Women Explore Rural Muslim Identity in the South

Two Muslim women from the rural South said they have a complicated relationship with their communities, which can be both accepting of their religious choices and simultaneously heartless.

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Greenville, S.C. – When Saba Ashfaq was stuck on the icy streets of her West Virginia city during a snowstorm, her neighbors came to her aid.

“I was driving on a cold winter night with no cell phone and I got lost and then I got stuck,” Ashfaq said during a panel discussion on Muslim women in the rural South Monday (October 28, 2019).

“Strangers came and helped push my car up a hill – twice.”

The act of kindness convinced Ashfaq that she needed to reach out and get to know her neighbors in Morgantown, a university town in northern West Virginia. Ashfaq, who is Muslim, had stepped back from community involvement after anti-Muslim sentiment increased after the 2016 presidential election, she said.

The helping hand on an icy road opened her heart. “I realized, these are my neighbors, and I trust them with my life. I need to know who they are,” she said.

“Two days later, I walked out of my house and someone called me ‘ISIS.’ But I’m not letting that stop me.”

The complex relationship with community was one theme that emerged in the session, which was part of the Rural Women’s Summit in Greenville, South Carolina.

Ashfaq was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. She moved to West Virginia as a young girl. “West Virginia was the first place that I could call home,” she said.

Khadijah Rashid of Mississippi described similar complex feelings as an African American Muslim woman from the South. When she returned to Mississippi after living in Los Angeles, she had a better sense of her connection to other Southerners. “I realized that as a Southerner I had things in common with white men that I didn’t have with people in Los Angeles,” she said.

Rashid is with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a filmmaker and storyteller.

She said people of faith need to overcome the segregation that defines much of the Southern experience.

“I was sitting in an interfaith meeting led by a white pastor who’d just moved into the area and really he wanted to shake things up,” Rashid said. “So he called in all the churches and said we’ve got to fix this. Then he broke us up into groups. One white woman in my group said, ‘I don’t know how to work with blacks, I don’t even know where to find them… It was because she’d self-segregated herself in the suburbs… My simplest answer is to get to know us – let’s be friends, let’s break bread together, let’s talk.”

Also on the panel was Emily Pelland, who is producing a documentary film about Ashfaq. The documentary, which is expected to be finished in 2020, has expanded from telling Ashfaq’s story to revealing a larger story.

“It’s remarkable because it started out as a story in Appalachia, but it has gone beyond that – to Baltimore and Jordan,” Pelland said.

Ashfaq said she has felt the shift in the documentary project. ““We first started the documentary, I feel like it was just humanizing me as a person,” she said. “But it became a story about me as a Muslim, as a teacher, as a mom, as a community organizer.”

Tim Marema contributed to this story.

(The Rural Women’s Summit is produced by the National Rural Assembly, part of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder. You may follow the summit on social media using #RuralWomenLead or via FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. The Daily Yonder also has compiled stories from the Summit.)

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