Photo by Olivia Paschkes

The Black Muslim Activist Tearing Down the Boundaries Around Womanhood

Diana Tourjée

Diana Tourjée

Blair Imani gained national attention when she was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a protest. As the executive director of her own activist organization, she fights every day for feminine people, whether they are trans or cis women, non-binary...

Photo by Olivia Paschkes

Twenty-three-year-old Blair Imani gained national attention as a black Muslim activist when she was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 10 of 2016 during a protest against the killing of Alton Sterling. Her experience in Baton Rouge only strengthened her resolve to fight for justice for people facing discrimination in America. "I want the world to be better than it was when I came into it," Imani said in an interview with Broadly.

She works full time for Planned Parenthood at their national office in New York, and spends her lunch breaks working on an organization she founded in 2014: Equality for HER (Health, Education, and Rights), which, according to their website, aims to "generate awareness about issues affecting the global femme community." "Right now I'm gearing up for a bunch of campaigns," she said, explaining one, month-long project involving daily editorials featuring non-binary individuals, transgender women, and anyone who identifies along the spectrum of femininity.

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We first met at the Women's March in Washington D.C., where Imani had come to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump beside hundreds of thousands of women from across the United States. The march was inclusive of all identities, but she says that women's history generally centers the stories of cisgender women; she wants to "expand the narrative on what it means to be feminine," which is a goal that is central to all of the work that she does as an activist. "As much as I feel like I don't belong," Imani said, "I'm not denied my identity. So many people are."

Imani believes that it can be important to rewrite histories that have been erased, or to educate people today about past realities that have been forgotten. She cites the example of cultural appropriation: The fetishization of black women's aesthetic is rampant in white culture, but that's not a new phenomenon, Imani explains, and she aims to educate people about that fact. "It's not something new," she told me. "It has an historical root."

"If you understand racism as a system and an historical phenomenon—instead of happening in a vacuum—it's easier to empathize, it's easier to understand, and it's easier to combat because you know what you're fighting."

I'm not denied my identity. So many people are.

It was her education about history that made it possible for her to "advocate even stronger" for the communities she believes need to be empowered. This aspect of Imani's political ethos is particularly relevant to the work of engaging communities that are politically detached, or groups of people who may not feel that a particular political issue is relevant to them. She offered the example of anti-trans bathroom legislation.

Imani described both her parents as very progressive—her mother was a "bra-burning feminist." But in talking with them about the issue of transgender bathroom bills, Imani said they were able to understand the issue more clearly when she tied it to the history of racially segregated bathrooms in the United States. By comparing the two issues, she found she was able to strip away the particular identities involved and focus the discussion on humanity.

Photo by Olivia Paschkes

"Honoring humanity," as Imani puts it, is central to the work she does. Part of that is just appreciating people's differences. There's this idea, Imani told me, that people need to be the same, or that what's good for you should also be good for me. But that's not a true measure of mankind, she explained; by respecting individual needs while being invested in each other's success, we might find justice. "That sounds super 'flowery,'" she said, "but you know what I mean?"

She believes that all generations are capable of moving forward, but that her generation has the potential to be more open-minded than those that came before. Her grandfather, for instance, accepts certain lifestyles, even though he may not agree with them. But Imani takes that further—acceptance is the rule for many people now, and who are any of us to judge the way someone else lives? "It's not my lifestyle to 'agree' with," she explained.

The internet has helped to expand Imani's generation's access to multicultural or global perspectives. It is easy to find out about other people living other lives simply by searching online. But she also thinks that millennials are more open-minded because they are growing up in a society that has progressed in the past 50 years, even though there's a long way to go before anyone can call America a land of equal opportunity.

Imani is a practicing Muslim today, but she did not grow up in a Muslim family. After 9/11, she witnessed the way that Muslim people in America were unfairly maligned by society, which was striking to her because she knew absolutely nothing about Islam. This made her interested in learning about the religion, but it wasn't until college that she converted. While she was enrolled at Louisiana State University, a conservative school, Imani attended an event that took place on the anniversary of 9/11, which served as a major catalyst to her conversion. "The Muslim Student Association passed out flowers," she recalled. "I felt so hurt." She knew why they had handed out flowers: Muslim people often face increased hatred during that time of the year.

Where her government and the media had portrayed Islam to be inherently violent, that wasn't the reality Imani saw. "Every Muslim I know has been nothing but welcoming to me," she said. She described a Muslim family in her neighborhood that donated food to local homeless shelters during Ramadan. She's seen cab drivers in New York "pass out lunch bags to homeless people when they're breaking their fast." These actions were only a small part of what she perceived to be a beautiful and generous people devoted to a peaceful faith, and when she compared her lived experience with the hateful caricature that America was inundated with, it drove her to learn more.

Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

She read the Quran, and shortly after, she converted. Faith came at an important time in her life. Imani told me she was engaged in heavy activist work in Louisiana at that time. She was overwhelmed, and felt despair. "When I went to a mosque, it felt like coming inside from a storm," she said. She was welcomed into the community. "It was the first time I felt like I was a member of a group, but there weren't any qualifiers." Ultimately, Imani found that Islam was very "compatible" with her work as an activist. Fellow Muslims described Imani's work as "faith in action," she explained.

Imani's religious conversion came as a shock to her mother, who was concerned by the fact that her daughter was joining an organized religion that their family had no ties to, and by the fact that that she was going to begin wearing the hijab. "Yes, some women in the world are forced to wear hijabs. Some women in the world are forced not to," Imani explained, relaying the conversation she and her mother had that day. Imani's mother was coming from a classic, albeit narrow, feminist perspective: that women shouldn't be told what to wear or be made to cover their bodies.

Imani felt that her mother, while well-intentioned, was setting similar limitations on her body and dress. "The key thing here isn't whether or not I wear a scarf on my head. It's whether or not I'm doing what I want to do," Imani said. "In the name of feminism, when people are erasing my autonomy, and deciding what my lived experience is, that's harmful." In a way, that has shaped her view of feminism itself. The movement should be all-inclusive; it can't cause harm to some while benefiting others. That Christmas, Imani's mother bought her a sparkling, burgundy hijab. "It was really beautiful," Imani said.