May 23, 2017

Letter to the Editor: “Two Muslim students don’t represent every Muslim student”

Webster student Hafsa Mansoor responds to The Journal’s storyMuslim students find acceptance at Webster.” Mansoor writes that the story failed to present different perspectives from Muslims on campus, citing her own personal experiences of Islamophobia at Webster.

Pakistani Webster student Hafsa Mansoor | Photo by Jeannie Liautaud

Webster student Hafsa Mansoor | Photo by Jeannie Liautaud

Dear Webster Journal,

The Journal recently published an article entitled “Muslim students find acceptance at Webster” that highlights the experiences of two students who are Muslim at Webster. The bulk of the article describes their life as first and second generation immigrants to the U.S., interviews a local imam who talks about issues facing immigrant families, and then ends with a brief discussion of the way that political figures and the media talk about Islam. The article concludes with the quote “Diversity brings a lot of enrichment… That’s why America is great.”

Honestly, it truly makes me happy to know that these two students have had such positive experiences at Webster. I personally know and greatly respect both Sajeda and Zubair, and I am intensely glad that Webster has been good to them.

But to follow up the statistic “43 percent of Americans harbored some degree of prejudice against Muslims” with the stories of two students who happen to be Muslim, who mostly only discuss immigration, and who (fortunately for them) have not experienced intense Islamophobic attitudes… that essentializes the experiences of Muslims, conflates Islam with immigration, tokenizes these students, insinuates that Islamophobia is not in fact a problem in America— let alone at Webster— and summarily leaves the reader with the impression that American Muslims discussing Islamophobia are complaining unnecessarily.

I don’t want to speak for Zubair or Sajeda because they are both strong, incredible people with their own voices. But I will speak for me, because I was in the picture that accompanied this article (despite having had nothing to do with it until now), and I want to clarify my beliefs.

My lived experiences— including here at Webster— differ from what was highlighted in the story. And having spoken to multiple other students, I know I’m not alone in having been essentially ignored by this article. I’m writing this to say that if we’re going to talk about “Muslims students… at Webster” then we should get input from more Muslims students at Webster.

Like Zubair, I’m Pakistani-American; and like Sajeda, I’m a first-generation American. My family moved here from Pakistan before I was born, and I was born and raised in the U.S.

But unlike them, I choose to wear the hijab. Hijab is a very clear, unavoidable identification that I am a Muslim. It’s a symbol of my Muslim-ness, and everyone will know it. And judge me for it. That means I am constantly called upon to “represent Islam,” including at Webster. In classes and around campus, I get a lot of: “As a Muslim, can you tell me how you feel about [topic]?” or “What do Muslims think about [topic]?” or “You’re Muslim, so you must believe [topic], right?”

And that gets really tiring. I don’t represent every Muslim, and I can’t speak for every Muslim. I don’t want to apologize for everything someone does supposedly in the name of Islam, because I had nothing to do with it. I don’t want to be the person everyone turns to look at when the topic of terrorism comes up as if “Islam” and “terrorism” are the same thing. I don’t want to be reduced from a human being down to just “a Muslim” as if that sums up everything about me. I don’t want to be tokenized; I don’t want to be essentialized; and I darn well don’t want to be subject to other people’s ignorance, hatred, or anger.

But for many people, that is our lived experience as American Muslims— as American Muslim students at Webster. And the Journal article didn’t discuss that.

I have had professors open conversations with me with “what is your ethnicity?” and then never ask me a personal question about my life again, not even “How are you?”. I’ve repeatedly been asked “where I’m from,” as if all hijabis must be international students; and when I tell them I’m from St. Louis, I get asked “where I’m from.” I’m frequently patronizingly told that I’m oppressed, and I have repeatedly been asked how “as a Muslim” I can defend women’s rights. I have been asked point-blank by a professor to act as a mouthpiece for all Muslims. I had a professor once ask me in front of the entire class what it “feels like to look so different from everyone else.” I have continually been referred to as a professor’s “Muslim student.” But, isn’t my value as a human being worth more than dark skin and a headscarf?

And about 6 months ago on campus as I was walking to Marletto’s, a man driving by screamed obscenities at me, called me a “filthy terrorist,” and told me to “go home.” On campus. Those words have echoed around my brain for the last six months, knowing that that man was never so much as told what he said was wrong.

And it’s not like Iike my experiences are hidden or less visible in the overall discussion. I have personally talked about all of these issues repeatedly in student groups, in classes, at events. I’ve even talked directly to multiple members of the administration. In fact I was at an event just yesterday with President Stroble herself where I brought up these concerns. And there are plenty of other students who have had parallel conversations, too. My experiences aren’t particularly idiosyncratic in the larger discourse; I’m unfortunately not the only Webster student who lives this.

So to read a story that erases all of those experiences, that frames the story as representing the “Muslim students… at Webster” but fails to actually do so, that conflates being Muslim with being an immigrant, that cites a statistic about the prevalence of Islamophobia but does not discuss its impact on students, that mentions the stigma surrounding Muslims in politics but does not treat it as a real issue in the brunt of the article— that’s hard for me to read. Especially considering my face was put on the article without my knowledge, that’s really hard for me to accept as the complete truth. I’m not pointing fingers, and I’m not assuming it was anyone’s intention to do that, but it’s not right.

 

Zubair and Sajeda have their own stories, and they’re entitled to be heard. But this is my story, my opinion, and my voice as a “Muslim student… at Webster.” I’ll be the first to admit that my story doesn’t necessarily represent every Muslim student at Webster, either— probably not even every first-generation, Pakistani-American hijabi student at Webster— but that’s the whole point. American Muslim students at Webster are not a monolithic, homogenous group. No one or two or three stories can tell you what it is to be Muslim.

I’m glad we’re talking about issues of diversity and inclusion at Webster. I’m glad we’re trying to highlight the experiences of different students in our community. I’m glad we believe in an accepting and welcoming vision of Webster. But we cannot assume that we’ve already accomplished that vision by invisibilizing different student experiences.

Sincerely,
Hafsa Mansoor

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  • Equanimity

    Interesting letter to the editor. I hadn’t read the original article in question, so after reading Mansoors response I had to go read the original to see what it was about.

    Ms. Mansoor’s reaction is understandable. However, it is my opinion that while her objections are well founded, that the original article’s purpose was not to white wash islamophobia at Webster University — rather, it is this readers opinion that the article in question was a REACTION TO islamophobia expressed by the GOP platform during the presidential campaign. The reason I say this is that the quotes used in the article highlight the importance if, necessity of tolerance, and how a diverse environment has the potential to be a place of empathy. It is this readers opinion that the original article was intended to encourage tolerance by rewarding it with the spotlight of campus media attention.

    This does not mean, However, that Ms. Mansoors insistence that it is absolutely necessary to be aware of islamophobia to confront it and resolve it, and that the article did not function in this capacity, is without just merit However, as mentioned above, it is this readers opinion that this was not the angle of the story, and that its angle, while narrowly focused has its own rightful merit.

    Also, the headline of the original article is the only place that presents a semantic ambiguity. The article very precisely speaks only of the experiences of the two students. Absolutely no where in the article does the author present their stories as a represention of the experience of the entire Islamic student body. The question becomes does the word “students” in the headline really mean “two students” or “all students”. If they’d said “two students” specifically, I think Ms. Mansouri’s objections to the article in question would have little to no ground, though her call for a more hard ball look at islamophobia on campus remains impeccably well founded.