While walking on Main Campus one night, Jannatul Naima was caught off guard when a few men approached her to ask if she was recruiting for ISIS.
“I was so shocked, because growing up in Philly, it’s such a diverse place,” Naima said. “I’m not used to that, because Philly has such a big Muslim population.”
The sophomore international business major and former president of The Muslimah Project said when people discriminate against her based on her religion, she doesn’t get angry—she just tries to educate them.
Education is one of the goals of The Muslimah Project, an organization created last year, that advocates for female empowerment for Muslim women, while raising awareness about stereotypes toward them.
Robina Begum, a sophomore finance major and treasurer of TMP, said she felt like there wasn’t a space for Muslim women to speak specifically about their issues, even within the Muslim Student Association already formed on Main Campus.
“MSA is more about Islam and Muslims in general,” Naima said. “They do a great job, but they’re an umbrella organization.”
“Girls in our religion don’t feel comfortable talking around men because of how society portrays them to be inferior,” Begum added.
The group wants to help women feel more comfortable being Muslim, and Begum said the members have inspired some students already.
“People think we’re stifled on leadership, that we have no skills and we’re inferior to men,” Begum said. “But that’s not the case. I mean, look at us, we’re a female organization, a lot of us are choosing different majors, we have our own desires and we will become successful leaders.”
Non-Muslims are welcome to join in discussions too, in order to “better represent Islam and Muslim women to non-Muslims on campus,” said Madiha Faruqi, sophomore chemistry major and secretary of TMP.
The reason so many people believe misconceptions about Muslim women, Begum said, is because the portrayal of Islam in popular culture often overpowers the religion itself.
“But that’s not Islam,” Naima said. “The media never mentions what good Muslims are doing around the world.”
A common misconception is that women who wear the hijab, a garment that many Muslim women wear on their heads, are oppressed and wear it because they are forced to. The hijab is obligatory, but “you wear it when you’re comfortably ready to wear it,” Faruqi said.
“I just want to be sure that I’m not going to ever take it off and make sure I’m a good practicing Muslim at the time I wear it,” Faruqi said. “I want to be able to present Muslims in a positive light.”
Naima sees wearing the hijab can represent having a relationship with god.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘Oh wow, you wear the hijab, you must be so devoted,’” Naima said. “I’m like, ‘I am, but there are people who don’t wear the hijab who have a connection to god that you don’t see. Just because I’m visibly doing it, doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t internally doing it.”
The group’s meetings are not exclusive to women, Naima said. The group often invites male students to gain their perspectives as well.
“It’s a very friendly discussion,” Naima said. “It helps a lot for girls to understand where they’re coming from.”
The organization recently had a guest speaker come in to talk about the Muslim-American identity crisis.
“One girl broke down because she’s coming back to school and has a three-year-old son,” Naima said. “She asked, ‘How do I tell him to accept his identity?’”
“I thought, ‘That’s how we all feel, in the back of our minds.’”
Three Muslim students were shot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last year, leaving Naima and her family in shock.
“My mom was terrified to let me leave the house for a month,” Naima said. “But that’s the reality we have to face.”
The members hope that more people join TMP in the future so the group can change more people’s “perspectives of what they initially thought about women in Islam,” Faruqi said.
“Please don’t blindly follow what the media say—don’t listen to them,” Faruqi said. “If you want to learn, learn from other Muslims.”
Tsipora Hacker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org