Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reflecting and Refracting

I am a very relational person; relationships matter to me. I'm not just talking about my family, or friends, or romantic relationships, I'm talking about the smile that I share with a passing stranger on the sidewalk--even that brief moment is a relationship to me because I have related to, responded to, and in some way connected with and been changed by another living being. (Plus, I just love making people smile.) I have been bringing this relational sensitivity and awareness, and my extroversion in general, to my hijabi experience, and I can honestly say that my day-to-day human encounters are different now than they were pre-hijab.

Now, I know this isn't a formal, scientific experiment. I have no control, and therefore, nothing to compare my results to. All I have are my lived experiences, and my own wisdom about how I relate to people in general. I'm in need of some examples of how things feel different...

Charlotte airport: I'm waiting for my flight back to Nashville to board and am people-watching (one of my favorite things to do). I'm soon aware of a young man approaching me, and I could tell he was going to start talking to me. "You've got such a pretty smile," he says. "I was watching you and there were times when you would just light up. What makes you so happy?" I told him that I was people-watching and that I think that we humans are absolutely wonderful, but I could feel myself getting defensive (probably because I noticed a conspicuous gold cross around his neck, and wasn't completely sure of his tone). Was this guy trying to hit on me? Nope, I wasn't getting that vibe, but something was up. "I've got some questions I'd like to ask you, if you don't mind," he continued, and things started to make sense. Turns out he wanted to talk theology, which was fine (I'm all for putting my MTS to use in various ways), but my gate had just been changed, so I had to leave. Who knows how that conversation would have developed; I can only guess. But I can tell you, no random guys anywhere have ever approached a pre-hijab me to talk theology. I'm also left wondering what the hijab symbolized for that young man. Was it a target? An invitation? An opportunity? None of these?

I have also become increasingly aware of the tacit messages that we communicate to one another everyday, and also the daily messages that are communicated to us from our surrounding cultural and social realms. I suppose I have been feeling less connected with people in general, but I'm sure this is not because of my own social withdrawal. It is rather, I believe, the reluctance of those strangers around me. I receive not-subtle looks at a restaurant on a Friday night that silently ask me what I'm up to. My warm smile to a woman in the grocery store is not received as I would have expected. Instead of a smile in return, she acts as though she doesn't see me. This has been a common response from both men and women--so common, that I am beginning to truly appreciate those times when I make eye-contact with a stranger and he or she does not uncomfortably divert his or her glance. Those are the times when I really feel alive. Those are the times when I truly feel recognized as a human being.

We, as humans, are socially-constructed beings. Ian Burkitt (Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality) says it wonderfully when he says, "...the self is a dialogue which reflects and refracts concrete social interactions in which it plays a part." My concrete social interactions as an hijabi have reflected themselves into the complex shaping of myself. I find myself desiring acknowledgement of my humanity from my unknown brothers and sisters--something I have never been so strikingly denied.

Thus, the hijabi season has become quite the challenge. As I said earlier, I am grateful for those moments when a stranger will see me as a breathing, feeling being. I am grateful also for the support of my friends and family.

With ever-growing compassion for all those who are not fully seen for the beautifully unique, resilient, and complex humans that they are,



  1. Wrote a lengthy comment, then had to log in, and lost it :)
    So here's sort of the gist of what I wrote:
    I saw a woman in veil and hijab on the bus this morning and (as I usually do) I get a rush of excitement - My sister's wearing a hijab! - and then I immediately run into a quandary. Why am I giving this woman extra attention? She is just like everyone else on the bus. But if I act toward her like I do everyone else, will she think I'm singling her out to be nice to - being condescending? My palms immediately sweat and I try to act natural. But what is natural? I am naturally interested in her pretty hijab and how the veil fits over it. She has such pretty eyes, but must I steal glances so she doesn't think I'm staring? But I feel an immediate wariness on her part toward everyone on the bus. Maybe it is her veil, but I feel that she wants nothing to do with anyone on the bus - a very defensive stance coming to me from her. "Don't talk to me, don't look at me, I'm not a freak show, I'm just like you." And I send back to her, "Of course you're not, I just really wanted to look at your cool dress, since I don't see it everyday."
    And then I heard Edward Said in my head -- was I like those first English to set foot in India and say this is so cool - but we're still better than these primitive natives. Was this an encounter of "primal, mysterious East" meeting "advanced, all knowing West?" Was I caught up in socially propagated 21st century Orientalism?
    This double edged sword of me not knowing how to best interact with this woman, as well as grappling with my own perspectives made it a very long and sweaty trip up to Market Street.
    Just a perspective or convo starter either here or elsewhere.
    Love you and miss you. Keep smiling :)

  2. Wow Em.
    And People watching is always enjoyable Sarah.
    I love to just sit and watch people going about their lives.

  3. I sure am proud to call you my sister, Emily. Now is a great time to bring up these concerns from postcolonial theory (which, I believe should be taught alongside any class on Islam, especially today)...I've wrestled with the thought too that I might be contributing to the fetishization of "the East," the unknown, in this case, Islam. I am concerned because I would never want my act of wearing the hijab to be viewed as an act of appropriation or othering (another important Said concept to consider). But how do I communicate an attitude of solidarity and compassion-seeking in daily life when I am constantly surrounded by Islamophobia? At times I find myself projecting an attitude that could be interpreted as just as defensive as the woman you saw on the bus. Perhaps the important thing to do is to name this slippage into Orientalism as it arises, to shed light on it, and to encourage a humbling of the gaze...

    Miss you. Love you. Sarah