Thursday, January 13, 2011

Facing Prejudice: At the Mall

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 P1000711.jpg 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."  

P1000713_2.jpgAfter 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.

P1000712.jpgFinally, 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.


  1. That's awful :( I can't believe the predjudice!! I mean really. Are people so ridic that that they will choose to be 13th in one line as opposed to 5th in another and stand behind a Muslim?

    Sometimes it's strange to see someone dressed so completely different then everyone else but we shouldn't treat them any differently then we'd treat anyone else! I admit that I have looked at people who were dressed in either Mennonite or Muslim clothing but I was doing it out of interest and if they saw me I would offer a smile but I'm wondering now if I should stop... I would hate for someone to feel bad because I was watching them. This is a really good experiment! Although it's really sad to see the results. :(

  2. I think it's really interesting, the way in which so far, most people have either ignored Ali or stared at her, and made comments etc..
    It makes me wonder if those who've ignored Ali have done so for fear of coming across as offensive by staring at her..!

    I think it's a really interesting idea though, but it's also shocking, and sad, the way some people are so prejudiced, and the way some people show it so openly!

  3. That is shocking to me. I can't believe that people would go out of their way to avoid her! I guess in my town Muslims are a bit more common.

    It really makes you think what you would do in that situation. Honestly, I think I would be standing right behind you in line just to watch her. I love observing different cultures so I would be wondering what a Muslim girl would talk about, whether she spoke another language, and things like that. I might not talk to her, but it would be more of a worry about saying the wrong thing, not about hating her! I would smile though. I'm pretty sure of that.

    Its sad because different cultures like Muslims show their religion by what they are wearing, so it is more obvious. Because of that, they openly face prejudice. But what if Christians wore head clothes or a big cross on their chest? What would it be like for us to have our religion out there in the open? I know it would be a lot harder than just blending in to the crowd. We would face questions, hatred, and judgment.

    Your experiment reminded me of 'What Would You Do?', a show full of social experiments. Actors act out a scene and they secretly record regular people responding. They have done a couple concerning Muslim prejudice. The scene was Muslim ladies trying to check out at a store. The store clerk refused them service and they documented how the other customers responded.

  4. I was shocked when I read this article. I never knew there was so much hatred, in a way, towards Muslims. I usually mark women wearing hijabs as Muslim and just dismiss them altogether without any stares and such, but I've never really noticed other people giving glares and talking in undertones behind their backs.

    By the way, what does "assalamu alaikum" mean?

    Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to the next article on this. =)


  5. I was wonderin' the same as Kyle. Assalamu alaikum. What did that mean? Thanks!


  6. Great post, thank you! I found this especially interesting because I kind of know how it feels. It is a little different though because the positions are reversed (I am living in North Africa), and I don't get quite as much hostility as you experienced. However, I do understand being stared at. Thank you for posting this, it is really neat to see it from the opposite perspective.

  7. @Sara and Kyle: Assalamu aleikum means 'peace be with you' in many Turkish languages--it's a pretty standard greeting for most muslims.


  8. I would also like to say that I really admire you two for doing this--it's a real wake-up call. I mean, this is the United States we're talking about here. Wow. It's also a nice silent reminder--we can make a difference by reaching out to these people.


  9. In all honestly, I might stare at her, too. It would be for her stunning beauty and not because I felt she was beneath me. People are bound to stare at the unusual, whether it be unusual dress or unusual beauty. I think that is a human response.

    If you read all-out disgust on the faces, though, that is very sad.

  10. Wow, thanks for all the feedback, guys. I've been very interested in your opinions about this experiment, so I've been so glad to hear what you have to say.

    Andrew was right about what "assalamu alaikum" means. It's the standard Muslim greeting, meaning "may peace be upon you." The appropriate response would typically be "walaikum as salaam," which basically means, "And peace be unto you."

  11. Can't wait to see what happens at the other Christian bookstore. I don't look different than an average American, but I know what it's like to get dirty stares and looks from other people who know nothing about me. My husband is quite a bit older than me, and people just assume that we're strange or that we're doing something wrong. One time I even had somebody tell me I only married him for his money, and I laughed and said, "What money? Our bank account is empty." Lol.

    The things people do in ignorance is often hurtful, but I've learned to take it with a grain of salt and train myself not to care, because I care more about my family and relationship with my husband and daughter then my relationship with strangers.

    Good luck to you and your friend during your social experiments!

  12. First off, how about Facing The Truth: Islam is a religion of hate. Secondly, I am White with a fairly long beard, I also get "bad looks", that's simply the way it is for ANYONE who doesn't look like "everyone else". Give it a rest young lady.

  13. To MGB, even if Islam is a religion of hate, does that mean that we as Christians should put them down and hate the people involved? No. Our Lord is a gracious, loving God who does not encourage us to hate people. Over and over he tells us to love others and love our neighbors as ourselves. God's gift is open to the whole world and we are encouraged to be holy as God is holy, to follow in his footsteps. Jesus loved all people and often spent time with those others considered too sinful to even be seen with.

    So, regardless of Islam being a religion of hate, we should not stare rudely or be unkind to the people who practice it, regardless of how they would treat us. How can you ever expect to show the Love of God and perhaps show them the truth and lead them to the Lord if you are being rude and unkind to them? Let the love and light of God shine through us towards them so that they want to be involved with a loving God, not one that appears to be hateful because his people seem hateful and discriminatory.

    Also, I don't believe it's appropriate or nice to come onto somebody else's blog and tell them to "give it a rest." We do live in a free country, where free speech is one of those things we hold in high regard. If you don't like her blog, then don't come back and don't read it.

  14. wow this is great! it make me understand have more compassion for Muslims. Thanks for posting!

  15. This is so amazing that you guys chose to do this :) keep posting! :)

  16. This is wonderful! Great idea, the woman at the end was such a gift from God don't you think?

  17. What an awesome post! It caught my eye and attention right away!!

  18. God has given me a heart for Muslim woman and this just increased my passion. Thank you!