Reclaiming What It Means to Be Muslim, One Open Mic at a Time

Since December 2014, the Muslim Writers Collective has organized events around the United States where Muslims from all backgrounds can gather to talk about everything from Islamophobia to online dating.

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Feb 22 2016, 10:20pm

Photos courtesy of the Muslim Writers Collective

Last Friday night, 150 twenty-something Muslim New Yorkers gathered in Midtown Manhattan to talk about love. The event was an open mic run by the Muslim Writers Collective (MWC), a project that aims to reclaim the Muslim American narrative through storytelling, creativity, and culture.

The room was packed and the vibe energetic as NYC lead organizer Shahana Hanif grabbed the microphone and opened the evening. "Muslims in love," she joked with the crowd about February's theme. "That sounds like Netflix's next new original, or the next big online dating app. Or an arranged marriage. Or just a myth."

The audience laughed. "Now," Hanif continued, "we're not here tonight to dispel any myths or scream loud and proud that we are Muslim, and that we too, love, or that we are loving."

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Instead, they were just there to talk. At a time when Islamophobia has reached new virulent and violent heights, MWC provides a space for young Muslims to honor their humanity—at Friday's meeting, that meant both joking about the horrors of online dating and discussing frankly the pain of death and divorce—and be heard by others who know what it means to grow up Muslim in post-9/11 America.

The Muslim Writers Collective was founded in January 2014 by Ayisha Irfan and her brother, Hamdan Azhar. The siblings were both interested in writing, and they wanted to a fill a hole in the Muslim community for people to share their work. Eighty-five people showed up to the first event, which was thrown together with very little planning or advertising. "From the very, very beginning, it's just been extremely clear that this is something that people need and want and have been waiting for," Irfan, 27, who works as an education and policing policy analyst for the Manhattan Borough President, said over the phone.

From there the project grew exponentially, spreading to six cities across the US and Canada. In addition to monthly open mics, MWC NYC runs a bi-weekly writers workshop to nurture developing talent.

"Femme C" Hanif, 25, who works as an organizer for the Asian-American community group CAAAV, performed at one of the first events and has been heavily involved ever since. In a phone interview, she told Broadly that the space enabled her to be honest and open about her autoimmune disease around other Muslims—to combat social pressures to be ashamed or silent about her diagnosis, and to ask for the community's support. "Folks come with so many different layers of stories, and our audience is always so loving," Hanif said. At MWC, everyone is heard, and everyone receives applause when they finish.

This is the first time that I have seen a Muslim event that doesn't revolve around religion.

The stories at Friday's event were about love and loss of many different kinds: a woman's last conversation with her husband before their divorce; a young man's experience seeing death in a hospital as a teenager; a contributor's fervent love and admiration for his mom. And there was also diversity in the forms each story took. People read short stories, recited poems and spoken word, and rocked the audience into fits of laughter with stories of failed attempts to win back lost loves.

In one of the highlights of the evening, Pakistani–American comedian Nadia Iqbal spoke about the perils of dating in New York. "I set up all these online dating profiles," Iqbal said to the crowd. "Little did I realize how much online dating sucks! It's not really the medium that's the problem—it's more that I don't understand from where these men learn how to talk to women."

"This one guy messaged me and started out with, 'Baby, do you wanna marry me?'" she continued. "And I said, 'No.' And then he said, 'OK, do you wanna **** raw then?' And I said, 'No.' He said, 'You're going to like it,' and I said, 'No.' And then he said, 'Well, what do you want to do then?' And I said, 'No.'" The room erupted in laughter.

The piece was hilarious, and entirely relatable to anyone who's ventured into the dark world of online dating, yet for Iqbal, MWC was the only place to perform it. "I have been to open mics within the past year where the comics will be openly racist or hostile to women," she told Broadly over text. By contrast, MWC is a safe space.

Nadia Iqbal performing her comedic monologue at the MWC event last week

Media representations reduce American Muslims to stereotypes, tropes, or singular aspects of daily existence. Even coverage critical of the War on Terror's demonizing frame can be complicit with this kind of flattening; if Muslims are not portrayed as potential ISIS sympathizers, they are described as victims of state surveillance and repression.

This flattening affects representations of young Muslim women in particularly pernicious ways, as though being religious or wearing a hijab or niqab means that someone cannot be outspoken, bitingly sarcastic, deeply intellectual, or profoundly cosmopolitan. When asked what MWC means to her, Hanif told Broadly, "Reclaiming the Muslim narrative, to me, means being bold and honest as a woman."

The organizers of MWC are committed to nurturing a space where young Muslims from all kinds of backgrounds can be their full selves, without anxiety or apology. "MWC creates that space to say we are a multifaceted people," explained Irfan. "We're all in different points in our journeys with faith and religion and navigating who we are as people, but that's OK, because at the end of the day there is some understanding of where we're coming from and where we're going."

From the very, very beginning, it's just been extremely clear that this is something that people need and want and have been waiting for.

The racial and religious diversity present at Friday's MWC event suggested they have been successful in their aims. There was a visible South Asian, Arab, and black Muslim turnout, as well as an array of representations of religiosity in terms of dress and presentation. "Usually...if you wanted to do something cultural, you would go to an Arab thing, or a Pakistani thing, or a desi thing," commented one participant in the opening conversation, "and this is the first time that I have seen a Muslim event that doesn't revolve around religion."

MWC is also designed as both an implicit and explicit space for social change. Some events have focused on issues faced by Muslim communities, like the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill in February 2015. MWC also does not shy away from confronting internal issues of inequality and discrimination, and the group recently held a workshop and open mic about anti-blackness within Muslim communities.

But the brilliance and beauty of the project lies in its openness, its refusal to contain or constrain the experiences of its participants. While MWC certainly enables Muslims to discuss issues of identity in a post-9/11 world, dealing with those themes is not the sole or even primary aim of the project. "A lot of things are happening in one room," Hanif said.

"What MWC's allowed so many of us to do is really, at the very, very basic level, bear witness to each other's stories, and our struggles—everything from romantic partnerships, to professional struggles, to our journeys through out faith," Irfan told Broadly.

From here, Irfan and the other MWC organizers hope to bring stories and performances out of Muslim-only spaces into the American mainstream, where they worry that a handful of Muslim community representatives dominate the media landscape. Irfan and the other organizers are ever conscious about not recreating that problem on a local level.

"Each open mic, each city launch, forces us to question our own status as gatekeepers and what we are doing to represent the absolutely beautiful diversity of the Muslim experience."

In Iqbal's monologue, which is worth watching in full, she also explores what it means to date when living at home with traditional parents, and she talks about meeting potential partners outside her ethnic or religious background.

"Sometimes I feel like maybe my parents should have let me date in high school or that my culture is somehow to blame for my current loneliness," she comments in her closing.

"But then I realize that because of my parents and my culture that I am a strong, independent woman with a rich, textured life aided by many varied and wonderful friends. And I'm sure someone will come along eventually—hopefully!

"If they don't," she added, "well, there's always cats."

To find out more about the Muslim Writers Collective, check out their website or their Facebook page.