Islamophobia has played a major role in shaping the sociopolitical landscape of Western countries since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, women seem to bear the brunt of Islamophobic attacks because they are often the most vulnerable and visible targets. According to the Muslim Community Network 2022 Hate Crime Report, the majority of those who participated in their survey of New York City Muslims and expressed having experienced a hate crime were Muslim females. In NYC alone, 63.9% of the victims of faith-based hate crimes were women. Researchers cite that “the intersection of having multiple marginalized identities makes Muslim women, especially immigrant Muslim women, more vulnerable to the damaging impacts of hate crimes and bias incidents.”
The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York was the catalyst for the increased number of hate crimes against Muslim women. In fact, the MCN was founded in 2003 to combat religious bias and change the shape the public narrative of what it means to be Muslim through education and community service.
Three Muslim Women Immigrant Stories
Twenty years ago, I interviewed three immigrant Muslim women to find out how escalating islamophobia and discrimination was affecting their lives and that of their children. Indeed, for many Muslim women, raising children in post 9/11 America has proven to be one of the greatest challenges of living in the U.S., as well as the ultimate test of faith. With the threat of hate crimes, anti-Muslim bias, and anti-immigrant legislation sprouting from state to state, immigrant Muslim mothers became the collateral damage of a nation torn by fear and hatred.
One such mother, Elena Campos,* migrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1998. She was initially exposed to Islam back home but did not convert until she was settled in America. Eventually, she moved to Northern Virginia and married a Pakistani U.S. citizen in 2002. Shortly after Campos gave birth to her second child, her husband was arrested for charges of providing material support to terrorists. He was convicted in 2006, and has been living out his prison sentence since, leaving his wife to fend for herself as a single mother with the stigma of being married to a convicted terrorist. For years, she struggled to adapt to the lifestyle she was forced into because of her husband’s situation – being shunned by both members of the Muslim community and society at large.
“I feel like I live in permanent chaos,” Campos told me while maintaining that her husband was innocent, “I have to be mother and father at the same time. I want to offer my children a religious foundation, but how can you work full time and give your children what they need, emotionally, physically, and psychologically?” She worked several jobs to pay for rent, groceries, and other essentials, but felt like she could never offer her children the adequate attention they needed. As Campos strove to make ends meet, her children suffered because they lacked a father figure. The only “Papa” they knew was behind bars. Although she and her children were allowed periodical visits to her incarcerated husband, the sister questioned the impact it would have on her children. “It is difficult to take your children to see their father in a place where there are murderers, thieves, and rapists,” Campos said. “People have no idea how difficult this is for my family.”
For immigrant Muslim mothers who feel neglected by the justice system in America and isolated within the boundaries of their Islamic communities, prayer is the only resort. This mother felt that although some Muslims tried to help her and her husband’s case, many failed to understand the psychological implications of the situation for her and her children. “All we have now is their father’s supplications,” Campos said solemnly, “because (in Islam) we know the supplication of the oppressed is accepted.” Some of her greatest fears were that her own children, a girl and a boy, would go astray or be falsely accused of criminal activity like her husband.
According to findings by the Sociology Department of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, three of the twenty terror suspects arrested in the United States in 2011 were from the Maryland, DC, Virginia areas. One of those three was a 17-year-old high school student accused of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and recruiting terrorists for jihad. He would now be close to 40 years old now. His parents were legal immigrants from Pakistan. This was a concerning case for Muslim parents who have migrated from foreign lands, unaccustomed to the American way of life while raising children in the US.
There are many factors which could steer a child in the wrong direction, such as neglect from relatives, isolation from the Islamic community, lack of religious knowledge, bullying, peer pressure, and mental health problems. Muslim sociology experts, such as Dr. Taqi Tirmazi, a Professor of Social Work at Morgan State University, explored some of the issues tormenting Muslim youth, especially those from immigrant families after September 11, 2001.
“Growing up as an immigrant Muslim, I have a firsthand understanding of the risk and resiliency among young Muslim youth in their adaptation,” Dr. Tirmazi said. “The research we are undertaking is aimed to form preventions and interventions which address the challenges faced by Muslim youth and families.” Showing parents how to balance an Islamic identity with American society to relate to their children was one of his goals. History has demonstrated that empowering Muslim youth in a post-9/11 America is still an ongoing effort 20 years later.
Not all immigrant experiences are the same. Some Muslim mothers were able to overcome some of their challenges with patience and perseverance. Salima Abdulllahi, another interviewee, claimed things had not been as difficult for her family. Her and her husband, Ali Abdullahi, were both born in Ghana. After they had their first three of six children, an opportunity opened for them to move to the U.S. They applied for citizenship status and became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2003. It was a choice that Abdullahi does not regret, because according to her, she is a better Muslim now that she lives in this country.
“When we got here, we understood Islam better than back home,” she said. “To me you can go on with Islamic values here, [and] nothing can stop you.” In Ghana, she felt, people do not understand or appreciate their religion as much as they do once they settle in the U.S. Abdullahi revealed that she did not encounter any discrimination or harassment since September 11, 2001, but admitted that some of her children were victimized.
Abdullahi enrolled her children, one boy and five girls, in public school in Montgomery County, Maryland. Knowing that some material taught in the public school system did not coincide with her Islamic values, she approached the administration and established ground rules which entailed diet restrictions, limitations on music or singing, and that her daughters must always wear Islamic attire. The girls’ clothing, which consisted of long dresses and headscarves or hijab, became an object of ridicule in school.
Abdullahi recalled that one day, two of her daughters complained that some children in their school bus were yanking at their scarves and demanding to see their hair. They were distraught by the incident and suggested to their mother that she allow them to go to school without hijab. Despite the pressure, Abdullahi responded, “It’s not our choice. It is a command from Allah. You will either wear it or you can’t go to school.” When her daughters were older, they appreciated that their mother taught them about Islam from an early age and did not allow the incident to dilute their faith. To further strengthen their knowledge of Islam, her daughters settled in Islamic countries after graduating from high school. One travelled with her husband to Yemen, while the other went to Egypt to study Arabic. Salamat’s other children stayed behind with her in Maryland.
Although there are large, cohesive Islamic communities across the US some with accredited private schools, the majority of Muslim children attend public schools. Those of immigrant or low-income families cannot afford the monthly tuition costs for Islamic schools. Others, like the Abdullahis, moved to the area before these schools were established or live too far to commute. Some families, like Abdullahi’s older daughters, decide to move to Muslim-majority countries or return home to provide an Islamic environment where their children can feel secure in their individuality.
Umm Saleh Harris
Umm Saleh Harris, a native of Pakistan married to a white American convert, was raising her seven children in the U.S. for over a decade. During their early years of marriage, however, they lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and all their American children were born abroad. When she and her husband decided to return to the U.S. to introduce their children to their paternal relatives, their nightmare began. Umm Saleh’s family arrived in the U.S. only months before September 11, 2001, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And that day shattered their dream of settling in the U.S. to live in peace.
While the Harris family had no problem enrolling their children in public school in North Carolina and then Maryland, Umm Saleh was confronted with discrimination during the process of obtaining her American citizenship, something she attributes to the uneasy atmosphere following the events of 9/11. At the time of her interview, it had been seven years since she applied for citizenship, but it was still being “processed.” Harris went as far as writing to the White House to complain of the discriminatory treatment she received while applying for citizenship despite being married to an American and birthing seven American children. To make matters worse, her mother became ill in Pakistan, and Harris was left with a difficult choice.
She said, “I went (to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office), I told them that my mother was sick and that I needed to go to Pakistan to be with her, and the woman there said, ‘You have to stay here, you cannot leave the country because if we (INS) call you for your interview and you don’t show up, we’ll close your case.’” Harris never made it back to Pakistan where her mother died shortly after. She never received the call from the USCIS. Once when she visited their office after filing a change of address form, she was told her file was not there. Every time she followed up, she was confronted with interrogations, background checks, threats of her case being dropped, and fingerprinting, among other procedures which she felt were humiliating and biased due to her faith and her use of niqab, the face veil.
As a housewife, Harris turned her attention to her children and their upbringing, her motto being, “Protect, support, and guide.” She, too, visited the schools where her children would attend to inform staff of their Islamic obligations such as prayer, washing with water after using the restroom, and other restrictions. Despite the issues she had with USCIS, Harris was confident that her children’s rights could still be protected under the U.S. Constitution. Through her advocacy, the school system made sure that her children were provided with breaks to perform prayers, and during music classes and sex education they were sent to the library and given alternate assignments.
Her eldest daughter, also a niqabi, attended public school without incidents during a time when veiling the face was uncommon. Her youngest, however, requested that her parents transfer her to a private Islamic school where she could wear niqab freely. The high school student felt more comfortable in a gender-segregated school. Harris felt confident that her children were developing into devout Muslims and model American citizens despite her own citizenship status woes. She saw It as the test she had to endure to keep her family together.
There are many untold stories of faith and resilience in the aftermath of 9/11 like those of the three brave women who I interviewed. Each of them was simply a dedicated mother who wanted nothing more than a safe, welcoming environment to raise her children. Even during times when the future of Muslim families have been unclear, the top priority for parents is their families. Muslim immigrant families want to nurture their Islamic identity, while adopting American values that align with their faith. Like one of the immigrant sisters mentioned, being in the U.S. has brought them closer to Allah. Sadly, that very conviction was threatened by Islamophobia while their patriotism comes under scrutiny. Now that their children are the parents of today, one must wonder how they have fared as first-generation Americans in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
* All names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Hijab Scenes: Muslim Women, Migration, and Hijab in Immigrant Muslim Literature by Samaa Abdurraqib, Vol. 31, No. 4, Arab American Literature), pp. 55-70, Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) (Winter 2006)
Díaz-Guadalupe, Wendy, Researchers Say Statistics Can Drive Youth Program Planning, The Muslim Link Newspaper (May 2012)
Islamic Terrorism: Spreadsheet of Muslim-American Terrorism Cases from 9/11 through the End of 2015 by Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Terrorism since 9/11 by John Mueller, ed., Columbus: Ohio State University (March 2016)
Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis | Cato Institute by Alex Nowrasteh, (Policy Analysis No. 798), Cato Institute (September 2016)
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.