You Don’t Know Me as a Muslim Woman

Huma Abidi

Seated at her desk in Cupertino, California, Huma Abidi’s screen lit up with her daughter, Alina’s face. Alina Abidi was on the Nasdaq screen in Times Square, New York, announcing the Initial Public Offering of Duolingo, where she worked as a software engineer. Huma excitedly tweeted her proud moment. “Proud of you for dedication and success near your 23rd birthday…” 

Huma Abidi, a Senior Director of Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning at Intel, has advocated, mentored, and sponsored young girls in tech leadership. 

Growing up in India with a woman prime minister at the helm, neither Huma Abidi’s gender nor her Muslim faith held her back. She excelled at studies and work. 

Huma doesn’t see herself just as a Muslim woman – she is one of 2021 Women of Influence in Silicon Valley.

She was invited by Neelima Jerath, Director General to speak to 400 students in Punjab, India, on what it is to be a woman in the tech industry, working in the field of AI, and how AI can help keep women safe. 

India has the world’s second-largest Muslim population in raw numbers (roughly 176 million), according to Pew Research Center analysis

Huma Abidi’s daughter Alina Abidi on the Nasdaq screen in Times Square, New York.

Half a billion Muslim women inhabit some 45 Muslim-majority countries, and another 30 or more countries have significant Muslim minorities, including, increasingly, countries in the developed West.

They include women like Second Lieutenant Noor Merchant who graduated from West Point and was commissioned into the United States Army. She comes from a small community in Richmond, Va., of about 150 Muslim families who worship at the same Jamat, or mosque. She was deployed in Afghanistan for 16 months, leading a civil affairs operation.

Cadet Cpl. Fathia Mohammed,  an academic peer adviser for the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, wore a hijab with her uniform. “When I decided to join the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership Corps of Cadets at Mary Baldwin College, I didn’t think wearing the hijab would be an issue. And it wasn’t,” she said.

“Yet the images of Afghan women dominate the media. The feminist and imperialistic view demands the white man save them,” says Basima Sisemore, a researcher for the Global Justice Program at the Othering &  Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley at an Ethnic Media Services briefing on October 8th, 2021. 

The western understanding of Muslim women remains unduly influenced by evidence from a single region. The western media and writers focus disproportionately on the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), said the panelists. “MENA is home to fewer than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims,” said Elsadig Eisheikh, Director, Global Justice Program, Othering & Belonging Institute.

The image portrayed of Muslim women is therefore skewed and ignores the 80 percent who include women prime ministers of countries like Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. 

“Women are seen to have no equality under Islam and are seen in need of being saved.  A narrative that garners public support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Sisemore. 

Sisemore and Eisheikh developed and administered a national survey between October 14 and November 2, 2020, among the US Muslim population (citizens and noncitizen residents who live and/or work in the US) to understand the prevalence of Islamophobia in the US.

In the United States, their report on Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hate crimes documents that women not men, are the primary targets of hate crimes. More women are targets of xenophobic hate in the United States. 

“Women who wear the hijab present a visible symbol of an external and opposing culture,” said Sisemore. This makes them easy targets for xenophobia. “Imperialistic view demands that the world needs to look like the United States.”

Muslim women fight to be accepted, hijab and all. 


Ritu Marwah was a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.


 

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