Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stranger in a Familiar Land

Outside of California, it’s a big, bad world out there. I am getting tired of dealing with it—tired of being watched, objectified, oriental-ized, and foreign-ized because I cover my hair. I don’t know whom I dread running into most: rich female Republicans, rednecks, or "cultured" elderly, white women who discuss pressing social issues such as burqas and female circumcision at their needlepoint associations.

I dread being asked where I am from, because I know the answer will spark such discomfort. I respond, very truthfully, that I am American. I ascribe to no other culture, my mother is from New York, one glance from an Egyptian and one word out of my mouth will dismiss me as certainly not Egyptian, and I have known no other place as home. Often, I am greeted with a look of repulsion, as though I were a criminal trying to unsuccessfully to blend in with good, law-abiding people. One woman asked why I wouldn’t admit where I was from and why I was ashamed of it. Another actually snorted.

When someone drives by and shouts "Go home!", I find it kind of defensive to shout back the standard, "I am home." Maybe I should mock them, "Oh, how cliché." Unfortunately, in my current state of mind, I would rather throw a rock at their windshield.

I find some people hate me even more for being the mother of two lovely, happy little girls, thanks to Allah. To have “oppressed, evil, terrorist” and “smiling, children, or American” in the same equation results in some kind of mental dysfunction for some ignorant, intolerant people. I was recently in Macy’s, and was gently disciplining my daughter for wiping clothes off the racks as she walked by them. I was on my knees, holding her shoulders, maintaining eye contact, and firmly talking to her in a low voice. I notice a tall, middle-aged white woman, talking on her cell phone, walking towards me.

“Don’t you yell at her,” she spat. “Don’t you lay a finger on her.”

I gave her a disgusted look, told her to shut up, and faced my daughter.

“Don’t you yell at her you stupid b****. Go back to your hell of a country.”

I did not flinch and continued to address my child, although my voice was borderline-shaky and my eyes stung. A few minutes later, I was dashing through the store, looking for that woman so I could give her a piece of my mind. I never found her but I prayed that one day she would deeply regret what she had dared to say, because it struck me so deeply and it was many days before I didn’t glare at every random cashier and passerby daring them to look at me the wrong way.

A white woman would get looks of good-humored sympathy when her kids act out in public, but I get looks of icy disapproval. Once I was in Hancock Fabrics picking out colors for a quilt and my daughter started sauntering towards the door. I had my eye on her and when she got close enough to the door I walked after her. A woman passing us by muttered that she’d love to see me lose her.

After this incident, I received some coaching from the queen-of-hijab-self-esteem. Hold yourself up high, don’t look so meek, look people in the eye, stay collected. She recommended that I shout out for everyone in the store to hear, “Excuse me? DID YOU JUST SAY YOU WISHED I WOULD LOSE MY CHILD? WHAT A DISGUSTING THING TO SAY!” I imagined the lady retreating ashamed between the bolts of fabric, embarrassed by the stares of surprised onlookers.

Next time, insha'allah, next time I will pull it off and do more than stutter. Oh, I have soooo many comebacks now. Often, we only have those fantasies of perfectly timed responses and the assailant’s speechlessness to comfort us. In reality, I’m the one who’s rendered speechless.

Long, gentle responses never work and I’ve completely given up on them. People will not change their prejudices after a few words in an elevator. A woman, who had been eyeing me for a long time in a Safeway, maybe even stalking me, finally walked up and asked, when my children grew long hair, and got older, and wanted to take swimming lessons, or go to the beach, if I would make them cover. I tried the patient-education approach, and we even walked out into the parking lot together. This woman was so entrenched in hatred which revealed itself progressively throughout our conversation. Let's just say I wish I had never wasted my breath.

Tired of it all, and only days after the Macy’s event, I had no energy to respond when a Pakistani cashier at Whole Foods told me that za woman in hees country stopped vearing za scarf because zey vanted freedom.

“Hmmmmm,” I answered disinterestedly, and took my change and walked away.

Once in a while, the insults are completely innocent. This was my one and only negative incident in California in five years. I sat once in the very ritzy Stanford Mall just minutes away from our student apartment, a sleeping baby at my side in her stroller, drinking a latte and writing a press release on my laptop. An elderly, wealthy woman gave me a charitable smile and said, perfectly well-meaning, how beautiful my baby was and how ironic it was to see a woman in a burqa working on a laptop.

“It’s a very interesting picture,” she said. “Good for you.”

The wheels in my head turned in ruminative silence for several minutes. I then closed my laptop, tossed my latte , and walked up to the woman at a nearby table and proceeded to lecture her in front of her friends, very calmly, on how offensive her well-meaning comment was. I listed my accomplishments, how Islam had empowered me to achieve them, and how my dress signified my submission to God and not my imprisonment.

That was one—long ago and very rare—point for me.


Fariha said...

May Allah give you strength to face this Maha, you would not be in this position if you weren't meant for it, I guess you can take comfort in that. This is not easy. Thank you for sharing this so openly. You're sharing the difficult circumstances that the prophets (pbut) were subjected to in dealing with the ignorance and prejudice of people. May Allah grant you jannah for that, ameen.

Fariha said...
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Fariha said...
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Leenah said...

wow subhanAllah i never realized what a time you're having in texas! i guess ive never known any other way since ive grown up here-- i get stares all the time but im very good at glaring back at them and saying boo. im so sorry maha and so sorry iman had to hear that lady's dirty words! may Allah reward you and protect you and your family from evil ya Rab!