I was extremely privileged to be able to interview Sarah Shaaban, who is an alumnus of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and who is involved within the student’s affairs program at Columbia College Chicago as well. Her familial heritage and background made her the perfect person to speak with regarding the modern experience of Muslim women in the United States. Shaaban was incredibly amicable and welcoming when talking about her own experiences, as well as the experiences of her mother and grandmother. I was fortunate enough to correspond with her via email before our formal one-on-one interview.
Interviewer: I have been doing a lot of research on the experiences of Muslim women in America and one thing that stood out to me was mainstream media transforming Islam from a religion to a political ideology, and since that shift, what the hijab symbolizes has shifted as well. So, what does the hijab really represent?
The hijab is a sign of modesty; it is a sign of respect and a lot women choose to wear it. In the quran, it does say that women should be dressed modestly, but the only requirement is for them to cover their hair. Some women wear the full abaya or a burqa, that is not really necessary to Islam.
Why do you choose not to wear the hijab?
I would say that I am Muslim-lite. I consider myself to be apart of Muslim culture, my father is very devout, as well as most of my family. I think it is a fear of judgement; it is a fear of what other people will think of me and just being a target, I think.
We came here when I was 15, like I told you. We can here for a better life and we came here for freedom because Saudi was and still is very repressive to women, but I wanted to be here to have more opportunities and I feel like I have felt that most of my life until recently where I felt like because of who we are and where we’re from, some of those freedoms have been taken away. This is the first time I do not feel very free.What are gender roles like within a typical Muslim-American community?
I think it depends. It depends on what generation you are and/or if you are American born. For my family in particular, gender roles are very traditional, so my mother stayed at home with me and taught through my house; she tutored. We were in Saudi, but she would teach English to others kids, so all of her work was in the house. She was expected to clean and cook and that stuff, and my dad worked. He was an engineer, so he worked outside of the house. Also, in Saudi, in regards to gender roles, males were the ones that allowed people to come and go. We would have to have permission to even travel, so we would have to a document, have my dad sign it, and then we could come to the United States or whatever. It was a very male-centric environment. Obviously, once we came here, my mom worked. So, I would say it varies. It varies what country and it makes a difference if you’re first generation or second generation, so it’s very individual. Ya know, just like, Christians. A christian may interpret the bible as it or some christians may choose not to follow some things in the bible, but ultimately we believe in God.
I don’t know if you saw the controversial 2014 episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” that featured a panel of non-Muslim White men discussing the cons of Islam. While discussing, they mentioned the oppression of women, which is ironic considering they didn’t have any women on the panel… So my question is, how do you deal with sexism within your own community and sexism from the greater patriarchal society?
Yeah, I have a funny story to tell you, well it might not be that funny. My dad was very traditional and as he has become older, he has started losing his sight a little bit. When we travel, I have to navigate. So recently, those gender roles have been bent a little bit because of his age.
But, my grandmother is very wise, wise woman. She is Saudi and she was pulled out of school when she was 13, and so she made sure that all of her daughters were all college educated before they married. Now, all of my aunts are nurses, doctors, they’re teachers and just apart of the community. They got an opportunity that she didn’t get. I think, with generations moving forward, a lot of female empowerment comes from other women. Even in the United States, women are pitted against women, but when we work together, when we hold hands, we are stronger. I think back to the Women’s March and when women came together as large community and we made a statement.
Like I said, I did not see the Bill Maher episode but it sounds hypocritical, I’d say it is ironic too because how are you to judge another culture and say “oh it is biased against women dadada” but here you are doing the same thing when you aren’t asking for another woman’s opinion when you’re talking about women. Doesn’t that seem a little ironic? I think sometimes as Americans, we think that we are well beyond all of these folks in third world countries and make judgements about how other people live, but in reality, we too are oppressive to women in this country. Women still get paid less than men for doing the same work and we [Americans] don’t value all of the work that we [women] do outside of the workplace. It’s very interesting. I think we need to do a lot of introspection when we do judgement of others.
How do you feel about polygamy?
I’ve had that experience, it is very interesting. My grandmother was the first wife, my grandfather ended up marrying a second wife and kind of tore the family apart. That is a choice and that is just the circumstance that happened to my family. So it’s funny because my dad also married a second wife. My mom and dad are divorced now, but at one point he was married to both of them at the same time- in Saudi, not here, because that is obviously not legal here in the United States. Also, we felt a little bit of a sting, so his sisters urged him not to take on this second wife because of what happened to their families. He didn’t listen to his sisters and that is ultimately what happened to my family- it put a strain. I do know other people who are able to maintain those relationships and have multiple wives. So in that culture, it says you can have up to four wives, but you have to take care of them equally. You have to provide for them financially and you have to provide them with time, so if you don’t follow that guidance, then you will find it to be difficult. My dad did not do that obviously, he ended up spending more time with that other person, more money on that other family and so that put a strain on the first marriage, but, this is also female empowerment, because in that culture, it requires the man to seek permission from the first wife to see if he can marry the second wife.
Would the first wife feel pressure to say it’s okay?
I think it depends, but my dad didn’t ask permission, so that’s when that became a problem. You might be right- I have not been put in that position and I would also say that that is not happening as often- having multiple wives is something that is slowly going away.
What do you think that the federal government should do in regards to the rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans?
One of the reasons that there is a rise in hate crimes is some of the rhetoric that has been used by our current administration. When you use words and associate Islam with terrorism, it is almost simultaneous when you hear talk about Islam, right? It gives the rest of the world a perception that they’re less-than and it’s almost like an excuse to do things that aren’t right to other people. I think we should stand up to it; I’ve found some peace and solace because I saw a mosque in Texas that caught fire, well someone set it to fire, and a Jewish synagogue gave them the keys to the synagogue so that they can pray there, so that gives me some hope that there are good people. I think our federal government should also take a stance similarly to the kindness that I see. Recently, too, there have been hate crimes against Jewish people too. Jewish cemeteries- some headstones have been destroyed and a Go Fund Me by a group of Muslims was created. That is something in Islam, and actually in Judaism, the kindness and generosity, is written all over in their books. That is something that is not showcased in some of the News. There is this idea of giving back engrained in our religion. I wish that would be more publicized. People are vilified. It’s harder to do that unless you actually reach out to somebody.
After reflecting on my interview with Sarah Shaaban, it is even more apparent to me that any negative feelings about a certain group of people simply come from a place of ignorance and a lack of compassion.
If everyone responded to injustice in the way that Jewish and Muslim centers have supported each other in times of incomprehensible pain and if stories like those that Sarah shared with me were broadcasted to the general public more often, then far less intolerance would be likely to exist.
In many cases, anecdotal evidence like Shaaban’s is far more powerful than percentages and statistics from the Pew Research Center. While demonstrating facts is obviously important, people tend to relate to other people more than they relate to numbers.
Similarly, many women often relate to other women regardless of origin or religion. Sarah mentioned “introspection” when discussing how we view other societies, and that is incredibly true; the intersecting similarities amongst cultures are glaringly obvious, yet the Western world tends to think more highly of themselves when observing so-called ‘developing’ countries.
Compassion is much less difficult to accomplish when we recognize our own hypocrisies and fix what is in front of us in order to lead by example rather than use social issues as an excuse to persecute people whose values differ from ours.
Pictured Below: Sarah Shaaban
Featured Image via Pixabay
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