Empowered by Islam
On a parking structure rooftop in Los Angeles, a new scarf collection comes to life. Golden hour casts the perfect lighting as the breeze makes the scarf ripple softly, making it simple to capture the perfect shot. The model changes scarves quickly between shots, mindful of the small window before sundown. Marya Ayloush twists and focuses her camera lens, taking dozens of photos to make sure she gets enough photos for her website.
This is a routine photo shoot Ayloush has for Austere Attire, an online scarf boutique she started on her own. Balancing student life at UCLA, work, and marriage comes with its challenges but she takes pride in her accomplishments as a Muslim woman.
“ Islam has been my means to any and all success I’ve reached in my life,” said Ayloush, a 20 year-old woman of Mexican and Lebanese heritage. “If it wasn’t for Islam, I wouldn’t have a livelihood running my current business which specializes in selling Islamic headscarves.”
“I wouldn’t be attending one of the best universities in America,” said Ayloush, “since my application essay was all about my experience being a Muslim woman in America. I would not have inner peace and acceptance the way I do now if it wasn’t for my understanding of life’s purpose in Islam.“
Across the country, some Americans put Muslim women under a microscope and scrutinize them as if they are all oppressed. They are misconceived to be tyrannized by Islam.
Muslim American women are tired of being stereotyped and having their individuality being questioned. They want the rest of America to know they are empowered by Islam. They want the rest of America to realize they have dreams, ambitions, personalities, styles and experiences.
There are Muslim American women from all walks of life with different backgrounds and diverse heritage. Some who choose to wear the hijab and some who choose not to. Some who are empowered by wearing the hijab and some who do are empowered by choosing not to wear it. No two Muslim American are the same, but together they are stomping out misconceptions about Islam. Together, they are empowered by Islam.
Yasmine Abo-Shadi, an 18-year-old Egyptian American woman who wears the hijab, recently gave a TEDx talk titled Unveiled, explaining her decision to commit to hijab and what it means to her.
“I’d like for all Americans to understand is that a majority of Muslim women are not oppressed,”said Abo-Shadi, “in fact they are liberated by wearing the hijab. Being in control of who gets to see your hair and beauty is liberating.”
Hijab doesn’t just mean a scarf around my head, it’s a constant daily reminder to be the best Muslim I can be. When I made the decision to wear it, I knew that by wearing the hijab I’m not only representing myself in public, but my entire religion.”
There are about 322 million Muslim Americans in the United States and an estimated 500 thousand Muslim Americans living in the Southern California region. In interviews with several Southern California Muslim women, it is easy to see they all have one thing in common: different definitions of modesty. Modesty plays a major role of character in Islam. Hijab is universal symbol of Muslim women and commonly associated with modesty. Hijab is often defined as a scarf or a veil worn by Muslim women in public and in front of men outside of the family.
Muslim American women will not let hijab define them, instead they define hijab. Hijab and modesty has been defined differently by each woman. Each woman takes it in her own hands to clarify misconceptions they encounter. Each woman takes pride in her accomplishments, seeing her faith as a strength rather than a disability.
Sarah Salama, a 23-year-old California State University, Fullerton alumnus, has been training in the martial art of Brazilian Jui Jitsu for over a year. She recently earned her two-stripe white belt. She trains vigorously for 1.5 hours four times a week. With dedication, she hopes to earn a blue belt. The same dedication that she uses to define hijab.
“Hijab means dedication to me because although I’m struggling to find a deep and purposeful meaning in it I still want to be dedicated to it,” said Salama. “I do know that the hijab is something transient. And maybe that’s why I’ll always love it. “
It is just a piece of cloth, really, but because its just a piece of cloth I have the ability to define it however I want,” said Salama when asked to define hijab. “I can wear it for modesty, or I can wear it against misogyny. I can wear it for power or I can wear it for humility. I can wear it for identity and solidarity or I can wear it for novelty. There is no right way or reason to wear it. Maybe, that’s what it means to me; to keep its meaning moving, changing and adapting to whatever speaks to you in the moment.”
Contrary to the common misconception that all Muslim women forcibly wear the hijab, Modesty and hijab are abstract to different women. They have different life experiences and choose to embody modesty in their own way. Women who choose not to don the hijab still embody modesty, while fighting the stereotype of what a Muslim woman should act and look like. The preconceived notions of Muslim women are often picked up from depictions they see in the media.
“Although I don’t wear hijab and I wear regular clothing, I think the way you carry yourself says a lot about you,” said Suhair Jayyusi, a 32-year-old administrative professional, when asked to elaborate on how she embodies modesty despite not wearing the hijab.
“ You can dress in shorts and a tank top and act more modest than someone who is covered from head to toe. My opinion is that modesty comes from the inside. From the way that you dress, the way that you speak, the way you act.”
Encountering people who carry misconceptions about Muslim women is common. People may not know where the line is drawn between culture and religion thus tend to confuse practices and norms of the two. Dividing the two becomes frustrating, but most women use this lack of knowledge as a means to educate people on their role in Islam.
“When people have misconceptions about Islam, I take the opportunity to clarify them,” said Deena Zein, a 22-year-old psychology student. “Rather than getting offended, I believe that people are much affected by what they hear in the media or are convinced by society and that they just need to be given the right information directly from a Muslim.”