Friday, May 20, 2011

Hijab and Southern Hospitality

I had originally written this piece for my university's newspaper but since they have't updated their website in a month, I doubt this will be posted. So here it is!

I moved to South Carolina last summer from Ohio for graduate school. I moved a lot growing up: New Jersey, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. For the most part, I grew up in diverse communities and was always taught to never treat anyone less differently regardless of the color of their skin or how they looked. I had green eyes, dark hair, fair skin, so I fit in pretty well throughout elementary and middle school. I chose to wear the hijab (headscarf) in high school because how I perceived it; it was a way of being modest and not conforming to society’s elucidation of what a woman should or should not wear. I wore hijab solely for the sake of God. After all, Mary was always depicted wearing a head covering and nuns cover their hair as well, so fitting in would be a breeze. And it was—for the most part. Living in the Midwest and being an Egyptian-American myself, there was a plethora of Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, so overall it wasn’t an anomaly to see a lady covering her hair. People just moved on with their lives and accepted the uniqueness. Of course there were always a minority of people who expressed their hatred feelings out loud, whether it was by giving me the middle finger as I was driving along minding my own business, or someone yelling “go back home.” It was bound to happen after the horrendous acts of people who “claimed” to be Muslims when they distorted the image of real Muslims on Sept. 11, and when my religion was hijacked. But even ten years later, today, Muslims are still targets of hatred and many people are still unfortunately xenophobic; just Google Peter King hearings, Hate comes to Orange County, Muslim child hung in bathroom, and Murfreesboro Tennessee Mosque.

Moving to South Carolina from Ohio was a culture shock. Not only was I blown away by the remarkable southern accent, but it was difficult to fathom that I wouldn’t wear boots and winter coats for 5 months (it snowed last week in Ohio. Yes on April 18). I have also been subjected to labels, comments, stares, and online hate comments (someone responded to me by saying the following on a local news article posting: “Just keep your sharia law in dump countries like Afghanistan and Somalia. I happen to like pork and alcohol and being Christian.”)

I never knew that covering one’s hair would be such a fuss here. I mean, people wear hats all the time, right? I have met some of the friendliest people here in my work places and classes. Their kindness and tolerance really defines southern hospitality and I truly appreciate it; so thank you coworkers and classmates you truly defined true southern hospitality for me. I have also heard some rather peculiar comments, such as “why is your English so good” (which I reply, thanks yours is too) “do you have hair” “where are you from” “why do you wear that” “are you hot in that.” So I will answer them all here to clear up any misconceptions. My English is “good” because I was raised bilingual-I grew up speaking Arabic at home and learned English at school. I also majored in English literature and journalism as an undergrad, so I am slightly obsessed with writing and reading. Yes, I have hair and yes I have ears (a little kid told me I couldn’t hear her because I didn’t have ears a couple weeks ago—too cute). The next two questions, I answered them in the first paragraph. As for the “am I hot in that,” well obviously I will not wear a sweater and boots in the spring and summer here – I don’t miss Ohio that much. I like to think of the light cardigans, hijab and maxi dresses I wear in the summer kind of like sun screen. Most likely, if you are feeling hot, then I am too and it’s not the end of the world; I chose to wear a hijab, and I love it, so please don’t look at me with pity. I love living in SC.

If I didn’t answer your burning questions in this piece, feel free to contact me or stop me in the street to chat. And remember, as I learned in one of my first classes here, America is no longer a melting pot—we’re not going merge into one bowl and overlook our individuality. Rather we are a huge salad bowl: we have our difference, but we are multifarious and work together with unique backgrounds and cultures to contribute to society. Befriending people from different backgrounds, cultures, race and religions undoubtedly helps dispel negative stereotypes and xenophobia you see every day and hear about in the media; so let’s spice up the status quo!

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