Here to Stay: Determination And The Life of Fatima Ahmad, A Muslim-American Woman in American Society

John B.——–May 2017

To listen to the interviews with Fatima, click the links below.

Interview 1

Interview 2

Whenever I have the chance to chat with my friend Fatima Ahmad, I’m always left with a feeling of astonishment and inspiration afterwards. Fatima in many respects has the odds stacked against her. Her words, “To exist is to resist,” epitomize the struggle that so many marginalized communities face daily. As a black Muslim-American woman, the media, the corporate world and the general public have continued to perpetuate distorted and erroneous narratives about the community she’s from. Fatima’s determination to excel in life and push aside the constraints of racism, classism, colorism and sexism is no easy task, yet she continues to move forward. I pair her interview with authors such as Bell Hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Gregory Mantsios, Audre Lorde and Sunaina Maira, in the hope that we can better understand the struggles that she and many others face. So often, the testimony of one person isn’t given credit. Their cries are stifled, and the discourse of meritocracy points to x, y and z and says, well look, they did it, so how come these folks can’t? But it runs much deeper. It is imperative that these very real experiences of the marginalized are heard so that change can happen. The grounding of systemic analyses gives the unheard voices power, which the WSCP systematically denies. It is time for Fatima’s voice to be heard.

Fatima Ahmad was born in Pakistan and shortly thereafter her family moved to the United States. She has grown up in Minneapolis, home to the largest diaspora of Somalis in the nation, approximated at 40,000 or more. This diaspora was largely the result of the brutal civil war that took place in Somalia in the ’90s. Many Somalis found refuge as a result of mission trips and social programs stemming from Minnesota. Yet this environment could not have been more different from their homeland. But now, as one walks the streets of Minneapolis, the names of Somali-owned storefronts and restaurants are not uncommon, and there are even two malls that are tailored around the Somali community. Fatima possesses a passion for change and has chosen an independent curriculum to study at the University of Minnesota. She has combined entrepreneurial management, philosophy and economics in her quest to “change the world’s perception about poor people, about black people, and about people in sub-saharan Africa, that’s what I really want to do.” She says, “I want to break expectations and help people find themselves.” Her favorite subject is African economies, which we spoke about in regards to how the West views development mostly in terms of pure monetary wealth, and continuously imposes Western ideals and neoliberal economic practices on African countries. Fatima is frustrated “that nobody ever teaches you to leave your assumptions at the door or to be cognizant of your assumptions,” whether they pertain to economic development or feminist activism. Fatima’s goal is to help sub-saharan Africa develop on its own terms, with their own wishes and ideals, rather than hegemonic Western ideals.

Fatima has always gone to predominantly white schools, but it wasn’t til she transferred to a new school in third grade when the concept of race unfolded. Looking back, Fatima explains that “you know race exists, you know you’re different by color but then you don’t, you don’t begin to recognize all the different things that racism does to you till you’re older; you don’t start recognizing all of the microaggressions that come towards you.” As Patricia Hill Collins states, “Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression-whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender — they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination.” Depending on intersectionalities, what may be liberating for one person could be subordinating another. Recognizing internalized oppression for Fatima has been a source of strength, because as she says: “when you’re young, you kind of internalize it and you think cause you’re developing and growing it actually is something you just don’t know how to do. Like ‘wow you’re so articulate’, you’re like ‘am I not supposed to be?’ so you set different standards, that’s all, and recognize that that’s not what your supposed to do, like you’re better than that.” Fatima finds it frustrating that people are surprised by the way she speaks or what she has accomplished because she doesn’t do what the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (WSCP) has determined her to do: instead she goes above and beyond. Some of the most sound advice that has resonated with her in combating internalized oppression is “reach the level of success you want to reach, not the level of success given to you by society.”

This level assigned to her by society is the deliberate attempt of “dominant groups [aiming] to replace subjugated knowledge with their own specialized thought because they realize that gaining control over this dimension of subordinate group’s lives simplifies control.” Everyone always tells Fatima “there’s a white boy out there who’s doing a mediocre job at what you’re trying to do and getting paid more for it,” which she responds with “say less! That’s all I need to hear for me to try harder.”

These mythical norms perpetuated by the WSCP seep into every niche of life. The internalized oppression of “adhering to externally derived standards of beauty leads many African-American women to dislike their skin color or hair texture.” Ideals of physical appearance, behavior, language, interests and an overwhelming sense of guilt have all crept deep into the marginalized communities of America because white men for most of history are the ones that have made the decisions and written history. Fatima and I talked about the large problem of colorism in her community and she thinks that “there’s this global strive to be as white as possible,” because it’s perceived that “the lighter you are, the more successful you are and the more capable you are to do things.” The underlying reason, she argues, is that it happens “in places touched by colonialism.” However, Fatima is careful to acknowledge her own privilege: as a lighter-skinned Muslim-American she says she’s asked out more often, given more credibility and people often find her ethnicity ambiguous.  Audre Lorde theorizes that throughout history, dominant white power “conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human needs…” Dichotomous thinking then gives the oppressed mythical norms that are impossible to attain, and more importantly, blatantly false. Yet they have no power to change it, because they have to deconstruct myths about themselves to others while simultaneously battling internalized oppression, all in the hopes of being given equality or decent treatment as a human being. This exhaustion and despair is continuously documented and verified by testimonies of the marginalized. The words of Fatima and Audre Lorde are almost parallel. Fatima tells me that “standing in solidarity gives me energy, but it also tires you out, so a lot of friends in organizing spaces are so tired, and they keep going because they’re passionate about what they’re doing, but they take breaks so that they can just catch their breath and realize they’re just one person, and one person can make a difference- but one person who’s healthy and alive will make even more of a difference rather than someone who’s going off of fumes.” What’s hard for me to wrap my head around is that it is our youth that is making the change. Indeed there are invaluable older people who have led the charge, but right now, it’s people that are the same age as Fatima that are trying to change the most powerful hegemonic system in the world which undoubtedly creates a “constant drain of energy, which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future,” she explains, in ways that are inclusive and considerate of everyone and not just the WSCP.

Deconstructing the mythical norms and redefining what it means to be from a certain group or intersectionality and gain equality is what I think Fatima and many others are trying to do. However the WSCP deliberately and systematically ensures that they can continue to dominate. It is hard to disagree with the fact that billions of dollars have been spent in advertising campaigns that are continuously comprised of representations of people with hegemonic traits: White, middle-class, educated and most often happy and upwardly mobile. But then we are led back to the perspective of anyone who doesn’t fit that ideal. As an example, bell hooks expands on how feminine beauty has historically been determined at the hands of white sexist males: “Certainly it has been in the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty.” By doing so, these companies were able to make enormous profits, objectify women to their liking, and marginalize any woman who didn’t fit their ideal or contribute to their domination. The marginalized are left with negative ideas about themselves perpetuated everywhere they go, and they lack the resources and capital needed to circulate accurate narratives of themselves.

Gregory Mantsios’ “Media Magic” helps to demonstrate the absolute power that the mass media (controlled by the WSCP) has. Very few testimonies and documentaries of poor and underprivileged people reach the mainstream media. This undoubtedly happens because once again the WSCP is maintaining control of the population. The subheadings of his different arguments explain as to how this happens. He argues that media declares “the middle class is us” and “the middle class is a victim,” and for the majority who are white, they easily fall into that narrative. With those two ideas, namely identifying with a majority group that’s under attack, people will gravitate towards a mob mentality to protect themselves and people like them. He also describes the media’s distorted perception that if you’re poor, you only have yourself to blame and that the wealthy don’t necessarily even exist. Ironically though, it is the wealthy that is coordinating all of these beliefs for consumption by the masses. Right now a prime example of this is the current war on terrorism, in which the American public is continuously told to fear ‘the other’. But who is ‘the other’ or ‘they’? Not to worry, the media will tell you exactly what to look for. As Sunaina Maira explains, the media has produced two binary identities, ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’. Something that Fatima and I talked about was the imperialistic ideals that are pressed upon people in third world or Muslim countries. “Never impose your wishes unto other people,” she says. Often Westerners view the hijab as a form of oppression and that Muslim women need to be liberated. But that is not the case, says Fatima, because for her, her hijab gives her a sense of comfort, belonging to her religion, and feeling less objectified by men. However, as Maira mentions, Muslims that don’t accept the ideals of the WSCP in all forms are then immediately deemed ‘bad Muslims’. The “ ‘bad’ Muslims are made into public exemplars of anti-Western enemies by state allegations of threats to national security and U.S. democracy; hysterical media coverage; virtually no opportunities to present, let alone publish, their own views and stories; and often distorted accounts of their activities and politics,” writes Maira. By contrast, a few Muslim scholars that align themselves with Western ideals are then deemed “good” and are the ones the public is shown. The U.S. media and government both collude in an effort to present the American public with the image they deem is fitting.     

Diversity is another subject that we discussed that Fatima explained is often misunderstood and used as a blanket term. Today in our society the notions that companies must become more and more diversified sounds good, but in Fatima’s opinion it’s not enough. “Diversity, inclusion, and belonging,” are what is necessary for change, says Fatima. It’s one thing to diversify a company, but if you don’t include the minorities i decision making and if they don’t feel a sense of belonging, than what has even been achieved? Fatima has had many internships with companies like Piper Jaffray, The Federal Reserve, U.S Bank, and is working at a large company in San Francisco this summer. One of the most disturbing things Fatima talked about was her experience working at an internship last summer. After fielding a barrage of microaggressions throughout the summer, she eventually broke down and started crying. Her story can be found at 20:00 here. But fortunately, Fatima has been left with a piece of advice from one of her favorite mentors. She says that one of the best things you can do is just ask people what they mean when making comments that are offensive. “Sometimes people forget that it’s a systemic thing,” says Fatima, but if “someone ever said something to you, just ask them why? like what do they mean? and soon enough they’ll realize that what they’re saying is offensive.” By doing so, you leave the work up to the offender, rather than the victim trying to defend themselves verbally.

Fatima never goes too long without reflecting on the impact her family, friends and community have had on her success and her perseverance through struggle. For Fatima, “the nuclear family doesn’t exist”; rather, it’s her extended family, along with her mother and father, that support her and to whom she talks on a daily basis. Both of her grandmothers have lived with her, and her aunts and uncles often stay over. “I think I was lucky and got parents and women in my life who want to see me reach places that they never got to. So I’ve always been pushed to be as successful as possible and by any means I see fit.” Fatima speaks both English and Somali, but mostly speaks English at her home and with her family. However, in different settings she often ‘code switches’, such as when she’s in a corporate setting and is expected to adhere to traditional ideals of the WSCP. Fatima feels that language hasn’t necessarily been a barrier for her because she lives in such a large community that shares the same native language, and with her white friends and peers she is able to speak in a manner which she knows will be accepted. Her friends are a huge source of inspiration as well: “I’m around activists and organizers and people who aspire to be development economists and policy-makers, we all have a shared purpose trying to better our communities, ourselves, our families and everything and we’ve all chosen our own way to do it, our own unique sort of form and I think that’s some of the coolest things because each one of our conversations, it brings something unique to it.” Fatima is a member of the Management Leadership for Tomorrow, which provides minorities with networking opportunities, resources, coaching and partnerships. For her, MLT has given her a sense of confidence and belonging with people who are non-white and wish to excel in business (something largely controlled by whites). She also serves as the treasurer of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Minnesota and has held numerous positions in the past at various organizations. Fatima’s intersectionality gives her a unique perspective on life, which has been supplemented by support and love from her family, friends and community. Fatima stated “tthey see that you’re black, they see that you’re Muslim, it affects the way people act around you and it also is who I am. You can’t change those aspects of me. There’s things that you can’t change, things that you can’t affect, so I don’t try to shy away from that when identifying myself and there are things that identify simultaneously and so they’ve always been a part of me, it’s part of who I am. I mean like as well as being American, I’m Somali-I’m American. I am a Muslim-I’m American. I am black- I’m American. It goes together, my experiences: it’s a collection of experiences that make up who I am.”

Fatima is a role model of mine, because she continues to persevere while always maintaining a positive attitude- and I’m not sure I could do the same if I were in her position. Fatima and I have a few things in common, but for the most part are incredibly different. I am intrinsically a part of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Do I want to be? No. Yet the way the system has been perpetuated, for me to get food and my basic needs, I am participating in the WSCP. There are deeply rooted ideas within me that have been perpetuated which I have yet to discover. Sometimes I feel ashamed and guilty, but other times I know that I didn’t have a choice as to what I was born into. I believe that what separates me from many other white males is my desire for people that aren’t as privileged as me to finally gain some equality and fair representation, for lack of better words. Some days I feel incredibly nihilistic because even as a white heterosexual healthy male who is financially privileged and educated, the future looks dismal. Donald Trump is our president. If I as a hegemon cannot undermine the system, how will people who have far fewer resources than me accomplish it? But then after being mindful of my pessimism, a beacon begins to grow inside me. I tell myself that if I add the necessary elements to my fire that burns within, it will lead likeminded others to me through the darkness, and I will be led to others that have similar hopes to mine. It’s crucial that I be an ally to those in need. As Fatima says, “pass the mic!” and stop trying to talk on behalf of those who are never given a voice. It seems that I as a white male am always holding the mic, I am always in charge, I am always given the benefit of the doubt, I am always given first pick, the ripest of the bunch, the nod in passing, the wave at the stop sign, the job offer, etc. So what do I do? I really don’t know sometimes. I think one of the best things that I can do, though, is to take all of those privileges and pass them to someone who hasn’t had them. If everything I say and do is taken more seriously by society, then I must do the necessary things that give people the chance to say what is wrong. Yet, just sitting here contemplating my own intersectionality takes the spotlight off of Fatima, when really her story is the one that needs to be shared. I encourage everyone to listen to both of the interviews. She truly is a remarkable woman.  

Works Cited
[1]   Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Perspectives on Gender, Volume 2.  Routledge 1990, 1991. Pp. 225-230
[2]  Ibid. pg 275
[3]  Ibid. pg 275
[4]   Lorde, Audre. Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Crossing Press 1984.
[5]   Lorde, Audre. Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Crossing Press 1984.
[6]   Hooks, Bell, 1952-. Feminism Is for Everybody : Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA :South End Press, 2000.
[7]   Mantsios, Gregory. Media Magic: Making Class Invisible.
[8]   Maira, Sunaina. “Good” and “Bad” Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U.S Orientalisms.  Feminist Studies 2009.
[9]  Ibid.