On March 6, 2017, the president of the United States issued a second executive order that targets Muslims. This Muslim ban has already had a variety of negative outcomes, including limiting basic refugee protections mandated by international law, students’ access to their sites of study, and Muslim entrance to the United States more generally. The executive order also has a much more far-reaching consequence. It feeds the Islamophobia machine in this country, reinforcing the idea that there is much to fear from Islam and Muslims. By consistently linking the discourse on Muslims and Islam to sensationalized security debates, this administration is irresponsibly promoting hate and antagonism against Islam and Muslims, not only in the United States but the world over. Chief among the targets of this Islamophobic tide are Muslim women identifiable to the public as Muslims because they wear hijabs. Muslim women have seen hate crimes against them escalate since the electoral campaign and election of Donald Trump (Dearden 2016). It is also important to note that these hate crimes have not been condemned by this administration.
Alongside this rising hostility toward Muslims has been an equally assertive, compassionate, and reassuring show of support for Muslims in the United States. The first executive order (Muslim ban) of January 2017 was met with protests by dismayed Americans across the United States. Many flocked to airports across the nation to welcome Muslims and denounce hate (Rieger 2017). In this outpouring of support, images of Muslim women with hijab were raised as signs of inclusion and acceptance. For many in the community, these heartfelt statements of support were heartening. In many ways, insensible and unjustified discrimination emanating from our country’s highest authority pushed average Americans into action. Since 9/11 Muslim Americans have tried to gain a more sympathetic ear among America’s mainstream. It seems that the Trump administration’s excessive rhetoric has helped Muslim Americans accomplish just that. Still, by and large the American mainstream sees Muslims through the prism of terror and security, a problem Trump has exacerbated. Trump’s excessive rhetoric, however—and perhaps this is a bit too hopeful—might push some to reconsider this paradigm.
Thus, in this moment of despair there may be a silver lining. For many Muslims, being embraced by some segments of the mainstream society is uplifting. Images welcoming Muslim women in hijab and showcasing Muslim patriotism are heartening (fig. 1).
That Muslims are now part of a discourse that does not pit them against mainstream American society, and indeed, now even includes them, is groundbreaking.
Yet, in these moments of optimistic pessimism, one must be mindful of the ways in which Muslim women, especially those with hijab, are portrayed and micromanaged in this struggle for acceptance and inclusion. Both within the Muslim community and among the mainstream, the Muslim woman with hijab has emerged as the most vulnerable of subjects. And this “true” vulnerability only reinforces the image of her “subject” standing in society. The Muslim woman is depicted and imagined as a defenseless, singular archetype with hijab. She now requires more protection, more support, and more help. She is cloaked in the US flag, signaling mandatory conformity to an “American ideal” that is unarticulated, and simultaneously casting a myth of “American” benevolence and protections for her rights, even as hate crimes against Muslims—in the name of America—continue to grow. She remains a victim of “Americanness gone wrong” and is dependent on an “American ideal” for her survival. Hence, reminiscent of other structurally hierarchical models that have disadvantaged Muslim women—like those of colonial histories, state authoritarianism, and Islamic conservative projects—Muslim women find themselves once again at the forefronts of conflict and understanding, tolerance and hate, while baring their vulnerabilities to the world and relying on the goodwill of others to support them. That this in itself is a century-old problem for Muslim women in both the Muslim and Western worlds is somber confirmation that Muslim women are still spoken for, even while their own voices are louder than ever. Let’s switch off the mute button.