I wrote this on January 22, 2011. At first I wanted to keep this story between me and a few close friends, but in light of what has just recently happened at the Islamic Center of America, I feel that I have to share this story. This is no longer an issue on religion. This is outright discrimination and intolerance. If my story can inspire others, or at least affect someone on a personal level, then I’ve done all that I can do.
A Social Experiment
Yesterday, I went to the Islamic Center of America. I felt incredibly out of place, being a non-Muslim who wasn’t wearing a hijab, and I was very nervous when stepping into the office. Out of respect, I did the best I could to hide my hair by pulling up my coat’s hood. I went to the lady at the desk, greeted her with “assalamu alaikum,” and she was very happy to answer my questions about the mosque and where to buy a hijab, among other things. She told me that I could observe the prayers, gave me an e-mail to a man who could give me a tour of the center, and told me how to properly wear the hijab. It was a surprisingly warm welcome and I felt pretty at ease.
After observing the service, I noticed a man was selling something in one of the hallways. I walked over there and saw a collection of jewelry and hijabs. I decided that if I were to come back, I should have more than just my coat’s big hood. So I bought a pretty green hijab, then stepped into the lady’s room to try it on. It’s there I met Sona. She was 27-years-old and had converted to Islam a year ago. She helped me with the hijab, we exchanged numbers, and she told me that she would answer any questions I had about the religion, the culture, among other things.
After we parted ways, an idea occurred to me when I was driving home from the mosque. Back in high school, I wanted to do a social experiment for my Sociology class. My sister gave me the idea to wear a hijab out in public to see how people treated me. Back then, I didn’t know where to find a hijab. Now that I had one, I thought I would give that experiment another shot. So I put on my new hijab and set out to three public places: a bookstore, the mall, and a restaurant.
The bookstore wasn’t entirely unpleasant. There weren’t too many people there to begin with, and because the ones there were absorbed in books, it explained why they didn’t pay all that much attention to me. One of the ladies who worked there asked me if I needed any help and showed me where the bookstore kept the Qur’an. Overall it was pretty nice.
The mall and the restaurant were quite different.
I wrote this in my status on Facebook: Muslims put up with some of the worst customer service. I am not exaggerating when I say this.
When I stepped into that mall, I realized just how different this particular outing was going to be from others I’ve had in the past. The first store I walked into was Best Buy, but I visited every store in the mall at least once. No sooner did I step into Best Buy, I noticed how different things were. First of all, the person at the door didn’t greet me like he did to other customers entering the store. I didn’t think nothing of it at first, and instead I went over to look at the CDs and DVDs in the store. Usually when a customer is browsing the store, one of the employees will approach them and ask if they need any help finding something. This didn’t happen once, not even when I made direct eye contact with an employee whom I went to school with. She didn’t recognize me. I can’t blame her for it, since my long hair was covered up, but I couldn’t help but feel that all she saw was my hijab and not me, let alone a customer.
The salespeople at the mall were pretty much the same. There were only a select few who actually said more than one word to me. The employees would not welcome me into their stores. They wouldn’t ask if I needed help. They wouldn’t ask if I wanted to try on an outfit, even when I was holding it in my hands. They never said “We hope to see you again!” or “Have a nice day,” when I left the store. Judging by this consistent reaction from salesperson to salesperson, I couldn’t help but feel that they were glad to be rid of me and most definitely didn’t hope to see me again. To make matters uncomfortably worse, in every store I went into, I noticed that the same security guard was there. From Spencer’s to Borders, this security guard wasn’t making it a secret that he was following me everywhere I went.
I want it noted that when I stepped into the mall, I was not wearing a burqa (Muslim clothing that covers all of the body and the face), a chador (Iranian clothing that covers the entire body) or a niqab (a veil that covers the hair and face which reveals only the eyes). In post-September 11th America, the clothing listed would understandably be considered suspicious in case of a burglary or a bomb threat. The clothing makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make a clear identification in case of those threats. Had I been wearing those, I would understand the neglectful salespeople and the security guard trailing me, but all I wore was a hijab. All I was covering was my hair.
I also want it noted that when I entered the mall, I was all smiles: I looked people in the eye and smiled at them. I waved to children. I was just as happy and as approachable as I would have been without the hijab. If I were to smile at someone’s child without covering my hair, parents wouldn’t get defensive over it and give me dirty looks. They would have smiled back at me. If I wasn’t wearing my hijab and smiled at a person who was walking my way, they wouldn’t turn their head away from me or refuse to make eye-contact. They would have smiled back. If I had walked into a JC Penny’s, a Macy’s, a Hot Topic, a Spencer’s, or a Forever 21 without my hijab on, people wouldn’t have ignored me and avoided me. They would have greeted me and jumped to assist me. If I wasn’t wearing my hijab and walked around the mall, I wouldn’t have a security guard following me into every store, because they probably would be hounding some other Muslim woman.
All I did was cover my hair. I didn’t insult these people. I never did anything to these people. I didn’t get into an argument with them, or threaten them, or cause any sort of trouble that would warrant this cold behavior, let alone the attention of a security guard. All I did was cover my hair.
However, I feel that the greatest display of outright discrimination took place at the restaurant. This was my former workplace and many of my ex-coworkers were still working there. None of them recognized me, and as soon as I walked into the restaurant, the hostess (a former co-worker who was looking me right in the face) looked positively stunned that a Muslim woman walked into the place. She didn’t recognize me, but led me to a table. I took my seat and opened up the menu, but at the same time my eyes were scanning the area. This table was assigned to a waittress, but a waittress never came to me. Usually, after a person is seated, the waittress comes to the table immediately and asks you if you want a drink. I had to wait for at least five to ten minutes before the hostess returned and asked me if I wanted anything to drink.
None of the waittresses ever came to my table to take my order. None of them asked me if I wanted a refill for my water. None of them asked if I was doing alright or if I needed anything else. To make matters worse, it is expected of the waittresses to ask the customers these questions even if they are not waiting on them. Not one of these waittresses wanted to make eye contact with me, nor did they want to come by me.
It wasn’t until I waved at one of my former managers that he even recognized me. It was then that my hostess recognized me. After I told her about everything that happened today, she looked positively shocked. I would hope that she recognized the same discrimination being carried out in this establishment as it did in the previous ones. If this is how the waittresses would treat a girl with just her hair covered, they would definitely treat an actual Muslim woman in this way.
When I was younger, I would hear how people truly felt about Native Americans. Since I look more like my mother and less like my father, these people would be more open about their opinions around me than they would have if my hair was black and my skin was darker. I still get defensive when something like this happens and I’ve always felt that it was discrimination. However, this was the very first time in my life that I have truly felt discriminated against. When people were talking about Native Americans, they weren’t thinking of the white, blond haired woman with 1/4 Ojibwa in her. But when people were ignoring me, glaring at me, following me, denying me service, and weren’t welcoming me into their stores or their restaurants, they did it to me. In their eyes, they knew exactly what I was and they didn’t want anything to do with me. Even though I did nothing to them but smile.
If this is how we treat Muslims in this country, there will never be peace. There will never be an understanding between religions and cultures. If we shun them, ignore them, and make it blatantly obvious that we don’t want them here, we are going against everything that this country is supposed to stand for. And if we carry this ideology that “we don’t want them here,” “we don’t want you to come back here,” and “it would be better if you just weren’t here at all,” how does that make us different from Al Queda, the Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Ku Klux Klan, or the many other various hate groups in the world? It is this ignorance and this thought process that leads to holocausts.
Look beyond the veil.
And the owner told me this:
Thank You Sister and May God/Allah Grant You Eter…nal Happiness,
This almost moved me to tears.
I don’t consider myself much of an idealist, but these past few days has made me think about many things. This really does give me hope that there may one day be tolerance between all of us, and that world peace IS very possible. I feel that people just need to learn how to respect one another despite our differences. I’m an American, a Caucasian, a woman, and I’m also not a Muslim, and yet I just earned the respect from someone whom society would deem completely different from me. This is a miracle if I ever saw one. It makes me really happy that I decided to share my story with this website.
I think the first step towards tolerance is admitting that the person who is different than you is not a monster. That they’re not evil, and that despite how much you may disagree with them, that they might not even be completely wrong in what they do and how they think. So someday, even if you disagree with the idea of wearing a hijab, you don’t completely shun a woman who chooses to wear one of her own will.
Maybe it’s me just making a big deal out of something small. Maybe all of the kind words are starting to overwhelm me and I’m dreaming too big. But alas, it’s a very nice dream, and I think we could really work towards it.