Dressed as a Muslim, I was invisible. There were only two people during my day out on the town that regarded me as equal. Read about them below.
I finally got up the nerve to conduct an experiment in which I wore a veil around town and reflected on people’s reactions. I did not intend it to offend anyone but to gain more sympathy and understanding for those practicing religions that include wearing one, especially in my relatively homogenous monoculture.
The pictures in this post are me as Fadia, the heroine in my current work in progress, a christian suspense, where the clash between Muslim culture and American ideals is a large part of the plot. In her culture this is called hijab.
Here is what I learned.
I prayed, before embarking on my adventure, that God would give me insight and deeper compassion in understanding His heart for all people. Then Matt and I headed out to Wal Mart. He dressed simply in his usual–jeans and long sleeved t-shirt. He was nervous because people around here tend to be a little bit prejudice or at least ignorant. Not because they intend to be but there isn’t a lot of diversity up here in North Idaho so it is not something people experience. Matt grew up in California where the opposite is true. And he misses that melting pot lifestyle.
We spent almost two hours at Wal Mart where, except for the veil, I acted my friendly, casual self. In all that time only three people smiled at me (not counting the checker). One was a man who gave me a cursory glance and a meek smile. Another was an elderly woman in the bathroom. The third is the only person the entire time whom I felt looked at me like another human being. While the other two smiles were appreciated, this woman was different. She was also, the first person who didn’t steer across the aisle or look me up and down after I’d passed.
Matt noted that when people avoided looking directly at me, they would turn and gawk after passing. He said it wasn’t a disdainful look but more naivety or curiosity.
The woman in the blue sweater spotted me at the end of an isle. Her eyes sparkled with interest and she blinked only a brief second before looking me full in the face, radiating peace and confidence. I could tell that at first glance, I caught her off guard but she must have had a conversation with herself in that split second and made a decision to choose grace. Her smile is something I can hardly describe because I’ve rarely felt the “outsider” with an opportunity to evaluate what someone must “think” of me. We saw each other offten throughout the shopping excursion and her reaction never changed. I guess it was a smile that extended an offering of friendship despite differences, acceptance regardless of my circumstance, stage in life, religious preference…. It was so fresh and vibrant to be regarded as such after a long shopping experience where I was virtually invisible to most humans.
I hope she knows how appreciated her love was. Her grace must have come from a heart forgiven, unconditional love accepted and a life surrendered to Christ.
We made a quick stop at the mall where I was a little bit less of an anomaly. The young people milling about didn’t take much notice. But an elderly couple passed us in the hall when we left a store where I’d bought a new pair of sweats for after the baby comes. The husband gripped his wife’s arm possessively and looked us both up and down with fire in his eyes. That was the first time anyone took notice of Matt.
I realized that the man thought if I was a Muslim woman then Matt must be a terrorist. How sad that this was his only conclusion. Matt and I talked about all the other possibilities. I could be Jewish, or a cancer patient or simply cold…. And yet he gave us a look like we intended to blow up the mall.
We decided it was time for dinner and so Matt went for the car. I chose a chair in the food court near the door to wait and the most ironic thing happened. A Muslim family came in. Okay, now I’m stereotyping but they sounded like they were speaking another language and the woman wore a beautiful pale blue veil and modest clothing. Funny enough, beneath the veil, she, her husband and her two children more western than I me. She had trendy jeans, and a hooded sweater.
She was the second person to whom I was not invisible. After they had ordered some food she went out of her way to steer the baby stroller next to my table. Her face beamed with recognition and almost relief. I waved at the little guy and her daughter, about 6, played and smiled at me too. We didn’t speak any words but we both knew the other understood. We were two islands in a sea of unfamiliar, lonely and wanting, compelled to smile at each other. We had to band our hearts together in the brief time we had before it was gone again. I realized through that encounter how desperate and empty it is to live in a foreign place and be looked at as the “untouchable”.