Mar 22, 2023

Feminism in the Diaspora


Wan Rashid

An essay on the tension of education and empowerment in a Muslim community

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach

As Maya Angelou said, "The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go and not be questioned."

To us, this is our homeland of Kurdistan. Three generations of Kurds since 1975 have lived in Tennessee, and we have continued to keep our roots intact—largely due to the persistent women who, in the face of war, tragedies, and refuge, have instilled a unique brand of feminine pride within our youth that is not seen in present-day, normative feminism.

Growing up in a conservative and traditional Kurdish-Muslim community in the inner city of Nashville, my community grew in fear as it also grew in size. Gangs were common, crime was persistent, and our education system was poorly funded. Many families may not have had their own education, the ability to speak English, or the necessary resources to raise a child in such a turbulent diaspora. Nonetheless, families raised their children to the best of their abilities, which usually involved a strict upbringing.

Instead, feminism was communal—a strong, culturally-bound pride that exerted its strength in time-honored tradition and stability.

Needless to say, feminism from my cultural roots looked different than the stereotypical white-American perception—no bra-burning or maiden names to speak of. Instead, feminism was communal—a strong, culturally-bound pride that exerted its strength in time-honored tradition and stability.

For example, the popular American ideal of feminism is based heavily and proudly around rebellion. As Rafia Zakaria (2021) stated: shave your head, disobey your family, free the nipple, and so on. Perhaps these have their place. But for brown girls, feminism looks different. Where a defiant society sees a Muslim woman in a veil, with a covered body, respecting her cultural norms and cries “oppression,” I see a lived culture of respect and strength beyond many people’s capabilities.

. . .

“You’re next to get married,” a 19-year-old girl said to me. She was marrying a man from Kurdistan, our homeland. I was in eighth grade, and I was terrified.

How could I marry a stranger? Someone who could muffle my voice, control me? How could I prevent this?

The answer was clear: education. As my refugee mother would say, “even if you have nothing, at least you have your education that no one can take away from you.” I hadn’t paid attention to school much until this point. But when I went to grade nine, I challenged my parents on why I should have the freedom to join as many organizations and programs as I wanted. Thankfully, they agreed and gave me the ability to use my voice. This was my chance to do well, get into a good college, and maybe defy the odds of a system that did not represent me.

Thankfully, I did just that and was able to go to the University of Tennessee with a full ride, where I learned to live outside of the conservative cultural bubble I was used to.

As I slowly developed myself and grew into who I wanted to be, I started learning about the double standards toward women in my community. I honestly grew a sense of resentment, and questioned what feminism was if there were so many things I disagreed with. Things I used to assume were normal—cleaning up after men, excusing boys’ bad behaviors but shunning the girls’, mixing religion and culture together, preventing girls from excelling in life—it was all wrong to me.

. . .

My new educated worldview caused me to question my community, my upbringing, and its ripples, while also causing the community to fear me to some extent because I was willing to challenge the norms—as have so many women before me, and hopefully after me, too.

I’d known my own idea of empowerment to be religiously rooted to a belief in a God who loves everyone, leaning on the Qur’an to indicate the rights we are entitled to: “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women” (Qur'an, 2:228). But feminism, religion, and culture within some Middle Eastern and Muslim countries have not always paralleled my assumptions of what Islam is: Countries such as Iran and Afghanistan twist the equity and equality of women to define us as secondhand citizens, and nothing more. This corruption of human dignity is rightly being fought—an opposition, and a form of holy rebellion within these communities, fights and shouts for women’s rights. This is also happening in our communities in the diaspora—we have amazing women challenging these counteractive norms while also preserving the unity of our culture and religion.

On the global whole, more brown girls are attending college, working in corporate settings, and enjoying their freedom—especially as resources have gotten easier to come by, war has declined, and there is more household stability. Alongside these shifts, there’s also a historically significant rise in Muslim women’s involvement in mosques and communities—a 2021 Pew Research Center study reported that from 2011 to 2020, 11% more women joined the board, 22% have their own women’s groups, and 7% of women attend the mosque more often.

Though there is sometimes sorrow, disappointment, and fear in being educated—for all that you must be aware of and hold in tension with everything else you value—it is also such a beautiful thing.

At the same time, women like myself wrestle with how to incorporate maternal roles and cultural roots into the lens of Western and Eastern feminism. The scope of modern day “feminism” is deep and complex, filled with a variety of thought processes and opinions. The felt pressure and difficulty that I and many other women face is choosing what is “right” in this nebulous definition—it’s easy to be swayed and find ourselves isolated from our deep communal structure when what we learn and the education we’ve gained and fought for in the diaspora creates a tension with the experiences of the generations before us. It feels impossible to classify what’s “right” or “wrong” in this realm.

. . .

Now, I often notice various spotlights within our culture: on career women, women in leadership for the Kurdish cause, conferences for daughters and mothers, and different projects ensuring we are upholding and honoring our girls. It’s the way I wish I was honored.

Though there is sometimes sorrow, disappointment, and fear in being educated—for all that you must be aware of and hold in tension with everything else you value—it is also such a beautiful thing. It’s become my calling to mentor and shape young women, to benefit the future of other girls who come behind me.

It is not always easy, but there is significant improvement that comes with education in living in the diaspora—it’s an improvement that is both for you and against you, that begs you to choose a narrow “right” way. The “right way” of popular media is fresh and rebellious, and the sway beckons to forget our roots and to isolate ourselves from a communal structure that has survived for thousands of years.

The “right” I’ve found hinges on young girls having the chance to question all they learn. My chosen “right” includes the ability to see injustice toward one sex compared to another, and to fight to ensure—regardless of what our future daughters decide—that they are still loved and accepted for who they are.

Pew Research Center. (2021, August 3). Women now play bigger leadership role in most American mosques.
The Qur’an (M.A.S Abdel Haleem, Trans.). (2004). Oxford University Press.
Zakaria, R. (2021). Against White Feminism. W. W. Norton & Company.

Wan Rashid holds an undergrad degree in Analytics from The University of Tennessee and Masters in Public Administration & Public Policy from American University. She currently works in government consulting. She founded Effendi Foundation in 2019 to accomplish work in the Kurdish community, including: international fundraisers, women’s conferences, a national Census campaign, election cycles, and more. She loves spending time with family and friends, cooking, exploring, and learning.