At the start of each new school year, there was something I could always count on. On the first day of school, during the role call, as my teachers went through all the Johnsons and Jacksons, stumbled over a few Quays and unique accents (“it’s La’Tasha, not Latasha”), I could expect to hear this:
“Shu … Shu-he-duh, Muh-ham-med?”
Like many Black students, I had become accustomed to teachers mispronouncing my name for at least the first week or so of school. Adding to this, was also my last name. “How do you say your last name, Moo-hamma?” I remember being asked by a classmate. It was instances like this I had come to expect. This was usually followed by: “Are you Mooz-lum?”, “Do you believe in Jesus?”, “Why does your mom wear that on her head?”, “You believe in Ola (Allah)?”, etc. But after a couple probes and bean pie jokes at the lunchroom table, it was all good.
Also, this was balanced out by the fact that I grew up in a city with a large African-American Muslim community and history. Where it’s not uncommon to see Black women wearing head scarves or fully covered wearing a niqab (face veil) and jilbab (over garment), or to see men in traditional throbes and kufis. Just about everyone had at least one person in their family that was Muslim or maybe looked like it (i.e: the infamous Freeway beard). And you can find Muslim businesses and vendors in every corner of the city. That’s just Philly for ya. The Faith is embedded into the city’s culture, and for me it was always clear that Islam was very much a part of Black culture and history.
Yet, I don’t see this reflected in the media, academic discourse or Black cultural and entertainment outlets. As Arielle Loren pointed out in an recent article, our stories are often told from a Christian perspective. In addition, Islam has been largely portrayed as men being oppressive to women. You don’t find too many positives stories relating to Muslim women unless it falls under American ideas of liberation. And equally, if not more sparse, are the perspectives and stories of Black women within this religious community.
Through this article series, I hope to highlight the perspectives of positive, young African-American Muslim women and shed light on their lifestyles and experiences.They are professionals: doctors, hair stylists, teachers, and more. They are some of the most talented, fashionable and ambitious women I know. They are mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. Unique, diverse and they have a voice. A voice that is often missing.
Malikah X Saunders, Nurse, 26
“My family thought I was crazy when I accepted Islam. I grew up in the Baptist church. My father was a Pastor and I was in the choir, Bible Study–the whole nine. When I went to school, I took a course on Malcolm X and from there my interest grew. The belief in One God, the principles, it just all clicked to me. I think there is an idea that African-American should equal Christian, and it’s not necessarily true. Most of our ancestors were Muslim when they came to this country. Sometimes I do wonder why that’s not reflected in popular culture, but I guess it takes time.”
Amirah Al-Nisa, Student, 22
“When I see the portrayal of Islam in the news and the stereotypes that are being perpetuated, I try not to let it bother me because I know it’s not true. I was raised Muslim. My mother is a strong, beautiful Black women and I grew up with two loving parents that nurtured me into the person I am today. I’ve never looked at being Muslim as weird, it’s who I am. Some people may try to label it in a negative way, but the best way to negate that is being a good representation of what you believe in.”
Jameelah Muhammad, Entrepreneur, 28
“When a lot of people think of Muslim women, they think oppressed or very submissive, but that’s not what I’ve experienced. That is a reality in some countries and cultures, but that has more to do with cultural traditions than the religion itself. As a young Black woman, Islam has taught me to love and respect myself, to respects others, to be charitable and keep God at the center of my life. I wish there were more stories like mine put out there.”
Next, in part 2, the dress code, the significance, and their views.