Fatoumata Ceesay was a freshman in high school when she made the very personal choice to start wearing a hijab. She knew people would stare, knew her friends might not get it at first. Her mom gently cautioned her to be sure, worried how non-Muslims might treat her, that she might become a target. But Ceesay knew in her heart it was what she wanted to do.
“Hijab is seen as a form of oppression when in reality most Muslim girls actually choose to wear [one],” she says. “And to me, personally, that’s very empowering. Because you’re taking this step to physically show that you’re part of something great.”
Ceesay was born in the Bronx, New York, but she calls Madison her hometown. She has been here since she was 12. Now a University of Wisconsin–Madison sophomore studying journalism and sociology, Ceesay, whose family is originally from Gambia, is among the 23 percent of Muslim Americans who identify as black—an intersectionality Ceesay says is invaluable on campus, where she serves on the board of the Muslim Student Association. The group holds events for Muslims and non-Muslims, such as Islam Appreciation Week.
“I’m part of two fights that are kind of similar,” says Ceesay. When she’s at a Black Lives Matter rally, she can bring the Muslim perspective; when she’s organizing for Islam, she can share her perspective as a black woman. “Black people here in the U.S. are treated so unfairly and, post-9/11, Muslims here have been treated incredibly horribly,” she says, pointing to President Trump’s policies regarding Muslims as an example. “Because of those injustices,” she says, “I want to help people who don’t have voices, to have their voices heard by the general public.”
From Ceesay’s perspective, Western women’s ongoing fight for equal rights, even the right to vote (which black women didn’t expressly have until the Voting Rights Act of 1965), seems “slow in catching on” compared to Islam, which she says has mandated women’s rights to education and their own money “literally since like the beginning of Islam.” Confronting stereotypes is part of why Ceesay, a Madison365 intern who has written pieces for Madison365.com highlighting social injustices—including one called “10 Things You Know About Islam That Are Wrong”—has chosen to pursue journalism, particularly photojournalism. Her hijab is a visual representation of her personal faith, and she hopes that when people see her wearing it, they’ll speak to her instead of stare.
“I’m letting people know that, yes, I am a part of Islam, and please come and talk to me if you have any questions or stereotypes,” she says. “Because Muslims aren’t scary. We will answer your questions and we won’t hold judgment towards you or anything that you say.”