Over the last couple of weeks, I've posted about a social experiment I've been undergoing with my sister, Ali. Ali dressed up in a Muslim hijab and visited various public places in my city so we could see if my community has obvious prejudice against Muslims.
After visiting Lifeway Christian Store, Ali and I decided to go to the mall and see what awaited us there. Almost immediately, Ali began to feel distressed and humiliated. "I'm getting so many bad looks, Emily," she kept whispering. "I feel like everyone is staring at me." It was true. As I began to look around, I noticed people staring at Ali with irritation or even disgust, like a Jr. High girl might look at someone she felt was "beneath" her.
We went straight to the restrooms at first. Almost immediately, a lady who was sweeping the floor gave Ali an open look of curiosity before leaving the room. Ali kept shaking her head and covering her face with her hands. "Everyone was looking at me, Emily. They never see Muslims. Nobody likes me. I don't know how the real Muslim girls can do this every day." Together, we talked for a moment. We were expecting to get strange looks. That was the point of the experiment. I continued to remind Ali that they weren't judging her. They were judging who they thought she was.
After a few moments, we were ready to go back out into the public eating area. We decided to get a snack, so we headed over to Sonic. There were two cash registers, so two lines had formed behind each of them. Ali and I chose to stand in the line on the right side. After a few moments, we began to notice something peculiar.
The left line was growing increasingly longer, winding around, but no one had come to stand behind us.
Ali was mortified. Were the people in our community so prejudiced against Muslims that they would not even stand in the same line as one? I joked with Ali, murmuring that perhaps people didn't want to stand in our line because they were so jealous of her beauty, but Ali kept shaking her head. "It's because of me. They don't even want to stand in the same line as me." And her words seemed to be the truth. While there were only two people in line in front of us, making four in total, people were stepping into a line with twelve or thirteen people in front of them. It seemed ridiculous. This was the first blatantly obvious sign of prejudice we saw that day. It was horrifying.
A couple of teenage boys stood a few yards away while we waited in line. Ali will tell the story in her own words. "There were some boys that were standing in front of us. They were eighteen or nineteen, and one of the guys turned to where he could see me more clearly. Then he whispered something to the guy [next to him] and kind of motioned towards me. The [other] guy 'discreetly' turned around, but it was obvious he was looking at me. They were both talking about me, and it was totally obvious."
After we got our snacks, we sat down at a central table in the middle of the food court. For a while, we counted stares, but then we began to discuss the difficulties Ali was having as a pretend young Muslim girl living in America. "Do you think things are very different from when you're not dressed in a hijab?" I asked her.
Ali rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah. I don't get looks like that [normally]."
"How would you rather people look at you?"
She sighed, thinking for a moment. "I just wish they would smile at me, not treat me differently. It just makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel bad for being different." Isn't that the truth? What teenage girl likes to be treated like something is wrong with her? And yet that is exactly how Ali was being treated by everyone around her.
"How do you feel for teenage Muslim girls?" I asked quietly.
Ali shook her head. "I feel terrible! I feel bad for them because it's mostly teenage people who are looking at me weird. I'd feel terrible. I think it would just make a girl feel bad about [herself]."
Later, we decided to walk to Dillards, a department store. We walked around for a few minutes and were both greeted by a male cashier. He didn't look at Ali strangely or call attention to the way she was dressed. He simply greeted us both in an neutral tone and asked if he could help us. The man wasn't white; he was Middle Eastern, so perhaps he knew how it felt to have prejudice directed towards him. His friendliness was a breath of fresh air after the dirty looks Ali had received from so many passersby.
On the way out of Dillards, we passed a group of young teens who were probably still in Jr. High. A few of them nudged each other, whispering to each other and eying Ali as she walked by. Their open stares were obvious and humiliating, but they also made the teens seem insensitive and inconsiderate.
We stopped at a store called Vanity as well, where the cashiers smiled at me and frowned openly at Ali, as if she wasn't welcome. We soon hurried out of the store, mostly because we felt awkward under the constant stares of the women.
Finally, Ali and I decided to make one more stop at the restroom. Ali soon told me of something she saw that I missed. "While we were in the restroom, two girls passed by. They were [about] twelve, and one of the girls nudged the other girl. It was totally obvious, and they just kind of whispered." Ali was embarrassed. It was as if people didn't notice that she could see their nudges and stares. She could hear their whispers. Just because Ali was wearing a hijab, it didn't mean she was blind and deaf.
As we left a few minutes later, we stumbled across another Muslim woman. She was an adult and she walked with two young children. When she saw Ali, she smiled and there was an obvious connection. I'll let Ali tell you about this experience. "This lady had a hijab on and you could tell she was Muslim. She walk[ed] in and I just felt this relief, almost, that there was another person like me in the restroom! And she even said assalamu alaikum, and I said it back. It was so cool because we could relate to each other. It wasn't just that I was the odd one in the whole mall, so it was so cool. It made [this] worth it.
"Does wearing the hijab give you a stronger bond of sorts with Muslim women?" I asked as we climbed into my car after leaving the mall, feeling refreshed and exhilarated after Ali was able to meet the Muslim woman.
"It sounds really weird, but yeah," Ali replied, smiling widely. "I was relieved whenever I saw her. It was kind of like, 'Ahh, someone like me!' I connected with her and she connected with me instantly, you know? Not like, 'Oh, we're best friends,' but it was just kind of a bond. [Earlier], I almost felt alienated. I felt different, and I didn't connect with other people until I saw her."
I stopped to think for a moment, turning on my car before backing out of the tiny parking spot. "So do you think that maybe a Muslim girl wearing a hijab might feel alienated from normal people?"
Ali bobbed her head. "I think in a way, yes, because people just stay away from you."
"But then I suppose that it would cause a closer relationship with fellow Muslims," I added.
"I think so. It reminds me of the video we were watching on YouTube. One of the ladies said, 'We need to give more credit to people. They don't judge us.' But I'm wearing the hijab. I look Muslim. People think I'm Muslim. And it's hard. I'm not being 'Christian' about it. It's true. The truth is that there [are] categories that people place you in, and [they] put up barriers, and that's what alienates Muslims."
At the mall, Ali was treated with more obvious prejudice and open stares than she was at the Christian bookstore we visited earlier. She felt more humiliated and alienated from others. However, there were a few people who treated her with kindness and equality, like the man at Dillards. The highlight of the afternoon was meeting the sweet Muslim lady who greeted Ali with a wide smile.
After leaving the mall, Ali and I were lost in thought for a long time. Prejudice doesn't have to be expressed through hateful comments. It can be expressed through stares and by ignoring someone. The worst moment was probably when everyone avoided the line at Sonic where Ali stood to get her ice cream. My community has a long ways to go before prejudice is eradicated. Ali and I learned so much after our experience.