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Q&A: Amara Majeed ’19 talks Islamophobia, sexism

After ‘Good Morning America’ talk, Majeed discusses media depictions of Muslims, hijab

Amara Majeed ’19 was interviewed by “Good Morning America” anchor Amy Robach last week for her #GirlPower series. A self-described feminist and Muslim activist, Majeed is the founder of the Hijab Project, a “social experiment” in which women were encouraged to wear a hijab  for a day in public and record their experiences.

Majeed is also known for her published works. In 2014, Majeed published a book, “The Foreigners,” that documents the lives of Muslims around the world. Last month, Majeed wrote a controversial open letter to Donald Trump in Seventeen magazine condemning his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

She sat down with The Herald Thursday to discuss Muslim feminism, Islamophobia and cyber bullying.

The Herald: What does the hijab mean to you, as a religious and political symbol?

I see the hijab as a feminist symbol as well as an expression of my faith. At 14, I noticed the disparities between the portrayals of males and females and began to understand the gender inequality present in our society. We as a society often propagate an incredibly flawed ideology that the worth of a woman lies in her beauty, her body and her sexuality. The hijab makes a statement. It says, “I don’t want to be sexualized. I don’t want to be objectified.”

Do you come from a family background that encourages wearing the hijab?

My parents never limited me in terms of my dress, and they were surprised that I chose to do this, but they supported me nonetheless. We aren’t strictly religious at all. When my mother used to wear the hijab in Sri Lanka, she wore it more casually than I do now. I don’t think she wore it in the U.S. before I did. We’ve never had a discourse about her decision to start wearing the hijab again after I started wearing it, because it felt like a very natural expression of the modest way in which she always chose to present herself. She says it’s how she feels most comfortable.

Do you see your work as breaking apart the dominant Western, white feminist framework to be more inclusive of people of Islamic heritage?

Yes, I do. I believe intersectionality is incredibly important. Muslim women who are Hijabis have to struggle with different forms of prejudice in addition to gender inequality. For example, white women who participated in The Hijab Project told me that the experiment made them aware of their white privilege, that suddenly they didn’t feel welcome at airports and universities in their own country.

I also feel like the first question people ask me nowadays because of the hijab is, “Are you married?” They used to ask me where I went to school first, and sometimes when people hear that I go to Brown University, their eyes bulge. They just don’t see that potential in me anymore now that I wear the hijab — they assume that I’m submissive and simpleminded, that I can’t speak English and that I’m less American and even less human.

Do you believe that the media plays a large part in this dehumanization of Muslims?

The media presents a picture where it seems like all we Muslims do is kill innocent people. It’s not a holistic view of the situation — a lot of the context is removed. The media blames Islam for terrorism, but terrorism is deeply entrenched in history and politics. The West, particularly the U.S., destabilized the Middle East for years. I don’t think we, as Americans, understand what this form of colonization did to Iraq and to the whole region. ISIS didn’t grow in a vacuum. When people are forgotten victims for so long, they become victimizers.

Blaming Islam ultimately hurts Muslims, like me, and helps ISIS. I imagine ISIS appeals to some people in the West because they prey on the alienation caused by Islamophobia.

In the past, in attempting to make that very argument about American intervention in the Middle East, (you have been censored by certain publications). Do you believe that the media only gives you a platform as long as you say what they want to hear?

The media is often concerned with representing our enemies as other and the U.S. as victims. It contributes to a narrative that idolizes and victimizes America while criminalizing Muslims. The only way I fit into this dichotomy is by being either the good Muslim or the apologetic Muslim who denounces the bad Muslims out there. I’m tired of being silenced. I feel like even well-intentioned platforms are taking away from my struggle as a Muslim American.

As a self-described Muslim activist, do people often expect you to feel responsible for everything done in the name of Islam?

Yes, definitely. A lot of people expect me to condemn ISIS. Of course I believe that they’re the scum of the earth, but people expect me to condemn them to publicly distance myself from their terrorism.

There’s a statistic that white Christian males were the greatest source of domestic terrorism in the United States in the past year. I don’t expect my white friends to apologize or protest their innocence. I shouldn’t be expected to apologize for something that has nothing to do with me.

Most of your work is distributed through social media, and you’ve been the subject of a lot of online abuse. How do you deal with people who level personal attacks at you below the line?

So many people have told me, “Go back where you belong,” “I hope you get AIDS,” “You’re a terrorist.” They also use a lot of gendered abuse, calling me a cunt and a whore. It doesn’t really bother me on a personal level anymore. What bothers me is that the fear-mongering and anti-Muslim rhetoric created by many media sources and politicians has made it routine.

— This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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