Listening to Learn: Becoming Allies with Muslim Women

A few weeks after the election of Donald Trump, 75 community members signed up for a listening event in East Williamsburg. Most of them had never met before. They greeted each other and quietly took their seats as Muslim women were given microphones. For two hours of uninterrupted time, the speakers shared about their lives, their faith, the challenges they face and ways everyone in the room could be allies.

Photo courtesy of The Ripple / Kennedy Carroll


The event was the first of a new series put on by The Ripple, a feminist collective designed to elevate diverse voices, in partnership with New Women Space in Brooklyn, a mixed use venue designed to create lasting community impact through in-person gatherings. “When Muslim Women’s issues are discussed [on television]—or Trans Women’s issues, or Native Women’s issues—the marginalized group is almost never present,” says The Ripple Co-Founder Dana Suchow. “We want to give women a platform to stand on while we hold the mic for them.”

Daisy Khan, the Founder of WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality) was among the first to share. Originally an architect, Daisy led design and construction projects in several locations, including an office in the twin towers prior to 9/11. “I was very familiar with the 106th floor of that building,” she said. “It was the neighborhood where I worked and worshiped. Our city was attacked by people who professed to share my faith.”

Photo courtesy of The Ripple / Kennedy Carroll

Many of the speakers said that 9/11 changed the way they moved through the United States. That they woke up to a world where being Muslim came with the expectation to be ambassadors for their faith and to explain it to others. “The media created a caricature of a world religion,” said Daisy, who is also the wife of an Imam. “One misconception is that people think Muslim women have to abandon their faith in order to speak their rights. My faith informs my work and inspires me to advance human rights.”

Laila Alawa, the founder of a tech and media company called The Tempest, spoke about the discrimination she’s faced in her daily life. “Just the other day I was standing at a counter waiting for my coffee, and a woman came up and questioned my background,” she told the group. “She made assumptions about who I was, where I was coming from, why I wore my headscarf. I’ve had incidents happen in jobs, on the train and on the bus. People around me just watched or pretended they were busy.”

When asked if the election of Donald Trump had elevated tensions, Shireen Soliman, a professor at the Pratt Institute took the mic. “I think that a fear of Muslims in general has existed and is now surfacing,” she asserted. “Somehow [this election] has made people feel that they have permission to speak openly about it.”

Photo courtesy of The Ripple / Kennedy Carroll

Shireen attended the event with her 15-year-old daughter, who proudly snapped pictures of her mother speaking to the group. “What do I want for my daughter in the era of Trump?” Shireen wondered. “I want her safety. The truth can be dangerous. The injustices can wear one down. The act of being oneself can leave one weary. I want for her to learn self-care, self-affirmation and preservation. I dream that she will see in her lifetime profound social change and will be able to be her fullest, most authentic expression of herself. I wish that for her and for all our children.”

The conversation turned to the question of how community members could show up. Laila had a few ideas. “It’s easy to say: Hey, I’m an ally!but what does that mean in the real world? Are you stepping in on conversations when friends or family are expressing bigoted or unjust positions? Are you putting yourself in a place where you fact check or correct them? Change happens within social circles.”

The speakers were happy to share their ideas but reminded everyone that while they can offer a few individual perspectives, their voices do not represent an entire group. As the afternoon continued, there was repeated concern voiced against the President’s push toward a Muslim Ban. There was also an emphasis on the role women can play building bridges. “Women need to be at the forefront of breaking down barriers and get on with the business at hand,” said Aisha al-Adawiya, the Founder of Women in Islam. “As women, I think that we are qualified to step into that role. Women have a uniqueness. It’s not about domination and control.”

Photo courtesy of The Ripple / Kennedy Carroll

The event ended with a few minutes of breakout groups where attendees were invited to think through their take-aways. Many wanted to create more listening parties and felt that in-person gatherings would be a priority in the months to come. The speakers agreed that they would love to attend events like this for other groups, such as The Ripple’s upcoming listening night with Trans Women.

“I think that talks like this are valuable and something we need to replicate on a national level,” said Aisha. “In too many instances we’ve lost human connection; that ability to meet people in a space. I love social media but there is no substitute for personal contact and interaction.”


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.