Muslim-Americans continue to face Islamophobia and discrimination based on their religion and appearance. Despite Muslims making strides in their community and working to bridge the gap between identities, stereotypical portrayals of Muslims in the media can often contribute to misconceptions and xenophobic ideology. Studies of FBI hate crime statistics have found an increase in hate crimes and assaults based on religion since Sept. 11 in 2001. Recently, representation in the media has allowed for stories of Muslim-Americans to be shared. While Muslim women often face more discrimination, narratives by and stories of men are shared more frequently. In 2017, data from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that Muslim women were more likely than Muslim men to report discrimination. Although more likely to be targeted in bias crimes—especially if they wear hijab—Muslim women were also found less likely to say they feared for their safety from racist groups.
Discrimination against Muslim women occurs across the country each day, taking the form of not only physical hate crimes but verbal abuse and bias in everyday activities. In 2016, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh declared Muslim Women’s Day on March 27. Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, a platform for Muslim women to share their voice. She launched the day to celebrate and support Muslim women who are often excluded from mainstream media, Women’s Day celebrations, and feminist movements. "In the current climate, Muslim women are rarely given the space to be heard above all the noise," Al-Khatahtbeh wrote in a tweet.
In 2016, then 19-year-old Halima Aden became one of the first Muslim-American women to compete for the title of Miss Minnesota USA while fully covered. Aden made American history as the first-ever contestant in the competition to wear a hijab and burkini. She later made headlines again for being the first Muslim model to pose in a burkini for Sports Illustrated.
"Growing up in the United States, I never really felt represented because I never could flip through a magazine and see a girl who was wearing a hijab," Aden said in a video shoot for Sports Illustrated. "Don't be afraid to be the first.”
Ibtihaj Muhammad made history in 2016 as the first American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States. Muhammad, who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, won a bronze medal in the women's fencing team’s sabre event.
She began fencing at just 13 years old after her parents searched for a sport that she could participate in while wearing the hijab. “It’s a tough political environment we’re in right now. Muslims are under the microscope,” Muhammad said during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Committee summit in Los Angeles. “It’s all really a big dream—I don’t think it’s hit me yet. The honor of representing Muslim and black women is one I don’t take lightly.”
In 2017, Mattel unveiled its first-ever hijab-wearing Barbie doll in honor of Muhammad.
Noor Tagouri is a young, badass, award-winning journalist who made headlines as the first woman to be featured in Playboy Magazine with a hijab. Featured as a rule-breaker, Playboy said Tagouri “makes a surprising bold case for modesty.” Tagouri is known nationwide for her unapologetic and strong voice: In 2019 she received a Gracies award for Best Investigative Series for her podcast and documentary series, Sold in America: Inside Our Nation’s Sex Trade. As an outspoken and strong voice, Tagouri represents the unseen reality of many empowered Muslim women. “I believe in rebellion as a form of honesty,” she said during a TEDx Talk. “To be our most authentic self is to be rebellious.”
Rana Abdelhamid is a community organizer and activist from Queens, New York. Founder of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE), a self-defense and leadership program for Muslim women, Abdelhamid empowers women to find strength within themselves to combat Islamophobia. Abdelhamid is well known for her work with WISE in addition to her beautiful photography series, “Hijabis of New York,” a spinoff of the popular Humans of New York series.
Abdelhamid told PBS News Hour that surviving an attack by a man who tried to remove her hijab inspired her to found WISE. “I remember feeling a tug at the back of my hijab,” she said. “I turned around and there was a broad-shouldered man trying to reach again, trying to physically attack me and take off my hijab. I was able to get away from that, but I was left feeling very vulnerable … Because of that moment, I felt there was something that could be done to bring together Muslim women who are faced with these challenges.”
Dalia Mogahed is a well-known scholar in the Muslim community for her activism, leadership, and engagement work. She currently serves as the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Former President Barack Obama appointed Mogahed to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009. Her 2016 TED Talk on “What it’s like to be a Muslim in America” quickly became viral. “What happened after 9/11? Did we go to the mosque or did we play it safe and stay home? Well, we talked it over, and it might seem like a small decision, but to us, it was about what kind of America we wanted to leave for our kids: one that would control us by fear or one where we were practicing our religion freely,"
Born in Somalia, Ilhan Omar immigrated to the U.S. as a Somalian refugee when she was 12 years old. With her victory in Minnesota in 2016, she made history as the first Somali-American Muslim woman to be elected to a state legislature. Omar now serves as the U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 5th congressional district. Her outspoken and strong advocacy for immigrant rights and racial justice makes her stand out amongst other members of Congress. Omar, along with other progressives in the House, has been widely attacked by alt-right and Donald Trump supporters since taking office. “It is the land of liberty and justice for all, but we have to work for it,” Omar told HuffPost. “Our democracy is great, but it’s fragile. It’s come through a lot of progress, and we need to continue that progress to make it actually ‘justice for all.’”
Ilhan Omar wasn’t the only Muslim woman to be elected into the House last year. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, shared the title with Omar as the first Muslim woman to be sworn into Congress in 2019. Tlaib serves as the U.S. Representative for Michigan's 13th congressional district. She remains a fierce role model for Muslim women worldwide. Prior to being sworn in, Tlaib shared a sneak peek of her outfit on Instagram, displaying her intention to be sworn into Congress wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe. In an article for Elle, Tlaib explained why she decided to wear the traditional attire: “Throughout my career in public service, the residents I have had the privilege of fighting for have embraced who I am, especially my Palestinian roots. This is what I want to bring to the United States Congress, an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country. This is why I decided to wear a thobe when I am sworn into the 116th Congress.”
In addition to being widely known for wearing a thobe, Tlaib made headlines hours after she was sworn in for advocating to impeach Donald Trump.
In 2014, every superhero-loving Muslim girl leaped with joy to hear the announcement of Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel. Created by a team of four, including two Muslim women—G.Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat—Marvel welcomed its first-ever Muslim hero into the Marvel Universe.
"Everywhere I looked, particularly in the media and pop culture, were versions of people that looked nothing like me," Amanat told Vox. "What happens is when you see that, you think that you're not worthy enough, or you're not good enough, or you're not normal, really." This representation allows Muslim youth to not only relate more to Marvel comics, but to feel included. In December, Disney was reportedly looking to cast a Pakistani-American for the role of Kamala Khan. (As a Pakistani-American from New Jersey, I fit the role. If I could act, you know I’d go for it.) Representation in all stages of life matters, and such representation impacts the development of youth.
“It’s time to hear from a community that’s often talked about but rarely given the chance to speak,” Al-Khatahtbeh wrote. “Contrary to what people might think, Muslim women talk back. And on Muslim Women’s Day, the world will be listening.”