The Islamic f-word

I was admiring my burqa-clad Barbie at the F-Word Symposium last week when a journalism student cornered me with his notepad.

“What is Islamic feminism?” he asked me at point blank. I rubbed my chin in an effort to appear pensive and to buy myself some time. After spouting some painfully vague answers, I finally admitted that I know very little about feminism. That’s the reason why I’m one of the many wide-eyed wanderers at this event.

As for Islamic feminism – well, I didn’t even know the ideology existed until he questioned me about it.

Admitting that was embarrassing, to say the least. But I console myself with the fact that this kind of situation is out of my control – they are one of the drawbacks to being one of the few visible Muslims on campus. The hijab covering my hair is the equivalent of a bulls-eye on my back. I’m a natural target for all Islam-related curiosities.

For that very reason, my ears perked up when one of the symposium’s panellists, Margaret Toye, spoke of her experience as ‘the token feminist’.

“How ‘out’ do I want to be about my politics?” Toye said in talking about the dilemmas she faced during her earlier days of dabbling in feminism.

Of course, she eventually came clean about her newly-adopted ideology. Toye said she was subsequently and inevitably given role of “the token feminist” – the person people turn to when they need a short cut to understanding what feminism is all about.

Likewise, I stepped into the role of “the token Muslim woman” when I agreed to be interviewed at the F-Word Symposium. I became the shortcut to ticking off the “Muslim perspective” checkbox on this particular student’s checklist of people to talk to.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a personal diatribe against interviews. I’m always happy to help a fellow student and I’m even happier to have my voice heard.

But in the same degree, I worry that people looking to me as an example of a Muslim may not realize that my voice is a minority within a minority. I am a far cry from being a credible representative of a group that is highly diverse politically, geographically, and even religiously.

That’s a huge responsibility, and one that I will probably never be able to handle.
As it is, the public is already so grossly misled about the diversity that exists within the global Muslim population, thanks in large part to the mainstream media. When people think about Muslims, they think “Middle East”, and when they think of the hijab, they think of “oppression”.

This fallacious understanding of Muslims was almost perfectly played out, again, during the aforementioned interview that I felt more amused than upset. In the middle of answering yet another question, I realized why our conversation was such an uphill battle from the get go.

After several futile attempts, on my part, to explain the Arab culture’s treatment of women, I decided to come clean, even if it means I’ll have to turn my interviewer away empty-handed.
I took a deep breath and confessed, “I’m not Arab, actually. I’m Asian,” I said.

His reaction to that confession told me that this is news and that the interview was about to come to an abrupt halt. I gave a mental sigh of relief, even though I had one regret; I wish I could explain to this student that race, religion and gender politics can intersect one another in ways that are very different from what he’s used to.

Alas, his eyes were already scanning the room for better prospects and I had promised someone else another interview.

As we took our leave, I formulated a disclaimer for the next person who might approach me for an interview: Ask me anything you want but be sure to check your presumptions at the door. Otherwise, this conversation ain’t getting nowhere.

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