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Welcome! I’m Elizabeth M. Roberts. I produce podcasts in news and culture. I write about careers, lifestyles and personal finance.

Undercover as a Muslim Woman: Veiled Misconceptions

Undercover as a Muslim Woman: Veiled Misconceptions

On Nov. 22, the University of Maryland Muslim Student Association sponsored an inaugural “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” immersion. MSA gave away 90 free hijabs, a religious head covering, to participating students. The night’s events at Stamp Student Union’s atrium included a free dinner for all participants, spoken-word presentations, documentaries of UMD students’ impressions of Muslims and, most importantly, an open mic for participants to share their experiences wearing the hijab.

Sarah Mustafa, a UMD senior environmental science and policy major, was inspired to coordinate the event after hearing that the University of California-Los Angeles produced a similar experience. This event proved that the legitimate understanding of another culture doesn’t come from a classroom, but a different undertaking altogether, she said.

“When you’re immersed, you’re better able to clear up misconceptions,” Mustafa said. “I’m proud of the girls for doing this; it takes guts to stand out. [These participants] wanted to understand and that takes a lot of open-mindedness.”

Poster promoting the University of Maryland Muslim Student Association’s inaugural “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” immersion. (Courtesy of Aleena Khan and Ainee Fatima)

Poster promoting the University of Maryland Muslim Student Association’s inaugural “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” immersion. (Courtesy of Aleena Khan and Ainee Fatima)

Cultural misconceptions
A video produced by MSA members and ahmadmedia.com, “A rushed study of the hijab at UMD,” revealed that not only did many students not know what a hijab was, but that stereotypes and a lack of information regarding the cultural practice was rampant. Students on campus were selected randomly and interviewed on what they thought about Muslim culture, specifically girls that choose to cover their head.

Some students thought it was a forced commitment of Islam, while others thought that it was a dead giveaway that those girls weren’t born in the United States. Comments ranged from “Muslim women are not accepted as much” to “They’re nice people that wear head wraps” to “It reminds me of a sandy desert with women dressed in head-to-toe veils.”

The range of students who elected to participate in “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” was broad, revealing completely different perspectives than those in the video interviews. A sorority girl, a president of a women’s studies campus organization and a girl who took on the experience as a sociology class project are just a few examples. Participant majors included hearing and speech sciences, public health, journalism, economics and molecular genetics.

While Mustafa said that she has never experienced flagrant discrimination on UMD’s campus, she still feels that there are a lot of unspoken misunderstandings about the Islamic faith.

“The point was to show the human underneath the headscarf,” she said.

One of the highlighted speakers was Zakia Mahasa, the first female Muslim judge in the United States. A University of Maryland alumna, she oversees the juvenile division of the circuit court in Baltimore and said she strongly believes that Muslim women should integrate their faith in the workplace.

“Women can’t use the fear of not being accepted in an interview as an excuse to uncover because you can do both,” Mahasa said. “I’m living proof that you can do both.” She said that for close to 100 participants to be so sensitized to others’ religious beliefs is empowering for the university community.

What the hijab means to you
Although the event was dominated by females, a male perspective on women wearing the hijab was offered through spoken word. Naeem Baig, a junior at the Al-Huda school in Maryland’s Prince George’s county, gave a thought-provoking performance on how the veil is not a cover-up, but a shield in an ideological war.

“People will say that the veil is a sign of oppression being imposed on them, but here in America, it’s usually not,” Baig said. “It’s your choice at the end of the day. It uplifts you. You can’t be outstanding without standing out.” Brought up in a Muslim family, Baig said that he is steadfast in his religious beliefs and transposes these feelings to support strong Muslim women struggling with adversity.

One such individual is UMD senior Arabic studies major Safia Latif who expressed that participating in this event was a part of her path of acceptance toward her religion.

“I had a few bad experiences after 9/11 in high school,” Latif said. “This girl pulled my hijab off and I started crying. I ended up taking it off as a result, gaining a huge influx of friends. Looking back now, I realize that this is very superficial.”

It has been four years since the bullying, and Latif said this has been a time not only of maturation in age, but of emotional growth.

“Wearing this hijab today was really different for me. People told me they noticed my eyes and I felt beautiful,” Latif said. “I wasn’t worried about what people were thinking. Maybe it’s because the average college student is more open-minded.” Getting complimented on her eyes emphasized that the self-proclaimed superficial reasons she took off the hijab previously didn’t carry as much weight now, she said.

Facebook backlash
Franchesca Benzant, a University of Maryland  junior cyber-security major, was also met with prejudice regarding her choice to wear a headscarf. Although Benzant is not Muslim and chose to wear a hijab solely for the social experiment, when she posted plans on Facebook, she was met with the comment, “Go out there, learn your lesson, then come home ASAP and take that sh*t off.”

Although Benzant was quick to defend her choice to participate, she was given an unexpected reason for the online hatred. When she asked the commenter why he’d written abrasively, he responded that his friend in the military was killed by a woman on a suicide mission who had hid a bomb underneath her hijab. After the death of his friend, he said that he refused to accept the overall Muslim faith or people that followed it.

Benzant and Latif were both met with prejudice while wearing the hijab, yet both women found that undergoing “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” solidified their individual values of self-acceptance and religious equality. However, where there is a response igniting cultural friction, there is also compassion and a deep desire to understand what is not familiar.

Come together to coexist
Emily Noonan, a UMD senior Arabic studies major, is a devout follower of Christianity who participated in the cultural immersion. Noonan said that majoring in an unfamiliar language has allowed her to make friends with many Muslim students, as well as strengthen her own faith.

Recognizing the empowerment Islam provides for her friends reemphasizes Noonan’s core values in Christianity, she said.

“What is the point if you have your faith but you don’t explore others?” Noonan said. “There’s so much to gain by other faiths coming together, especially on campus. You don’t really know someone unless you know their beliefs and who they are.”

The overall consensus from the social experiment’s participants was that this was more than just a day to play pretend as a member of another culture. The capstone was the student-driven discussion on what it means to be a Muslim, how Muslims are perceived in university and media culture and how easy it was to accept a cultural practice deviating from the norm once misconceptions were cleared.

Based on the overwhelming success of this event, MSA plans to continue hosting “Undercover as a Muslim Woman” in upcoming years at UMD.

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