A mile in her hijab

Published on Thursday, 7 August 2014 00:02 - Written by REBECCA HOEFFNER Guest Columnist

Editor’s note: Tyler Morning Telegraph news staffers in June were tasked with doing something they’ve never done before as part of the New Experience Challenge. The following is former staff writer Rebecca Hoeffner’s new experience.

When my editor gave me the writing assignment to do something I’d never done, I knew pretty quickly what I was going to do.

I am a Christian, but I decided to wear a hijab — the headscarf Muslim women use to cover their hair — in public.

There is some confusion about the different types of Islamic veils for women. A hijab is the least restrictive; you wrap fabric around your hair and neck, but your entire face is visible. A few people I explained my project to confused it with the burka, but a burka covers a woman’s entire body, leaving only a mesh screen over the eyes to see through. The hijab is, in my experience, more popular in this country.

The Muslim population in Tyler is relatively small, although it has grown throughout the years. Whenever I saw a woman in the grocery store or some other place wearing a hijab, I always wondered what her life was like interacting with the public. Do strangers talk to her the same way they talk to me?

I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. I didn’t have any misconceptions about poor public perception that Muslims have in America, and a study released from the Pew Center a few days after my experiment confirmed my suspicions. In a recent survey the organization asked the general public to rate religious groups on a “feelings thermometer.”

“Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians are viewed warmly by the American public,” according to the report. “When asked to rate each group on a ‘feeling thermometer’ ranging from 0 to 100 – where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating – all three groups receive an average rating of 60 or higher (63 for Jews, 62 for Catholics and 61 for evangelical Christians). And 44 percent of the public rates all three groups in the warmest part of the scale (67 or higher).

“Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons receive neutral ratings on average, ranging from 48 for Mormons to 53 for Buddhists. The public views atheists and Muslims more coldly; atheists receive an average rating of 41, and Muslims an average rating of 40. Fully 40 percent of the public rates Muslims in the coldest part of the thermometer (33 or below), and 41 percent rate atheists in the coldest part.”

And white evangelicals, who are the majority in East Texas, rate Muslims more coolly than they do any other religious group.

Mrs. Hala Khalifa graciously invited me to her home to teach me how to properly put on a hijab. I brought a thin wrap I use from the office for whenever I get cold at my desk, but she decided it was too big and gave me a beautiful blue-and-white hijab her sister sent her from Saudi Arabia.

She assured me she has many, many hijabs and not to worry about using this one. I had worried that it would be complicated and would take me a while to catch on, but it was actually pretty easy (although she said her daughters often fasten theirs in more elaborate ways). I was glad she taught me the easy way.

My posture immediately became better when I was wearing the hijab out of necessity; I had so much fabric around my neck that holding my head up was the most comfortable way to stand.

It was a typical July afternoon when I wore the hijab and visited several places around town. I hurried inside to the air conditioning as soon as possible because it was so hot. I could feel the sweat trailing down my neck underneath the hijab. Mrs. Khalifa said they spend as little time as possible outside during the summer, and it’s no wonder.

My heart was pounding when I visited my first public place: Broadway Square Mall.

I analyzed every little thing people did: The family that hurried out of my way when I was trying to park — would they have moved as quickly if I weren’t wearing a hijab? Was I just imagining people averting their eyes as I walked by? A few people smiled at me; do strangers smile at me like that usually? It was hard to measure a difference.

I laughed inwardly when I passed a woman at a kiosk selling a hair straightener. “Do you ever straighten your hair?” she asked as I walked by. How would she sell me on a hair straightener without me taking off my hijab? I shook my head and smiled. Some things were exactly the same.

I was pretty self-conscious up to this point. I decided to buy a top at a department store, and took a deep breath as I walked up to the counter. To my surprise, the cashier put me immediately at ease with her friendly chattiness, and for a moment, I forgot I was wearing a hijab.

I went to a local grocery store, and when I realized I had asked an employee for the location of something right in front of my face, he smiled and said “One of those days, huh?” I went to a few more places, but all of my interactions were essentially the same.

There was only one instance of someone staring in rude and frightening way — they stopped their conversation and stared, and I gave my most friendly smile — but the majority of my interactions were surprisingly positive. I have to be honest: It went better than I expected.

My experience matches with many of the women’s at the mosque.

“I’ve never had a problem the 20 years I’ve been in this community,” said Yumnah Kazmi at the annual Islamic holiday celebration at the end of July. “People respect us.”

Shamsa Ashref is the principal of the Islamic Faith Academy in Tyler. She only recalled one experience about five years ago when a woman at her grocery store said something to her.

“You know that look people get when they want to ask you something?” she said. “So I said, ‘Is there something you want to ask me?’ And she said, ‘I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.’ I said, ‘I won’t; I would rather you ask me than just assume.’ She said, ‘Does your husband make you wear that?’ I said, ‘I’m so glad you asked me.’ And we had a conversation about how it’s my choice to wear it out of modesty and how people often confuse other countries’ cultures and Islam.”

I always wondered if the women I spoke to at the mosque were sugar-coating their experiences. I’m so glad I found out for myself that they weren’t. We still have a long way to go, but I am proud of how far East Texas has come.