We live in volatile times where any discussion on diversity is encouraged, but the climate changes when the topic is Muslim women. Muslims have come to be at the forefront of controversy around the world post-9/11. Whether it’s imposing a travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries or penalising the wearing of hijab in offices and schools, Muslims are being ostracised — and have been for 16 years — with no end in sight, especially in Donald Trump’s America.
In Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh explores the political and personal shifts that have taken place in the years after 9/11. The book shares an insight into the demographic least accounted for — Muslim women, particularly those who live in the polarised West. The memoir starts where most stories for this era’s Muslims begin: Sept 11, 2001, the day when confusion and anger towards Muslims began to prevail, when Muslims became prominent and Islam became a very visible faith despite already having been one of the largest religions in the world. Al-Khatahtbeh narrates the incidents as a fourth-grade student supposed to have her class picture taken that day. The sessions were abruptly cancelled, and she was left devastated and confused by the emotions arising from an event that she didn’t quite understand. This need to understand the after-effects of the tragedy and to learn to educate others while looking for answers as a Muslim woman was the catalyst that brought about her website, Muslim Girl.
The tides of change grew stronger for Al-Khatahtbeh and established her as the personality she is known as now. During the immense Islamophobia that resulted in the wake of 9/11, her father decided to uproot his American-born and raised children and return to Jordan. It turned out to be an immersive experience that opened Al-Khatahtbeh to her roots and provided a view into the worlds of a diverse range of Muslim women. It was after this year in Jordan that Al-Khatahtbeh donned the hijab. Her world view changed, and how the world would view her would be how the world viewed many Muslims: with trepidation. A struggle to find worth and acceptance plagued her for the better part of her remaining school years, when her academics were challenged and regressed because of her teachers’ inability to accept her as part of the larger narrative. It was ‘you Muslims versus us.’ Al-Khatahtbeh launched her website during this time when she was still in high school and reached millions of Muslim girls and everyone else looking for answers. With Muslim Girl on the world’s stage, female Muslims would finally be heard.
Post-9/11, the murmur of Muslim women’s voices grows louder
In her book, Al-Khatahtbeh punctuates her real-world experiences of getting an education, working in Washington D.C. and New York, being the voice of this generation through the Muslim Girl website and numerous speaking engagements, with traversing a politically shifting America. Despite the ongoing success of her website, fear — and being undermined — was still part of the daily life of Muslim women in the West. The apprehension of being verbally and physically assaulted became an eminent part of being a veiled woman in post-9/11 America and it meant that the media — perpetuated Islamophobia showed no signs of abating — Al-Khatahtbeh poignantly points out how members of the Sikh faith were also caught in the cross hairs.
The shooting in San Bernardino lead to her website creating a safety manual for Muslim women on how to protect themselves from the backlash of being targeted as Islamic terrorists. If the media pushed hate towards Muslims, then Muslim Girl pushed back harder to be part of the conversation and guide its readers of all faiths through a better and more diverse lens than the mainstream media offered.
Al-Khatahtbeh shares how her views were often sought, but behind the camera she was the token hijabi girl who was told “You can talk, but you also have the look.” Having skin just the right shade of brown and wearing coloured lenses, the author admits, gave her access to spaces and people which she might have been otherwise denied. “Sometimes you have to play the game to change the game,” she says.
Muslim Girl is an important narrative for Muslim women, women in Muslim-majority countries, and for women in general. If they are not united by their hijabs or even their faith, then at least they can find solidarity in their sisterhood. For those in Pakistan able to enjoy the privilege of practicing Islam as opposed to being in a minority, this book can give us a perspective into how minorities in Muslim countries feel; the emotion is fear and minorities are the easiest targets.
As one voice among many, Al-Khatahtbeh isn’t impervious to her privilege, nor to the fact that hers is not the only story. “One Muslim woman’s story is taken to represent Muslim women like a monolith, like an absolute truth that exists for all of us. The intricacies of the different identities that exist among Muslim women far beyond their faith are melted away... The truth is that Muslim women come from literally every walk of life, and being fully aware of our own Western privilege, we cannot possibly attempt to speak on their behalf. However, our privilege affords us influence that many women in other parts of the world do not possess.”
The reviewer is a freelance writer
Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age
By Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
Simon and Schuster, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017