Muslim Student Alliance presents: Islam Awareness Week

Hallela Hinton-Williams

Farah Omer ’19 and Mariyah Jahangiri ’20, co-presidents of the Muslim Student Alliance (MSA), are determined to share with and teach the Grinnell community about the Muslim experience. Faced with limited recognition and representation for Muslim students, the two have worked on a week of events to widen the perspective of the Grinnell community.

“The point is to educate people about Islam, especially since events like this don’t happen often in Grinnell. Islamophobia is not just a fear of Islam but having misconceptions about it,” Jahangiri said.

“I was kind of stunned by the way Muslim students on campus are often invisible until something terrible happens,” Omer added. “As someone who is very visibly Muslim, I was wrestling with that. I don’t want to exist within the parameters of either total invisibility or a subject of hate and other people’s sympathies.”

The organization and implementation of these events have been supported by the Center for Humanities, the Religious Studies Department, the department of French and Arabic, the Institute for Global Engagement, the Center for Religion, Spirituality and Social Justice (CRSSJ) and Student Government Association (SGA).

The tentatively-named “Islamic Awareness Week” will take place the week of Feb. 11. It will kick off on Sunday at 4 p.m. in JRC 101 with a short documentary, “Between Allah and Me and Everyone Else,” which discusses the significance of the hijab in the identity of Muslim women. It also calls for a consideration of the impact on our own professors and students dealing with these questions. The screening will be followed by a panel of Muslim women who will talk about their decisions to wear or not to wear the hijab. Jahangiri will be on the panel contributing from her own experience with wearing the hijab.

Claire Moisan, French professor and director of the ALSO program, brought the documentary to attention and collaborated with Omer and Jahangiri.

“We have people who are grappling with these decisions about their cultural identity every day. I want to start a dialogue. I want people in the community to understand the decisions that Muslim people make, that Muslim women make,” Moisan said.

On Monday, in JRC 101 at 7:30 p.m., Dr. Debra Majeed, Beloit College professor of religious studies, will give the keynote speech titled “Born for the Twenty-First Century U.S.: Unmasking Illusions About Muslim Female Identity.” The speech will aim to illuminate the double standards that Muslim students encounter and how narrative assimilation and politics erase their reality.

On Tuesday, Caleb Elfenbein, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Center for Humanities, will be giving an overview presentation on his current research aided by Omer and Julia Schafer ’18 called Mapping Islamophobia at 7:30 p.m. in JRC 101. This presentation will show one part of the reality of the life of Muslim people.

“My hope is that people walk away with a sense of [the existing] anti-Muslim hostility. While hate crimes are part of the picture, … there are many other things we need to be thinking about. How do all kinds of things from political speech to legislation affect the way people go through their days and perceive the world around them?” Elfenbein said.

Three students will give their Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) presentations that build off the work done in Elfenbein’s “Being Muslim in America” class. It will be held in JRC 209 on Wednesday at 4:15 p.m.

Friday will top off the week as “Henna Night,” when there will be henna, a calligraphy workshop, arts and crafts and board games at the CRSSJ starting at 4 p.m. to offer other examples of Muslim cultural traditions.

“I’m excited for the campus and community to see all of these things about to take place. On the other hand, I’m very conflicted. It shows how it falls on Muslims in the U.S. and around the world to continuously and persistently humanize themselves. I don’t want this week to be events of ‘look, we are just people.’ I want people to walk away having learned something, to know about the different struggles and triumphs that Muslims have,” Omer said.

The support of the College will also help as the MSA begins to move to other topics and speakers. For example, Jahangiri highlights the importance of queer Muslim voices in dialogues and vows to include them in further events.

“I feel like Islamic thought and Islamic culture is not a monolithic thing, there is so much to offer and we have a lot to give this campus,” Omer agreed.

Jahangiri and Omer stress that the events this week are not the only way to interact with issues that affect Muslims. The MSA is another, often un-utilized resource on campus that students can use to learn more about the Muslim experience on campus.

“People get turned away by the fact that it is a religious organization, but it’s not why me or [Omer] are a part of it. We’re a part of it because we feel that there needs to be a Muslim voice on campus because it is important and politically relevant to today. If there are any people that are Muslim or non-Muslim that want to do things that are culturally associated with Muslim culture, then come by,” Jahangiri said.