Women in Hijabs Aren’t Your Enemy
You know who sucks? Laura Loomer, who I didn’t know existed before Nov. 1. The morning after the terrorist attack in New York City on Oct. 31, the woman I will now call I Don’t Know Her (thank you forever for that gem, Mariah Carey) tweeted this:
WHOA, look at those two sinister, threatening women! In their athleisure and their floral prints and their hijabs! Really “rubbing it in” everyone’s faces in a crosswalk, surrounded by other people similarly walking. Really prolonging the attack with their very existence. Because that’s what it really comes down to, right? It doesn’t matter what their ethnicities are, or their jobs, or even their names. To people like I Don’t Know Her, these women wearing headscarves aren’t practicing their religion in as mundane of a way as someone else—like a white Christian wearing a cross. They’re not like us! No, they have transformed themselves into weapons and enemies because of radical Islamic terror, yada yada yada. Women of other religions also cover their hair, but we all know that fact doesn’t matter one bit to someone as racist and ignorant and bigoted as the author of that tweet. She has an agenda, and it is one of hate and objectification, and those thousands of people who liked and retweeted her crap have already been infected with her toxicity.
But you, dear reader! You do not have to be that much of a jerk. Perhaps you’ve never seen a woman wearing a hijab before, because they rarely exist in television or in film in roles that aren’t, you know, the exact same terrorists that Loomer assumes those women are. There was severe underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Muslim women in pop culture already, and then the white-nationalist fervor of the 2016 election and our current political nightmare began, and projects that had been previously announced—like a TV deal between religious scholar and public figure Reza Aslan and ABC, and a sitcom on FOX about a Middle Eastern teenage boy, starring Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad—quietly went away.
But the exceptionally overwhelming majority of women who wear hijabs are, obviously, not terrorists. And although Muslim females are difficult to find on television, there are three women who defy every stereotype you can think of, and with whom you need to become acquainted: the fictional Shama Biswas, a.k.a. Trenton, on Mr. Robot; season six Great British Bake Off champion Nadiya Hussain; and current season 16 Project Runway competitor Ayana Ife.
Each of these women wears the headscarf; each of them dresses modestly (keep your thoughts to yourself, Mayim Balik); and otherwise they have every little in common with each other.
Trenton is a hacker, a Brooklynite, and the daughter of Iranian immigrants who joins fsociety because of her disgust with how the American capitalist system—with its perpetual debt, promised as the American Dream—has taken advantage of her parents. She was a low-key sarcastic presence in the first and second seasons of Mr. Robot, and her characterization by Indian-American actress Sunita Mani was quietly self-assured. No, Mani wasn’t playing a character of her actual racial background, but a brown person playing a brown person? That’s a small victory that I’ll gladly accept.
Currently on TV is Ayana Ife, who is one of the final five contestants on this season of Lifetime’s Project Runway. When Ife, an African-American Muslim woman, was cast, the show kept hammering home her “modest” aesthetic, which meant that she was often sending layered looks, with dresses, pants, and full-coverage items, down the runway. It felt like the show didn’t know how else to characterize her aside from “Muslim”—but then she started winning. With a series of high-impact, staggeringly precise looks, like a gorgeous ballgown made out of unusual recycled materials; a wonderfully grandiose pink concoction that looks like an exploded cupcake; and a glittery gunmetal sheath that looks straight out of Star Wars, Ayana has been getting more screentime as she successfully adapts her religious point of view to her fashion output.
She’s also witty, honest, and a hard worker, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she makes it to Fashion Week so we can see a full collection from her.
And then there’s Nadiya, who may be one of my favorite people on the planet. In the early episodes of the sixth season of the Great British Bake Off, she kept her head down and presented bakes with “ethnic” flavors—green cardamom, coconut, fennel, caraway—that steadily won over the more traditional palates of judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Her self-confidence grew with each episode, and her hilarious facial expressions—shock, delight, disgust—are forever gif-able.
She had a charming, easy way with Paul, who normally intimidates other contestants, and her incorporation of her Bangladeshi heritage into her bakes set her apart. During the past year, when the world feels particularly terrible, I’ll cue up Nadiya’s season of GBBO on Netflix and run the whole thing through. By the end, when Nadiya says “I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘Maybe.’ I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can, and I will,” I’m always in tears. She is a goddamn treasure to us all.
You know what’s crazy? It’s almost as if Muslim women are all individual people with their own personalized likes, dislikes, desires, hopes, and dreams! People like I Don’t Know Her can’t see that, but that doesn’t mean pop culture should have fewer presentations of Muslim women—exactly the opposite. In late October, Iranian-American actress Tala Ashe joined the cast of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Also last month, it was announced that ABC is working on a sitcom about a Middle Eastern family of superheroes, from writers and executive producers Bassem Youssef and Larry Wilmore. Maybe the women of that family will wear hijabs, and maybe they won’t. Maybe, in combination with the comic book hero Ms. Marvel/Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan, these super-powerful brown women are starting a trend of their own. But no matter what, they’re still people, goddammit, and Laura Loomer’s shitty takes won’t change that.
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