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Muslim American girls need to see their role models reflected in the spotlight, too

U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who competed at the 2016 Olympics (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Muslim American children have always had a scarcity of role models, but this fact didn’t really make an impression on me until recently. Back from a recent author trip to Chicago, where I’d visited the lovely Anderson’s Bookstore, I handed my daughter her gift. It was an illustrated biography collection with 27 famous women — one for each letter of the alphabet. She squealed and quickly rifled through the pages, flipping to M for Malala and B for Benazir Bhutto. “Those are the only Muslim ones,” she told me, smiling a little with sad eyes.

“We’ll read this together at bedtime,” I promised her. It’s been a tradition in my house since the first such book was published around the 2016 election, when we discovered the original “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.” That book signaled the start of a trend geared mostly toward girls: collected biographies with popping art, catering to a younger audience. It’s been followed by a plethora of similar books based on race, field of study and even immigrant status. My personal favorite remains “First Generation: 36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great.”

But for girls such as my daughter, who is still in elementary school, there aren’t many role models with whom they can identify. There are so many boxes to check: first-generation immigrant child. Muslim. South Asian. Brown. Female. Finding a variety of people who check all those boxes has proven to be extremely difficult. Many women from my generation have a tremendous generational barrier that encompasses not just age but also culture: I and other women like me didn’t grow up here, and it shows. My children have been known to make fun of my accent and the fact that I say footpath instead of sidewalk, lift instead of elevator — a remnant of my British post-colonial upbringing.

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“You don’t understand because you grew up in Pakistan,” is the refrain I hear from both my children, almost constantly. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived more than 20 years in the United States, or that I’m an author who writes books in English about characters who are wholly American. I’m still lacking in their minds because of a cultural disconnect.

This reminds me that, for my daughter at least, a role model is something very specific. A while ago, I asked her and a group of friends what they thought the term meant. They were adamant: someone like them who has grown up to do something awesome. And not necessarily in response to a tragedy, such as getting shot by the Taliban (an obvious reference to Malala, beloved by many but not really relatable to the average American child).

What exactly does awesome mean? That’s going to be different for every girl, so we need multiple women in multiple fields to be those role models. From sports to business to politics to homemakers and fashionistas. We need them all.

As a mother, this unfulfilled gap is always on my mind. Girls like my daughter are starved for positive examples of Muslim American women. Muslims make up just about 1 percent of the American population, so finding those examples is already a losing numbers game. How do we inspire and motivate our young girls who want to see brown women in positions of authority and influence?

There is some good news, though. With two Muslim women now in Congress — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — my daughter and other Muslim American girls have two more women they can aspire to be like. There is also Ibtihaj Muhammad, the fencing champion who represented our country in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

But that’s not enough for an entire generation of girls. I’m reminded of the Bonnie Tyler song “I Need a Hero.” That’s what we are looking for, all of us. Someone who will bring out the best in us because we want to be like them. Admittedly, Tyler wasn’t talking about collective national or religious heroes, but I think the concept still applies. It’s not a want or a desire as much as a need to have a human inspiration.

Three women. They are larger than life, but they’re still only three. The number strikes me as dismal, but it’s also acted as my own motivation to find more people for my daughter and her friends to look up to. Surely there are regional and local women, even if they don’t have a national media spotlight trained on them. What about local journalists, working behind the scenes? What about women running shelters and volunteering in their communities? What about small-business owners? There is so much heart and courage and dedication in our communities at a micro level, if we look for it.

That’s when the idea struck me, to introduce my daughter to women who are successful in their work, regardless of whether they are famous. I’ve taken her to meet a local Muslim American woman who started a hair salon in the area and now has a makeup line. I’ve taken her to visit a domestic-violence shelter started by another Muslim American woman I know. We watch videos of Ilhan and Rashida, who she knows on a first-name basis even though she’s never met them. We go to local bookstores to meet Muslim American female authors, even if the book they wrote isn’t meant for children.

It doesn’t matter. She needs to see that people who look like her — in terms of gender or language or faith — are making a difference in their communities every day. And her eyes shine a little brighter, and she stands a little taller.

And for the time being, I am happy. As my daughter’s generation grows older, they will take the mantle, and one day there will be many more Muslim American female role models for my granddaughter.

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist and cultural sensitivity trainer who was featured in O Magazine. She is the author of the adult short-story collection “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage From Pakistan” and “Meet Yasmin!,” a new early-reader series.

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