"How can someone tell me that this is America and I can't be Muslim here?"
Those are the words of undergraduate student Shahrin Azim. She is a 19-year-old neuroscience student who was one of eight people interviewed as part of an eye-opening photo series profiling Muslim American women ahead of the presidential election.
For Azim, learning about others being attacked for their beliefs is "excruciatingly painful," she said in an interview with the Turkish news site Anadolu Agency. And with hate crimes against Muslims on the rise, it's hard to see a silver lining.
"It's difficult to think about the things that are said to them ... that their people are terrorists and that they should go back to wherever they came from."
During this contentious election season it's easy for these individual voices to get lost in the static of scandals, leaks, and hateful rhetoric. But their perspectives shed a light on a topic that is rarely discussed.
Here are six of those voices talking about their experiences this election season:
1. Shabih Aftab, financial analyst for the Gap Inc.'s global online marketing team
"As a hijabi woman, I am a prominent symbol of Islam and that makes people uncomfortable. Not only about me, but it makes them uncomfortable when I seek success. I try 10 times as hard for the same job than my non-Muslim counterparts work for. We need to accept that women, as it is, have unequal rights in the work place, but when you are a minority it's that much harder. With Islamophobia on the rise, I have to make myself stronger in my faith and steadfast in my morals. I cannot and will not change who I am to make others feel at ease and believe I am worthy of that job or that promotion. This is the same piece of advice I tell my younger sister. We are women who deserve a place at the table, not because we are Muslim, but because we are strong, confident, intelligent and conscious despite what Trump supporters want us to believe. We are told our hijabs hold us back and I firmly disagree. The hijab empowers me to be the best example I can be to show people that 'I am a force.'"
2. Sara Zayed, technology analyst on Wall Street
"It's surreal that I'm regularly in the heart of New York during these tumultuous elections. As a Muslim woman, I've experienced more love than hatred this year — my non-Muslim friends have reinforced their respect and value for me and my identity, and I've never felt more propped up by people of different communities and backgrounds. However, that doesn't mean I don't experience fear. When New York was bombed last month and the bomber was revealed to be a Muslim man, I was terrified to go into the city, worried I may experience backlash as a visibly identifiable Muslim woman. So although I'm experiencing wonderful support, I'm also regularly on my guard and keep a look out for potential danger. I don't underestimate the fact that my hijab has now become a political statement. I firmly believe the best thing my Muslim sisters can do at this time is hold their heads high and continue to break barriers. That in itself is the greatest statement of strength we can offer the world."
3. Marwa Janini, immigration caseworker and instructor at City University of New York
"Growing up amidst the climate of Islamophobic rhetoric, I have faced many challenges that come with being a visible Muslim American woman. I have often had to defend my faith against unwarranted verbal attacks and misconceptions. These experiences were compounded with the paternalistic reality that exists in many Arab immigrant communities, and I am a living embodiment of a woman breaking the mold. While these experiences have had a role in shaping my identity as a Muslim American woman, I refuse to be confined by them. I choose to focus on the positive influence I can have as a successful Muslim American woman, breaking down barriers and proving that the narrative of oppression and voicelessness is baseless and untrue.
4. Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director at Know Your IX
"To be a Muslim woman doing anti-violence work in the United States right now is to really be filled with fury. On the one hand, there is a presidential candidate who has waged a campaign to silence women he’s sexually assaulted. As an advocate organizing against gender violence, I certainly welcome the ensuing outrage. It makes it harder to ignore the fact that gender violence is a very common problem. But, I find it hard not to still feel frustrated. I am frustrated that this candidate's comments (and the other candidate's policies) that have regularly hurt and killed so many people of color are not similarly sufficient to generate outrage. Yesterday, the bedroom of two Muslim girls at my little sister's university had 'terrorist' written on it. In the weeks prior, two friends were assaulted in anti-Muslim attacks. Where is mainstream outrage over stuff like this? ... This past week, my organization just published an 145-page Campus Organizing Toolkit on creating campaigns to fight violence. I am so excited to get this in the hands of young angry people. And I am so grateful to be surrounded by many angry women of color Muslim women, Native, Black, Latina women who are leading fights (against sexual assault, pipelines, against police & prisons) to end violence against people."
5. Nagla Bedir, social studies teacher
"Although there has been a rise in hate speech and Islamophobia, I have been fortunate to work in a district filled with many supportive people. I have had to deal with dirty looks, and some negative comments from co-workers, and the overall ignorance of the majority of the people around me, but on the contrary, the majority of these ignorant people are very curious and willing to learn. … I think some people hear American Muslim and think that is a contradiction. … The ignorance that surrounds Muslims is very frustrating. People avoid coming near me, I get dirty looks and/or am stared at, and I’ve been called a terrorist, Taliban, and a rag-head. Islamophobia has been around since before 9/11 and it has increased and decreased throughout the years. Recently, it has become an even more vitriol disease plaguing our country. … From one extreme people telling me I shouldn’t wear hijab or follow Islam and then on the other end being told I’m too modern and don’t fit the mold of what a Muslim woman is supposed to be. … My family and friends have continuously pushed me to face adversities and succeed despite them. I am not afraid of failure and push myself to try to be the best at everything. What motivates me the most is my students. Their education is the number one priority in my life. So how am I successful woman despite all of these issues? The reason is them."
6. Shahrin Azim, undergraduate student in neuroscience
"As a Muslim woman, I can't help but think about all the young Muslims who are just starting to love their identity or recognize their roots, and how they are being bullied or beaten in school for following a faith that is so horribly misunderstood. It's difficult to think about the things that are said to them by their peers, teachers, and even other adults who they see every day, tell them that their people are terrorists and that they should go back to wherever they came from. People say, 'There is no room in this country for people like you! This is America!' Yes, it is America, a country founded on the values of religious freedom. The pilgrims escaped from England to come here and practice their faith. How can someone tell me that this is America and I can't be Muslim here. I wish that they would realize their hypocrisy. I wish that they could understand that I'm not a terrorist, nor am I associated with any of those groups. Islam is just another monotheistic religion that is very similar to Christianity and Judaism. It is not a faith that condones violence against innocent people, or oppresses women. My religion is part of who I am and I will not let anyone's hate strip me of my faith."
Now that the presidential election is here, these women are a powerful reminder of the many unheard voices.
It's important to have an open and honest discussion about what life in America is like for different people. In an election season like this, empathy — walking in someone else’s shoes — could be the most important tool we have.
Let your voice be heard and make sure to vote!