Black and Muslim in China
What’s it like to be a black, Muslim woman in China?
It was early Sunday, and the streets of Weifang, a Chinese city of around 1 million in Shandong Province, possessed a strange tranquility. The cloudy smog that blanketed the morning sky proved deceptive, as the air felt particularly fresh. Evidence of the city’s nightlife was clear as we passed piles of discarded paper and cigarette buds. Streets were barren except for the few locals who were surprised to see two women of color wandering in the morning light.
One of the ladies was me, the other, Kamra Sadia Hakim, a 23 year old black American Muslim working in China as an English teacher.
Knowing the complicated relationship that exists in China among minority groups, Kamra Hakim hopes her presence in the country will bridge understanding and inspire change, at least in her classroom. Hakim moved to China as part of the Ameson Foundation program, designed to help improve cultural and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. Hakim states, “The people I interact with on a day-to-day basis have never seen a foreigner, let a lone a woman of color. So in this sense, I'm changing the world just by existing and to me, that's remarkable.”.
As an English teacher, she works hard each day to expose elementary children to American, black, and Muslim culture. Although she admitted it has been a difficult transition at times, she says it has changed her life in so many ways.
Not quite sure how she would initially be received by her new neighbors, Kamra said she was pleasantly surprised to find most locals very accepting of her religious background. Considering the rampant Islamophobia that has plagued the West, particularly America for the past few years, Kamra feels relieved “to escape the Western hysteria towards Muslims”.
On living in China as a black woman, she feels much more out of place, since she looks different than everyone else in her town. Often, the locals stare at her when she goes for a run or takes the bus. Despite sometimes feeling as though she is in a fishbowl, she sees it more as curiosity than racism.
Kamra makes efforts to educate her students about black culture every chance she gets. For example, her students like to touch her hair or skin. She responds to them with affirmations that people of all colors are beautiful. While learning how to go about daily life in China can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, Kamra thinks young black, Muslim women should live in a foreign country at least once as the experience can improve self-confidence and world view.
“My favorite thing about living in China is being alone and having a sense of independence. This is the first time in my life that I have completely provided for myself in all areas of life, and it feels amazing! From buying groceries to paying my bills, living abroad has allowed to me step out into the real world in a really big way.”
With prejudice being directed towards the black and Muslim communities in Western cities around the world, traveling solo as a woman of color can be a powerful way to combat misconceptions and stereotypes.
Kamra says she feels freer to express herself as a black, Muslim feminist in rural China than in her home state of Arizona. Kamra, who chooses to not be veiled, says her coworkers and friends who have met her while being China seem more interested in learning about Islam than her Western counterparts had been back in the states.
“Being Muslim in Arizona revolved around constantly being worried about my mother in public spaces because she's a hijabi. Fighting xenophobia and religious discrimination on campus for my fellow Muslims and I was a continuous struggle.”
Living abroad gives her a greater sense of independence and self-awareness. Not weighed down by the day to day stereotypes of being a Muslim woman, working in China allows Kamra to explore other global ideas and cultures without social limitations. When thinking about the hate crimes and Islamophobia that persist in the states, Kamra appreciates Chinese life in some ways by its subtle acceptance of her religious beliefs. While being a black woman in China has proven more of a challenge than being a Muslim woman, Kamra still feels able to live comfortably and explore her individuality in terms of her religion and race in the country.
“Life in China has given me an interesting perspective in that I don't feel clouded by western misconceptions. I feel freer and more alive. [I feel] less bogged down by the harsh realities many Muslims face in the western world.”
China's treatment of Muslims
China’s treatment of its Muslim minority population has been mixed. While the atheist state has long welcomed female-only mosques in parts of the country, it is still not usually the first place people of color or Muslims feel inspired to go. Some of this could be a lack of knowledge about Muslims in China and some of it could be that the Chinese government has not been known to be the friendliest to its more than 23 million Muslims in the country.
The local Chinese government has in the past banned Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang province from observing the traditional holy fast of Ramadan, declaring that restaurants should remain open.
Human rights activists and local Muslim organizations say that the poor treatment of ethnic Muslims pushes some groups to violently attack government representatives in an effort to create change. Muslim Uighurs have long been discriminated against in terms of living conditions and employment. Ads for jobs in the Xinjiang province, home to most of the country’s Muslim population, have stated that only Han Chinese or Native Mandarin speakers should apply.
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