I'm 'Not Muslim Enough' For My Culture, But 'Too Muslim' For My Country

by Jenan Matari
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

It's tough being a Muslim woman. With our scarves and conservative clothing, we're basically a walking political identity. It's also tough being a non-hijabi Muslim woman — for reasons that probably aren't as obvious as being stared at for covering our hair.

I admit, I have a pretty face and super light skin, so I blend in quite well with the “average American” image. But that doesn't mean that my identities don't conflict with each other. And that's on both ends of the spectrum. I'm a walking contradiction in both the Muslim and white American world — being “too American” for my Muslim friends or “too Muslim” for my American friends. I've found what I think is a great balance now, but it wasn't the easiest thing coming up with that recipe during my high school and college years.

You get a lot of shit as an assimilated American Muslim from your own community. The same people who are supposed to be supporting you and encouraging you to achieve greatness are usually the ones who are the first to jump down your throat if you say something or wear something or look at something in a way that they deem as "3aab," aka inappropriate.

My whole life has been about finding that perfect balance. It's a burden that many young Muslim Americans are faced with

For example, because I leave my hair uncovered, enjoy bodycon dresses, take trips to Miami or have nights out with my girlfriends, I am pegged as the “bad girl” type of Muslim, and other Muslim women have been too quick to refer to me as a "whore."

Muslim men had noticeably less respect for me than they would a hijabi and saw me as “easy” because hey, if she's not covered, she's not religious, and therefore you can disrespect her, right?

There's a third identity that's thrown into the mix as well — as if the other two weren't enough to handle. I also happen to be an Arab Muslim American. Quick note for those who are unaware: Not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. I just happen to be both. Because I don't speak Arabic, I somehow “don't count” as an Arab. I can roll you grape leaves for hours and make you the best damn mint tea you've ever had in your life, but because I can't carry out a conversation in my "native tongue," I'm seen as less of an Arab who's embraced every other aspect of her culture and more as an Arab who's "lost herself" and her heritage.

I mentioned before that I blend in quite well with the average American. You can tell my family is something different, but no one ever assumes Arab Muslim, which has allowed us to basically keep quiet about our incredibly beautiful culture and religion that we love so much.

It's a sad truth, but it's not really "cool" to be Arab or Muslim as of late. With young kids being executed by racists “over parking spaces,” Taxi drivers being shot by clients, college professors being suspended for teaching about Islam and an entire county shutting down its schools because a teacher assigned a standard homework assignment to copy Arabic calligraphy for a world geography class, it's actually become quite dangerous to reveal your religious affiliation with Islam. We were able to easily remain hush-hush about who we are — until I opened my big mouth.

Unfortunately, coming from a small town typically means you have to deal with some small-minded people. Some of those people happen to be friends of my parents and people I went to high school with. Aside from daily fasting for a month each year and people thinking I was crazy for doing it or not being able to “go down the shore” during prom weekend as a senior in high school because my parents wouldn't allow it (this was on top of the countless parties I missed out on), people say a lot of mean things — often without even realizing it.

On the lighter side, I'd get questions on the regular from people who were just curious, like, “So how do you feel about ISIS?” To which I'd respond with, “So how do you feel about the KKK?” But eventually, it became much deeper than that. People who mattered began to say some pretty scary things.

... they asked me to 'tone down the Muslimness' for a while — just until the world calmed down again.

One of my father's good friends happens to be an avid Trump supporter. He's all about “making America great again” and totally supports Trump's foreign policy, whatever that may be.

“Build the wall and make Mexico pay for it! Keep out the refugees! Carpet bomb the shit out of the Middle East!” Whoa, what? That last one is where I believe my dad's blood pressure went from boiling to absolute rage blackout and unleashed on the guy.

My dad's exact words were, “Are you fucking kidding me right now, bro?” I think it was the insensitivity in his words that really hurt my dad, being that we have family in the Middle East and that this friend was aware of that. Here is this guy, who comes to our family home, whose son hangs out with my brother, who breaks bread with us raving about our Arabic food and with whom we have no problem with them bringing their homemade wine to our home for dinner (alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but my family never imposes our views on others), but is totally cool with the idea of literally mass murdering our entire family overseas.

How do you still look at someone the same way after hearing that? How do you call this person a friend? It's different to just have opposing political views, but when one's family is put in danger because of those views — like Trump wanting all Muslims to publicly display their religious symbol (sound familiar?) — that's when things get hazy.

Then there was the refugee hater. This was a special kind of person. I went to high school with her daughter. I'd occasionally play with her youngest daughter at my brothers' soccer games. I thought we were friends. She, too, came to our home for dinners and was a friend of my parents, until one day when she decided to start leaving little snide comments on my Facebook page about all Muslims supporting terrorism, Jesus being the only way to salvation and claiming that the millions of people fleeing war and death in search for a better life to be “terrorists in hiding.” Then I knew who she really was.

I did my best to remain calm and explain to her that her biased views were skewed opinions and asked her how, knowing my family for years, she was capable of saying such terrible things about a group of 1.6 billion people. She responded, "If the glove fits."

For a while, my family asked me to keep a low profile and hold off on social media. It was a real eye-opener for them about the world we live in. When I wasn't typing out six-paragraph statuses — who doesn't love a good Facebook rant? — I'd post quotes from the Quran preaching peace and equality among humankind just to try and get any little message across to people who started to believe that groups like ISIS represented who I am, actually had nothing to do with Islam.

It was around the time of the Paris and San Bernadino tragedies that they asked me to "tone down the Muslimness" for a while — just until the world calmed down again. That was something I never imagined I'd experience. My parents, who created the embodiment of an all-American family, who would come to my elementary school every year to teach my fellow classmates about their one Arab Muslim friend and about our food and traditions, were now basically begging me to stop being loud and proud about who they raised me to be.

And as much as that hurt, I understood. I understood their fears as parents. The activist in me didn't want to listen to their pleas but the daughter in me sympathized with their pain. They were watching the people who they trusted, fall into the media trap of believing that all Muslims are “bad people” and support terrorism.

I don't care how old you are; that's a tough pill to swallow. Of course, we'll never be able to praise or thank those friends enough that did reach out during those tough times to let us know that they stood with our family and supported us and sympathized with our pain. But those friends were the ultimate voices of reason that helped my parents understand how important it was to continue speaking up. And so, here I am again — loud and proud.

You don't have to be covered as a Muslim woman to experience the backlash of being Muslim. While I'm fortunate enough to have grown up around New York City, where most people are open-minded and diversity is appreciated, bigots creep up on you in every area. You still feel as though you have to hide who you are. You have to be the average American so not to alarm anyone, but at the same time, you have to embrace your family roots because that's what America is all about.

My whole life has been about finding that perfect balance. It's a burden that many young Muslim Americans are faced with today. But it's also a blessing. I truly believe that we are all placed into our positions in life for a reason. I happened to have been given a voice, a loud one, that for some reason, people listen and can relate to.

So we use our abilities for good. Every day, we are forced to prove ourselves worthy of that blue passport whether we want to or not. And it's not enough to just be average anymore; we have to go above and beyond just to be accepted.

Of course, there will always be those people who call Muslims like me and my family “the exception.” That's the world we live in. At least they have a great experience with some Muslims to reflect on when their word vomit compels them to start spitting out racist dialogue again.

In terms of speaking to those in my own community, I don't care if you think I'm a terrible Muslim for not covering my hair; I praise you for having the strength to commit to that lifestyle. I don't care if you criticize me for not speaking Arabic properly; I envy you for being able to do so. I don't care about any of your thoughts regarding who you believe I am as a person; you're entitled to those simple-minded opinions.

So long as you understand that the only way to beat this Islamophobia and rise above the hatred that we are experiencing as a group of people is to do it together, then I'll always have your back — as you should mine.