Editor’s Note: Aisha Miller was a guest speaker at the Women’s March South Carolina: Rally for Electoral Justice. This important event, held on the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington and hosted by the South Carolina chapter, was organized by grassroots volunteers under the leadership of coordinator, Tamika Gadsden. The rally focused on issues of electoral justice and also celebrated the legacy of local civil rights activist and teacher, Septima P. Clark. While we at Unsweetened were unable to attend the event in person, we support the hard work of the Women’s March South Carolina chapter and look forward to collaborating and amplifying their message in the coming weeks and months.
Assalaamu Alaikum! Peace be upon you!
I had so many different topics I wanted to speak on today, that it was hard for me to choose. I decided to start with how I felt last year when I got off the bus in Washington DC to join the other women who were marching. I felt proud, appreciated, I felt like one very important piece of a large moving machine. I don’t get to feel that way very often in a group of strangers. I saw a woman not far from me wearing a Mexican flag as a cape, and I knew she was feeling the same way I was – relieved to be able to feel proud even in a group full of people who were different from her. You see, our society does not make it easy for those of us who are different to feel proud of those differences – in fact we are constantly pushed to blend in, and assimilate to the mainstream culture.
About a week or so before the march, a Muslim sister of mine contacted me for advice, because she said that she just didn’t want to wear her hijab anymore. She had been wearing it since she converted 8 years ago, but always felt uncomfortable about the attention it brought to her whenever she went out, and recently she was harassed by a woman in Walmart and had felt very afraid. She said since then she had gone out a few times without wearing it, but she felt guilty when she didn’t wear it.
In response, I told her all of the reasons I wear it, and what it means to me, but that it was ultimately up to her and that I would never think less of her if she decided not to. But I also told her that about a year or so after I converted, my husband and I were talking and he told me that we are supposed to be proud to be Muslim. He said it doesn’t always feel that way but that we should be proud, no matter who we are with. On those days when I am feeling unsure of myself or like I just can’t handle feeling like I have to take a stand or make a statement every time I leave my house – I remind myself of that, and I put my hijab on with pride and ask for the strength to get through one more day.
So what I want to ask of you today, is that you be proud of your differences, but also that you allow others to be proud of theirs. LET US BE PROUD! Be proud of people for being themselves, and let them know that you are. When I reverted to Islam seven and a half years ago, the only people who were happy and proud of me were other Muslims. I didn’t get the opportunity to celebrate with my family or my non-Muslim friends, instead I had to explain the whys and the hows of my conversion over and over and over again. I had to watch people cry, and I had to let go of people I thought would always be there. But with my new Muslim family, I could be happy and proud.
This feeling of safety and connectedness with other Muslims is a constant in my life now. About a year and a half ago I flew in an airplane for the first time since becoming Muslim, and I felt very uneasy about the whole thing. I was randomly selected at every single checkpoint, and stood aside in front of the crowds as they felt my hijab, and tested my hands for bomb residue. I tried to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but I was innately aware that I was seen by almost everyone around me as a threat. I felt hesitant on the plane getting up to use the bathroom, because I had this paranoid feeling that someone would think I was up to something and decide to be a hero by tackling me, or worse – thankfully that did not happen. When we arrived in San Francisco, on a Friday morning, we met my sister and her girlfriend and then went straight to a mosque for our Friday service, and I felt at ease again, and at peace, that I was home – even in a room full of strangers on the other side of the country. They knew me, they understood me, and they did not see me as a threat.
My older sister came out as a lesbian two years ago, and she went through many of the same things that I did, feeling ashamed when she told friends and family, feeling like she had to explain herself over and over again, losing relationships.
This is an all too common feeling in our society, that people want us to be ashamed of who we are. We have seen our country do this to Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese, Muslims, Hispanics, LGBTQIA people, and pretty much anyone else who didn’t blend in and either wasn’t willing to or couldn’t assimilate. My message to my sister, and to each and every one of you, is that I love you because of who you are, not in spite of it, and I will celebrate alongside you whatever you celebrate!
My favorite author, Langston Hughes, said “It is the duty of the younger artist…to change through the force of his art that old whispering, ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘why should I be white? I am a negro – and beautiful!'” And one year after Langston died, James Brown did just that when he sang his hit song, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” During this time, the black pride movement began. And what an amazing example African Americans have set for us in being proud and standing tall in the face of adversity, abuse, and mistreatment.
Today, I have a great many friends who are not Muslim, but who are proud of me for who I am. I can go sit and eat with groups of friends and feel as at home in my hijab as I do at the masjid, and I am truly grateful for that. They are proud to call me a friend, and I am proud to call them my friends.
And my hope and dream for our country is this: That one day, we will all be able to be proud of our uniqueness and our diversity, and that we will love each other genuinely, not in spite of those differences, but because of them. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to continue coming together in unity to get it done. We have to get to know each other. We have to let go of fear and embrace love. You know, you can support each other – even if you disagree.
Now, there are some courageous and beautiful women who I have asked to stand up here beside me, as we close together, and they have a message for you:
Kat Morgan: “We stand with you! I am queer, and I’m proud!”
Vanessa Gongora: “No one is inherently illegal. Soy Latina y soy muy orgullosa!”
Fatima Sakarya: “My family is immigrant and Muslim, and I’m proud!”
Marilyn Hemmingway: “Black lives matter! I am black, I’m female, I’m Gullah-Geechee, and I’m proud!
Cynthia Stetzer: “I’m Jewish, and I’m proud!”
This speech was delivered in Charleston, SC on January 20, 2018.