almost two years.  She lives in Minneapolis and works as an assistant manager at a bookstore in Roseville. Her piece “Empowered Muslim Women” aired on KFAI as part of the station’s special series of stories on Muslims in Minnesota. KFAI said the series aimed to “illuminate the lives of Minnesota’s Muslims and provide listeners greater understanding of the state’s wide variety of Muslim residents.”  The series was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York through a partnership with the University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies.

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3 thoughts on “For Muslim Women in Minnesota, Complex Identities”

  1. In Minnesota, away from the cultural influences of their lands of origin, Muslims have an excellent opportunity to take Islam and implement it the way it should be implemented. One aspect of this is empowering women. I hope Muslim women in the US can teach their sisters abroad how to reclaim their God-given rights and look at Islam as liberation, not restraint.

  2. It’s because of ignorance, of both men & women and especially women
    and cultural bad habits.
    and America is not the only place where women are taking their destinies by hand, even in some arab/muslim countries like here in algeria, and that’s thanks to education (both secular and good religious educations) and awareness.
    so the next time some “know it all” pretenders imam who’s real knowledge is below zero preach on you some distorted old and false concepts you can send him away with some solid arguments.
    but there is much to do allot of people don’t know their duty and talk too much about rights.

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