By Antonia Blumberg
If there was ever a year that needed Muslim women to show the world just how great America already is, 2016 was it.
Muslim Americans continue to face rising intolerance and Islamophobia as a result, in part, of aggressive attacks on their community by politicians and conservative media. They were assaulted, ridiculed and at times even murdered for their religious identification ― and Hijab-wearing Muslim women often bore the brunt of this bigotry.
But they didn’t remain silent. If anything, Muslim women lead the charge in advocating for the rights of minority groups and taking America to task for its ongoing failure to uphold its founding values of “life, liberty and justice for all.”
Below are 17 of the Muslim American women who made 2016 a kinder, more just and beautiful year. We salute these women and the thousands of others who make this country great.
Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12 after spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. On Nov. 8, she became the first Somali-American Muslim woman elected to a state legislature, with a victory in Minnesota. The 34-year-old campaigned on a progressive platform, advocating for affordable college, criminal justice reform, economic equality and clean energy.
“It is the land of liberty and justice for all, but we have to work for it,” Omar told The Huffington Post in October. “Our democracy is great, but it’s fragile. It’s come through a lot of progress, and we need to continue that progress to make it actually ‘justice for all.’”
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history this year as the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympics in a Hijab. Though she didn't win a gold medal, (She won a bronze in the team sabre competition) Muhammad still scored an important victory as one of the most recognizable athletes entering the Rio Olympics and an important reminder of the obstacles Muslim athletes often have to overcome to pursue their dreams.
“It’s a tough political environment we’re in right now. Muslims are under the microscope,” Muhammad said during the U.S. Olympic Committee summit in Los Angeles. “It’s all really a big dream — I don’t think it’s hit me yet. The honour of representing Muslim and black women is one I don’t take lightly."
Prominent Muslim activist Linda Sarsour was invited to be one of three women co-chairing the Women’s March on Washington scheduled to take place in Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017. The event will fall a day after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office and aims to send the message that activists "will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society." More than 100,000 people have rsvped saying they plan on attending, according to the Facebook event page.
“Donald Trump’s administration is a nightmare being manifested into an administration,” Sarsour told The Huffington Post. “It’s important we women show we are not afraid.”
No one can forget Ghazala Khan's graceful presence at the Democratic National Convention in July, nor how then-Republican nominee Donald Trump attacked her for not speaking as her husband described their son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan. Khan responded to Trump's bigoted statements in an op-ed published on The Washington Post shortly after the convention.
"Without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain," Khan wrote. "I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart." The incident inspired hundreds of other Muslim American women to fire back at Trump on social media with the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow. Their voices rang loud and clear.
Writer and entrepreneur Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is just 24 years old and has already made a name for herself as one of the most prominent Muslim media personalities in the U.S. today. Al-Khatahtbeh is editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com, a website she founded when she was 17, and she recently published a memoir describing what it was like growing up Muslim in a post-9/11 America. Al-Khatahtbeh regularly opines about issues of Islamophobia, diversity and representation in the media. During a panel at The White House’s first United State of Women Summit, Al-Khatahtbeh said: “One of the most important things for us to do to amplify [Muslim] voices is to pass the mic whenever we have it. If there’s someone that can speak to a lived experience that you cannot, do not take up that space, do not speak on their behalf, let them speak for themselves.” Preach.
The multi-talented Rana Abdelhamid, founder of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, has dedicated her life to helping Muslim women find strength within themselves to combat Islamophobia. Not only did she create inspiring photography series "Hijabis of New York," a Humans of New York-spinoff, but she also teaches self-defence workshops for Muslim women, who are overwhelmingly targeted in acts of Islamophobic violence. “There’s something to it when [Muslim women] are leading our own empowerment movement,” Abdelhamid told The Huffington Post in January.
Well-known Muslim beauty blogger Nura Afia made history in November by becoming CoverGirl's first ambassador who wears a Hijab. With her CoverGirl contract, Afia will appear in commercials as well as a giant billboard in New York's Times Square alongside celebrity representatives like Sofia Vergara and Katy Perry.
"I feel proud to be part of a movement that is showing the hijab in a positive light for once. The more of us who can wear them as representatives of these big household names on TV or billboards the better,” Afia told The New York Times.
Kiran Waqar, Balkisa Abdikadir, Hawa Adam and Lena Ginawi
Teen poets Kiran Waqar, Balkisa Abdikadir, Hawa Adam and Lena Ginawi comprise the slam poetry quartet, Muslim Girls Making Change, and that's exactly what they do. The teens participated in the international youth poetry festival Brave New Voices, where they presented powerful poems on topics ranging from identity to bigotry.
“Whenever you hear the word terrorism I don’t want the first thing you think about is Islam, because Islam, to me, is a religion of peace,” Ginawi told the Associated Press.
Noor Tagouri, a 22-year-old journalist, became the first woman featured in Playboy wearing a Hijab in September. Noor took part in the magazine’s Renegades issue, a spread devoted to risk-takers and rule-breakers. The journalist “makes a surprising bold case for modesty,” Playboy said in its article.
“I believe in rebellion as a form of honestly,” she said during a Tedx Talk in 2015. “To be our most authentic self is to rebellious.”
Chicago-based self-defence instructor Zaineb Abdulla responded to the fear many in the Muslim community were feeling after the election by launching a “Hate Crime Survival Seminar” in November. Abdulla hosted the two-hour long self-defence workshops for Muslim women at Deaf Planet Soul, a Chicago non-profit that works with people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. She also posted two guide videos on how to deflect attackers who try to grab a woman by her Hijab -- both of which went viral in a matter of days.
“Our self defence classes and Hate Crime Survival Seminars are designed to give women the tools they need to stand up and fight back," she told HuffPost. "By working to increase self esteem and self confidence in addition to basic self defence knowledge, we are strengthening women in body, mind and spirit.”
In November, 19-year-old Halima Aden became one of the first Muslim Somali-American women to compete for the title of Miss Minnesota USA. She advanced to the semi-finals later that month, becoming the first-ever contestant in the competition to wear a Hijab and burkini.
“Not seeing women that look like you in media in general and especially in beauty competitions sends the message that you’re not beautiful or you have to change the way you look to be considered beautiful,” Aden told HuffPost. “And that’s not true.”
Poet and activist Mona Haydar raised awareness about Islam, Muslims and the perils of stereotyping with her pop-up coffee stand in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Armed with a big sign reading “Ask a Muslim," Haydar and her husband invited passersby to grab a cup of joy and stick around for a chat.
“We just wanted to bring a smile to people’s faces. We wanted to have heart connections, “Haydar told HuffPost. “We wanted to replace the trauma and terror with love by way of doughnuts, coffee, flowers and good conversations.”
Islamic fashion has reached mainstream clothing outlets like H&M and Dolce & Gabbana in recent years. But Lisa Vogl, a photographer who converted to Islam in 2011, took it a step further by opening her own modest clothing boutique in a mainstream mall in Florida. Vogl's Verona Collection designs and sells Hijabs, dresses, cardigans, and active wear, and celebrated the grand opening of its new shop at Orlando Fashion Square mall in May.
Dancer Amirah Sackett made headlines once again this year for her groundbreaking hip-hop group, "We're Muslim, Don't Panic." Founded in 2011, the three-woman performance group executes flawless hip-hop choreography in Niqabs and high-tops, and they continue to tour around the country.
“I wanted to flip the script, “Sackett told Bust Magazine. “I wanted to educate others and reflect the beauty that I know and love in Muslim women. Yes, there are oppressed women in the Muslim world. Women are oppressed the world over. These are our mutual struggles.”
Antonia Blumberg Associate Religion Editor, The Huffington Post