Cross posted at MMW and Tales of a Modern Muslimah

American hijabis often have a lot to think about when they step outside their doors. Will we be denied a job because of hijab? Will we be asked to take off our hijabs at work or school? Will our hijabs make us a target for racists and xenophobes? Will we be pulled out of line at the airport because of our hijabs? However, one place we don’t expect hijab to cause us issue is in court. In courtrooms throughout the U.S., Muslim women wear hijab and Muslim men wear kufis if they’re inclined to do so. My mother, who is a social worker, wears hijab when accompanying clients to court.

 

Lisa Valentine. Image via AP.

Lisa Valentine. Image via AP.

So it must have been completely shocking for Lisa Valentine to be denied entry into a Georgia courtroom because of her headscarf. I’m sure it was one of the most racist incidents in her entire life. Despite the fact that Valentine’s civil rights were violated and this incident was inspired by racism, the media’s coverage of Lisa Valentine’s ordeal has been mixed at best.

One constant issue that I have in the reporting of Valentine’s ordeal is the reporting of her using a swear word. Every article and news clip on this story has mentioned it. “When she turned to leave and uttered an expletive, Hall said a bailiff handcuffed her and took her before the judge.” “Frustrated at being prevented from entering the court, the woman reportedly uttered an expletive and sought to leave the area.

Why is this fact so important to mention in every news story about Lisa Valentine? Wouldn’t a lot of people use an expletive if they were denied access to court? It’s almost as if the mention of Valentine’s use of a swear word is being reported as a cause for her arrest instead of a law that was abused by the bailiff and the judge. I wonder if the mention of Valentine using an expletive is to make her seem at fault or to simply make hijabis look bad. Either way, I found the constant mention of this fact to be really annoying and unnecessary. She cursed. So what? No matter what Valentine said, there’s no reason why she should have been arrested and sentenced to ten days in court.

Additionally, the coverage of Valentine’s ordeal hasn’t focused much on the racial dimensions of the incident. Valentine’s civil rights were violated because she is a Muslim. Even though she was barred from the court because of her “headwear”, her headwear was religious in nature. There’s little mention of the fact that Valentine’s headwear wasn’t ordinary headwear at all but part of her religious attire. In most of the stories I’ve read on Valentine, this distinction isn’t made except by Valentine herself.

Also, I have seen no discussion of how xenophobia and Islamophobia probably influenced what happened. I doubt that a nun would be asked to take off her habit in court because Catholics are not seen as foreign. However, Islam and symbols associated with it (such as hijab) are. Without looking at the issues at these issues, the stories on Valentine seem incomplete.

What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Is she Arab or South Asian? White or maybe Afghan or Indonesian? Notice that I haven’t mentioned African American (and also Latina). The media depiction of Muslim women usually does not include African American women. Often, Muslim women are depicted as coming from the Middle East or South Asia, and occasionally sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there has been increasing focus on Muslimahs of European descent, especially converts such as Yvonne Ridley and Dr. Ingrid Mattson.

When African American Muslims are depicted in the media, it is usually a male face (Siraj Wahaj, Abdul Hakeem Jackson, Malcolm X, Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, etc.) that is presented to the public. There are exceptions such as Dr. Amina Wadud. However, the overall trend is rather disheartening, considering how much African American Muslimahs do for other black Muslims as well as the whole Muslim community. I have often wondered why the stories, needs and concerns of African American Muslimahs are not focused on and come up with a myriad of possible answers.

One is the sexism that black Muslimahs encounter in their own community. This is probably symptomatic of the sexism that black women as a whole face in the black community. Black Muslimahs still have a long way to go in gaining leadership positions in mosques and national organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America, which focuses heavily on issues affecting African American Muslims. When there are few of us in leadership positions, it is hard for us to become the faces of the community in the media.

There’s also the racism, both covert and overt, that African Americans face in the Muslim community. Often, we’re not on the boards of masajid that aren’t predominately African American and if we are, our numbers are insignificant. African Americans are also not well represented in national organizations like ISNA, ICNA and CAIR. Also, the issues that affect African American Muslimahs are often ignored by organizations like ISNA and ICNA. When these organizations are pushed as the voice of American Muslims but lack significant input from African American Muslimahs, then it is not surprising that representation of African American Muslimahs is seriously lacking in the media.

Lastly, there is the racism of the mainstream media. On MMW, we have often discussed how Muslim women are portrayed as victims and otherized. The face of this woman is usually brown. Fatemeh has a great post about the racialization of Islam up at Racialicious. I think that this racialization of Islam leaves little space for the representation of Western Muslim women and almost no space for the representation of African American Muslim women.

While this post thus far may sound bleak, I do think that there is slow progress in getting African American Muslimahs heard. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for many African American Muslimahs to speak to the world. Not too long ago, NPR did a piece on polygyny among African American women. About four years ago, a great ethnography of African American Muslim women titled Engaged Surrender was published by the University of California press. Additionally, there has been more focus on African American Muslimahs in the entertainment industry as well. So things have been getting better. However, there needs to be more coverage of African American Muslimahs, as well as Latina Muslimahs. We are Muslim women too and we’re not invisible.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch