Muslim for a day

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”.

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47 thoughts on “Muslim for a day”

  1. This is an interesting post. It reminds me of my son’s early experiences at work.
    He is a chartered accountant (I think that’s a CPA in the US). When he was a trainee he was supervised by a number of people, and his favourite supervisor was a Muslim. He like him for the practical reason that he never asked the trainees to do any task without explaining it first. My son got to know him outside work and talking to him about his faith. He was very impressed with some aspects – and saddened that there is so much prejudice against Muslims.

  2. Jessie,

    You would probably get the same result if you dressed like an Amish person and drove a horse and buggy to town.

    While you’re experiment does point out our tendency as human beings to make decisions based on first impressions, it also points out the effectiveness of anyone who deliberately chooses to be set apart from the world (as Christians are called to do).

    Christians are told not to conform to the world, and yet most people would be very hard pressed to be able to tell a Christian from a non-Christian in most every day interactions. How sad that is!

    1. Well, yes I see your point and as I mentioned I could have worn a scarf for a number of reasons but since in my mind I was focusing on the Muslimah in my WIP, that’s who’se perspective I was thinking from. :)

      As for Christians, I was quite impressed with the woman in the blue sweater and I’m sure that she stood out, even if only her demeanor and her compassion. She didn’t have to have a Jesus shirt on or anthing physical it was her peace that I could really SEE somehow. That’s the kind of different I want to be. :) Though modesty is a good thing too.

      So here is a good question for Christians (or those who truly strive to be little Christs’) ponder… What does it mean to not conform to the world?

  3. Amazing! I wuld have never thought of that! I live in Bentonville, Arkansas… An enormous melting pot, due to Wal-Mart. There seems to be someone from EVERY country/religion/etc here. The other day, I helped a couple from India try to decide which baby food would be appropriate for their 4 month old… I didn’t think twice about it! :-) My kids were with me. After we were done, and walking away, Zoe (8) said, “That was really nice of you to help them, Mom.” I responded, “Of course. They needed help, and I was glad to help them.”
    She learned that, no matter the skin color, language, or anything else, you can and should help people.

    I’m going to re-post your blog for all my friends to see. :-)

    1. Thanks AnnaLee! You are sweet. I love to learn and grow! God is really stretching me these last couple years. He is constantly revealing another way I need to flex. Currently it’s in WAITING! Come on baby. :)

  4. Wow, how interesting & brave! I love the comment & thought to ponder about Christians not conforming to this world but instead, being set apart. Good things to think about as we go on with our every day. Thanks, Jessie, for sharing!

  5. Just a little more history as to WHY I did this.

    Our little neck of the woods has a history of white supremacy and while the majority of people here do not hold those views–in fact many despise them–it has marred our area for years. Not only that but it (and location) creates a vacuum in where we remain a monoculture.

    The prejudice that goes along with living in such an area is very often out of pure ignorance. Myself included! So, I wanted to explore that and give myself a first hand experience in culture, prejudice and hopefully better knowledge.

  6. Very well done. It was a good reminder to always look at the person as an individual who God loves, not the external trappings.

  7. So glad you took the time to type this up and share with others. Love how God is not only growing you but using you to grow others. Keep it up:)

  8. Wow! Interesting experiment, you are a brave prego lady. I am excited to read your book, when do you anticipate finishing it?

    1. Hmmm, that’s a good question. :) I had planned on having 1st rough draft done by a confrence I’m hoping to attend in May but that’s up in the air. I’ve applied for a scholarship, so we’ll see.

      As for writing, I need to get back on the wagon. I’ve been sick a lot this month so I lost momentum but not enthusiasm. After it is done the process is a mystery to me. This is only the 2nd full manuscript I’ve written and the 1st I gave up because I learned so much in the process that I needed to start over.

      Published friends say it takes years.

      I will, however, need people to read my final draft, which may or may not ever see the printing press. Long answer, eh? All that to say, I don’t know!

  9. What a great idea. By realizing what it’s like to be the one behind the veil, it will be easier to reach out and touch those lives.

  10. First I want to say the first photo of you is beautiful :) I’m also very thankful that God put you to work for us readers to learn. I have to say I have more then once looked away or even perhaps questioned my safty around a male muslim. Wow, wow, wow that about sums up how I feel thank you.

  11. Hi Jess,

    I saw your comment on my sister Bushra’s blog and had to comment. As a Muslim woman wearing hijab, sometimes it does get difficult with the stares and such but I am always grateful for the sincere smiles I get. I’m glad you were able to experience those smiles. And sometimes non-Muslims don’t realize this but Muslims believe in Jesus as well and appreciate those who act like him. :) By the way, you look beautiful in a Hijab and kudos for your husband for supporting you. I giggled at the part where the lady was looking at him. My friend’s husband got the same look when they were out once and after he heard some negative comments from the people giving the looks, he tried to convince my friend out of wearing Hijab. She changed it up a bit but didn’t give it up. :)

    1. Thank you for stopping by Aaisha. Pretty name! Yes, I actually did know that you believe in Jesus. Even believe he performed miracles and was a messenger of God. I would enjoy learning more about what you believe about him if you are willing to. Maybe you and your sister would like to read my novel once I’m done to make sure I have written my Muslim character with accuracy and sensitivity.

      You are right I am blessed with a supportive husband. He is my partner and my best friend. Thank you for the compliments. I hope you will be back.

  12. Talk about naive. You remind me of the childish hippies who stuck flowers into the rifle barrels of soldiers protecting the Pentagon in 67. Passive gestures by flower children denying and pretending to alter the reality of human nature rather than accepting and embracing it’s constraints – in order to live. Islam is incompatible with the west, as even you will eventually accept. Pretending to be a mythical “moderate” Muslim is pointless. I hope that you come to no harm, since you seem sweet and harmless and would be protected until the end. But, one day you, and likely your children may not have the necessary survival instincts to save yourselves. That is what’s so sad about your naive vision of how the world works, or that you wish it to work. I’m guessing that you and most of your followers embrace the fraud of Darwinian evolution’s ultimate claim in spite of your obvious denial of it’s operating mechanism – as you must with Islam. This is, however, the thing that allows people like you to survive – the necessity and ability to make profound exceptions to your own operating principles – in order that you can survive. I doubt that you understand the substantive contradiction to what you imply by your charade – because it is your “ignorance” that is on display. Be safe.

    1. I appreciate your comment sir and I sympathize with your concerns. In fact I am not as naive as it seems. The difference I see is while Islam is a dangerous religion/political agenda – which certainly threatens the West, as well as the world with its deceit–there are still human beings connected to that deceit that deserve a little compassion. All people have value. I pray for them to be freed of their deception.

      I have not proposed anything I think you can disagree with, just that I wanted an inside look at what it might be like to be stuck in that deception. In fact dressing as a Muslim is not the same as pretending to be a “moderate Muslim” as you assumed. In fact I told no one during my outing, anything about myself. No one asked. If asked I would have told them, “I am a Christian attempting to get an inside look at the women behind the veil of Islam.”

      My “operating principles” revolve around a simple verse Matthew 28 “Go therefore into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all I have commanded you and lo I am with you always even until the end of the age.”

      I am not afraid of mankind or any of its depravity. I am afraid of the naivety of those who believe that we can be saved our own volition. The only true safety and our commonality is in redemption. Something we do not deserve, earn or attain outside of Christ.

      1. I’m curious Jess, why do you believe Islam is a dangerous religion?

        1. Well, I believe that there is one true God and one redemption and it isn’t by our own effort. I’m sorry to have been so blunt but if you agree that there is a God and he has a set of rules that surpass human understanding then we have to live by those rules regardless of what we think of them. Of course, some people don’t agree with this.

          Here is what Jesus said and why I believe it is dangerous to live, teach or hope otherwise.

          John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

  13. Jess, I read part of your post to my husband. He spent time in Iraq with Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Kuwaitis, also Indians and Phillipino’s. Having been around them it is sad that all are lumped into the same category. In the Arab world you have two extremes possible and everything in between. There are sharia law extremes and then completely secular Arabs. How do you tell the difference?
    So here is the hard part…it is not okay for some of these woman to be looked at in they eye. Mark says that when in a store, he won’t look because he wouldn’t know if it was okay for her. Whether she would get in trouble or not.
    My personal experience is that as friendly as I am they are not.
    But we are to be Christs hands and feet….His voice and love and compassion to whomever we come across!!

    1. I actually wished I would have seen someone I know because I wondered if they would recognize me. IOW “would they look long enough” but you are right, I hadn’t considered the “oogle” factor and from a man’s perspective there could be a problem.

      On your point about lumping people together, its true of all stereotypes isn’t it. Just like there are Christians and then there are religious people and everything inbetween and beyond.

  14. A graceful admonished.
    You have a gentle touch and a generous spirit.
    Thank you, Buck.

  15. What a great post! Normally, I am one of the people looking a stranger in the eyes. I offer a smile — some are returned, some are not.

    How fun and interesting it must have been pretending to be in another culture.

    Thank you for sharing your insights. It will prompt me to be extra friendly to those who are alone in our environment.


    1. So glad I’ve inspired you and I’m glad you are the one with the friendly smile. There were far too few. Although I realize that men could be taken the wrong way and even women in certain cultures should look someone in the eye. But this is in my neighborhood! People want and need to be loved and seen!

  16. What a beautiful heart and a great experiment. I hope you keep writing. God loves all people, even the untouchables. I have wanted to dress up as a few different types of people and walk into different churches. I want to know if I would be welcomed or shunned. I would hope I would find open arms but I don’t know.. God is love.

    Thanks for sharing a day in your shoes.

    1. Tiffany I’m so glad you got to read it. It’s an older post, longer and more rambling than I try to be but I sure learned a lot walking in her shoes! Thanks so much for stopping by and inspiring me and others!

  17. Wow, that is an interesting experiment. When did you do this?
    Since you have met me, you know that I dress counter cultural than the norm, but for me, I have seen many different reactions to people who dress differently. I think a lot of it depends on your attitude.

  18. Fall of 2010 (gosh has it been that long?).

    You are right though, some reactions are just curiosity and some are more hostile. I think we fail to remember that either way we are effecting someone’s soul, their self worth. Maybe they need Christ but it’s unlikely they’ll find him by a barrage of questions from a stranger or steering away out of fear. The spirit of God is not fear. I have a long way to go I’m sure. :)

  19. Oh wow. This is such an amazing experiment. I live in Houston now so seeing Muslims doesn’t phase me anymore but it sure used to. What a great way to change perspectives. Our family has been the only Caucasian family present at several events- birthday parties, weddings, etc.- and I know now how it feels to be an outsider, and and how wonderful it feels to be accepted in those situations.
    Oh, have you read the book Black Like Me? Along the same lines, a man somehow tints his skin black and lives like that for a while and documents it. A fascinating read.

    1. I haven’t read that book. Sounds like a good one! Thanks for your comments Kelli. :)

  20. What a cool person you must be!

    I’m always investigating other cultures and lived with the Amish for a year with my daughter. I have numerous Muslim friends (men whom I know personally, and women mostly on line) and have worn hijab a number of times for many of the same reasons you did. It’s a very enlightening, and sadly disturbing, experience. I feel more sorry for your husband. People must’ve thought he was the nutcase and you were just along for the ride. Sad…

    You’ve had a good discussion going here. I belong to a Muslim women’s book club, which might give you a tremendous amount of interesting information. I really got my feet wet reading, Love In a Headscarf by Shelina Janmohamed, which is just super.

    I’m not sure if I agree with everything you say about Islam being dangerous, per se. (While I love a great many Muslim people, I don’t believe in their religion as an alternative to mine.) I think lumping them all together under dangerous is a little like people who think all Christians are like, say, Westboro Baptist Church (which I actually think is a cult), and therefore bad.

    Nevertheless, I applaud your actions. I think it takes real guts, and a lot of compassion to not just be judgmental, but to really walk in the shoes of the people you seek to understand.

    1. Cynthia! So glad you commented. Have you watched the movie Sabah? I loved it! Was on Netflix and such a sweet love story.

      The book club sounds great. How did you hear about it?

      I see what you are saying about Islam, however I didn’t say the people are dangerous. People whether deceived or “enlightened” or broken little old sinners like me are all in need of redemption and in that case we’re all dangerous. But what I mean was not the people, if I held that suspicion I could never truly love them and I can say I DO, instead I still hold to the fact that any religion that takes us away from the truth being in Jesus is dangerous since it leads to hell. Islam misses that mightily. God is God and he is to be feared but a loving personal God who can know you and redeem you out of darkness, that’s not the God of Islam. Even, as you pointed out. Some Christians are also missing the point. Just like the older brother in the Prodigal son, God will say “I never knew you.” That makes me sad but it challenges me to go ahead in compassion and get to know more people, cultures, religions and really love them, not fear them and pray that through friendships God’s truth can be shared. :)

      Thanks for the great discussion! I’m glad you came.

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