by Dr. Tarah Trueblood, JD, MDiv, MA
University of North Florida, UNF Interfaith Center Director
When I awoke on Sunday, January 26th, I did not plan to have a personal hijab day. It just happened. Here is the story of how it came about and what I experienced.
The idea of a personal hijab day for non-Muslims is controversial. There are important and complex issues to be considered and much to learn. I was first introduced to an online movement to make February 1 “World Hijab Day” through a Facebook post in early January 2014. In late December 2013 I had seen a Huff Post Religion article about New York City Sikhs who had hosted a “Turban Day” in order to “help correct misperceptions around Sikhism and to share their values of love, faith, and social justice. ”
I am the Director of the University of North Florida (UNF) Interfaith Center and advisor to two UNF registered student groups: UNF Muslim Student Association (MSA); and Better Together @ UNF (B2G). In collaboration with the local Sikh community in Jacksonville, the Interfaith Center was planning to host “Wear a Turban Day” on campus during Interfaith Week 2014. The purpose of the event is to increase religious literacy on Sikhism on our campus and in our community.
On the morning of January 26th I sat out to meet a small group of UNF students at the new Jacksonville Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). Several times a semester the Interfaith Center, MSA, and B2G sponsor “Campus 4 Community” events like this—field trips to places of religious worship (Buddhist and Hindu temples , Jewish synagogues , the Islamic Center mosque , a Unitarian Universalist Church , a Greek Orthodox Christian Church , and the Jacksonville Baha’i Center ).
As a way of showing respect to the Sikh holy book, knows as Guru Granth Sahib, everyone entering a Sikh Gurdwara is asked to cover his/her head and to remove her/his shoes. So, when I arrived in the parking lot that morning I had my headscarf in hand. Two female UNF students, who I knew well through the Interfaith Center, pulled into the parking lot behind me. Both of them are Muslims and members of MSA—one is an American citizen whose family is from Afghanistan; the other is a U.S. resident whose family is from Kashmir. As we congregated outside the Gurdwara to wait for the rest of the students to arrive, I asked one of the Muslim students to tie my headscarf “hijab style.” In less than a minute she wrapped my scarf artfully around my head and secured it with two pins. The scarf draped beautifully around my face and laced over my shoulders. It looked stunning.
When the other UNF students arrived about ten of us entered the Gurdwara together. We sat on the new carpet (women to the right, men to the left) and observed the weekly Sikh religious ceremony. Most of the others who had come to worship that morning were Sikh Americans from India, where the Sikh faith originated. The worship service involved prayers, chanting, drumming, and the opening of the Sikh holy book which is treated like a living guru in that it is loved, respected, and cared for by the Sikh community seven days a week.
After worship it is customary for Sikhs to extend hospitality by providing free food—langar (meaning “community meal”) to everyone gathered. So, the students and I enjoyed delicious, authentic Indian cuisine as we sat on floor mats and conversed with members of the Sikh community. On the floor, everyone is equal and without a table there is always room for someone else to squeeze in. Equality and inclusion are foundational values in the Sikh faith. After langar, several students and I met with Sikh community leaders to plan our upcoming “Wear a Turban Day” at UNF. The Sikhs were very excited about the event and were collecting 100 turbans to donate at the event.
About three hours later I departed the Gurdwara to meet up with the two female Muslim students at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The two of them where taking part in another event–an interfaith tribute to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their role was to recite passages from the Qur’an that related to the message of Dr. King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” When I arrived at the Catholic church I was still wearing the hijab. I noticed how comfortable it was, how securely it had been tied, and how beautiful it made me feel. For those reasons, and to show solidarity with the two female Muslim students who I thought might be the only Muslims at the event, I decided to wear the hijab during the interfaith service.
The tribute opened with a concert performed by 50+ students—members of the Concert Choir of Edward Waters College, a private, historically black college in Jacksonville. Having grown up in a Southern Baptist Christian church and having being ordained as a United Methodist Christian minister, gospel music runs through my blood. The voices and rhythms of the choir made me want to sing out loud (loud–like in the shower) and get up and move with the Spirit. I thought of Rumi, of the whirling dance of the Sufis, and so I did—I got up and moved.
And there I was, a Caucasian woman, wearing a hijab, singing, shouting, swaying and almost Sufi whirling to sweet Negro Spirituals in a Catholic church on a cool Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville. Tears began to flow—I had entered into the mystery, into full aliveness, the vertical-eternal-NOW. I was nearly overcome by the beauty of it, by its peacefulness, by the bliss of BEING: being present to the music—present to the soft flow of the hijab on my shoulders—present to the voices reciting sacred teachings about universal love—present to the assembled members of our great American family—a family with roots reaching down deep into American soil and spreading out wide—embracing people and traditions from around the globe.
I turned around in my seat and met the wide eyes of the woman behind me– an African American woman. We reached out and touched shoulders and wept together—aware of the blessing we were receiving. And then we lifted our voices to sing the Black National Anthem—and she knew every word of every stanza, by heart.
Several hours later, when the tribute had ended and I had said my farewells to students and friends, old and new, I purchased the Choir’s music CD, climbed into my car, and popped the CD into the player. Gospel music for the road. . . OH YEAH! I propped by cell phone up on the dashboard and snapped a selfie, thinking to post it to my Facebook page with the caption “DWI: Driving While Interfaithing” (a pun in my mind because Rumi would have said “Intoxicated.”)
Driving away I reentered clock time and remembered my grocery list. I decided to stop off at Costco before going home. While driving into the Costco parking lot the idea struck me—to make this my Personal Hijab Day–and the thought of it excited and unnerved me. “Was it okay,” I wondered, “to wear the hijab into Costco, in public—since I’m not a Muslim?” I felt uncertain and that uncertainty was uncomfortable. But one thing I have is courage. So I mustered that courage up.
Through the Costco entrance I walked flashing my membership card and catching the eye of the doorman. “Who does he think I am?” I wondered. Cruising the aisles I was aware of eyes following me. People turned to watch me pass. “Am I just being paranoid or am I really being watched?” I started feeling light-headed and my thinking got fuzzy. A knotty feeling, a pain, welled up in my gut—a terror shot up my spine. FEAR! “Why am I afraid? Does the hijab make me a target for Islamaphobic hatred? Will someone shoot me? Will I be stopped for questioning? Am I going to get ‘busted’ for committing some sort of fraud on other Costco shoppers by impersonating a Muslim? Maybe this is not such a good idea. What was I thinking?”
“Courage!” I reminded myself. So onward I forged toward the checkout line. In the health food section of Costco a little girl pointed to me and tugged on her mother’s shirt. The mother turned, met my eyes, and whispered something in the little girl’s ear. They both turned away. The cashier was a particularly warm and kind man. “Is he always this kind—to everyone—or is it because he wishes to extend some special hospitality to me, a vulnerable woman, his Muslim neighbor?” After a few moments I decided his motives were most likely a mixture of both.
Outside Costco’s main exit there is a small separate building where alcohol is sold. Knowing that Muslims do not drink alcohol, I passed the liquor store without picking up the wine on my grocery list. Just then I became more fully aware of the amount of internal pressure I was feeling—pressure to “represent” Muslims well. What a burden it must be for Muslims—to always have to represent (to never even suggest that there might be something true about all those stereotypes about Muslims—that Muslims are fundamentalists who think that violence is the only solution to differences). On an ordinary day my privilege, as a white person in America, allows me to blend in—to hide in the crowd of other white faces. Not today.
All-in-all, I think I did a decent job of “representing”. . . until, that is, I began my exit from the Costco parking lot. I forgot to mention that before coming to Jacksonville, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 20 years. Driving in the Bay Area requires a certain sort of aggressiveness for survival and unfortunately for me, “once a Bay Area Driver—always a Bay Area Driver.” And so it came to pass that in the queue to exit the Costco parking lot, a driver in front of me was taking, in my estimation, way too long. I lapsed into survival mode—pressing on the gas, laying rubber, and swerving out in front of the “slow” driver. In doing so, another driver had to throw on his brakes to avoid hitting me. I forced my way into the cross-traffic, cutting off still another driver in the process. No big deal in the Bay Area. Everyone would be cool. But not here! Not in Jacksonville where hospitality and patience are expected.
I thought I could hear horns honking—people shouting in the wake of my get-away. Then I panicked. “What am I doing?” I felt a sudden urge to vanish into traffic—to blend in with the dominant white culture rather than stand out—as a hijabi Muslim. In slow motion my mind started to replay the whole parking lot scene—from the vantage point of the drivers around me—who I had cut off—who no doubt saw me as an aggressive, rude, perhaps ruthless, and above all a “Muslim” woman.
So, to Muslims everywhere. . . please accept my very sincere apology for my failure to “represent” in that Costco parking lot in Jacksonville. I’m sorry! But also, please accept my equally sincere gratitude for providing me with a truly amazing, mystical experience on my Personal Hijab Day: January 26, 2014.