Posted in Blog Posts

Evaluating Muslims in KidLit: A Guide for Librarians, Educators, and Reviewers

by Mahasin and Ariana

In 2019, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin received 3,717 children’s and young adult books from publishers. Of those books 45 (1.2%) were “tagged” with a Muslim diversity subject, but were not evaluated for quality or accuracy of representation. 

When looking at Muslim representation in media, children’s literature is often the first exposure that children have to Muslims and Islam. In creating this understanding, it is important to be deliberate in combating tropes and stereotypes that deal in disinformation, fear-mongering, and histories rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.

Part I of this guide identifies resources for learning more about Muslim Americans while providing context for media representation, while Part II offers guiding questions for reflection and analysis of collections and individual works. 

Part I: Recommended Resources

Muslims in Story: 

Expanding Multicultural Understanding Through Children’s and Young Adult Literature

When considering collection development of books featuring Muslim characters, Gauri Manglik and Sadaf Siddique’s (of Kitaab World) Muslims in Story: Expanding Multicultural Understanding Through Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2018) is a comprehensive guide to selecting books, essential for libraries.

Muslims in Story provides an overview of Muslims in America, Islamophobia and its impact, and how literature can be used to promote long-term systemic change. The second part provides book lists and programming ideas, with books categorized by theme. The appendices include frequently asked questions, suggested guidelines for book evaluation, a timeline of Muslims in America, a glossary of terms, and additional resources. 

Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s American Muslims 101 

Understanding who Muslims and Muslim Americans are, how they practice Islam, and what challenges their communities face, are important components to knowing and serving Muslim populations, and in bringing a critical lens to evaluting books featuring Muslim characters. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) is a valuable tool. It provides current statistics and infographics about Muslim Americans and issues affecting them.

The Riz Test

Like the Bechdel–Wallace test on women in movies and media, the Riz Test identifies problems in representation, bias, and lazy storytelling that depicts Muslims as simplistic, and lacking dimension and humanity. Named for actor Riz Ahmed’s 2017 speech to the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, which addressed diversity on screen, and identified stereotypes and tropes associated with Muslims in the media. 

The Test: 

If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) – is the character… 

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism? 
  2. Presented as irrationally angry? 
  3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern? 
  4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life? 
  5. If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts? 

If the answer for any of the above is Yes, then the film/ TV show fails the test.

When credence is given to Muslims consulting on media as part of the creative process, from sensitivity readers, bloggers, #ownvoice reviews, and organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) Hollywood Bureau, stories become more nuanced and a better reflection of the diversity that exists within the Muslim community.

Naming stereotypes allows for the deconstruction of bigotry and actively combating harm. Tools like Jewel Davis’ guide to fantasy worlds, which establish a framework for evaluating “elements of racial and ethnic diversity in speculative fiction and media,” and Teaching for Change: Social Justice Books’ Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books by Louise Derman-Sparks, prompts viewers to look for stereotypes, question normalized biases, commonly used language, and power dynamics between groups of people in illustrations, storylines and relationships. Similarly, part II of our toolkit lists guiding questions that disrupts common tropes by looking at collections holistically and at individual works.

Part II: Guiding Questions for Individual Works and Overall Collections

Librarians and educators must take a holistic look at their collections to determine what trends of representation exist therein, and in consideration of publishing trends, collections should not perpetuate a single narrative or experience. Yet, it is simplistic to view books as simply “good” or “bad”, much like the characters that are depicted within them. When doing reader’s advisory and recommending books, librarians must be mindful that just because Muslims are present in a work, does not mean that the work will speak to every Muslim’s experience. 

It is important that all Muslims, particularly those whose voices are less often heard, are able to write their own stories, and that publishers expand the number of books and voices being published. Authentic, intersectional stories, even those stories that might be considered controversial, or don’t present Muslims in the best light, represent the complexity of the Muslim experience. Still, the power of stories to affect the lives of Muslims necessitates thoughtful reflection. As one individual cannot speak for an entire community, one book cannot and will not represent one group of Muslims. We hope that this toolkit will be used to further thoughtful conversations about representation of Muslims and Islam in children’s and young adult literature.

Question for Overall Collection Development:

  • How many books about Muslims in your collection are written by Muslim authors? 
  • Visually, is there only one type of identity marker for Muslims? Is this identity marker the headscarf? Is it only referred to as “hijab”? 
  • Is there gender diversity? Are Muslim boys and men visible or erased?
  • Do Muslims only show up in one type of narrative? Is there a dominant narrative?
  • Is the diversity of the Muslim community demonstrated? Does one group dominate? Are any Muslims from multiple heritage backgrounds? Does your collection have books by and about Black Muslims? Who are the Muslims in your biography section?
  • Are stories intersectional? Are there Muslims from different heritage backgrounds interacting? How are different aspects of a character’s identity (i.e. ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender identity, ability) explored?
  • Are all of your books published by mainstream publishers? Many Muslim voices have little or no representation in mainstream publishing. 
  • Are all of your books told from a Sunni perspective or erase non-Sunni practices and communities? Are Shia’ communities and other Muslim minority communities represented and named? 
  • How many of your books feature Muslims as background or side characters as opposed to protagonists? Do they have any speaking lines or agency in action? Are racial and/or ethnic identities specified or ambiguous?
  • Who are the love interests? Are love interests only white and/or non-Muslim? Are love interests only from racial or ethnic in-groups? Are character features/points of attraction Eurocentric?

Questions to ask when evaluating Muslim representation in an individual book:

  • Does the work reflect an understanding of Islam’s own intellectual tradition? Or are topics viewed from a Judeo-Christian gaze or vis-a-vis secular humanist norms? What sources are centered and how does this affect the reader’s understanding of Islam and Muslims?
  • How is the “West” represented? Is the U.S. the savior nation? Does the book triumph an unquestioned American exceptionalism narrative?
  • Do characters and depicted communities have agency, or are they portrayed as victims of forces beyond their control?
  • Does the work reflect an understanding of the complex history of predominately Muslim countries? Example: Are Muslim countries depicted as being impoverished, juxtaposed with Western nations being modern and functional?
  • How is religiosity portrayed? Is there nuance when it comes to the practice of Islam? Does the narrative set up a false moral binary between religious and less practicing or secular characters? Is religious practice used to indicate negative and/or archaic views?
  • Are Muslim characters multi-dimensional?
  • Does the work conflate culture with Islam or universalize a particular Muslim experience or heritage? For example, are Arab and/or South Asian cultural practices presented as universal norms for all Muslims? Does the text imply that Muslim cultures are all the same?
  • Beyond sharing Muslim identity or heritage, does the author’s own lived experience speak to other parts of a character’s identity? Is the author’s religious identity being conflated with cultural and/or ethnic heritage?
  • Where appropriate, is there backmatter that explains and differentiates religious practices, especially where they are unique to particular cultures? Are cultural and religious concepts presented and explained in a way that is developmentally appropriate?

What are further questions that you would consider or wonder about?

Posted in Blog Posts, Books

Ramadan Reads: Recommended Books

Ramadan Reads

In 2019 we did a series of Instagram posts of kidlit books about Ramadan. This year we have curated and updated our list to include new titles and our favorites. Books are listed by format and in alphabetical order by title.

Picturebooks

Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie: A Celebration of African American Muslim Culture by Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins: At Bashirah’s Islamic school all of the students will bring in a dish to share after Eid to celebrate Muslim cultural diversity. Her classmates, Mustafa and Fatima, will bring jollof rice and biryani respectively; Bashirah decides to bring bean pie, a family recipe that her Pop-pop is teaching her. Her family gets together for Eid prayers, all beautifully dressed and then return home for food: fried chicken, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and green beans, while Bashirah and Pop-pop make bean pie together. Bashirah’s father calls the family together for dhur prayers where “three generations of Muslims—aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents-all prayed together.” Bashirah takes food to share with a neighbor and the family enjoys Bashirah’s very first bean pie. At school, Bashirah proudly brings in her pie, and teacher Nafisah reminds the students that Allah made us into nations, encourages us to get to know each other, and that no Muslim is elevated over another except by faith and deed. Included is a recipe for bean pie.

Drummer Girl by Hiba Masood: In a Turkish village, the musaharati drummer has the important job of waking Muslims for their pre-dawn meals during Ramadan. Najma has followed the beat of the drummer and longs to be a musaharati herself, but a girl has never performed this role before.

Eid Breakfast at Abuela’s by Mariam Saad: Sofia, her mom and dad spend Eid with her Mexican grandmother who throws them a festive breakfast which includes traditional Mexican food, decorations, and activities. Her grandmother and other family members who join to celebrate with Sofia and her family are not Muslim.

The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard: Sophia loves all things sparkly including the decorations her family puts up during Ramadan and the heart of the person that fasts. When her first attempt at fasting is harder than she anticipates, Sophia’s grandmother reminds her that there are more opportunities to try again and that there are other ways to celebrate the month and equally important acts of worship and ways to help. With Sophia’s multitude of feelings and the encouragement of her family, Lumbard captures the feelings of Ramadan and what the month means to believers. The story also reminds us that for those who cannot fast there are other ways to make Ramadan meaningful, to nourish the sparkles within the heart.

Hassan and Aneesa Celebrate Eid by Yasmeen Rahim: In another story about Hassan and Aneesa, they are excited to celebrate Eid, decorating the house, attending Eid prayers in new clothes and hosting an Eid party with family and friends.

Hassan and Aneesa Love Ramadan by Yasmeen Rahim: Brother and sister Hassan and Aneesa, British Muslims, are excited for Ramadan. At night Aneesa hears noise from the kitchen and sees her parents eating sahur, the pre-dawn meal. In the day they observe their parents reading Qur’an and giving charity. Having iftar with their cousins, they see their cousins fasting, and want to try as well, their mother agreeing but saying that they can stop if they feel too hungry because children don’t need to fast. While younger Aneesa breaks her fast with a banana, Hassan wants to try to fast the whole day, and they have their evening meal with a special treat. Glossary included.

Ilyas & Duck: Ramadan Joy! by Omar S. Khawaja: The fourth book in the Ilyas & Duck series features Ramadan, the joy of the month as well as the difficulty of fasting and the empathy and compassion that comes as a result. All the while readers familiar with the antics of the duo and a new villain in town, Mr. Mean.

Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi: Having recently moved from the UAE to Peachtree, Georgia, Laila is excited to fast this year for Ramadan with her family but is hesitant to tell her teachers and classmates. Instead of sharing a note from home, Laila first goes to the lunchroom and then to the library, before the school librarian encourages her to express her feelings. This lovely and relatable book is a gentle introduction to Ramadan that helps to equip children with language and tools to advocate for themselves and reminds the adults in their lives to advocate and listen to them. The term sehri is used for the predawn meal instead of suhoor, adding another layer of identity to Laila and her family’s immigration story.

A Moon for Moe and Mo by Jane Breskin Zalben: Two neighbors, Moses Feldman, and Mohammed Hassan, both known as Moe/Mo by their families, share a picnic in the park when the Ramadan fast coincides with Rosh Hashanah.

Moon Watchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalali Shirin: watches for the moon with her family and wants to participate in the fast, but at 9 years old she is told that she’s too young to do so. She concentrates on doing good deeds like trying to get along with her older brother.

The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Ndaa Hassan: A Ramadan story about Laylat-Al-Qadr, the night Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This is a special night that occurs once a year during the month of Ramadan.

My First Ramadan by Karen Katz: My First Ramadan is by Karen Katz. This story follows a young boy as he observes the month of Ramadan with his family.

Night of the Moon by Hena Khan: Seven-year-old Pakistani American Yasmeen and her mother observe the tiny crescent of the moon signifying the start of Ramadan. As the month goes by Yasmeen tracks the phases of the moon as passage of time while highlighting the various events that take place during Ramadan through the eyes of a child capturing the spirit of Ramadan, familial and community love and fellowship.

Owl & Cat: Ramadan Is…by Emma Apple: A brief note introduces readers to the concept of fasting during the month of Ramadan, indicating its specialness and being a time of generosity and gratitude. The sixty pages that follow indicate one action, deed, and an illustration on the opposite page of Owl and Cat and their various friends. After 60 pages (30 days), Ramadan is over and it is Eid.

A Party in Ramadan by Asma Mobin-Uddin: Leena is excited to participate in Ramadan. Not old enough to fast the entire month, she decides to participate by fasting on certain days with her family. When a birthday party of one of her friends falls on a fasting day Leena is determined to fast, even though her mother asks if she would like to fast on another day. Leena enjoys the party and finds fasting easy at first, but as the afternoon goes on and grows hotter she finds herself longing for a glass of lemonade and birthday cake. She is able to keep her fast and has the opportunity to do a good deed and share a test with her sister after breaking fast.

Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass: Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass, illustrated by Jeni Reeves and published by Lerner Books gives an overview of Ramadan for readers. Susan is an incredible source for Islamic education for K-12 educators in social studies, history, and religion and apart from her many accomplishments is currently the K-14 Education Outreach Coordinator Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Ramadan Around the World by Ndaa Hassan: Ramadan Around the World looks at Muslim children around the world and their celebration of Ramadan in prayer, charity, and fasting.

Ramadan Moon by Nai’ma B. Robert: Ramadan Moon by Na’ima B. Robert. This story captures the wonder and joy of the month of Ramadan from the perspective of a child.

Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr by Lisa Bullard: Rashad is fasting this year for Ramadan with his family. The simple story of acts of worship during Ramadan are coupled larger text boxes that explain broader ideas and actions. Includes a glossary of words.

The Shapes of Eid According to Me by Samia Khan: A child reflects on the shapes they see on Eid. Told in rhyme, this book features a South Asian family and the city of Chicago.

Under the Ramadan Moon by Sylvia Whitman: Presents information about actions taken during Ramadan for the very young, in lyrical rhyme and repetition of the phrase “under the moon, under the Ramadan Moon.” Great read aloud for young children who can watch for the moon waxing and waning during the course of page turns.

The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi: Noor and her family are preparing for the festival of Girgian, celebrated in Kuwait on the three consecutive nights in Ramadan, when the moon is fullest. The family prepares sweets together, a nut brittle made of honey, powdered sugar, and roasted pistachios for the children that will come to their door that night. Noor and her brothers prepare as well, decorating their candy bags and put on traditional clothing, the brothers- dishdashas and Noor a dress “so bright that Noor thought she could see the red with her eyes closed.” In a tender moment between Noor and her grandmother, grandmother reminds Noor that the true meaning of Ramadan is spending time with family and sharing with those less fortunate. After a night of treats Noor and her grandfather take a basket of food to the masjid for the poor. As they walk together they admire the beauty of the moon.

Board Book

Ramadan (Celebrate the World) by Hannah Eliot: A board book that describes the every day actions taken during Ramadan including prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family. As part of a series of holiday board books it actually has a significant amount of text in the small format, varying from one to three sentences per page. Illustrations are colorful and show people of various skin tones, ages, and wearing clothing from suits and school uniforms to thobes with agal and ghutrah or a fez.

Fiction

Badir and the Beaver by Shannon Stewart: An early chapter book about Badir and his family who have recently immigrated to Canada from Tunisia and are celebrating the month of Ramadan at home. Badir sees what he thinks is a giant rat. When he is is told that it is a beaver, a symbol of Canada, Badir tries to find out what he can about this interesting animal. He also finds out that some of the locals think it is a nuisance and want to move beaver out. Badir, knowing what it’s like to leave your home, embarks on a campaign with his classmates to save the beaver and its home.

The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia: In this coming of age book set during Ramadan, Aliya is thinking about growing up, and finding her place and identity as a Muslim in her school and beyond.

More to the Story by Hena Khan: In a novel inspired by Little Women, thirteen-year-old Pakistani American Jameela Mirza, second oldest of four sisters and an aspiring journalist, lives with her family in Atlanta and her father is missing Eid for the first time ever to look for a new job.

Once Upon an Eid ed. S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed: A compilation of fifteen short stories that celebrate, the most joyous of Muslim holy days! Groundreaking for the diversity of authors and experiences, including a story told as a graphic novel.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet Zanib Mian Imaginative Omar and his family have moved to a new home in London and he is nervous about starting school, especially since a bully seems to have targeted him and their new neighbor is not so nice.

Non-fiction

Crayola: Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr Colors by Mari Schuh: A simple and effective introduction to Ramadan for younger readers in a series that connects holidays by colors. Readers are still introduced to some concepts of Ramadan like sighting the moon and fasting. Photographs of smiling Muslim children around the world are featured throughout the book as well as colorful visual elements. Back matter includes the usual glossary, index and further resources as well as crayola colors used in the book and a coloring activity page.

Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting by Ausma Zehanat Khan: This nonfiction chapter book, targeted for children ages 9-14, is divided into four chapters, filled with pictures and personal anecdotes (including Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad), along with explanation of religious practices during Ramadan and beyond. Chapter three details projects and charity undertaken by youth during the month while chapter four details traditions from different countries across the globe. Valuable for school and public libraries as well as Muslim home libraries in a way that validates Muslim children and the variety of ways that Muslims experience Ramadan both on a personal and cultural level without diminishing the universal experience.

Posted in Blog Posts

How and Why We Started this Site and Why We Chose Our Name

This is a collective discussion we had about how we met and why we started this blog. More information about our mission and us as individuals can be found on our About Us and Bios pages.

Ariana: I started off as a children’s librarian part-time in a small public library system in California and then went full-time in DC. And in both systems, one with 26 branches, there was no one looked like me. In California, there were no other Muslims in the system, and in DC there were two Muslim paraprofessionals that I knew and self-identified as Muslim, but no other librarians or administrators.

I went to library school knowing that there wouldn’t be many people that looked like me, and it was important to me to be part of the profession because of that. There were also students that I thought might be Muslim or have a Muslim background, but they never said so much as hello, so there wasn’t any kind of community. When in classes I saw some book lists and resources about Muslims, so I thought eventually I would meet more in public libraries, and saw information about some online, in other countries, but did not meet any here in the states. After library school, I met some academic librarians that were Muslim, but few, if any, in public libraries and none in children’s and young adult services.

I met Sara through Anna Coats, my co-chair in an APALA committee and an Emerging Leader in the same class as Sara. I met Hadeal through my local library and Mahasin found me through Twitter and the we here Facebook group for librarians of color. Hadeal and I had been talking about resources about Muslims in Children’s Literature, given the different resources available for diverse reading along with trying to create a Muslim Librarians Association. I really wanted to do this work with other librarians in this community to find books that are about us, that are written by Muslims, but it didn’t exist in a professional capacity.

Sara: I had a similar experience where in library school and at conferences there was no one that wore hijab. I felt like I was the elephant in the room because was no one like me. I think my daily work and our work here is important in terms of representation and advocacy in the profession to let people know that we are here and they can be here too.

Hadeal: Same for me. I was the only Muslim in my program and I only met Ariana through my work, Sara through Ariana and now Mahasin. And really, you are the only Muslim librarians I know. And I do feel like other librarians are trying to do good, and create multicultural resources, but I want to represent me. I want to have a voice in my own representation, and that of my greater community, and I think this project is a great start. It is important to me to showcase our pathway and professional to others – especially children. In my old system, people were curious about what we did, beyond working with books, and I was able to talk to them about why children would frequently visit and enjoy their time at the library. The Muslim community around me knew about many of the resources that were available through the library, but being in libraries allowed me to spread more knowledge about the profession.

Mahasin: I was excited to see Ariana in the We Here group on Facebook. I am African American and there are not a lot of African Americans in librarianship, but I had another friend who was African American and in a mom’s group with me in Atlanta. She became my mentor and encouraged me to become a librarian. Now I am in a librarian in Oakland. I am fortunate to have supportive colleagues in my system.

Oakland had an incident with a Muslim student in the adult literacy program being harassed on the steps of the main library and there was an effort to put up signs in the library and the city to showcase that everyone is welcome here. I have Muslim colleagues, in fact, three of the library aides that work in my unit are Muslim, but I am the only librarian. But I still do have support. It’s nice that we are all fasting together. But I don’t have a professional space, so this was definitely on my to-do list, trying to seek out others. I feel that this connection was divinely placed in my lap. I’m here wanting to have a space for us for our own voices to speak up about how we are represented in literature.

Ariana: That is amazing that there are other Muslims in your workplace, and of course that is something we also want to help support. There are a lot of Muslims in “support roles” in the library and we want to form an association, but part of that is having resources for those who might be interested in being in librarianship as a career.

Mahasin: I’m always trying to encourage everyone, but especially people of color and Muslims, to join the filed. I know some other students who are already doing amazing work, and I want to be there for others like people were there for me.

Ariana: We try to encourage others in the field, but seeing children and youth in literature is can make a huge impact and can help encourage children in many ways. I know that for many Muslim families having non-Islamic books, especially literature, is not important. And while there may be several factors that contribute to that, part of that is because they don’t see themselves in the pages. There may be one aspect of someone’s identity, they may be Southeast Asian, South Asian, etcetera- and THAT is rare enough, but to have Muslims depicted, and then to see ourselves depicted in a positive way is rarer still.

The sad thing is, at least from my experience, is that children’s literature is probably the place where we will see the most positive depictions of Muslims. If you look in Hoopla, Overdrive or any library catalog for the search term Islam, half will be titles that I might actually be interested in and the other half are written by Islamophobes or just polemics, by people who have a certain bent.

ALA DID invite a known Islamophobe to the annual conference when I was in library school and my reaction was shock. What did that gesture show me about my presence in the field? It was an indicator of how unwelcome I would be, and through the justification of intellectual freedom and “creating a balanced narrative”, my colleagues would be showing me the door. So I feel like moving forward we have to create our own space for our voices to be heard.

Mahasin: I wanted to add that my experience is that I was a daughter of converts who became Muslim in the light of African American liberation. And they were very conscious about the kinds of books they brought into our home. My earliest memories are of my father reading books, nonfiction books about the water cycle to me – I think he may be over now that I am not in STEM or a doctor! Still, they were not going to get books with images of children who did not look like us or those that would be racist or damaging. There was no Dr. Seuss in our house. My parents grumbled about many things that people are just now starting to recognize. So they made the effort to have the characters in books reflect what we looked like, our day to day life and aspects of family life. I am really excited for my kids because now there is more out there for them than what I had when I was growing up.

Hadeal: I really like what you said about creating our own space. I’m sure that conversations have been started in many pockets of ALA, but moving forward and starting something is exciting and I feel like it can lead to bigger conversations and goals. But I also want to reach the Muslim community, who know about libraries but may not recognize the importance of books in the home and I wonder why that is.

Ariana: We all know the terms of mirrors, windows and sliding doors, and that importance of work in diversity and affinity. There is a lot we can do going forward, looking at books from the past as well, where we can talk about whose gaze it is and who a book is for. And I do think that there is a lot of discussions to be had there.

 

On how we picked our name:

 

Ariana: So we have had quite a bit of discussion about this, because initially when Sara, Hadeal and I had talked about naming conventions we thought about using something like uncovered or unveiled, something along those lines that was tongue-in-cheek funny, taking ownership of a label but also about books. But when setting up social media accounts I was looking for something pithy for accounts and the actual site address and grabbed “hijabi librarians” as a placeholder, but it was intended to be temporary. When Mahasin came on board we had a really in-depth conversation about the term hijab, the encompassing meaning behind it, and not identifying as a hijabi.

Mahasin: So, I cover my hair and grew up with the concept of modesty, especially after coming of age, however, I did not grow up with the language of hijab. I grew up with the language of headscarf, and others in my African American community used the term khimar. I think that’s because I grew up in the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, where language was really deliberate, precise and important. He taught that “Words make people” and that concept stayed with me. The conversations that we had growing up we always referred to the ayah (verse of the Qur’an) that used the word “khimar.” Conversations about the headscarf were as a piece of cloth and headdress, not a partition and not a curtain (as hijab means in Arabic). We talked about the uniqueness of the position of the Prophet’s wives and the etiquette in approaching them and the necessity of hijab, as discussed in the Qur’an as a protection specifically and uniquely for them.

I never have referred to myself as a muhajaba or hijabi, and it is a sort of a political act for me not to use the term. I don’t mean to be offensive in saying this. I have strong feelings about the word hijab as it’s used as a way to place an extra burden on women than what is asked by Allah. So although I understand the general concept of why the word is used, it is not a stance that I take and I will rarely use the word. It is interesting for me to have conversations with women who have similar views as me; we recognize that with the rise of Islamophobia, the headscarf has taken off as a symbol and token of diversity, especially in liberal spaces – where a lot of books and images that you see are of women wearing a scarf – having a person of African descent, a Latino, someone Asian, we know that they are going to be included and also, now, a Muslim woman in a headscarf is there! The term has become part of the general lexicon and it’s what people know. I would not say that I am anti-hijab in terms of terminology and use, but if asked, I will clarify why I don’t use that label. But I am supportive of our use of the term for now and I get it, but that’s where I am.

A few years back, University of Michigan professor and founder of Sapelo Square, Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, spearheaded a community poem entitled, “Elegy for the Khimar”, which laments the fading use of the term “khimar” for “hijab.”

Ariana: Thank you for the thorough explanation of your personal position. I think it encompasses a lot of the conversation and frustration that many Muslim women may have about the term hijab. As you were talking I was wondering when hijab became this collective term as an identifier marker. For me growing up, I never thought I was ever going to cover. My understanding was that it was something that was observed by the Prophet’s wives. In Malaysia and Indonesia, you hear tudung, kerudung, which I guess means to cover so it is synonymous with hijab, but they didn’t use that word. Funny, actually that heard from relatives, when did you start wearing jilbab which, from my Muslim student community, I understood to be a long-overcoat. And I told them that I didn’t use jilbab, sometimes an abaya, but they specifically meant the headscarf.

Hadeal: I grew up with the word mandeel, which means scarf, but I think I started using the word hijab when I would say mandeel and people didn’t know what that was. They would ask, “isn’t it called a hajeeb?” and I would answer back that it was a hijab.

Mahasin: I feel like at some point in my 20s that everyone started calling it a hijab. I did grow up in a mostly African American community, but then with more Arab and Pakistani Muslims, and I don’t remember exactly when, but it was not the preferred term in the late 80s.

Ariana: Do you think it may have to do with 9/11?

Mahasin: Maybe. But I think we discussed it in college, and that was before 9/11 for me. But, I don’t know.

Sara: Growing up for me, we called the scarf a tarha, but if someone asked us, we said hijab. For me hijab meant that I covered my hair, I wore long sleeved shirts and a long skirt or long pants. It was all encompassing, not just something on my head. But now if someone asks, “are you a hijabi?” then I answer, “oh yes, I wear the scarf.”

Hadeal: For us tarha was the bridal piece. Like you would see a bride’s headscarf and say, “the bride’s tarha is beautiful.” To me when we said scarf, it was very generic. But it is more than a scarf, like anyone can wear a scarf in winter, but the term headscarf, to me also wasn’t quite right. If people asked me what it was, I would say that it was a scarf I wrapped around my hair or my head. I just didn’t feel right. But really, sometimes anything is better, I once had a person call it a towel.

Mahasin, Ariana and Sara: Yup. Yes.

Ariana: Have we been called towelheads? Oh yeah.

Sara: Pillowcase. Everything.

Ariana: At one library I worked at, I had a patron refer to me as the white woman with a towel on her head, which, okay, no to the towel. But really, in what universe am I considered white? That was strange to me. More information on us and how we identify can be found on our bios page.

So when we talk about hijab and why we decided to keep the name “hijabi librarians” rather than go back to uncovered or unveiled, we also had a larger conversation about Orientalism, othering, or fetishization instead of empowerment or really reclaiming a term. We also talked about the idea of hijabi librarians as not being an inclusive term, but that if necessary, we will revisit it in the future.

Mahasin: I am laughing at the idea of us one day being known as “the site formerly known as hijabi librarians” ala Prince. I do feel like it is an evolving conversation, but that us taking the term and “capitalizing” on the recognition to create space for our own voices is deliberately powerful, but if we feel later that we have made or point or find something better, then perhaps at that time, we will change our moniker.