Park 51 Debate Opens Space for Muslim Women’s Voices

While activists strive to humanize Muslim Americans in an ignorant media world, Muslim women are carving out new spaces for representation.

By Michelle Chen Sep 13, 2010

Ground Zero once again seemed like the epicenter of all the world’s troubles this past weekend, as dueling protests over the planned Park 51 Islamic cultural center tainted the somber day with racial hostility. Hoping to seize the moral high ground, advocates for the Muslim American community have worked to present themselves via the media as peaceful and Americanized–an inversion of negative stereotypes and an appeal to civility in the face of mob rage. It’s unclear whether the public-relations campaign will succeed in diffusing the most virulent anti-Muslim sentiment. But the effort to humanize Muslim Americans in the public imagination may have a more subtle impact, especially if you look at who’s doing the talking. In a media world obsessed with the supposed chauvinism of Islam, Muslim women are carving out new spaces for representation. Muslim American filmmaker Hena Ashraf, and activist Dinu Ahmed, who experienced 9/11 as a New York City high school student, write at the Huffington Post, "We feel that the voices of Muslim women are lacking in this debate, especially the voices of Muslim women who go to Park51." Here’s an everyday example: To the less enlightened, the sight of a woman wearing a hijab (head covering) may symbolize gender oppression that is antithetical to white-Anglo liberalism. Amazingly, it’s the myopia of that false symbolism that exposes Muslim American women to gender-based, if not outright sexist, attacks on their free expression. Ashraf writes:

At different places and across various boroughs in New York, Dinu and I have experienced much Islamophobia. Never have I received as much consistent harassment in one place during one length of time as I have this summer in New York, from a shopkeeper asking in May if I was a suicide bomber, to a man shouting furiously at Dinu and me, "Where’s Osama?!" (incidentally on July 4). Those are just a couple of the hateful incidents that have occurred to us as women who wear hijab — our list also includes times when we were physically and verbally threatened…. We are Muslim women who live in New York and who believe in the linkage of all struggles. What we are experiencing at the present time is not new. Many communities in this country have struggled, and continue to struggle, against hate, biases, and stereotypes. We are in solidarity with them and understand that Muslim Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim, Arab, or South Asian, are just the latest groups in recent decades to experience such vilification.

Some of the women engaged in the Park 51 debate don’t stress gender politics per se, but make a subtextual point by representing as community members and citizens. As the 9/11 anniversary approached, Daisy Khan, co-founder of Park 51 with her husband Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, spoke candidly on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show about the tensions surrounding the project and why it should go forward:

This is the fate of the Muslim community, you know. Our entire future is at risk here. So many mosques have been under attack since this project was announced.  And the Muslim community is taking this very seriously and taking a real pause.

While she hasn’t played up her activist career in the Park 51 controversy, Khan has long encouraged soul-searching within the Muslim diaspora on issues of women’s empowerment. With the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Khan launched WISE: Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, a program that describes itself as a "social network and grassroots social justice movement led by Muslim women," with a global focus on promoting economic and political equity. Closer to Ground Zero, in an interview with CNN, interfaith activist Debbie Almontaser compared the plight of Park 51’s developers to her own struggle against a right-wing smear campaign that ultimately forced her out of her position as the principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn.

The exact propaganda materials that were used against the school and me have basically been refurbished against Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan… The fact that these two individuals have become the targets on this issue is just mind boggling, considering the reputation that they and their organization have nationally and globally.

As Colorlines reported in 2008, Almontaser saw her dream of opening a progressive, Arabic-themed public school shattered anti-Muslim zealots who portrayed her as a fundamentalist extremist. Not surprisingly, her opponents demonized her for wearing the hijab, countering her eloquent efforts to illuminate her decision to show her faith in her role as a community educator. Ironically, opponents simultaneously tried to discredit her by linking her to Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a grassroots media-justice group that radically defies stereotypes of gender oppression in Islam. It seems like whether Muslim women practice political activism or religious tradition, or both, bigots will find a way to paint them as either heartless predators or faceless pawns, never as individuals capable of the full spectrum of social experience. You might suspect that such displays of bias reveal a political strategy to undermine the Muslim community by denying women’s agency. But that might be reading too much out of the situation. This could just be a reflexive reaction of unfortunate people, who themselves can’t, or won’t, appreciate the diversity and hybridity that constitutes the American experience. So on that front, the most effective weapon against ignorance might not be militant protests or even slick public service announcements. Nor does it require every Muslim woman activist to speak explicitly always "as a Muslim woman." A more meaningful shift in public perception would come through a nuanced, inclusive dialogue on coexistence, which would recognize someone like Khan or Almontaser as a member of multiple communities, a bearer of tradition, and above all, her own person.