Marisa Sette, a white student writing in a publication on intercultural communication by the School of International Service, published a case study on the experience of a Muslim hijab-wearing woman in an American women’s studies class. AU’s Muslim Student Association did not seem to have read past the headline, and published an overdramatic, defamatory statement against Sette, writes an anonymous Muslim woman in response to a petition to remove Sette’s article, which has now garnered over 1,000 signatures.
As a Black Muslim woman, it is absurd to me that the AU Muslim Student Association is condemning an article which amplifies the lived experiences of Muslim women. The title is intended to grab you, maybe evoke some sort of reaction. But when you actually read “How Can You Be Feminist and Muslim?”, author Marisa Sette clearly illustrates the struggles of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman at various American institutions.
This leads me to believe that the MSA had decided to take the headline at face value without reading through the article, because in no way is Sette is spewing Islamophobic jargon, or white supremacist language (as some wrote in the petition to take down her article). This blind outrage is harmful not only to the Muslim community, but to the allies who genuinely want to help and create a conversation.
[Read: “How can you be a feminist and a Muslim? Confronting multiple identities: A Case Study”, AU School of International Service, Case Studies in Intercultural Communications, Vol. 1, Issue 1]
Public high schools and universities are tough settings to fit into when wearing the hijab, which is why I stopped wearing one during my sophomore year in college. I grew up in a conservative Muslim family surrounded by a tight-knit Muslim community. In my community, and in my private Islamic school, we were always reminded that we were beautiful for being Muslim, that our scarf represented our modesty and love for Allah. The hijab is a symbol of empowerment in the community.
However, outside the Islamic bubble, the feeling of love towards the scarf quickly dissipates, and I was left to fend for myself. Before I decided to stop wearing my hijab in my sophomore year of college, all I could remember were the looks, the glances, and the stares. I was always uncomfortable, and the only time I felt welcomed was around other people of the same faith. I became hyper-aware of my appearance to other people, and my love for my own faith diminished in light of my insecurities as a result.
Sette’s article tells the story of Sadaf, a Muslim hijabi who tries her best to thrive in the environment that she’s in. She’s a resolved Muslimah because she doesn’t waver or cave from pressure around her; she continues to wear her scarf despite the looks and sharp language from others. Her story, like mine, resonates with many Muslim women like myself, as Sette’s article is about how people only first see her as “the Muslim”—a branding that many Muslim women are uncomfortable with because of the insecurities that come with being a hijabi. For many that grew up in a post-9/11 America with the pressure of that restricting identity, you are only defined by how you look, not by how you think or what you do. Sette clearly iterates this central idea in this case study, using the example of an ignorant classmate of Sadaf’s who suggests it is impossible to both a feminist and a Muslim. So why are people deciding to sign a petition to take down an article that only tries to create a dialogue of an accurate telling of a Muslim woman’s story? Because a white woman wrote it?
[Read: “Statement About Marisa Sette’s Publication: How can you be a feminist and be Muslim?”, American University Muslim Student Association]
Sette frames the article on the unconscious biases and uninformed stereotyping by Sadaf’s classmate, directly opposing the notion to which her headline points—the notion the MSA accused Sette of presenting.
Sette narrates Sadaf’s struggle with the cold looks from her classmates, in high school and in college. In a university women’s studies’ course, a white woman asks her, “How can you be a feminist while being Muslim?” in reference to her headscarf, which many Westerners with a shallow eye see as nothing more than an indication of oppression. “Such a question brought back the negative experiences of her past and the importance society placed on her claiming a singular identity,” Sette writes. “The question reiterated to Sadaf the blatant need for her to be defined in a static manner that signaled oppression.” Sette frames the article critiquing the unconscious biases and uninformed stereotyping by Sadaf’s classmate, directly opposing the notion to which her headline points—the notion the MSA accused Sette of presenting. “What societal institutions, norms, or values could have contributed to the development of the unconscious bias of Sadaf’s classmate?” asks a following discussion question. Thus, I am inclined to suggest the MSA never read Sette’s article in full because their statement is framed as if Sette herself was the one criticizing Sadaf, rather than Sadaf’s uninformed classmate.
Our society wants to push non-POC writers to write POC characters more accurately. Sette has clearly done a good job at this, by only using actual Muslim experiences as the base for her piece, so why are people rallying up in arms to silence her? In this case study, Sadaf is a black belt in karate and a feminist, both of which are familiar to the Muslim community, but she tends to first be profiled as “the Muslim girl,” rather than the nuanced woman who participates in regular activities like her peers. This is a very real struggle for many Muslim women, but must we discount Sette’s sensitive, informed, and considerate telling of this narrative because she is a white woman? In choosing to go down this route and judge Sette’s article by its headline, the MSA has made it clear they would choose shallow outrage over mutual communication and understanding.
This publication exists to foment difficult, oftentimes uncomfortable conversations. To simply write the case study off as white heroics because of Sette’s personal identity is polarizing and diminishes her actual intentions.
Sette’s article on Sadaf was published in “The Case Studies of Intercultural Communication,” which illustrates different narratives similar to Sette’s story; issues of identity, language, and discrimination. This publication is clearly intended to generate dialogue based on the experiences of people from a diverse background, as stated in their mission statement which reads, “We look forward to developing our collection of cases to expand and share the lived experiences that frame our intercultural dialogues and inform our development of realistic cultural empathy.” This publication exists to foment difficult, oftentimes uncomfortable conversations. To simply write the case study off as white heroics because of Sette’s personal identity is polarizing and diminishes her actual intentions, as well as those of the other case studies in the SIS publication.
I understand that the MSA’s central issue is of a white woman interjecting in a conversation that does not belong to her, but the end of the article actively engages the audience by posing discussion questions for readers to participate in. Identity politics has taught many, including myself, that we should only listen to voices that sound similar to ours, and these voices must be matched by name, by race, by sexual preferences, and by gender orientation. I will acknowledge that white writers are disproportionately lent favor and attention by the publishing industry—such as the publication of the book American Dirt last year—but it is also important to understand which white writers are harmful in their endeavor and which ones are not.
The MSA is suggesting that it is better to keep these conversations within our own communities without any interest in extending dialogue to the greater conversation on women’s struggles and experiences.
Furthermore, I take issue with the MSA quoting the Prophet Muhammed (sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam): “Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition”. To quote the Prophet Muhammed (sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam) in your own favor towards Sette is shortsighted. You are judging the intentions of a woman who writes not for ill will, but for awareness about Islamophobic misconceptions toward Muslim women who wear the hijab. She is not writing to inflate herself or her own status. I ask for those of you at the MSA to reread the Prophet Muhammed’s (sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam) quote and look within yourselves. Judge your own condition and your own intentions for writing a statement like this demeaning a young woman who only seeks to criticize the existing hegemonic culture on feminist ideals. As a Muslim woman, I am disappointed in the way MSA has decided to view her piece.
I don’t know Marisa, nor do I attend AU, so please don’t try to read this article as a piece that attempts to lend her favor. I am merely speaking as a third party who is saddened by the conduct of an organization purporting itself to represent Muslim students. It’s ironic that Sette’s case study brushes up on the idea that we as Muslim women are trapped to our face level identity because of our scarves by onlookers because the MSA is suggesting that it is better to keep these conversations within our own communities without any interest in extending dialogue to the greater conversation on women’s struggles and experiences.
It is clear to everyone who rigorously read the article that Sette’s piece does not create a dichotomy between feminism and Islam. Neither does it perpetuate the notion that Muslim women are oppressed in need of saving by hegemonic ideas of feminism—quite the opposite, in fact.
Why must we block off a white non-Muslim woman telling a story that resonates with Muslim women? Islam is a welcoming community. To just negate everything Marisa is saying merely because of her race and faith is un-Islamic in itself. Sadaf’s experience is very accurate to the Muslim story; I can testify to that. Marisa has clearly done her research and has clearly taken the time to listen to the experiences of Muslim women. In crafting her article, Sette cites a multi-faceted collection of sources, all primary, including an article by Muheera Zubair headlined “If the Hijab Is Such an ‘Oppressive Tool’, Why Do I Feel so Empowered?” and a paper by Homa Hoodfar titled, “The Veil in their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women.” But because she is a white woman we must demean her, her words, and her intentions. Again, this seems un-Islamic to me. She is writing this article to create dialogue, not to act like a “hero” or a “savior.” I myself, as a Black Muslim woman, am very familiar with this twisted concept of “white heroism,” and this is not it. If MSA claims that they have and still see Sette’s article as an act of cultural violence, then the MSA has decidedly rejected the lived experience of many Muslim women in America.
Context is important. The headline is not a thesis statement for the publication itself. Sette’s piece is research based and not a personal narrative. The headline is a question posed within the text to Sadaf by a white student in a women’s studies course, a question that points to the shallow perception of women who choose to wear the hijab. The headline is not a rhetorical notion that Islam is incompatible with women’s empowerment, which is how the MSA has chosen to read it. Nor is it even an assertion posed by Sette herself, as many article titles are. It is clear to everyone who rigorously read the article that Sette’s piece does not create a dichotomy between feminism and Islam. Neither does it perpetuate the notion that Muslim women are oppressed in need of saving by hegemonic ideas of feminism—quite the opposite, in fact. I encourage MSA to read the article again. Perhaps it might resonate with you, if you give it a chance.
It’s disappointing to see many of the AU students who read the MSA’s statement resort to ostracizing Marisa off of social media without understanding the substance of her article. It is clear to me that she wrote a sensitive and informed piece, and to represent her article as Islamophobic hate speech is outrageous. I hope that the petition posted against her is taken down and that an apology is given.
The author of this article, a student from a neighboring school, has requested anonymity.