Over reading period a few of the other religious studies majors, Professor Smith and I drove to Dearborn, Michigan to visit Mosques and other houses of worship. Dearborn has the highest density of both Muslim Americans and Arab Americans. The trip was excellent, but I specifically wanted to share some wisdom that the amazing young women we met at a Muslim youth group shared with me with their permission.
I wear a Yarmulke everyday. Since that has not always been the case, I know the difference in the way I am treated when I wear it and when I do not. When I am out and around in crowded places, people come up to me and ask me for directions or to take pictures of them on their phone camera far more then they did when I was not wearing my Yarmulke. Religious or not, it seems like often times strangers seem to trust that I will help them. This is not to say I only get positive reactions. In places where not many people wear Yarmulkes I have been stared at, yelled at and have had slurs shouted at me.
I told the youth group that was meant for high school and college-aged students about my experiences and asked how others treat them because of their choice to wear Hijabs. The girls in the group took turns sharing upsetting interactions they have had at work, school and on the street. These young women explained to me that many people believe they are forced to wear their veil. They are asked, “Who is making you do wear that?” “Are you being beaten?” and other horrifyingly ignorant and victimizing comments.
I imagine that these people believe they are standing up against “the big bad patriarchal Islam” when in actuality they are telling young Muslim women that no one believes they have agency. These women had personal and spiritual reasons for wanting to wear their veils. Why do people see me with a head covering and think “Nice Jewish Boy” and then when they see these young women they think victim?
The girls in the group said they feel obligated to smile when they are out in public so that people do not think they are being oppressed.
Religious practices are critical to how people have historically constructed meaningful lives. These practices help us connect with our communities, our loved ones and ourselves. No one forces me to wear a Yarmulke. My male relatives do not wear a Yarmulke all the time; wearing a Yarmulke was a personal decision I made for my life. The same is true for this group of young women.
Muslim Americans are not only our fellow humans but also our fellow citizens. If we want to have an equitable social culture, we have to look carefully at our biases and positionality. The young women in the youth group ended by telling me about how happy and proud they were to be able to represent Islam in their individual ways. In the future, when I meet Muslim women wearing veils, I am going to consciously fight my own implicit bias and instead see their veil as a marker of their piety and endeavors to be a better person. No one should be discriminated against based on their choice to wear a head covering, no matter their religion or gender.