Islam · Sociology

Breaking the Monolith of Muslim Identity: Experiences of Muslim Women

The “monolith” of Muslim identity is a dangerous misconception when applied to Muslim women. By suggesting that all Muslims experience their identity in similar ways, the unique experiences of Muslim women are erased from the conversations regarding identity. Instead, their experiences and identity formation should be appreciated through the “double disadvantage” they hold as their gender identity and religious identity intersect. An intersectional perspective, which seeks to understand how multiple facets of identity “interact at the micro level of individual experience to reflect multiple interlocking systems of privilege and oppression at the macro, social-structural level,” provides a useful framework to understand the complex identity of Muslim women on an individualized and institutionalized level (Bowleg, 2012). The tenets of an intersectional approach posit that (1) social identities are not independent, but multidimensional and intersecting, (2) intersectionality should begin by studying vulnerable populations with multiple disadvantaged identities, and (3) interacting identities at the microscopic level produce disparities on the macro-level (Bowleg, 2012).

Using intersectionality to understand the experiences of Muslim women, we begin to see that Muslim women face distinct manifestations of discrimination and racialized violence. In America, specifically, Muslim women systematically fight against stereotypes regarding covering with a headscarf and patriarchal oppression and domination. While many Muslim women make a personal choice to cover as a rejection of the over-sexualization of the female body in American society or out of religious devotion or cultural identity, Muslim women find themselves in a unique position when they step out into public covered. Instead of a reflection of a Muslim woman’s inner devotion or personal choices, the headscarf represents the misconstrued picture of Islam in America and often brings suspicious judgments. Unlike their male counterparts, Muslim women are stuck in a damaging chaos of religious and gendered “othering.”

However, we must be careful not to flatten the diversity of identity among Muslim women. There is a spectrum of adherence to customs like veiling, prayer, or the study of Islamic texts, which results in a rich diversity of identity and self-expression for Muslim women.

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