You, Me, and Colonial Standards of Beauty

By Sumayya Tobah, Editor

I was seven years old when I was given my first Barbie. I was visiting my grandfather in Cairo, Egypt, and he took me to a toy store to buy a birthday gift. Having been denied a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie doll by my parents, I knew what I wanted. I chose “Dentist Barbie,” because she came with a chair, dental tools, and a white lab coat. I justified it by telling my parents the woman has multiple degrees — she must have her life together.

My parents tried to explain their thinking to me.

“Sumayya,” they said,”You’re never going to have blue eyes or long blonde hair. Your waist will never be that tiny, your chest and hips will never be that perfectly formed, and your knees will bend. We don’t want you saddled with unrealistic expectations of what your body will look like, or what should be considered beautiful. You are beautiful the way God made so, so long as you are clean, healthy and happy.”

Okay, I said. Can I have my Barbie now?

Obviously, as I got older, I became more acutely aware of what they were talking about. It can’t come as a surprise that body image is always near the surface of a teenage girl’s mind. I was lucky enough to get through my formative years without some kind of destructive eating disorder, but I can easily count on my fingers the number of girls I know personally who did. It’s a scary thing.

But when it comes to women of color, it’s more than that. We’re consistently told that if you don’t fit into Western (or as I’m going to refer to it from now on, Colonial) standards of beauty, you’re not beautiful at all. Light skinned, light eyes, straight hair — I think we all know what I’m talking about. This standard of beauty has been internalized by our communities. We see it when our grandmothers tell us not to stay in the sun too long or we’ll “get dark.” We see it when our light eyed friends are fetishized by the older aunties. And we see it when expecting mothers pray for their daughters to be born with straight hair and light skin rather than strong hearts and quick minds.

Women of color also come in colonial flavors, mind you. We are also fetishized if we are found to be non-threatening and apolitical. If our eyes are the right shape, we have a cute accent and our hips can be described in a Shakira song, we get called “exotic.” Let’s get one thing straight right now; it’s never okay to refer to a human being as exotic. That word should be reserved for parrots and mangoes.

When it comes to standards of beauty, many of us remain internally colonized. In fact, in general, many of us are internally colonized. We don’t notice because we’ve known no other way of life, but our lives have been irreversibly marked with Western fingerprints.

And not that I’m an expert on how to remove these metaphorical shackles, but I’ve come to a couple of conclusions as to how to at least get by.

Firstly, know your roots. My family is mostly Egyptian, and that accounts for my almond shaped eyes and how quickly I tan in the afternoon sun. I have been told my entire life that I have my grandfather’s nose — not exactly the compliment every young girl wants to hear. But it wasn’t until I learned about the struggles my grandfather went through after leaving his little Egyptian village until I visited mosques in Cairo with my unbreakable grandmother until I began to see my own people through a lens untainted by Western penmanship, that I began to see myself as beautiful. These eyes and this skin have survived too much to be brought down by my low self-esteem. I am beautiful because of my story and how I came to be is beautiful.

I once had a woman tell me that I would be so much prettier if I “relaxed my hair.” I told her, my hair descended from fighters, it doesn’t want to relax.

I may have been going through an Alex Haley phase at the time, but the sentiment still stands. I have no doubt in my mind that we, as people of color, as colonized peoples, all have incredible stories nestled in our family trees. Once you know them, it’s difficult to see yourself as anything less than astounding.

Secondly, surround yourself with narratives and perspectives of other people of color. A few years ago, I made the decision to only read books by people of color. I had just graduated from an English undergraduate program and was a little sick of having an all-white, all-male syllabus be hailed as the best that literature has to offer. I began reading more books by women, books translated from different languages, books about history written from alternate perspectives and viewpoints. Not only did it change how I saw the world, it really changed how I saw myself. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Louis de Bernieres, Elif Shafak, Isabel Allende — these voices add such color to a bland literary landscape and should be celebrated for the magic they create.

I took it one step further this year and started buying magazines with only women of color featured on the cover. This wasn’t even a conscious decision though, it just sort of happened. I suddenly found myself uninterested in reading about women who had very little in common with me. Not that I have tons in common with Kerry Washington or Nicki Minaj, but still. When these women talk about tackling discrimination in the workplace or facing white privilege on a day-to-day basis, I find myself subconsciously nodding along.

Finally, (and this one might make you a little unpopular) when you notice these colonial, destructive tendencies in someone else, say something. I’m not saying disrespect your elders because they want you to come in from the sun; these cultural tendencies might be a little harder to shake. So let’s start with our peers — compliment their differences, their imperfections, their beauty in its natural state. But let’s take it one step further. Compliment their goodness, their resilience, their courage, and strength. After all, those are the qualities that survived decades of imperialism and oppressive colonization.
These are the qualities that last. Well, and my grandfather’s nose.

Follow Sumayya on Instagram and Twitter @thisissumayya

Follow us on Instagram @ahfif and @bossmuslimahs to see what we’ve been up to! 

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Nine Muslimahs To Inspire You This Ramadan

By Sumayya Tobah, Editor

As much as I love Ramadan, I can’t help but notice our somewhat crippling pattern as a Muslim Ummah to glorify the past. Yes, Islamic history is rich with figures like Umar Al Khattab or Usama ibn Zayd (RAA) who can inspire and motivate us, but there are so many great and motivational speakers living today that we can draw inspiration from.

We are especially prone to this pattern when it comes to women; while I congratulate our speakers and scholars for attempting to be more inclusive and combatant against the “Islam is oppressive” trope, I cannot read one more article about Khadija, Aisha, or Sumayyah (RAA). Believe me, I love these women: they were the bedtime stories I was told as a child. While other girls wanted to be Britney or Christina, I wanted to be Fatima, daughter of the Prophet (PBUH) or Nusaiba, the woman infamous for going to battle by the Prophet’s side. But as I grew older, these stories left something wanting. I found myself craving more.

There are so many phenomenal Muslim women making strides in the world as it exists today. These women are fearless in the fight against Islamophobia, hate and racism, giving the modern Muslim woman (and men, quite frankly) a voice they can rely on.

In an attempt to single out and credit just a few of the voices who have helped keep me strong and focused, here are the some boss Muslimahs you should read up on this Ramadan:

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Founder of, Amani recently spoke at the United State of Women Summit in Washington D.C. When introducing herself on a panel that included Billy Jean King and Shonda Rhimes, Al-Khatahtbeh said, “It’s not lost on me, that if I were a Muslim woman in another part of the world, I might have been restricted from getting [an] education or my headscarf would have been regulated by laws that would have either imposed it on me or forced me to take it off or my voice would have been silenced by a drone sent in large part by the misrepresentation of Muslim women today.”

So. Much. Fire. Not only is Amani totally unapologetic about the realities facing Muslim women today, but she’s using her platform to raise these issues in a calm, cool and collected manner. I was in the audience during this panel, and I almost literally felt my jaw drop to the floor. What a boss.

Asmaa Hussein: After her husband Amr was killed in the protests that took place in Egypt during the summer of 2013, Asmaa used her writing to cope, collect, heal and inspire. Her book, titled, “A Temporary Gift” had me in tears with almost every page. Her reflections on the short time she spent with her husband, as well as the time that came immediately afterwards, are beautiful, deep and so relatable, a reminder of the fragility of life and the mercy of our Creator. In it, she writes, “You don’t have infinite opportunities to do the right thing. The timer in your chest that is your heart is not just pumping blood through your body; with every beat it is counting down to the day you will return to the One to Whom you belong.”

When we’re young, we tend to feel infinite. I am guilty of this more than most; I put off what I know I should do today and assume I’ll have years to get it right. The fact of the matter is I might not. And you might not either. This reminder is so important, especially as we go through the years of our youth and become the people we will be (inshaAllah) for many years to come.

Ibtihaj Muhammad: Though her list of attributes is long and impressive (mashaAllah!) Muhammad is best known for being the first Muslim American Olympian to compete with the hijab. In a time where Islamophobia runs rampant, especially in the United States, Muhammad understands the condescension many hijabis face as a result of wearing the religious garb. “I’ve flown to domestic competitions, and T.S.A. agents at airports have spoken to me in demeaning ways, as if I’m foreign, because I wear hijab: ‘Do—you—speak—English?’ Muhammad recently told The New Yorker.  “How do people like this exist?” she asked, more in disbelief than in anger. “I’m productive, educated, and representing my country at the Olympics, but they question where I belong.”

This is a struggle faced by young professional Muslim women on the daily. Please make no mistake ladies, you are right where you belong.

Dalia Mogahed: Not going to lie, Dalia Mogahed has always been a little bit of a girl crush of mine. Not only is she the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C., but she was also selected as an advisor by current United States President Barack Obama on the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. MashaAllah. Her list of appearances is staggering, from TED Talks, to The Daily Show.

In her impressive TED Talk titled, “What do you think when you look at me?” Mogahed says, “Now, is closing down mosques going to make America safer? It might free up some parking spots, but it will not end terrorism. Going to a mosque regularly is actually linked to having more tolerant views of people of other faiths and greater civic engagement. And as one police chief in the Washington, DC area recently told me, people don’t actually get radicalized at mosques. They get radicalized in their basement or bedroom, in front of a computer. And what you find about the radicalization process is it starts online, but the first thing that happens is the person gets cut off from their community, from even their family, so that the extremist group can brainwash them into believing that they, the terrorists, are the true Muslims, and everyone else who abhors their behavior and ideology are sellouts or apostates. So if we want to prevent radicalization, we have to keep people going to the mosque.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Dalia when she had an appearance on Aljazeera’s show The Stream (shout out to my Streamers!) where I fangirled so hard, I could barely string together a comprehensive sentence. Dalia, if you’re reading this, keep doing you. And I’m so sorry.

Maryam Monsef: The word “refugee” seems to be thrown around so casually these days. Ripples of impact hit Europe and North America last summer as the realities of the “refugee crisis” just began to make headlines. There was a lot of fearmongering, talk of what “these people” will bring to our countries, with anti-immigration sentiments and protests at an all time high. In the midst of all this turmoil and tragedy, and perhaps unbeknownst to the majority of North Americans, newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his cabinet — which included a young Muslim woman who came to Canada as a refugee.

Maryam Monsef moved to Canada in 1996 from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and is now the Canadian Minister of Democratic Institutions. She was appointed along with nine other Muslim members of Parliament, the largest in the country’s history. It was hard to not get a little teary watching her get sworn in during the ceremony in November 2015, juxtaposing her position now with the struggle she had to overcome to get this far. Especially in the Islamophobic, sexist playing field that is today’s political landscape, her story is no small feat.

Rania Khalek: If you haven’t heard of the Electronic Intifada, you best pay attention. As an “online news publication and educational resource focusing on Palestine, its people, politics, culture and place in the world,” EI kept me sane during my formative years, flipping through the newspaper screaming, “Where is the news about what happened in Gaza last night!!??”

As an associate editor, Khalek is one of the most prominent female voices on the page. Her coverage on everything, from the American election, the Palestinian struggle, BDS and a range of other issues. She is an integral part of any educated and informed Twitter feed, and she and the Electronic Intifada continue to do tremendous work in bringing both the Palestinian struggle and the American Muslim narrative to the forefront. Give them your attention.

Linda Sarsour: Linda Sarsour is the role model I wish I had in high school. Today’s Muslims seem to be split into two camps: the first being the scary, angry, threatening, “bad”  Muslims we unfortunately see too much of on the news, and the second being the apologetic, assimilated, smoothed-edges, “good” Muslim who is never angry, never too political, and never rocks the boat. I struggled with this (and still do at times) as a politically aware young Muslimah. Where is the narrative for young, empowered Muslim women who are rightfully pissed off about foreign policy? Women’s issues? The plight of the American Muslim? These didn’t exist for me growing up. If you didn’t want to be flagged as a national security threat, you apologized or you stayed quiet.

Sarsour challenges this. As the Executive Director of the Arab American Association, Sarsour has been called every name you can think of, from “Champion of Change” to “Homegirl in a Hijab.” She is a self-described “racial justice and civil rights activist,” and she’s backed this up too. Sarsour was seen at the front lines of a range of political events and protests, from Black Lives Matter to Bernie Sanders.

She recently told Elan Magazine, “In the United States they talk about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and we’re given mosque opposition laws. People talk about freedom of speech as if they are only western values. If you were to travel the world there would be no one who would tell you, ‘I love to be censored’. Everyone values freedom and democracy and freedom of expression. Everyone, if they could, would want to have those things. But to make them seem like they are western ideas, for me I think they are the values for anyone across the world regardless of their race, religion, national origin but unfortunately that’s not the conversation we’re having.”

Key Ballah: Another Muslimah using her voice in a unique and provocative way, Key Ballah is a writer whose poems may be short, but they hit deep. Her two books, Preparing my Daughter for Rain and Skin & Sun are two of the most bookmarked and frayed in my collection. There have been too many times that I found myself unable to express myself, but found my feelings articulated so beautifully in her pages.

“Mourn the lives,

Grieve the tragedies

But be careful not to lick

The colonizer’s wounds.

His flag

Is too soaked

With the blood

Of your ancestors

To wave so proudly

Over your head.”

— Key Ballah

I remember the exact moment I was when I first read that poem. I remember what was happening around, what I was wearing and of course, how it made me feel. I get chills every time.

My Mama: If you read my earlier post, I fully believe that we can draw inspiration from the Muslim women in our daily lives. Everyone has their own struggle and everyone finds strength in their own way and to me, that’s very inspiring. That being said, my mama is pretty amazing. After completing her Undergraduate degree, she went on to do her Masters while married with two kids (I still don’t know how she did it — I can barely remember to feed myself). And after all her kids were more or less self sufficient, she went back to school to complete a third degree. What a boss, MashaAllah.

Even though she had five kids (all naturally, we’re always reminded when we get snippy) she remained the most informed person I know. It wasn’t until I moved out that I realized the pains it took both my parents to raise us as educated, compassionate, self-loving individuals. Yes, we were raised without Barbies (to avoid warped body image issues) and Disney Princesses (for the most part — because I can save myself) and at the time, little seven year old Sumayya didn’t appreciate that. But hindsight is 20/20 and sometimes I find myself jotting down notes from my childhood, in an attempt to repeat the same steps when faced with my own children (inshaAllah).

My mama raised me and my four siblings in the most tumultuous time to be an American Muslim. We grew up consistently being told by society that our religion was backwards, that our people were stupid, our men were abusive and our women were ugly and oppressed. And through all of this, my mama (and Aby, my dad, of course) made sure we were brought up in a home filled with laughter, safety and love.  And in a world that tries so hard to make us young Muslims hate ourselves, this is no small accomplishment.


Follow Sumayya on Instagram and Twitter @thisissumayya

Follow us on Instagram @ahfif and @bossmuslimahs to see what we’ve been up to! 

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