An unapologetic activist

Book cover of We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance
The cover of We are Not Here To Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance has a portrait of Linda Sarsour with a bold burgundy hijab and an infectious smile. It is difficult not to be intrigued by the photo even if you have not heard of Ms Sarsour. She is, in fact, a force to be reckoned with, a community activist and national co-chair of the largest single-day protest in US history, the Women’s March.

In this memoir, she traces her “three-plus decades on this earth,” setting out her hopes, dreams, and ambitions to create a more just world. With Islamophobia at an all-time high worldwide, Ms Sarsour says she has written this book in accordance with the guidance of Prophet Muhammed “to speak up for my people and for all people, to confront injustice in all its forms, and to challenge the dangerous misperceptions about who we [Muslims] are.”

What Ms Sarsour makes clear from the get-go is that she is “unapologetically Muslim American, unapologetically Palestinian American, and unapologetically Brooklyn, New York.” She fleshes out all three facets of her identity in the book, making her voice a “megaphone” to speak up against those who “vilify and dehumanise” Muslims.

In this mission, her hijab acts as her “superpower”. She describes her life as an activist as characterised by a “before” and “after,” with her decision to wear the hijab signifying the after. She negates stereotypes of Muslim women as  lacking agency and being forced to wear the hijab. “The notion that a hijab symbolises Muslim women’s submission is embedded in Western feminism,” she writes.

Though opponents of hijabs are “well-intentioned”,  Ms Sarsour finds their insistence on banning or removing hijabs as stripping Muslim women of their self-determination “in much the same way that Muslim dictatorships rob women of the right to freely choose.” Ms Sarsour chooses her hijab at the age of 19. She feels “whole” and claims that “for the first time in my nineteen years, I appeared to the world exactly as I was, unapologetically Muslim.”

But her identity as a Palestinian is important to her as well. From witnessing her cousins live in refugee camps to visiting her uncle in prison — Israel’s military occupation of Palestine was a grim reality that Ms Sarsour faced early in life during her summers at El Bireh in the West Bank. With Palestinian resistance in her blood, she provides her readers with a history of Palestine from an often silenced standpoint, offering not just the historical facts but real-life stories of life under occupation. She reminds her readers of the humanity of Palestinians and the complex ways in which military occupation can impact one’s psyche.

We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance
Author: Linda Sarsour
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster
Pages: 252; Price: Rs 599

We Are Not Here to be Bystanders is a must-read for anyone who worries about societal injustice and illiberalism. It is not simply a memoir, but a “social justice manifesto” through which Ms Sarsour offers pathways to justice. One of the ways that she highlights throughout the book is in “building coalitions across marginalised communities.” Her activism journey is full of allies who remind her that if oppressed communities unite, they can become “the nation’s unshakeable moral compass.”

Take, for example, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez. Carmen is a Chicana woman (that is, someone of Mexican descent) working to end mass incarce­ration, and Tamika is an African American woman who is a vigorous advocate for police reform and gun safety. Ms Sarsour, Carmen, and Tamika work together to bring issues of minority rights into the limelight nationally.

Ms Sarsour also gives her readers a raw take on the life of an activist. She touches upon the more muddy areas of activism and the pain associated with being a public figure fighting for minority rights. From struggling to make time for her family to coping with the untimely death of her mentor, she is not afraid to be vulnerable about her pain.

Opening up about the obstacles she faced organising the Women’s March, she claims that “while looking at issues through a racial justice framework was natural for the women of colour… it was brand new to many of the white women.” Coalition-building in such a time meant having complex intergroup dialogues, which often lead to conflict. She opens up about the intense backlash she faced after the Women’s March. From being accused of religious fundamentalism to receiving death threats, Ms Sarsour experienced it all.

We are Not Here to be Bystanders is a pivotal call to action. Ms Sarsour’s writing has a sense of ease that flows from her innate honesty. As we confront an unmitigated increase of xenophobia and hate globally, this memoir reminds us of the power of radical love and of being yourself unapologetically.

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