Street Fashion

Muslim Women Are Trending, but Some of Us Are Still Invisible

Original Post from REWIRE NEWS

Photos courtesy of  Nicole & Daniela Photography
We are not only Arab or Middle Eastern. We are not only hijabi. We are not only "straight-sized." Or submissive. We are African-American. Woke. Divorced. Fat. And more.

Muslims have become a hot commodity since 9/11—for better and worse. Our rise to “fame” started off rocky when a few bad men committed heinous acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. And some good ol’ Americans tore hijabs from women’s headsbeat and spat on Muslimsvandalized mosques, and left pig heads on porches—all in the name of trying to protect the United States from so-called “foreign invaders.”

Muslim coalitions, bloggers, interfaith organizations, and even celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher have banded together to change stereotypical narratives of Muslims: the bearded man with a curved sword, and veiled women who are either strapped with bombs or subordinated by their male relatives.

Turban/Hijab:  HauteHijab

Turban/Hijab: HauteHijab

Their efforts have paid off in some ways and not in others (clearly, as in the Muslim ban and continued targeting of Muslims and our institutions). And Muslims, and specifically Muslim women, are trending; according to a March 2017 HuffPo article, the keyword search for “Muslim” on Getty Images increased by 107 percent from the year before. “Muslim women” was not far behind at 83 percent.

But what—or who—do people see in their minds when they think of Muslim women? There are notable hijab-wearing authors such as Tahereh Mafi, activists like Linda Sarsour, on-air personality Noor Tagouri, and bloggers including Dina Torkia.

These women have literally become the faces of Muslim women in the United States, the United Kingdom, and social media. And that’s a problem.

They are all what I call “straight-sized”—not plus-sized—Muslim women who appear European or Middle Eastern. And celebrating them—and them only—paints a narrow picture of the majority of Muslim-American women, just as media, the beauty industry, and countless other platforms exclude women of color.

Islam has deep roots in Black history as it swept through North and West Africa centuries ago. According to the Pew Research Center, only 14 percent of U.S. Muslims are from the Middle East. Forty-two percent were born in this country. Twenty percent of U.S. Muslims are Black, with large communities in many major cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. 

Jacket:  Eloquii

Jacket: Eloquii

One day, I decided to Google “Muslim women.” Since Islam is such a diverse religion, I just knew the search would reflect that. On the first page, out of about 100 photos, there are only three African-American hijabis and one African hijabi among dozens of Middle Eastern or Arab women. I had a similar experience searching for articles on Muslim women, finding the blatant erasure of Muslims of color, too. Photos and quotes were from predominantly white or light-skinned Middle Eastern women. Even when HuffPo noted the growing online interest in Muslim women in one article, another featured seven women talking about faith, modesty, and fashion—and all of them were straight-sized women and most were fair-skinned.

The media and many Muslims love to focus on certain kinds of Muslims. Acceptable Muslimahs, I like to call them. For the media, it’s often the “oppressed Muslim.” She’s the Middle Eastern girl who is forced into an arranged marriage, isn’t allowed to drive, and covers in all-black with gloves. They also adore us the “good” and wholesome hijabi blogger. She’s usually a size small, wears pastels, and has about a million followers online. Her photos are perfect, and her husband makes fashionable cameos on her feed. The activist Muslim is usually draped in an abaya or loose-fitting clothes and always with hijab. She can be found making salat or praying on the grass at a rally for Trump’s latest Muslim ban. And, let’s not forget, she’s a fair-skinned woman with roots in the Middle East.

Prejudice and racism are a problem within Muslim communities. No one likes to talk about that because they don’t want to add to the rising Islamophobia since 9/11 and the Trump era. But it’s a sad truth.

Although it is totally against Islam to judge someone based on the color of their skin, it happens more than you think. I’ve experienced racism from Muslims. One time, I went into a hijab store in Dearborn, Michigan, and the owner completely ignored me; when a woman of Middle Eastern descent came in the store, he immediately greeted and assisted her. I’ve also gone to pray at predominantly Middle Eastern mosques and been stared at as if I didn’t belong. There are also countless stories of Muslims not allowing their children to marry a Black or African-descent Muslim solely based on their heritage.

Dress:  Society +

Dress: Society +

As a Black Muslim woman, I have to fight for accurate representations of Muslim Americans. And I have to fight within my own religious community to hear the stories of Muslims who are African-American, Latina, or African.

The specific bias against African-American Muslims is evident. Since we are treated like second-class citizens in America by racists and “All Lives Matter” folk, others feel as if they can do the same. There’s a superiority complex that a Middle Eastern Muslim is better, more authentic, and that we are “copies.” In my experience, too many Muslims play into the stereotypes of African-Americans: that we are lazy, less educated, promiscuous, and aggressive.  

Zeba Khan said it well: “Many Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims view Arab culture as a proxy for Islamic authenticity, thereby denying the legitimate spiritual expressions of others. Against the racial context in the United States, it’s not difficult then to see how this intrafaith racism and implicit bias against Black Muslims persists. After all, as historian Vijay Prashad explains, ‘Since Blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed?’”

We live in such a Eurocentric society that already tells young girls that they aren’t worthy unless they have light or white skin. Our fatphobic society tells us that we aren’t beautiful if we aren’t a certain weight. That if we decide to wear hijab, we are oppressed. We—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—need truthful representation of Muslim women, especially now as others define or denigrate us.

We are not only Arab or Middle Eastern. We are not only hijabi. We are not only straight-sized. Or submissive. We are African-American. White. Asian. African. Latina. Some of us are feminists. Tattoo artists. Queer. Woke. Divorced. Fat. Sexual assault survivors. Mentally ill. And we all have a story to tell.

The Broke Artist

Clothing Courtesy of  Simply Be

Clothing Courtesy of Simply Be

Too many bloggers, writers, models like to pump fake. They don’t want to tell the truth about the ‘process’ in fear of looking bad or not fitting in with the elites of social media.

Lookie, I’ve been flown out to this fancy place.

I have a fancy ass doughnut in front of a colored wall.

I’m really skinny, but I’m enjoying two scoops of fancy ice cream with my very skinny and photogenic friend.

My life is soooooo fancy and amazing.

No mental illness. No cellulite. No acne.  

Do not be fooled by pretty Instagram photos with blurred backgrounds, magical lighting effects, and poetic captions. The majority of us are struggling. Just keepin it real. *Shrugs*

I’ve never been inspired by individuals who don’t tell the truth. Who paint pictures of themselves in a certain light that just ain’t reality. Individuals who showcase the success of their careers and not the actual climb, the grueling process of making it to the top. That’s what inspires me. Your failures. The path you took and how you overcame them.

The paths we all take, artist or non, has failures riddled along them. Catastrophic ones and teeny ones. They are inevitable. Too many artists with large platforms aren’t showcasing that fact. So, their devout followers believe that the way to the top is as simple as copying a feed of someone who is successful.  

Anyone you know who has ever became an icon, most likely hadn’t done this by cutting and pasting someone else’s shit. They were innovative. Ridiculed by others. Outcasts. Weirdos growing up. They never followed trends and did their own thing no matter what others had to say about it.

They paved their own path. Created a niche.  

Obsessed with this  little pink purse

Obsessed with this little pink purse

A lot of us don’t even know where that path leads. We just take that leap and hope we don’t end up smashing into the ground and dying…

I started blogging in 2013. Y’all know the story. Several failed blogs and YouTube channels and years later this one caught on. During all that mess, I worked odd jobs. All of which I hated. None of them were creative or cared a fuck about me. I was just there for the paycheck. I worked on my art on and off. Mostly off. These jobs were sucking my creative juices. I’d found myself at home after work, stuck in a rut. Unable to write.

That rut lasted for five years. The worst years of my entire existence.

Somehow, by divine intervention, I was placed back on the path of art. I used my own money to buy books on editing and literature of the great storytellers of our time. I used my own money to take creative writing classes at the local community college. I joined discussion boards and wrote and read and wrote and read some more.

I worked just to invest money back into my art (and, of course, pay the dreaded adult bills). Money that could’ve went into paying off my student loans or purchasing a house or maybe traveling…

I had read all the books and took all the classes, but I still wasn’t getting anywhere. So, I decided to get my masters in creative writing. I went back and forth about it. I already had about 20,000 worth of debt left from my bachelor’s. More debt! I literally fought myself. I was really gonna spend that much money on another degree. But, my art was on the line. I had to at least see where it could take me. I prayed then took a gamble.

No one will ever invest in you like YOU will.

No one will ever be as invested in your art, your passion like YOU will.

And, with that mentality and stubbornness, I added on another 50,000 worth of debt.

This isn’t a woe-is-me post. I’m just telling you like it is.

But, with the debt I incurred (and still deep in), I gained a wealth of knowledge, two masters, and connections that I would’ve never made otherwise. That large investment opened many doors. One day, I do hope to pay that off.

As a broke artist, I stress out a lot about money on the regular. This entire year (prior to the divorce), I’ve been hanging on by a thread. Paying my major bills like my car and insurance and rent. Sometimes food. But I live a life that most of you don’t care to ask or just don’t know about.

I don’t get paid for 90% of my work.

The photos you see are products of bartering or friends just loaning me their time.

The clothes I wear are sent by companies who don’t even pay for blog posts half the time.

I blog for free.

My social media is free.

I have an agent, but I’m still on government assistance.

Bill collectors call my phone daily.

I’m just getting by and actually had to ask for charity a few times. (And no, I don’t have mommy and daddy or grandparents to back me up).

I’m not the only one. There are many of us out there who are just trying to make it. Trying to stay afloat. Putting $20 here and there on a $1000 medical bill.

But, I’m so close to the finish line that I couldn’t possibly quit now. No matter how many companies ask for their money back, I have this unwavering hope that one day I’ll get paid for my shoots and paid for my work. That one day all the struggles and failures and energy will just work in my favor.

Photos by  Madinah

Photos by Madinah

 

xoxo,

 

Leah V

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leading the Resistance: Your Voice Counts

Photos Courtesy of  Eric Puschak  (Detroit)

Photos Courtesy of Eric Puschak (Detroit)

I wrote my first story at six-years-old. It was called ‘King and Queen’ and I was excited to send it to the Reading Rainbow Short Story contest. My love of words, stories, stringing sentences together to form legible thoughts to be conveyed to an audience was innate, I believe. Plus, Mom used to pop me with a thick comb if I hadn’t learned to spell at least ten words a day during homeschool sessions. Words and I became best friends. I read and wrote. And read and wrote some more. It was my outlet away from being daddy-less and watching our single, Black mother work damn hard to keep five kids together, off the streets, and fed. As you could imagine, she was there but then again, she wasn’t. She had too much on her plate to be everything we needed her to be. Stories became my life. And, 24 years later, it still rings true.

I’ve had many of rough patches, and will probably have many more if I live long enough, but one in particular almost took me out the game. Yes, a fucked up relationship stirred in with heavy mental illness and lack of family support and financial issues played a major role, but looking back on it, the major issue was that I felt as if I hadn’t had a voice in the world. I’d tried my hand at creating a blog and putting some fiction on there. It failed. The following year, I tried to start a trendy YouTube page where I talked about myself and celebrities. It was reckless. People bashed me. I embarrassed myself and stopped immediately. I made a public video where I basically had a mental breakdown on camera. Posted it. Again, embarrassing myself. I wrote tons of full-length novels. Four to be exact. Those got shot down by every agent in LA and New York. Started another blog. Failed.

I keep using the words ‘fail’ and ‘embarrass’ because that’s how I genuinely felt at the time. I had so many ideas in my head. Like some cutting-edge shit and no one (or not many) understood them. No one got it like I needed them to, so I was ignored.

Friends (well, not any more) would make fun of me. One time, in particular, I had wrote a quirky feminist poem. I was so scared to get on stage and perform it. I stumbled a bit, but I got up there and did it. After the applause died and I went back to my seat. She kept taunting me and laughing at the words I wrote. I sat there, confused. Wondering why was it so funny to overcome your fears and have the courage to say something, even if it sounded stupid to her. Why had she had to kill my moment? But, people like her, individuals who don’t have courage to fuck up, don’t have the persistence to keep at it, even though you’ve failed a hundred times just don’t get people like me or you.

I thought I valued myself, but I hadn’t. Not at all. I never saw myself as a writer. A creative. A creator. An artist. I deemed myself as someone who wrote words. Why? Everyone could write words. I made myself plain. Regular. I boxed myself in with the ‘normal’ people. The one’s who didn’t have any special abilities. I’d been told so many times that I wasn’t special that I started to believe them. I was the person who hadn’t spoke because it’d make people feel uncomfortable. There were stories I hadn’t wrote because I was afraid to stir the pot, make waves. Because of all the restrictions and limits I placed on myself, I became a drone.

The difference was that the inside hadn’t matched the outside which created turmoil like no other. I was fighting a silent battle that no one saw or heard. One that almost destroyed me. And, I am the only one to blame for that. But no one told me that I could be me. That it was okay to be unapologetic in my very own skin. I was always told to put on a face, be the bigger person, do what you gotta do to survive. And, I never questioned it. I watched the women in my life crumble because of that norm. They’d gone through the same battle as I was and suppressed it. They were stuck. I hadn’t and I don’t want to be stuck like my grandmother. Like my mom. Like my aunts. And my cousins.

I wanted to be free. Free of constraints.

I was told that it wasn’t possible. That I could never model as a Muslim woman. That no one would buy my work, my stories. That I could never write and tell the whole truth. That I could never be me. The real me.

I became resistant. And, man, was it a lonely road. When you truly figure out who you’re supposed to be, it makes others mad, resentful, uncomfortable. I had no friends. A husband that barely wanted to be there. And myself.

I still had myself. That was more than enough. We gotta be okay with just being. Ourselves.

The resistance grew. And grew and grew. I hadn’t cared about money. I stopped caring about success. I’d write. Every day. At one point, I was thinking about just living out of my car but as long as I had a notepad and access to a library then I’d be fine. As long as I could create. Then I’d be so fine.

The question I get asked a lot is how am I so raw with the pieces that I share? When you are good to yourself and stop placing limitations on you and what you put out, then you’ll become what you are meant to become. A lot of these limitations come from ourselves, first and foremost, and our perceptions of what other people will think of us. We are wrapped in holding up these facades that we don’t even know who the fuck we are anymore. We care so much about what someone who isn’t paying our bills or brushing our teeth that we don’t even try to step outside the box and explore ourselves.

It’s funny because I’ve become this sort of beacon for individuals who’ve had no voice. I’ve been deemed as this, I guess, motivational speaker and writer, almost. People actually come to me with their problems and their body image issues and we talk—chat and share stories. They throw words at me like ‘inspirational’ and ‘motivational’ and ‘innovative’. Each time, I’m in awe that they see me in those ways. I write for myself, for the most part. As an artist, if you don’t feel your shit then who will?

A few ladies came up to me after I accepted the Gilda Award last week, and grabbed my hand or my shoulders, and squeezed. Each one said, “You are needed. Your voice is needed. And you belong. Speak for us ladies that don’t have the courage to do so.”

xoxo,

 

Leah V.