Despite widely held misconceptions about Muslim women, it is indeed possible to be a Muslim women fighting for women’s empowerment. Yet Muslim women find themselves having to constantly prove that choosing to wear a hijab or other type of headscarf does not mean they are oppressed, and that they can hold on to their faith and upbringing while simultaneously working towards women’s equality.
With the advent of social media and “shareable” online content, many Muslim women have stripped away outdated stereotypes and emerged as leaders in the women’s equality movement. Recognizing that more often than not the root of intolerance is fear, these women have decided to address misconceptions about their communities, often through straight talk and blunt humor. And with the increased ability of digital media to reach otherwise largely inaccessible audiences, there is no better time to start having these discussions.
Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, by Daiana Ruis
Two women who have really laid the groundwork for this type of digital content are the comedians Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz. Both women have used their comedy routines to discuss and challenge what have become controversial topics surrounding Islam. Manzoor and Vaz got together to create the online web series Shugs and Fats after realizing that, growing up, they really had a lack of modernized hijab-wearing role models. In a recent Lenny Letter, Vaz discusses the previous roles she had auditioned for as a Muslim. “The roles had no dimension,” she said. “And they portrayed women from the culture as subservient to men, secondary to their children, and ignorant of all matters outside the home. Where are the funny, smart, subversive hijabis? So in the end, we just wrote them ourselves.”
With each 2-3 minute web episode of Shugs & Fats, Manzoor and Vaz, playing two Muslim women living in Brooklyn, dismantle the cultural divide between Muslims and non-Muslims with the underlying message that we are all human. In the episode “Fifty Shades of Fatima”, the girls sit on the couch watching Fifty Shades of Grey, and argue about the contradictions of female virtue. It’s an everyday conversation between two women, but that regularity may be where the success of the show lies. When talking about their goal for the series, Vaz describes it like this: “We want to play with people’s perspectives about who we all are under the cultural garb that superficially defines us. What do we see when hijabis are walking down the street? What do we think we know about them?”
Still from “100 Years of Hijab”
Manzoor and Vaz are by no means the only women who are bringing these types of discussions to the forefront. The website muslimgirl.com provides a platform for an extensive array of voices from the female Muslim world. One recent video on the site entitled “100 Years of Hijab” was a spin-off of the increasingly popular 100 Years of Beauty video from The Cut. The video visualizes the transformation of the hijab through different time periods and regions. “Our society’s limited lens of the hijab and Muslim culture neglects the hijab’s compelling legacy,” notes the video’s creator Amani Alkhat. “Its rich history of defiance; and its potent use as expression of our many diverse, glorious, and intricately beautiful walks of life.”
In a time when cultural divides seem to be deepening and nationalism is on the rise across the globe, the internet is often painted as a platform to spread disinformation that drives us to sink deeper into our own bubbles. But it is heartening to witness the online movement these women are creating, flipping that notion on its head. By utilizing a medium that connects those from opposite sides of the globe, they are normalizing what would otherwise be viewed as a foreign and unrelatable culture and getting down to the most basic facts — we are all just human.