Asma Mohammed isn’t afraid to speak up. After spending her childhood thinking silence will be rewarded, she has spent her adult years fighting for the injustices she sees portrayed about the Muslim community. In her story she shares how she has shed her passiveness and how her roots empower her to do more.
“Be careful of what you say, beta.” This is what my parents say to me each time I find myself challenging authority, which is probably more often than not.
When I was 20 years younger, a tall, skinny brown girl with an awkward smile, I didn’t speak up for the things that mattered to me. I was a “good” girl. I thought good girls endured. Good girls didn’t resist — they persevered. They were resilient in the face of all obstacles, no matter how unjust.
So, when I was first called the n-word in school, I didn’t tell my parents. Instead, I asked my kindergarten teacher what it meant. She, of course, tried to track down the two white fifth grade girls who had yelled the slur at me as I walked, head-down on the sidewalk leading to school, but to no avail. At the time, I was somewhat relieved because I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble. As I reflect on this incident today, I think about the power I allowed those girls to have by keeping silent. The girls were never held accountable, and perhaps went on believing they could continue using violent, hateful rhetoric against other brown and black people they encountered.
For at least a decade thereafter, I was afraid to speak up. I was known for my shy yet warm demeanor. What most people didn’t know is that I had a ferocity about me that only came out when someone I cared about needed me. I found myself spending many of my days thinking about what I should have said, regretting my silence especially when it affected the people around me.
It wasn’t until my first year of college that this changed. I was taking a class titled, “Women, Gender and Islam” taught by a white, non-Muslim man. Throughout the course of the semester, I realized that this man truly believed that he was an expert on Muslim women. He told my class that Muslim women had always been at the mercy of Muslim men, and that most Muslim women didn’t understand their plight as oppressed, marginalized subjects of society. It was then that I realized I couldn’t stay quiet. The rest of that semester, I sat next to my professor every single day and refused to go a single class period without challenging something he said. It seemed silly to me at times, but I had never felt so empowered in my life. Here I was — an 18 year old, brown, hijabi Muslim woman — sitting next to and fighting an intellectual battle against a white man who thought he knew everything about my experience. From that moment on, I was hooked to speaking truth to power.
The following year, I read about Nusaybah bint Ka’b and her role in the battle of Uhud with our beloved Prophet Muhammed. I learned that the wife of the Prophet, Umm Salama, asked him, “Why does God only address men in the Quran?” and that after this exchange, the Prophet received a revelation that mentions women can attain every quality to which men have access (Qur’an 33:35).
Soon thereafter, I read about Nana Asma’u of Nigeria, who spent the better part of the 19th century traveling with a troop of radical Muslim women to educate girls in rural areas. I read and learned about incredible, powerful women who used their voices as weapons against misogyny, racism, and more. I knew it was my duty as a Muslim woman and as someone engaged in resistance against oppressive power structures to do the same.
When I choose to speak out today, I do so knowing my ancestors and sisters in resistance stand with me, that their legacies are the roots that allow me to stand tall in the face of adversity. It is not my job as a Muslim woman to endure pain or suffering if I can stop it. It’s not my job to remain silent when I see rampant anti-Blackness, sexual assault and other injustices in my community.
Just as Allah gave Nusayba, Umm Salamah and Nana Asma’u the strength to revoke their silence and teach their communities to do better, he has given me the right to ask questions and speak up when I see inequity in my own community. We’re often times reminded of our jobs as mothers, sisters and daughters in the Muslim community. What people forget is that we were also the first activists of Islam, the first teachers and the first entrepreneurs. And we (or I, at least) need to continue reminding ourselves this as we raise young Muslim girls in a society that reduces them to what they wear. Muslim women don’t need to be silenced or asked to be careful about what we say to people in power. We need a mic.