Less than two weeks after the 2017 presidential inauguration and President Donald Trump’s initial travel ban, University of Oregon graduate students in Charlie Butler’s “Reporting Story” class pitched ideas for a five-month project.
When Viktoria Haiboniuk and Grant Burgess suggested profiling Muslim women, the idea — timely on local, national and international levels — emerged triumphant.
Most of the work was done via a subsequent class, “Producing Story,” guest-taught by Emily Harris, a veteran public radio journalist who spent a number of years reporting from Jerusalem and Iraq. Writing and research fell to five students, only one of whom was Muslim.
All involved knew this would be a huge undertaking, and they moved forward carefully, according to Harris and Regina Lawrence, who oversees UO’s graduate journalism program in Portland. The goal was to tell the women’s stories in a deliberate, culturally sensitive, but still journalistic way.
“This was a subject they cared a lot about because of all the attention, not just the last year, but really the last decade on Islam,” says Harris, who previously worked for Oregon Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. “All the students wanted to understand better and investigate, and this was one way to do that.”
But there was more skepticism from some than from others.
Tiara Darnell, 28, was not in the class when the idea was chosen, and was apprehensive about the project from the moment she heard about it.
“Yo, we just need to be conscious of what we’re trying to do,” Darnell says. “We need to be respectful of this culture.”
Before Darnell enrolled at the UO graduate school, the Maryland native spent two years in the Peace Corps in Morocco. Although she isn’t Muslim, she had lived in an Islamic community and experienced two Ramadans.
In addition to Darnell’s experience, the students had the help of Mohammad Alkhadher, a Muslim-identified student whose work also is featured in the collaborative project. Darnell said he saved his classmates from making some embarrassing mistakes, but there were limits to his insight — their project was an exploration of Muslim women, not men.
At first, he says, he was wary.
“I don’t think the class understood the complexity of what it would mean to tell a Muslim woman’s story or even get a Muslim woman to be willing to tell us her story,” Alkhadher says. “I don’t think they necessarily understood the distrust between Muslims and the media, which is in a lot of ways warranted.”
Alkhadher, who grew up in Kuwait, majored in journalism and media studies at UO and did most of his research on the portrayal of Muslims by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
Between Darnell, Alkhadher and Harris, they had a solid understanding of the religion, and respect for the community they were exploring. Still, none of them were female Muslims.
“I definitely had some familiarity with Muslim culture, but there is a wide variety of everything,” says Harris, now a reporter and producer for Reveal, a weekly public radio show and podcast of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert.”
The chosen five
The students chose a provocative title for their project, “Badass Muslim Women.”
As they searched out women to profile, they did their best to avoid stereotypes and generalizations.
The five women profiled share three things: a religion, a gender and a place of residence. Otherwise they are wildly different.
There’s a student activist. A hip-hop promoter. A computer software engineer. A future teacher. An organizer of the nation’s first Ramadan Tent Project.
Through their school project, the students sought to communicate that being a Muslim woman is not necessarily a prescription for a certain way of life.
Hanan Al-Zubaidy, one of those profiled, was eager to participate in this project, as the 24-year-old says she is passionate about changing the narrative around Muslim women.
Al-Zubaidy, who is pursuing a master’s degree in education at Portland State University, says the most frustrating stereotype she encounters is that Muslim women are passive, oppressed women living in fear.
“Just by being myself I’m shattering that stereotype,” says Al-Zubaidy, who has embraced the “Badass Muslim Woman” label.
Al-Zubaidy met with student reporter Whitney Gomes, 27, on a dozen occasions over five months to shoot the video for Gomes’ part of the project. Then there were countless coffee shop interviews that Gomes conducted for the print article she wrote about Al-Zubaidy, who mentors young women at her Beaverton mosque.
Lawrence, the grad school’s director, specializes in gender and politics, and was impressed by the students’ storytelling abilities. It was important, she says, that they focused not only on their subjects’ hardships, but on their strengths, interests and the role religion plays in their lives.
“It was very complex,” Lawrence says. “It brought gender together with religion and race in a really rich way.”
The hijab factor
In his deliberate effort to avoid falling into stereotypes, Alkhadher told the story of Ibeth Hernandez, a Mexican-American hip-hop music promoter who recently converted to Islam from Catholicism. In addition to her work in the Portland music industry, Hernandez, 31, works at Jefferson High School as mentor for the school’s first Muslim Student Association.
Since her conversion to Islam in 2011, Hernandez has never considered not wearing the hijab. Early in the project, when Alkhadher asked her about her personal habits with it, she answered: “It’s a part of who I am.”
But that has since changed.
On May 26, Jeremy Christian allegedly walked onto a MAX train in Portland and began harassing two teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. When three bystanders jumped to their defense, Christian allegedly attacked them with a knife; two of the men died and the third was seriously injured.
Hernandez was very upset by the MAX attack, and even more so because the young hijabi on the train is one of her mentees from Jefferson.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in high school in America and wear the hijab,” Hernandez says. “That could have been any of our girls.”
Hernandez was able to check in with the young woman from the train little more than a month after the attack, and says the young woman is in higher spirits but will need a lot of healing time.
“She is such an incredible young woman. She is the sweetest, most caring, witty, snappy girl you will ever meet. She has so much going for her in so many areas of life,” Hernandez says. “To have something happen like that to a young woman like her is devastating. I think it has really shaken up her friends from school, her community and family.”
Hernandez had never been afraid to go out in public wearing the hijab, but now she can’t help but wonder, “What if something happens?” She has a 5-month-old daughter who goes almost everywhere with her.
“I would hate to be attacked because of what I look like and have her harmed in any way,” Hernandez says.
She hasn’t taken it off, but whether she will continue wearing the hijab is now a constant battle.
Impact of the attacks
The MAX slayings, which occurred just hours before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, also impacted the stories Haiboniuk and Gomes were wrapping up.
Haiboniuk was profiling Sadaf Assadi, who along with seven other Portland State University students had organized the first Ramadan Tent Project open iftar in the United States in 2016.
The three-day event, held during Ramadan, a month of holy fasting for Muslims, invites non-Muslims to learn more about Islam and join the evening iftar meal, when Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast.
Both reporters had largely finished their stories but planned to attend the open iftar, held in Beaverton on the eve of Ramadan.
The event started May 27, the day after the MAX attack. As Gomes reported, the opening night attendance doubled from 2016, to over 600, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and women’s rights activist Aneelah Afzali.
“The increased attendance and visibility may have been in part due to a deadly attack in Portland just 24 hours earlier,” Gomes wrote in a short article that is included in the package of stories.
As Gomes reported, Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, the two men who died, were honored at the event.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Gomes says. “It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had as a journalist.”
Two weeks later, the students stood before a crowded room in UO’s White Stag Building in Portland’s Old Town and presented rough drafts of their work to the community. Many of their subjects were in attendance.
Lawrence says the MAX slayings make their work that much more important.
“It certainly made me lean in and watch even more closely than I would have,” Lawrence says. “When the students set out months ago to start this project, they would have no idea the context in which we would watch those videos that night. We really need to hear these voices. We really need to hear the experiences of these women and other people like them.”
“Badass Muslim Woman” serves as mentor
By WHITNEY GOMES,
Third grader Hanan Al-Zubaidy was getting ready for school when a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center that September morning in 2001.
She lived in low-income housing in a predominantly white neighborhood of Portland, with her parents and two younger brothers.
Backpack in tow, Al-Zubaidy emerged from her room dressed in a basic tee and a black headscarf, a hijab, wrapped around her hair. “You cannot wear it today,” she remembers her mother begging. Al-Zubaidy recalls wanting to wear the headscarf as early as age 7. “I wanted to be like my mom and grandma,” she says.
She had just started covering her hair regularly the first day of school that year.
“But that morning my mom did not want me wearing the headscarf,” she recalls.
Ignoring the plea, she continued toward the front door.
Al-Zubaidy wound up agreeing to a compromise with her mother.
The 8-year-old arrived at school dressed “like one of those red, white, and blue rocket-ship ice cream things,” Al-Zubaidy says. Her mother Asraa “decked her out” in a white headscarf, a ruby-red dress, and royal-blue leggings. She attended school on Sept. 11, 2001 as a patriotic “hijabi” — a Muslim woman who regularly wears the headscarf.
The charity pillar of faith
Born of Iraqi parents in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, Al-Zubaidy was 3 years old when her family emigrated to the United States in 1996. She became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
Today the Portland State University graduate student mentors primary-age children at the Portland Montessori School and young Muslim women through her mosque, the Imam Madhi Center in Beaverton.
Iranian-American Maryam Khatami, 19, became close with Al-Zubaidy when they met through the mosque as teenagers.
“Hanan exceeds the role of a great community leader,” Khatami says.
Islam promotes five central tenets: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. Al-Zubaidy says charity, or zakat, resonates most strongly with her. As youth coordinator, she involved young Muslim women in various fundraisers to help the homeless community, refugee families, and other marginalized social groups.
Her relationship with Khatami went beyond sharing community service, after the younger woman lost her father to cancer in 2014. Khatami remembers slipping into depression. She stopped attending mosque and lost interest in school. Al-Zubaidy reached out, encouraging her to join in on hikes and stay connected to the youth group.
To cover or not to cover
Many Muslim women wear a hijab as a part of their religious practice. Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American women’s studies scholar, points out that in some countries, “there are as many Muslim women who do not wear the hijab as Muslim women who do.”
Khatami had worn it since first grade in Iran, but in the U.S. it set her apart from other students. Classmates made fun of her.
“Take that turban off your head,” she recalls one student yelling in seventh grade. “There were a lot of racial slurs, a lot of name-calling.”
However, Khatami continued wearing the headscarf until her junior year of high school — one year after her father died. Around that time, she thought about dropping the headscarf as part of her usual dress. That spring, she began her own research into Islam, particularly beliefs about dressing modestly and covering women’s hair.
Al-Zubaidy helped Khatami with research but encouraged her friend to choose her own path. Al-Zubaidy said she would support whatever choice Khatami ultimately made.
In the end, Khatami decided to take off her hijab. However, she wears it while in mosque or during prayer.
“People in the community were not going to be happy about a decision like that,” Al-Zubaidy says. “My goal was to make her feel comfortable because, ultimately, it’s a personal decision. It’s Maryam’s decision.”
Khatami began attending mosque again. Last spring, she graduated from Beaverton High School. With Al-Zubaidy’s encouragement, Khatami enrolled at Portland Community College with hopes of becoming a marriage and family therapist.
‘Badass Muslim woman’
Grateful for Al-Zubaidy’s unwavering support, Khatami identifies her friend as a strong female leader who has helped her through one of the toughest decisions of her life.
This strength, Khatami recognizes, is what makes Al-Zubaidy a “badass Muslim woman.”
The title, she explains, refers to independent, young, female Muslims who fight against racial and Islamophobic bigotry. These women stand up for themselves and encourage others to exude that same confidence.
Blushing and biting her lower lip when she hears this, Al-Zubaidy’s humility shines through. “I kind of, maybe, would possibly consider myself a badass Muslim woman,” she says.
“Hanan is the most badass woman, and Muslim woman, I’ve ever met,” Khatami says. “She knows how to set people straight. She knows how to stand up for herself and her religion. And she has helped me do the same.”
“I know so many badass Muslim women doing so many amazing things,” Al-Zubaidy says. “Until they all get the recognition they deserve, my work is never done.”
Whitney Gomes is a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s multimedia journalism program. This article first appeared as part of Muslimah PDX, a collaborative multimedia project. More stories and photos be found at blogs.uoregon.edu/muslimahpdx/
Although “convert” is the word that most people think of when someone changes religions, many Muslims use a different word: revert. This comes from the Islamic belief in fitrah, that all people are born Muslim with an innate belief in God, regardless of the way they are brought up. So if someone chooses to begin practicing Islam later in life, they are simply reverting to their true origins. Hernandez is referred to as a convert in this story for clarity purposes, but identifies as a revert.
The word “hijab” means to cover, and it’s the word that describes the headscarf that many Muslim women wear all around the world. Hanan Al-Zubaidy says women wear it for very different reasons, but the most common reason given tends to be modesty. That’s not the answer she gives, though, because she feels like everybody interprets modesty differently. For her, it’s a part of her identity as a Muslim. She appreciates that it gives her more control over how she is perceived in a world that puts such harsh standards on women’s appearances.
“I don’t have to conform to what society’s ideas of beauty are in order to be a strong woman,” she says.
Al-Zubaidy says that just like fashion, there are trends for hijab styling. Women who wear the headscarf, often called hijabis, can tell the cultural origins of others by the way their scarf is styled. There is often a stigma against women who chose to take off the headscarf, Al-Zubaidy says, because people tend to think that it is a symbol of piety, “but I don’t think of it that way at all.”
Even women who don’t wear the hijab on a daily basis cover their hair when they enter a mosque out of respect for the place of worship.
This story was first published here.