Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Different

I don't think I have ever felt so singled out in my adult life as I did today. Ironically, it was because of a very well intended comment.

As a Muslim woman, I recently started covering (Hijab). Great timing, right? Right. It was the right time in my life, so that's all that mattered to me. I didn't think of the looming Islamophobia, which has been the undertone in the United States, but has come into the forefront after the most recent presidential election. The stories we hear in the media about citizens being harassed and attacked due to Muslim clothing have been unnerving, to say the least. But within the past few of months, hijab has become a part of me and who I am. Every time I leave the house, I throw a scarf over my head without even a second thought.

Today, I was shopping for some office essentials at Sam's Club (a store I typically avoid like the plague, as my husband will affirm!).  As I stopped to snag a free sample of dish washing detergent (a brand I regularly use; nifty, huh?) an elderly gentleman came up to wait his turn. I was grumbling that the freebie machine was making me watch a video before dispensing the sample. The elderly, and I have to say, very loud gentleman, greeted me with "Hi, how are you doing?" and continued with "Good to see you!" For a moment I was taken aback with what sounded like a tone of familiarity. Was this someone I actually knew? Surely not a neighbor, or acquaintance, or (gasp) a patient I see in my medical practice and just didn't recognize? Then his next comment dispelled that notion. With his booming voice he then said "Don't you stop wearing that thing!" (pointing to the scarf I was covering my hair with). "I just wanted to tell you I'm an American. And I think you should wear whatever you want." I responded with a rather hesitant but pleasant, "Thank you, I'm an American too." Then he continued, in his very loud, almost shouting voice, "Don't you ever forget I'm telling you that! You wear whatever you want!" By then I had started backing away, although was able to smile at him, and get out a very polite, "I appreciate your support," before moving on to another part of the store. I understand, in his own way, he was trying to make me feel welcome; heck, it might just be his crude way of showing respect. But for those few minutes I wanted a hole to open up in the concrete floor of the store, and for me to disappear into it. I nervously glanced around the store, hoping that no other customers had stopped to listen to what this very loud gentleman was saying.  Thankfully, there aren't many other folks shopping at Sam's Club on a Tuesday morning, but I did see a couple of people glancing my way. And I'm pretty sure that some shoppers were definitely listening, because as I was checking out at the register, another elderly, but much softer spoken gentleman paused to say, "I like your scarf." A rather out of place comment, I thought.

Yes, I am Muslim, and I am very proud of that. But it doesn't make me fundamentally different from another customer shopping at Sam's Club, on a dull, rainy Tuesday morning (unless that other customer actually enjoys shopping at Sam's!).  I walk the same aisles, browse the same items, and probably make some of the same purchases too! I have kids and pets at home, I have a job and pay my taxes. I celebrate most of the same holidays, and send my kid to the same schools. The list of the mundane that we have in common, can go on and on. But in addition to the cozy sweater I wear to keep myself warm, I just happen to cover my hair with a scarf. Granted, the religion I practice is different from many, but that's a private thing for me, as it is for most practicing Christians, Jews, Hindus, and people of other faiths.

I'm a social person; I am quite comfortable making small talk with people I bump into while standing in line at the grocery store, the post office, the bank, etc. I greet strangers with a smile and a nod. But today's rather one-sided chat made me a little uncomfortable. It was almost as if he intended to make me feel different. I know I should feel grateful that the gentleman was 'supportive,' and not an Islamophobic citizen spewing expletives at me, or calling me 'ISIS', or even worse. But then, why did I feel that he was doing me a favor, allowing me to wear what I wanted? Could it not just be taken for granted? Wearing a scarf on my head should be as acceptable as wearing a hat. Or pink socks. Or a trench coat. Or any other item of clothing that serves a purpose. Or heck, even if it doesn't serve a purpose, who are we to just each other based on our appearances?

So, the next time you bump into me while shopping at the grocery store, let's chat about the weather. It has been raining almost non-stop in Central Alabama for the past four days. A much needed reprieve from the 2-3 months of extreme drought and wildfires, and 300 percent water usage surcharges. It's been so dry for so long, that no-one can seem to find their umbrellas. That's worth some friendly discourse for sure!

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