Despite widely held misconceptions, it is indeed possible to be a Muslim woman fighting for empowerment. Yet Muslim women find themselves having to prove that wearing a headscarf does not mean they are oppressed, and that they can hold on to their faith and upbringing while simultaneously work towards 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With the advent of social media and “shareable” online content, many Muslim women have stripped away outdated stereotypes and emerged as leaders in the women’s equality movement.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.
Two women in Brookyln, New York, have laid the groundwork for this type expression. Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz are comedians whose routines challenge controversial topics surrounding Islam. The friends got together to create the online web series Shugs and Fats after realizing that, growing up, there was a lack of hijabi role models. In a recent blog post, Vaz discusses previous auditions she had for Muslim roles. “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 NYC. They 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. They argue about the contradictions of female virtue. It’s an everyday conversation between two women, but their normality 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?”
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 where headlines in the US and Europe are dominated by nationalism, 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 people across the world, they are normalizing what would otherwise be viewed as un-relatable culture and getting down to the most basic facts — we are all human.