Watching President Obama give his farewell address in his hometown and a city I have been lucky enough to call home pulled at more than just my heartstrings. Like most of the Chicago audience, I supported Obama both times he ran for the office of president, and I am quite saddened to know his days as our leader are nearing an end. However, as all effective rhetoric does, Obama’s words left me in the paradoxical state of disturbed serenity, a combination of having hope and confidence in one’s agency but with a push towards readjusting and re-evaluating one’s own perceptions.
As a Muslim American woman of color, I expected myself to become most engaged with his speech when he addressed issues of Islam and Muslim Americans; the audience certainly responded most resoundingly to his defense of Muslim Americans’ patriotism than to any other part of his speech. This moment was indubitably reassuring—it told me, as many Americans have in the now two months after the election, “You are not alone.” Having the POTUS, the individual in arguably the most American job there is, publicly validate the Americanness of a group I identify with and that has had its place in American society questioned for over a decade felt empowering and comforting. I cheered along with the audience.
Still, as grateful as I am to Obama for reiterating his view on Muslims, the point felt anticlimactic. Islam, terrorism; Islam, fundamentalism; Islam, patriotism—these words are now, in one direction or the other, always linked in a predictable way in public political rhetoric. It’s as if Islam and Muslims must always be addressed if terrorism is being discussed, even if it is to deny a universal connection. The sharper part of Obama’s speech in my psyche, the one that made me gasp inwardly ever so slightly due to the unexpected new thought it opened within the folds of my political identity, was a different moment, when he said the following:
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”
And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.
Obviously, the POTUS’s comments refer to the United States as a whole and emphasize the importance of autonomy and unity of the American people. As a Muslim American woman, though, I couldn’t help feeling that I was a microcosm of the macrocosm. In fact, it was fitting that lines from one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman, danced casually through my mind at that moment: “I am large, I contain multitudes” (“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass). Even before the rise of Islamophobia over the past year, even before president-elect Trump’s proposal to ban and/or register Muslims, even before ISIS, before Iraq and Afghanistan, before 9/11—being a Muslim girl in America was complicated.
I know I won’t make friends by saying this, but traditional Islamic values do threaten the self-government of its female followers. Before the prejudiced use this statement as a way to confirm their stereotypes about Islam and the faithful use it as an indignant topic to disconfirm, let us consider the lived experiences of the women themselves. It is absolutely true that modern-day Islam is diverse, with a spectrum of both beliefs and theological intensity. It is also absolutely true that Muslims, especially in the West, increasingly have relationships and worldviews that align greatly with their Western peers. What also remains true, though, is that the gendered and oppressive language of certain social institutions—marriage, for example—continue to be carried on in the same subtle way sexism still persists in the U.S. in general.
My research through The University of Chicago has given me insight into the multi-layered challenges Muslim American girls and women face.
Yes, they have to deal with staving off stereotypes about terrorism and oppression, but at the same time, they also have to stave off certain ingrained views about gender roles that many Muslim communities even in the U.S. have not outgrown.
The self-government of Muslim women—the ability for us to say this is who we are, neither entirely American nor entirely Muslim—is indeed a threat to both American and Muslim societies. The “different causes” and “different quarters” are to this day relentless in their quest to weaken our sense of self, one that does not fit neatly into either society.
In my own experience, on the one hand, I have had highly educated people in university settings question my ability to speak English, the subject I happened to be teaching. On the other hand, I have had respected figures in my religious community warn me against pursuing “too much” education, as men do not like to marry women who are smarter than them. Hearing President Obama quote George Washington’s warning against alienating any “portion of [the] country from the rest” seemed the perfect metaphor to address this conundrum that I know I am not alone in experiencing.
Each Muslim woman is a nation unto herself, as vast and rich as our country itself. The more she holds in her being, though, the more she embraces contradictory ideas. Increasingly, women are becoming more comfortable with these contradictions as I have found in the research interviews I have conducted, accepting them as part of who they are and what makes them unique rather than trying to splice away aspects of their identity to appease one side or the other.
Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself.” It is this American boldness that Obama’s speech made me realize I value the most about who I am, a boldness that every Muslim American woman I’ve ever encountered—and I’ve encountered many—also seems to harbor, whether openly or secretly. It is the gold we hide in our rocky chests that no diggers will ever be able to profit from save ourselves. I hope we take away from our history, political and personal, and from Obama’s farewell words just that: that we fare well, with our country, with each other, and with our richly diverse selves.
Tasneem Mandviwala is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago who is researching the experiences of Muslim American women from a socio-cultural viewpoint. She writes, paints, and sings (badly) and hopes to contribute love and understanding to the world.