My name is Marwa Balkar. I'm an American-Circassian.
I’m not exactly sure how to describe what I do. I write Facebook statuses…just kidding. Some people call me a social activist though I would not want to call myself that because I don't believe I live up to that title. I look at people out there like Linda Sarsour – who really is an activist and I think: yeah I'm definitely not on that level, and I don't think I will ever be, but it does not mean I won’t share my opinions.
I went viral a few times, most notably for my letter to Donald J Trump that was written on Facebook last November in response to his comments about tracking Muslims. I wrote it in the heat of the moment. I was intensely frustrated that someone would use their influence in such an irresponsible way: fear mongering. As someone who is running to be the president of this country, he really needs to embed the idea of "united we stand, divided we fall"
Thousands of people were commenting and sharing faster than I could keep up with. I think it resonated with people so much because Islam at the moment is really confusing to Non-Muslims and to the western world. So having a perception or a statement being released from someone who belongs to that faith and that does not "look Muslim" (because I was not wearing Hijab at the time) was intriguing.
I would not wish “virality” upon anyone. If you find yourself in this position – make sure you establish a VERY strong support system. I went viral for defending one of the most hated religions in the entire world right now. It also doesn’t help that we are living within a very volatile political climate that makes these topics very difficult to speak on. Some people view you as a hero of some sorts and others see you as a demon. I've found myself in a position where thousands of people look to me for a statement when a tragedy happens, which is mind blowing to me because at the end of the day, I'm just a very normal and average 23 year old girl.
I think what’s most frustrating is always being on edge. I am not saying this is right, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking that any car or house with a “Trump / Pence” sign belonged to a racist. I know it’s not right but it’s the culture that has been created that gives off that fear, where you are suspect about everything. It’s a bit unsettling because you can never know for sure. It extends to every day life where I can be at a grocery store and if the cashier does not smile when giving me my bags I almost have to wonder – is it my faith? Is she just in a bad mood? Why do I care? I care because I never want to make someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe. That hurts me to my core.
Being viral in the name of Islam invites a lot of hatred…Hatred not only from non-Muslims, but from Muslims as well. So you’re kind of put into a corner – trying to defend both sides, and yet both sides are attacking you. I'm here like "Yo, y'all need to RELAX"! Muslims like "you don't wear hijab!" then I put it on and they're like "you're wearing it wrong!" Then on the other spectrum you got these non muslims like: "If she's actually a Muslim, how come she doesn't have that thing on her head" then I put that thing on my head and they're like "you camel loving oppressed b* go back to Saudi blah blah blah".
I often find myself in tears after reading comments like this, but it's tears from laughter. If you cannot get yourself to laugh at such deep rooted stupidity, the weight of it will drag you to its level.
My original intention was to gain a large non-Muslim audience and unfortunately it turned into a bunch of easterners, which was everything I didn’t want to happen. I’m not here to preach Islam to Muslims, I’m not a scholar, I’m not fully knowledgeable and there are already tons of people who do that. What I wanted to do was to go over the ABC’s of Islam to those who may not truly understand the very basics of Islam. There are people in America who have never even seen a Muslim other than through their television. If that's the only exposure they have, can you even blame them for their ignorance?
Something people may not understand is how deep the hatred can consume you when it comes to these things. You think they are just comments, words put together on a screen from people you don’t know. But its not just 1 comment, it’s 100, 1000, 5000, even 10000 people all talking directly to you. At the end of the day you’re only human and can break down just like anyone else. I actually do read all of the comments – I don’t want to but it’s for my own safety and protection to scan for threats. I can’t tell you how many I have seen. I was once indirectly told I would be raped. Another time someone told me if I ever visited Utah I would be met by someone with a gun…in which I actually laughed. What are you going to meet me at the airport with that gun?
It seems like there are plenty of reasons for me to stop what I am doing but I can’t. I think it would be foolish and irresponsible to let go of an audience like this, especially being a Muslim female. We’re so misconstrued in the eyes of the media as being "oppressed" and "suppressed", so I can’t afford to throw away the opportunity to be a voice for Muslim American Women. My move to wear Hijab is something that was very meaningful, but not many people understand what it is exactly. For the record, no one forced me into hijab. I went through depression and hijab was my way out. I found strength through becoming a hijabi.
Hijab is the embodiment of it's meaning through all forms. Hijab as a noun is simply the veil. The protector. The self-empowerment as a woman. Hijab as a verb is action of modesty in all aspects of my being. My style, my behavior, and the internal/external reflection of myself. Hijab as the adjective is describing a woman with so much self-confidence of who she is on the inside that what she looks like on the outside is irrelevant. Her presence is known and it is powerful. It is saying that my inner beauty outshines any sort of "attractive" aesthetic distraction I might have. It is viewed as oppressive, but there is nothing more liberating than hijab. It is a signature of self-respect. It speaks to the people around me that you have no choice to truly learn to appreciate WHO I am as a person, to learn my characteristics, morals, and values. Hijab to me is pride.
But I do want to be clear; I don’t want to be known as the girl who is only speaking for Muslim rights. I want to be for everyone’s rights. It was important for me to go out to some of the Orlando shooting vigils and show support. I also have gone out to several blacklivesmatter vigils and protests and have even spoke at a few of them. It’s especially important because it is a representation of Islam in the community. Now if someone sees me they can say “oh yeah that’s that Muslim girl who was supporting us” which is very different from “where were the Muslims when we were going through all our issues?” Solidarity and interfaith are some of the most important things to me. Those are some of the reasons I loved Bernie Sanders so much. He was human. He looked at everyone around him as human, whether they were upper class, lower class, middle class, Muslim, Jew, gay, lesbian, straight, whatever – he didn’t see a color or a label, he saw heart, which is what think our nation really needs.
Equality is important. I look at what’s going on for example with Colin Kaepernick. He’s a perfect example of someone doing the right thing and exercising his freedoms to do so. It’s funny to me when people say that our vets died for the anthem… no they actually died for Colin to do exactly what he is doing right now. Being free. Anyone that doesn’t fully support him needs to look at these issues from his lens. Growing up black is not easy, it does not matter if you have white parents or not, it still sucks. There are issues that exist out there that we can’t ignore. You don’t know what it’s like to be a minority until you DO. I didn’t – I was a typical white girl until I threw on a Hijab. I became a minority every night. I always thought I understood white privilege but I was wrong. It was not fully understood until I lived life under a Hijab and witnessed how differently people would treat me. There are legitimate fears that are associated with it.
Despite the craziness there are things that push me forward. I see comments all the time from young girls/boys that reach out to me and share their experiences. Some of them get bullied for their faith and they are too scared to tell their parents. They don’t really know who to turn to. I try to guide them, help talk to them and walk them through whatever issues they are facing. Along with that, I've had tons of conversations with non Muslims, clarifying things they didn't understand about Islam and didn't know where to seek the information. It really is an honor to be able to help others in this way, which would not have been possible without this kind of a platform.
I was raised to be outward and vocal. I was raised going to protests in solidarity with Palestine and Iraq. I come from a very strong household where everyone has very strong opinions. Through this whole journey, my family has been very supportive. What I got from my mother was her fighting spirit. I would watch her experience racism, or intolerance rather, and watch her counteract it in a way that was not aggressive at all. It is the way I learned to deal with hate. Everyone has this incorrect and innate response to being attacked – which is to attack back, only furthering the problem. Instead, it’s better to go on the defensive and fight back with better informing those that may not understand you. I learned my compassion from my father, which is interesting because it’s usually the opposite where the Dad should be the fighter and the Mom should be kind one. He’s the type that could never hurt a fly. He taught me things like making sure you eat every grain of rice on your plate because there are people in the world that have nothing and are starving.
Thinking about my parents is actually what led to me to thinking about what my vision is for the future and what I would like to be a part of. I want to change the educational system. I want to embed classes about tolerance and unity and in those classes discuss situations in which intolerance occurred. When you’re growing up now in the current system, you get a couple of glimpses into this like when reading The Diary of Anne Frank – you see the Holocaust happened. Or when you read about Martin Luther King – you understand a bit more. But the problem is there is not enough of this type of material nor is it current and emphasized appropriately. If you are a child growing up with ignorant parents, you won’t get an opportunity to learn about tolerance from your household, and thus may grow up with feelings of hatred for others. This needs to be a part of our educational system and I am not talking about through assemblies, books or talks, but as an actual part of the curriculum. I’m not sure how I will get there yet, but I plan to continue leveraging my voice to impact change.