Before a packed crowd at the Vermont Adult Learning center in downtown Rutland, three members of a Burlington based slam poetry group offered up a bracing portrait of what it means to be Muslim women in post-9/11 America. Muslim Girls Making Change wasted little time in tackling stereotypes and misconceptions about their faith, identity, and fashion. Their poems also addressed the civil war in Syria, police violence in America, and the immigrant experience.
Their first poem, “What hijab means to us,” began with a litany of assumptions often made about the headdress worn by millions of Muslim women throughout the world.
“Aren’t you hot in that?
Do you shower with that on?
What’s underneath that thing?
Why do wear that?
You were prettier before
Can I see your hair?
Does your dad make you wear it?”
Launching into what they called “hijab 101” the three high-school juniors dispelled some of the myths and explained what the veil means to them.
“People don’t seem to realize it’s my choice
No, my parents aren’t forcing me to wear it
I chose to put it on
This hijab has been a part of me
Remember I do it for the creator not his creation
This hijab is my form of liberation.”
In recent years the hijab has become a potent symbol, particularly in Europe. In 2010 the French Parliament passed a bill that bans any sort of garment that completely covers the face, including some forms of Islamic dress. An earlier law banned the wearing of all religious symbols in public schools.
In numerous town meetings and public forums on the question of refugee resettlement in Rutland the role of Islam in American society has been raised. In mid-September Rutland First brought a former member of the Customs and Border Protection agency to discuss resettlement and national security. Philip Haney told the group that “progressive leftists” and Muslim extremists were seeking to alter or abolish the constitution.
The Rutland First Facebook page has been used on occasion to espouse racist or anti-Islam sentiment and at a rally before the Haney talk a protester held up a Rutland Welcomes sign with the word Jihad scrawled across it.
It is clear from their poems that Kiran Waqar, Hawa Adam, and Lena Ginawi (a fourth member, Balkisa Abdikadir was unable to make it) are not afraid to take on difficult subjects.
Ginawi, who described herself as somewhat shy before she took up slam poetry, said it has given her greater confidence. “For me I used to be shy,” she said. “In middle school I was the girl in the back of the classroom who didn’t say anything.” But she added, “I am who I am right now.”
Hawa Adam, a junior at Burlington High School, said writing and performing has “made us braver.”
The young women, who’ve known each other since middle school, took up slam poetry in March and, with support from the Young Writers Project, traveled to the Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C., this summer.
Their poems range from the personal to political and historical. “Wake Up America” chronicles a series of crimes committed against Muslim Americans since 9/11. An assault on a Muslim woman wearing a hijab in 2004. A bombing at a mosque in Arizona in 2007. A 2010 knife attack on a New York City taxi driver because he was Muslim.
“These are the things we see, hear and experience daily,” the poem concludes.
Muslim Girls Making Change first came to Rutland in the summer to perform at Grace Congregational Church. According to Michelle Folger, regional manager of Vermont Adult Learning, they were so impressed that they invited the group back. In her opening remarks Folger said there was so much interest they had to turn people away.
For Muslim Girls Making Change that’s a good sign. Their voices are being heard.