With March marking Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the important role that women have played in fighting for the separation of church and state and religious freedom -- an impact that’s often been overlooked despite our nation's history of discriminating against women on the basis of religion.
The way that we document history, the sources we save, and the voices we privilege make it seem as though there are not many women who have played prominent roles in the fight for religious freedom in the United States. Of course, this is not the case. Women were integral in the fight for church-state separation, and, thankfully, we have evidence about the contributions of many of them.
History is being written as we speak, and it’s important to appreciate the women who are continuing to leave their footprint on religious freedom in America. One of these women is Rana Abdelhamid, a community organizer and entrepreneur who empowers Muslim women.
In October of 2014, Abdelhamid founded the social media project, Hijabis Of New York, which aims to break stereotypes about women who wear hijabs and “to raise awareness, to humanize and diversify the image that people have of Muslim women.”
The project takes its inspiration from Humans of New York and tells stories through photos – with each story in a caption of the women photographed.
“You’re going through the pictures and you see how many of these women are really successful, have all these ambitions or have their own stories,” Abdelhamid told PBS. “It seems really simplistic because obviously everyone has their own story … but there is this constant image that is being fed to Western society as a whole as to what it means to be Muslim.”
Abdelhamid continued, “I think it has been so powerful to be able to capture so much with a photo. It’s not just about the words. You can tell so much about a young woman just by the way whether or not she wants me to take a picture of her face on the side, or whether she wants me to take a picture 30 times or just once.”
This project is significant for humanizing Muslim women in an era of strong anti-Muslim animus. Abdelhamid shared with the Huffington Post some of the hardships of wearing a hijab in America. When she was 16 years old, a man attempted to remove her hijab in public.
This type of harassment is unfortunately not uncommon, and statistics show that Muslim women who wear distinctive garb are among the most targeted groups of Americans for hate crime and rhetoric.
A 2017 Pew Research Center survey noted that about half of Muslim respondents said that they personally had faced religion-based discrimination – including being “treated with suspicion,” being singled out by law enforcement or airport security and being physically attacked or threatened. Muslim women and Muslims who wear religious garb or are otherwise perceived as having a Muslim appearance were the most likely to have experienced discrimination.
Facing these growing problems, Abdelhamid started Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment, a self-defense and leadership program for young Muslim women.
Her activism and entrepreneurship to fight religious discrimination and combat hate led her to win the International Youth Advocate Award by the UNA USA Foundation in 2014.
Young activists like Abdelhamid are making a difference by protecting the religious freedom rights of religious minorities. They bring with them a robust vision for the future of church-state separation advocacy, and in an era where digital media connects you beyond borders, Abdelhamid’s activism has helped young Muslim women nationwide feel like they belong in a country that often stereotypes, dismisses and targets them.
With the Muslim ban and hate crimes against Muslims spiking highest since 9/11, Abdelhamid is going to be remembered on the right side of history as a brave activist who took initiative to combat religious discrimination in this difficult time for religious freedom in America.
(Photo: Screenshot of Rana Abdelhamid's 'Finding Our Power' TED Talk, YouTube.)