Ariana: I started off as a children’s librarian part-time in a small public library system in California and then went full-time in DC. And in both systems, one with 26 branches, there was no one looked like me. In California, there were no other Muslims in the system, and in DC there were two Muslim paraprofessionals that I knew and self-identified as Muslim, but no other librarians or administrators.
I went to library school knowing that there wouldn’t be many people that looked like me, and it was important to me to be part of the profession because of that. There were also students that I thought might be Muslim or have a Muslim background, but they never said so much as hello, so there wasn’t any kind of community. When in classes I saw some book lists and resources about Muslims, so I thought eventually I would meet more in public libraries, and saw information about some online, in other countries, but did not meet any here in the states. After library school, I met some academic librarians that were Muslim, but few, if any, in public libraries and none in children’s and young adult services.
I met Sara through Anna Coats, my co-chair in an APALA committee and an Emerging Leader in the same class as Sara. I met Hadeal through my local library and Mahasin found me through Twitter and the we here Facebook group for librarians of color. Hadeal and I had been talking about resources about Muslims in Children’s Literature, given the different resources available for diverse reading along with trying to create a Muslim Librarians Association. I really wanted to do this work with other librarians in this community to find books that are about us, that are written by Muslims, but it didn’t exist in a professional capacity.
Sara: I had a similar experience where in library school and at conferences there was no one that wore hijab. I felt like I was the elephant in the room because was no one like me. I think my daily work and our work here is important in terms of representation and advocacy in the profession to let people know that we are here and they can be here too.
Hadeal: Same for me. I was the only Muslim in my program and I only met Ariana through my work, Sara through Ariana and now Mahasin. And really, you are the only Muslim librarians I know. And I do feel like other librarians are trying to do good, and create multicultural resources, but I want to represent me. I want to have a voice in my own representation, and that of my greater community, and I think this project is a great start. It is important to me to showcase our pathway and professional to others – especially children. In my old system, people were curious about what we did, beyond working with books, and I was able to talk to them about why children would frequently visit and enjoy their time at the library. The Muslim community around me knew about many of the resources that were available through the library, but being in libraries allowed me to spread more knowledge about the profession.
Mahasin: I was excited to see Ariana in the We Here group on Facebook. I am African American and there are not a lot of African Americans in librarianship, but I had another friend who was African American and in a mom’s group with me in Atlanta. She became my mentor and encouraged me to become a librarian. Now I am in a librarian in Oakland. I am fortunate to have supportive colleagues in my system.
Oakland had an incident with a Muslim student in the adult literacy program being harassed on the steps of the main library and there was an effort to put up signs in the library and the city to showcase that everyone is welcome here. I have Muslim colleagues, in fact, three of the library aides that work in my unit are Muslim, but I am the only librarian. But I still do have support. It’s nice that we are all fasting together. But I don’t have a professional space, so this was definitely on my to-do list, trying to seek out others. I feel that this connection was divinely placed in my lap. I’m here wanting to have a space for us for our own voices to speak up about how we are represented in literature.
Ariana: That is amazing that there are other Muslims in your workplace, and of course that is something we also want to help support. There are a lot of Muslims in “support roles” in the library and we want to form an association, but part of that is having resources for those who might be interested in being in librarianship as a career.
Mahasin: I’m always trying to encourage everyone, but especially people of color and Muslims, to join the filed. I know some other students who are already doing amazing work, and I want to be there for others like people were there for me.
Ariana: We try to encourage others in the field, but seeing children and youth in literature is can make a huge impact and can help encourage children in many ways. I know that for many Muslim families having non-Islamic books, especially literature, is not important. And while there may be several factors that contribute to that, part of that is because they don’t see themselves in the pages. There may be one aspect of someone’s identity, they may be Southeast Asian, South Asian, etcetera- and THAT is rare enough, but to have Muslims depicted, and then to see ourselves depicted in a positive way is rarer still.
The sad thing is, at least from my experience, is that children’s literature is probably the place where we will see the most positive depictions of Muslims. If you look in Hoopla, Overdrive or any library catalog for the search term Islam, half will be titles that I might actually be interested in and the other half are written by Islamophobes or just polemics, by people who have a certain bent.
ALA DID invite a known Islamophobe to the annual conference when I was in library school and my reaction was shock. What did that gesture show me about my presence in the field? It was an indicator of how unwelcome I would be, and through the justification of intellectual freedom and “creating a balanced narrative”, my colleagues would be showing me the door. So I feel like moving forward we have to create our own space for our voices to be heard.
Mahasin: I wanted to add that my experience is that I was a daughter of converts who became Muslim in the light of African American liberation. And they were very conscious about the kinds of books they brought into our home. My earliest memories are of my father reading books, nonfiction books about the water cycle to me – I think he may be over now that I am not in STEM or a doctor! Still, they were not going to get books with images of children who did not look like us or those that would be racist or damaging. There was no Dr. Seuss in our house. My parents grumbled about many things that people are just now starting to recognize. So they made the effort to have the characters in books reflect what we looked like, our day to day life and aspects of family life. I am really excited for my kids because now there is more out there for them than what I had when I was growing up.
Hadeal: I really like what you said about creating our own space. I’m sure that conversations have been started in many pockets of ALA, but moving forward and starting something is exciting and I feel like it can lead to bigger conversations and goals. But I also want to reach the Muslim community, who know about libraries but may not recognize the importance of books in the home and I wonder why that is.
Ariana: We all know the terms of mirrors, windows and sliding doors, and that importance of work in diversity and affinity. There is a lot we can do going forward, looking at books from the past as well, where we can talk about whose gaze it is and who a book is for. And I do think that there is a lot of discussions to be had there.
On how we picked our name:
Ariana: So we have had quite a bit of discussion about this, because initially when Sara, Hadeal and I had talked about naming conventions we thought about using something like uncovered or unveiled, something along those lines that was tongue-in-cheek funny, taking ownership of a label but also about books. But when setting up social media accounts I was looking for something pithy for accounts and the actual site address and grabbed “hijabi librarians” as a placeholder, but it was intended to be temporary. When Mahasin came on board we had a really in-depth conversation about the term hijab, the encompassing meaning behind it, and not identifying as a hijabi.
Mahasin: So, I cover my hair and grew up with the concept of modesty, especially after coming of age, however, I did not grow up with the language of hijab. I grew up with the language of headscarf, and others in my African American community used the term khimar. I think that’s because I grew up in the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, where language was really deliberate, precise and important. He taught that “Words make people” and that concept stayed with me. The conversations that we had growing up we always referred to the ayah (verse of the Qur’an) that used the word “khimar.” Conversations about the headscarf were as a piece of cloth and headdress, not a partition and not a curtain (as hijab means in Arabic). We talked about the uniqueness of the position of the Prophet’s wives and the etiquette in approaching them and the necessity of hijab, as discussed in the Qur’an as a protection specifically and uniquely for them.
I never have referred to myself as a muhajaba or hijabi, and it is a sort of a political act for me not to use the term. I don’t mean to be offensive in saying this. I have strong feelings about the word hijab as it’s used as a way to place an extra burden on women than what is asked by Allah. So although I understand the general concept of why the word is used, it is not a stance that I take and I will rarely use the word. It is interesting for me to have conversations with women who have similar views as me; we recognize that with the rise of Islamophobia, the headscarf has taken off as a symbol and token of diversity, especially in liberal spaces – where a lot of books and images that you see are of women wearing a scarf – having a person of African descent, a Latino, someone Asian, we know that they are going to be included and also, now, a Muslim woman in a headscarf is there! The term has become part of the general lexicon and it’s what people know. I would not say that I am anti-hijab in terms of terminology and use, but if asked, I will clarify why I don’t use that label. But I am supportive of our use of the term for now and I get it, but that’s where I am.
A few years back, University of Michigan professor and founder of Sapelo Square, Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, spearheaded a community poem entitled, “Elegy for the Khimar”, which laments the fading use of the term “khimar” for “hijab.”
Ariana: Thank you for the thorough explanation of your personal position. I think it encompasses a lot of the conversation and frustration that many Muslim women may have about the term hijab. As you were talking I was wondering when hijab became this collective term as an identifier marker. For me growing up, I never thought I was ever going to cover. My understanding was that it was something that was observed by the Prophet’s wives. In Malaysia and Indonesia, you hear tudung, kerudung, which I guess means to cover so it is synonymous with hijab, but they didn’t use that word. Funny, actually that heard from relatives, when did you start wearing jilbab which, from my Muslim student community, I understood to be a long-overcoat. And I told them that I didn’t use jilbab, sometimes an abaya, but they specifically meant the headscarf.
Hadeal: I grew up with the word mandeel, which means scarf, but I think I started using the word hijab when I would say mandeel and people didn’t know what that was. They would ask, “isn’t it called a hajeeb?” and I would answer back that it was a hijab.
Mahasin: I feel like at some point in my 20s that everyone started calling it a hijab. I did grow up in a mostly African American community, but then with more Arab and Pakistani Muslims, and I don’t remember exactly when, but it was not the preferred term in the late 80s.
Ariana: Do you think it may have to do with 9/11?
Mahasin: Maybe. But I think we discussed it in college, and that was before 9/11 for me. But, I don’t know.
Sara: Growing up for me, we called the scarf a tarha, but if someone asked us, we said hijab. For me hijab meant that I covered my hair, I wore long sleeved shirts and a long skirt or long pants. It was all encompassing, not just something on my head. But now if someone asks, “are you a hijabi?” then I answer, “oh yes, I wear the scarf.”
Hadeal: For us tarha was the bridal piece. Like you would see a bride’s headscarf and say, “the bride’s tarha is beautiful.” To me when we said scarf, it was very generic. But it is more than a scarf, like anyone can wear a scarf in winter, but the term headscarf, to me also wasn’t quite right. If people asked me what it was, I would say that it was a scarf I wrapped around my hair or my head. I just didn’t feel right. But really, sometimes anything is better, I once had a person call it a towel.
Mahasin, Ariana and Sara: Yup. Yes.
Ariana: Have we been called towelheads? Oh yeah.
Sara: Pillowcase. Everything.
Ariana: At one library I worked at, I had a patron refer to me as the white woman with a towel on her head, which, okay, no to the towel. But really, in what universe am I considered white? That was strange to me. More information on us and how we identify can be found on our bios page.
So when we talk about hijab and why we decided to keep the name “hijabi librarians” rather than go back to uncovered or unveiled, we also had a larger conversation about Orientalism, othering, or fetishization instead of empowerment or really reclaiming a term. We also talked about the idea of hijabi librarians as not being an inclusive term, but that if necessary, we will revisit it in the future.
Mahasin: I am laughing at the idea of us one day being known as “the site formerly known as hijabi librarians” ala Prince. I do feel like it is an evolving conversation, but that us taking the term and “capitalizing” on the recognition to create space for our own voices is deliberately powerful, but if we feel later that we have made or point or find something better, then perhaps at that time, we will change our moniker.