On Being a Muslim-American Woman
Recently, I was on a flight headed to the east coast to visit my family when I saw a woman board the plane with a little girl who I pegged to be less than 2 years old. The child was a hysterical wreck from the moment she set foot on the plane until we landed four hours later. The mother and daughter were seated one row behind me. There was a storm developing close by, so the pilot made an announcement that we'd remain grounded for about 30 minutes. He'd keep us posted.
When the announcement was made, about a dozen heads turned to look at the inconsolable baby. Suddenly, a 30-minute delay meant being held hostage inside a giant compressed tube of germs with a screaming child. The girl's mother ignored their piercing glares. I wasn't upset by the crying child so much as I was concerned with the anguish in her cries. It wasn't a regular toddler cry, but more like the wails of a mother who just lost her son in a drive-by shooting as he walked home from school with his high school diploma in one hand and a college scholarship in the other. It really was that bad. But the oddity of the whole thing was capped by the seemingly clueless mother, who by all accounts had no idea what to do with this child. She sat quietly, unengaged and jaded as the child screamed into hyperventilation. Occasionally, offering her a cracker.
It was only a matter of time before my imagination took over full throttle.
Maybe the little girl was adopted, and her real mom who used to be a crack head just came back to get her. That kid was ripped from her adoptive family whom she loved, and now she's on a plane headed to a place she doesn't know with former Miss Crack Head over here who thinks the way to get a baby to stop crying is to be as still and quiet as possible.
Things like this happen to me a lot. I have a habit of playing out the most absurd But-It-Happened-On-Dateline! scenarios in my head, and each one of my daydreams ends with me filling the role of hero. Excuse me, heroine. I'm the crime solver, the one who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. And when I'm recognized for my heroic act of selflessness, I'm also humble.
I think I was the hero once. While working as a reporter back in 2006, I noticed a man in a black jeep parked in my neighborhood around the same time consecutively for a couple of days. I grew up in a fairly quiet suburban area where any new car stood out like that one awkward stain on your white towels that you always feel like you have to justify. Something in my gut didn't feel right about this car, so the third day it showed up, I called the non-emergency police line and spoke with one of the officers that I'd gotten to know while working at the local paper.
“Can you see him?” the officer on the other end of the phone asked.
“Kind of,” I said. “He just drove down the street, and is sitting at the stop sign. He's wearing a baseball hat, and I know this sounds really weird, but he kind of looks like Joey from Full House.”
“We'll send some cars out.”
I stood in my sister's bedroom next to the window that looked out onto the street. Within minutes, two Fairfax County Police cars were a few hundred feet from my house, and officers were talking to the man. Eventually, the man in the black jeep drove away, never to be seen again. A few days later, my dad and I were watching TV together when the local news anchor read the teaser for the story coming up: Nearly a dozen homes in Northern Virginia have been burglarized in broad daylight. The story at 5 p.m.
Joey Gladstone? I felt mildly heroic.
But the kind of hero I wanted to be was bigger than getting a lookalike of the man that coined "Cut-It-Out" in the mid-'90s to flee my neighborhood. I wanted to be the hero that pulls a drowning man from water, saves a little kid from a charging bull, crawls into an overturned vehicle and pulls someone to safety.
I wanted to be the kind of hero that could soothe a baby on a plane full of people when her mom could not. Of course, that's not my place, and I was well aware of that. So instead, I sat quietly. My internal judgments of her (lack of) parenting skills remained seated, facing forward. And suddenly, I realized that I was that person. That person who judges what they don't know based simply from a person's outward appearance and one isolated incident. In that moment, I had a stark realization that I was no different than those I dislike. Those people in the world who look at me and judge me for who they think I am. For what they think I believe. I didn't know this woman, or her story, yet there I was judging with vengeance. Everything from labeling her as a former drug addict to mocking her for her inability to comfort her child.
We all judge what we don't know. It's one of the weaknesses that comes with being human. I internally judged that woman for being a less-than-adequate parent, but what did I really know? After all, I don't have kids. I've never experienced the joy, pain, or frustrations of motherhood. It bothered me that I found that kind of flaw in my personality, so finally, I decided to talk to her. I asked her how old the baby was (20 months) and what her name was. I even said the baby was cute and had nice hair -- she was and she did. My intention in saying something to the mom was to try and break the ice that was getting thicker as each passenger fidgeted in their seats and checked their watches. I wanted to let her know it's okay your baby is crying, and I'm trying not to judge you.
Of course, I still later imagined learning that the baby was being kidnapped, and somehow I managed to grab the child and rush her back to the safety of her real mother's arms.
My conversation with this woman was, I later thought, similar to when strangers ask me questions about my faith in an attempt to let me know that it's okay. Though in these instances I believe there are two types of people who ask questions. There's the group that genuinely wants to learn about others and their beliefs, and people who compulsively itch for a good argument. The first type will ask sincere questions, choose their words carefully so not to offend, and will present you with intelligent follow-up questions. I like this group. They may not agree with your belief system, but they're respectful, and these conversations are generally friendly. The second group of people is just looking for something to refute. They thrive off a debate in any capacity, and chances are they either believe in nothing, or are very devout in their faith. They're usually sarcastic, a little arrogant, and no matter what you tell them, no matter how you tell them, they'll never get it because they don't want to. This group discusses for the sake of discussing, and these conversations usually result in an argument. If you fall into this second group, please talk to me never.
In some ways, in order for me to ultimately touch on what it means to be a Muslim-American woman, I have to take you back a few paces so I can help you understand why I choose to follow any organized religion. There are many things that bind humankind together. We all lose our keys, we all drop our cell phones, and we all know we're going to die someday. We know it's coming, we just don't know how or when. And for generations, across the globe, in every language, in every nation, from the painfully impoverished to famous philosophers, great poets, heads of states, and the world's greatest scientists, the three basic questions of life remain the same: Who created us? Why were we created? And what happens when we die?
For a person who feels like they don't know the answers to these questions, and because no one has ever been able to return from the dead to tell us what it's like, the next logical step is to do a little research. Just as we incessantly Google everything -- from the correct spelling of hors d'oeuvres to Oh My God! Melissa Rycroft is pregnant! -- we start to look for answers. In most cases, the most obvious first place to look is in one of the books that claims to have these answers in clear, vivid detail; the Torah, the Bible, or the Qur'an.
For me, the answers to these questions come from the Qur'an and from Islam, and I consider myself hugely fortunate for having been born into this faith. I had a head start in many ways because there was a sound foundation laid for me early on. Though my parents taught me a lot (and I maintain that Sunday School taught me nothing), I've never believed that knowledge is power. I believe that knowledge with action is power, and when I chose to cover my hair in 2004 by wearing hijab, it was something that I truly believed in. I was lucky to find good teachers and good books when I started re-learning my faith. So when I began meeting Muslims who didn't match up to the Prophets detailed in my holy book, and to the strong female figures whose status was raised in Islam, I often felt let down. Hugely let down and often confused. I, too, had trouble with separating the actions of one with the teachings of my faith.
You see, it's not only the non-Muslims that judge this faith based on what they see and hear. Muslims are, in many instances, guilty of doing the same. There are countless Muslim men and women, who have felt betrayed by this faith through the actions of a friend, a family member, or a religious clergyman, subsequently choosing to leave Islam per their alleged accusations. These people are usually insecure, want desperately to be liked by others, and wave a figurative banner of being free. But I don't believe that those people are really happy. They can't be because they gave up too soon. It takes a deep-rooted strength to overlook the actions of those you can't control, to ultimately rely solely on He who has control over everything.
I've been mistreated by Muslims. I've been disrespected, and made to feel less than because of my age, the way that I practice my faith, and even based on the scholars I chose to follow. But at every stage, I had to re-focus my goal. I had to remind myself that the people I disliked were a representation of themselves, and I couldn't be among those that were too weak to look past that -- too weak to find the truth and too stubborn to continue on my journey. If I succumbed to my own weaknesses, I'd be using others as a scapegoat for my failure to seek knowledge just as terrorists of every color have used religion to justify their actions.
But these days, stories like mine aren't the ones that matter. The media and the masses crave to hear the stories of the people who did fail, who did give up. We want to hear the stories about the people who felt liberated upon leaving this religion -- they are the ones who are given book deals, platforms and fame that help them climb to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. They're given asylum in the United States, and invitations to prestigious speaking engagements where they spew lies in front of massive crowds only to be met with rip-roaring applause from people who hate them, too. But these “former Muslims” just haven't realized it yet.
My sister once told me about a sermon she heard at the mosque where the speaker said "Judge the person by Islam, and not Islam by the person.” I want people to know that Islam teaches its followers to be just, kind to our parents, humble and gentle. We are taught to be generous, forgiving, patient, trustworthy, honorable in our business dealings, and dependable. And if I lack any of those qualities, then the masses should understand I am not fulfilling all the attributes that a Muslim should have. But if in a moment of weakness, I snap at the outsourced employee over the phone while trying to pay my Macy's credit card bill because I had it up to here with the sound delay, then I hope the masses will also understand that my flaws are not reflective of Islam.
When I heard about "International Burn a Qu'ran Day" planned for September 11th of this year, I didn't know who was masterminding the whole thing. But the other night, as my husband and I ate dinner, he told me it had been organized by a church group.
“What?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sabrina, it's a Christian group.”
“No, are you sure?” I asked again. “But Christians are always so nice.”
“Yeah, but there's always that one group, though.” he said. “The ones that really hate.”
My husband was right. There is always that one person who ruins it for everyone. It's like the kid who always snuck out of class to get a drink of water and finally got caught, resulting in a class-wide ban of the water fountain until after recess. Back then, none of us thought it was fair to punish the whole class based on the actions of the one little tyrant who never followed rules. But what happened when we all grew up? It suddenly became okay to collectively blame the whole class.
When I walk down the street, I know people are looking at me. I can feel it. Sometimes they smile, other times they look confused. Sometimes, I can tell they want to ask, but can't muster up the courage to find the right words. In any scenario, I am well aware of the responsibility that comes with wearing hijab -- the responsibility that comes with this outward declaration of my faith.
But my responsibility of being a Muslim woman doesn't end with the ability to pin a scarf to my head that matches my hand bag. It doesn't end with a brief explanation to others of the rights granted to women in Islam that women in America didn't have until a few decades ago. It doesn't end with a quick rundown on how arranged marriages where neither party sees or speaks to the other pre-marriage is actually discouraged in Islam. The responsibility I carry of being a Muslim woman doesn't end when you're finished reading this article. My responsibility reaches first internally, requiring that I educate myself through whatever authentic sources and outlets are available to me. My responsibility is that I am never allowed to be satisfied with my quest for knowledge because someday, I will be responsible for passing that knowledge onto my future children. I will be responsible for ensuring that they grow up to become productive, compassionate members of society. My responsibility as a Muslim woman stretches continents and forces me to learn the painful truth and help the Muslim women who are suffering in other countries because the proper implementation of Islamic knowledge has been overridden by tribal practices, cultural laws, and political agendas. This responsibility I carry will never lessen. It will grow with time and knowledge, and that is a challenge I am ready and willing to embrace.
When I think about my faith, about Islam, I can sum it up into three words: Perfect. Complete. Brilliant. Even with the millions of people who hate what I believe, and feel sorry for me for covering my hair, it is a part of who I am. And I am no more apologetic for wearing my hijab then I am for the color of my skin, or the parents I was given to. But wearing hijab doesn't mean I fit in with “my people” either. I'm still hopelessly awkward around other Muslim women, and painfully shy when I go to the mosque. Though I am an advocate of hijab and support the women who choose to wear it, I sometimes feel uneasy with the stereotype it comes with in the Muslim communities. I don't like being labeled as "pious" because I still have a very long way to go. I'm less comfortable with the assumption that I cover my hair because I am religious than I am with the assumption that I do it because I'm oppressed.
But still, the hijab to me means something that the dictionary has yet to print a word for. Of course, I can think of 300 cliched words to take its place, but all those words have already been used in the hundreds of articles you can find on line written from the perspective of Muslim-American women. The only analogy that comes to mind when I attempt to explain the depth of what it means to be who I choose to be is that of the woman on the plane with the crying baby. Most parents will tell you that parenthood is the most rewarding thing that can happen in one's lifetime. That despite the sleepless nights and chicken pox and occasional battles over delayed bedtimes, parenthood is, even with all the chaos, so totally worth it. And that's exactly how I feel about my faith and how I choose to practice it. Being a Muslim-American woman who wears hijab is, I guess, kind of like being a parent. You'll never really know until you get there – and when you do get there, you hope no one will pass judgment.
Sabrina authors Slice of Lemon.