"Love women every shading;
Power run deep;
So even if you hate it;
I still wrap my hijab;”
From “Hijabi” by Mona Haydar
On one level, Mona Haydar’s story as a Hip Hop artist is a fairly common one. She grew up in Flint, Michigan, and was taken with Hip Hop artists such as Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. Haydar started as a spoken word artist in the Flint Poetry scene and eventually transitioned to Hip Hop. And in her latest single, she touches upon familiar Hip Hop themes, including “swagger,” “haters” and “shading.”
But Haydar is no ordinary artist and the concept behind Haydar’s first single, “Hijabi,” is anything but common. Because while “Hijabi” is Haydar’s first Hip Hop single, it is the latest chapter in Haydar’s direct confrontation of anti-Islamic bigotry and discrimination in the United States.
And she challenges this bigotry with a simple technique – letting people know who she is.
Research suggests that as many as 48% of Muslims in the United States report discrimination based on religion, the most of any religious group: more than twice that reported by Jewish, Catholic or Protestant people. This discrimination takes many forms, including workplace discrimination and hate crimes, which have surged in recent years against Muslims. And as a result, Muslims may experience many negative psychological consequences such as increased depression.
Haydar is a Syrian-American, a graduate of the University of Michigan, who is currently studying for her Master’s degree in theology. She came to national prominence in 2016 when, after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions of Islam and Muslims, Haydar started an “Ask a Muslim” project in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each week she and her husband would put up an “Ask a Muslim” sign, serve coffee and donuts and give people the opportunity to ask her questions about her faith and spiritual practices.
Haydar’s attempt to be inclusive and to help challenge stereotypes may have had many sources, but almost certainly one of her influences was her experience in the Flint Poetry scene. Haydar has been a performance poet for 13 years and what is particularly striking to her was that the support she received from fellow artists irrespective of the fact that she had a different racial and religious background from most of them.
“Hip Hop was my first language growing up in Flint. I owe my current art to the people who gave me their time and gave me their love. They gave me a stage to stand up on. They gave me encouragement after the first time I stood up on a stage and didn’t have the words,” Haydar explained. “A majority of the people in those circles were black or African American. And the fact that I was a non-black person of color didn’t matter to the community.”
“It didn’t affect the art or our ability to connect and speak the same language.”
One of the reasons why her experience of support in the Flint community was so important was that in many ways, Haydar was disconnected from her Syrian roots. She discussed how the current Syrian government’s treatment of the Syrian people has impacted her and her family.
“It’s been pretty clear to me that the regime is really corrupt and continues to butcher the people. I have family members who have disappeared and family members who have been killed in bombings and in sniper attacks. It’s just horrific. And having that be my heritage, my family’s homeland, it’s surreal,” Haydar explained. “If anything it’s totally heart wrenching and it’s so sad. I loved going to Syria as a kid – visiting grandparents and family. And I haven’t been back since everything started, since 2010. And it’s a great disappointment for me not to be able to share that with my husband and my two sons.”
Perhaps making matters worse are the stereotypes of Muslims that exist for many in the United States. Haydar finds these stereotypes of Muslims as “extremists” or “terrorists” to be completely at odds with what she considers to be the authentic practice of Islam. Her views are consistent with public figures such as Pope Francis and U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in challenging whether terrorists who claim to embrace Islam are truly Muslim.
“You hear the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘extremists’ going together. And that’s actually a manufactured term. It doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s not an authentic expression of Islam. It’s an expression of Islam that’s born of severe oppression and it’s a product of colonization. It’s a product of proxy wars,” Haydar described. “People who are so marginalized and traumatized by the world that we live in, that they have nothing to lose but to express themselves in violent and horrific and tragic ways.”
“People don’t behave that way when they’re happy, when they’re fulfilled, when their life is going well.
Part of Haydar’s motivation for her “Ask a Muslim” program was that she was shocked that people would not simply ask Muslims about their faith. “So for me knowing all of that as an American Muslim, it’s just baffling that people have bought into it. It’s baffling that people aren’t just interested in going out and finding a Muslim and saying, ‘I hear all of this stuff, can you please talk to me about it and tell me about it?’” she said.
“That would be a good starting place.”
And it was this same spirit of education and connecting with others that motivated Haydar to write a song about her spiritual practice of wearing a hijab. Part of her motivation was to challenge the belief that wearing a hijab was the result of oppression, and therefore not truly “feminist.” Haydar sees her practice of wearing a hijab as an expression of feminism and independence.
“Hijab is an interesting spiritual practice. It’s definitely not for everybody. For me I just find it liberating to experience and express myself as a feminist, as a liberated woman, through an article of clothing,” Haydar explained. “For a lot of feminists, it’s about taking your clothes off. And for me as a feminist, it’s about the choice to wear whatever the heck I want. It’s about the freedom to know my own self and to say with full agency that this is my right. This is something that is beautiful for me. This is something that is meaningful for me and offers me a great spiritual education. So for me approaching it that way, it is definitely a feminist tool. It’s a tool of liberation and is not oppressive.”
Haydar feels that people’s opinions of hijab practice stem from stereotypes of Muslim women as either submissive or highly sexualized. “Muslim women are seen in two ways. Either she’s an oppressed woman who doesn’t have power. She doesn’t have any kind of agency. She’s controlled by some kind of man,” she explained. “And then you have the other side of a Muslim woman who’s super sexualized. And she’s a belly dancer. And she’s without agency. She’s created for the male gaze. And so you have these two archetypes that operate under the guise of the patriarchy, of misogyny. And it’s so unfortunate.”
Haydar is pleased that, like her, there are counter-examples in culture of women wearing hijabs who are also accomplished and independent. “A Muslim woman (Ibtihaj Muhammad) went to the Olympics. And she came in bronze. You have a Muslim woman who does something like that – and everyone is like, ‘That’s so crazy. This Muslim is doing this thing.’ But when other women do it, it’s like, ‘Well, yeah. Why is it such a surprise?’ But it’s a surprise because people expect Muslim women to be these oppressed beings,” Haydar described. “My friends are some of the most educated people you’ve ever met – M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s and J.D.’s. And I have a lot of artsy friends – and even those women are on the edge and on the cusp of everything that’s current and relevant and beautiful right now.”
Haydar experienced the same kind of reaction when she put out the video for “Hijabi,” in which she was not only flanked by several women also wearing hijabs, but also she was pregnant. “So it’s really interesting to see people so shocked that I put out a music video. And that I was a woman. And that I was a pregnant woman. “It is a normalizing narrative. It’s something that says Muslim women are not all oppressed. And Muslim women don’t need saviors.”
“And I’m like, ‘You’re only shocked because you have such a low standard.’”
Ultimately, Haydar feels like her song is less about hijabs or Islam per se and more about love and inclusivity in general. “The song is about inclusivity and a sense of love. I think all of us in the world we live in are required to be more loving. And to open our hearts to people who aren’t like us. It’s certainly the message of Jesus. It’s certainly the message of Mohammed. It’s certainly the message of the Buddha and of all the world’s paths to enlightenment,” Haydar said. “The more I learn, the more I recognize that it’s actually everybody’s job to be more kind and more loving and more generous all the time. It’s not just for so-called really good people. It’s not for religious people. It’s not just for spiritual people. It’s for all people.”
“We all have this responsibility to be more loving.”
Haydar knows that not everyone is on board yet with her message. But she’s OK with that and has faith in her art and ideas. And it’s also why she knows how important it is for her to continue to confront stereotypes.
“I’ve had a lot of Islamaphobes come after me, on Twitter especially, and they just have some horrible things to say. They don’t believe a Muslim woman is anything but what they could be in their estimation,” Haydar explained. “That’s why I put the video out. Because there aren’t a lot of things out there like what I put out.
“Because it’s necessary.”