The Muslim Students Organization hosted Waheedah Bilal as the keynote speaker for the 2013 Islam Awareness Week on Oct. 25. Students gathered in the Reynolds Journalism Institute on Thursday to learn more about Muslim women and identity in Western culture.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Bilal said she has learned to compensate for the image that the media portrays of Muslim women. “One of the challenges is the media and the narrow confines of how Islam is portrayed. Don’t let the media perpetuate an image,” Bilal said. “As Muslim women, we are always working against a stereotype.”
Bilal, who is involved as leader for youth to encourage combating stereotypes, said she considers it a responsibility to share her faith to help combat these existing stereotypes.
It is difficult for young women, particularly shy women, to openly explain and verbally defend their religion, Bilal said. “Stereotypes are pervasive,” Bilal said. “The best way to combat stereotypes is to continue living a normal life and let people get used to the differences.”
Bilal also advocates for open discussions about Islam because the way to end stereotypes is to understand differences, she said. Her discussion on the self-image of Muslim women in America focused primarily on the decision to wear a hijab. Bilal said that it is something internal and is the woman’s decision to cover.
“You have control over your image,” Bilal said. “We decide to cover. Modesty is our personal decision. We have control over our image, and thus control over our identity."
Muslim Student Organization member Hiba Syed agreed with Bilal.
“We are normal people trying to live our faith,” Syed said. “People think we are oppressed when we cover our heads, but this was my choice.”
Audience members Gabriel Esparza said he was pleased events like Islam Awareness Week take place at MU.
“We just moved to Columbia from California, and we are happy to see the Muslim community here,” Gabriel Esparza said.
Syed and other members of the Muslim Student Organization host Islam Awareness Week to help facilitate greater understanding of the Islamic religion and bring people together to share ideas and learn from each other, according to the MSO website.
Graduate student Nick Okamoto said he is constantly searching for ways to learn more about different religions.
“Learning about different beliefs aids in an independent investigation of the truth,” Okamoto said.