A passionate country music listener and a “hillbilly at heart” with 20 body piercings and nearly 50 percent of her body covered in tattoos, Shadia Amen is a 32 year-old American Muslim. Her older sister, 33 year-old Suehaila Amen, is also American and Muslim. A community activist and public speaker who travels the country representing Arab-American Muslim women, she wears the traditional headscarf. Featured on TLC’s former reality show, “All-American Muslim,” these two sisters gave viewers a glimpse of the diversity of Muslims in America.
The show was to fill in the void of Muslim representation in media, and while each American Muslim expected the show to represent them, it was an unfair expectation; reality shows rarely depict reality. The “All-American Muslim” series was no exception.
While Shadia and Suehaila were raised in the same family and social environment and share American and Arab cultures embedded with Islamic ideological values, both are strong-minded and outspoken; both have chosen Islam as their guide. However, each has separate aspirations, experiences and personalities – separate identities, while identifying with the same culture, ethnicity and faith.
When you consider our community’s diversity, suggesting an all-American Muslim should look, behave and think a certain way is naive. That is evident by the lives of the other women profiled in this article.
While Americans of other faiths were surprised not to see the stereotypical misrepresentation of a Muslim in the reality show and instead found average Americans living their day-to-day life as Muslims, a number of American Muslims were frustrated with the narrow representation of Muslims who lived in Detroit and shared an Arab heritage. Still it managed to, in the words of Suehaila, “capture the essence of the moderate Muslim by having a fair representation of every voice…from the ultra-conservative to the liberal perspective.”
The reality show did present all-American Muslims, just not all of them. To represent all American Muslims, TLC would have had to showcase a variety of African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasian Americans, Hispanic Americans and many others who are Muslim – almost an impossible task. No one person can accurately represent an entire group with such diversity. According to a 2009 Gallup report, American Muslims are the most racially diverse group in the United States.
Suheila Amen represents young confident, capable, educated, active females in the community – a significant group among American Muslim women – her persona dispelling numerous misperceptions about American Muslim women.
She says she was excited for the opportunity to “show the global community the real faces of Muslim-Americans, when she learned about the show through a family friend who had proposed the idea to TLC. “There is no right or wrong way to be ‘All-American,’” she says.
The community depicted in the series can perhaps best illustrate the complex definition of identity more than any other group in the United States and, indeed, the show was successful in showing the contradictions, diversity and complexity of the lives of American Muslims. Change Strategist Tom Crompton and Psychologist Tim Kasser define identity, perhaps one of the most complex concepts to delineate, as “people’s sense of themselves: who they think of themselves as being.”
According to their definition, identity is self-prescribed and socially constructed. Factors such as culture, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, interests, family values and life experiences shape each individual’s personality, thus making it difficult for people to be clumped under one umbrella of identifiers.
When asked what she wants the world to know about the identity of American Muslims, Shadia Amen, says, “Americans are Americans regardless of their faith. We separate Church and State for everything else… Why are Muslims exempt? We are ALL AMERICAN.”
Both Shadia and Suehaila say they appreciated the opportunity to broadcast their voice to the world through the reality show and they would do it all over again if they could. The sisters say the cancellation shocked them; they felt the show humanized people who are misunderstood and viewed negatively in this nation. It allowed the network to be the first “to show the reality of American Muslims in a positive light and allow them to tell their own stories as opposed to trying to tell it for them”, said Suehaila.
Whether or not we we agree with Shadia’s or Suehaila’s lifestyle does not reflect on what it means to be an All-American Muslim. Each woman identifies as an American Muslim in her own way. This is the beauty of the American Muslim women in our community of a multitude of identities.
Shadia Amen concurs, “I continue to express myself with what makes me happy, and continue to be the Good-natured person my parents raised me to be. Most folks see right past my exterior once they’ve talked to me personally, but many just can’t get past the judgment zone. And I’m okay with that. I just pray for those still stuck on the surface.”
This article was published in Azizah Magazine Volume 7 Issue 2. To read more about other All-American Muslim Women: A Multitude of Identities, purchase a copy of Azizah Magazine’s latest issue now.