By Sarah Hinkle
February 1st is World Hijab Day, a day to show solidarity with our Muslim sisters by wearing a hijab in public. I was inspired by this idea to wonder what it really feels like to stand out as a minority in America.
To learn more about World Hijab Day, click here.
I am a white woman. I am, dare I say, a snowflake. I have been judged on my appearance, but I have never been oppressed by it. I can never know what it’s like to walk around with black or brown skin, but I can put on a hijab and get a small glimpse at being seen as a Muslim in an increasingly Islamophobic society.
For the record, I do not claim to know anything about Islam or about any minority’s struggles. I cannot speak for anyone else. I encourage everyone to do their own research and learn about the world around them. Reach out to people who are different than you. Get involved in your community. My hope with this experiment is to give myself and others like me a small idea of what other people go through on a daily basis. To open our eyes to the fact that while we may live in the same country, the same state, the same town, we do not share the same experience.
My first step, of course, was to buy a hijab. This was the step that I took for granted. I assumed it would be the easiest part of this undertaking. After all, I buy things all the time right?
I chose to shop at The African Store in Noel, MO. It was an hour drive to get there, but a friend had recommended it and I’d been wanting to check it out. I was excited, but I didn’t actually know what to expect until I walked through their door. It was like stepping into another world. Here, I was the only one of my skin color. I was the only one who didn’t speak the language. Here, I was the immigrant in their country. If there was any power to be had, it was in their hands.
And they used it to welcome me.
“How can I help you sister?” The word “sister” never sounded so comforting before.
A teenage girl came over to help me and I told her I was looking for a hijab. “You want to wear a hijab?!” Her eyes lit up and her smile beamed.
She walked me over and helped me pick the right one. She showed me the one that she thought would look best on me and taught me how to put it on. The two men in the room both told me that it looked beautiful on me. They were all genuinely kind and friendly, and I wish I could have stayed and talked with them more.
On my way home, I suddenly felt energized. I couldn’t help but marvel at the world around me as my perspective became clear. In spite of our differences, don’t we all have much more in common? Aren’t we all made of the same water, carbon, and stardust?
But then my nerves kicked in. I live in a part of the country where a mosque was once burned and where a Muslim woman was recently shot at and raped. And I live in a time when our nation’s leaders are banning immigrants and threatening to register Muslims. Maybe I was just asking for trouble. Maybe it was too dangerous.
But I realized that was my privilege speaking. Muslims don’t get to stay home and wait until it’s safe to come out. People of color don’t get to decide whether or not to wear their skin. If I am truly an ally and an advocate then I must walk the talk and face the same realities they face.
Anonymity was key to being seen as a Muslim, so I decided I should go to places I don’t typically go so it was less likely I’d be recognized. My first stop was a Walmart across town. Normally in public people aren’t shy. Strangers look me in the eye, smile, and even start conversations. But this time the difference was drastic. If anyone made eye contact they would instantly look away. If we didn’t make eye contact they would pretend they didn’t see me at all. I saw the hesitation in some, as if they didn’t know where to look or how to act. Two different people started to walk down an aisle and immediately turned back around when they saw me. At the checkout the woman spoke to me and made eye contact at the end, but as an overthinker myself it appeared that she was overthinking the interaction, giving it an unnatural feel.
Next I made a quick stop at a gas station. As I opened the door there was a man in the doorway so I stepped back and held it open for him. He leaned forward a little as if he were talking to a child and said “Oh, you are just too Kind,” drawing his words out in the most patronizing tone.
Afterward I realized where I should go next – ground zero for several religious debates – Hobby Lobby. There I felt more invisible than ever. No one so much as glanced at me. No one spoke to me. I passed 7 or 8 employees and several customers and every time it was like I wasn’t there at all. But hey, they only claim to be the most religious store in town, not the friendliest or most welcoming.
It may or may not be worth noting that in all the places I went to in a hijab, only one person spoke to me genuinely and treated me as an equal. He was an employee at Walmart. He was also black. Maybe he was just a friendly person. Maybe he was just doing his job. But I couldn’t help but wonder if there was an unspoken solidarity between two minorities in a world that overlooks and oppresses them.
This experience was eye-opening for me. With only the addition of a simple piece of fabric, suddenly no one wanted to see me. No one wanted to stand near me. No one wanted to be aware of my existence at all.
But this experience was also cleansing and empowering. I suddenly had a whole new perspective on my life and my country. Out of 7 billion people I happen to be one of the lucky ones born in a safe and wealthy nation. I’ve never had to worry about bombs dropping on my home. I’ve gone hungry, but I’ve never been close to starving to death. Who am I to deserve such a life that millions of people can only dream of? Who are any of us to try to deny that life from anyone brave enough to reach our borders? The rest of the world looks to us as a safe place, an escape from torturous oblivion. I consider it our obligation to protect that American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.