Interview with a Hillbilly Hijabi Woman

I don’t really keep in touch with many of my friends from high school. I ran away to Kansas immediately after graduation and never really looked back, until I was well into graduate school. Then I fell in love with with Arkansas again, warts and all.  There are a few people from high school that I couldn’t quite ever shake from my life, though.  One of those people is Robb McCormick, or Some Guy Named Robb.  Another one of those people is J. 

J is a woman who I always secretly admired and wished I could be. She’s also a little hillbilly, although I don’t know if she personally admits to it.  When we were in junior high, she had a pet possum.  I defy anyone to find a more Hillbillyesque pet. 

She was also a wonderful poet, scholar, and human being. After she grew up and moved away from Arkansas, she converted to Islam.  Recently, she agreed to answer questions about her experience in Hillbilly Land as a Hijabi woman and her relationship with home, religion, and political silence.  

Q. You grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks.  As we both know, this is definitely the Bible belt. Why did you decide to head down a religious path so different from your parents and the folks you grew up with? 

For a long time before my conversion, I had problems with different aspects of the Protestant Christian faith that I was raised in and kept trying out different churches to try and resolve this. I wondered why we were told not to follow the rules of the Old Testament if Jesus followed them (for example, keeping a kosher diet). I wondered why we weren’t even required to follow the rules of the New Testament (for example, I Corinthians 11:5 says it’s a shame for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, which was the origin of my hat wearing phase that you may remember).

Anyway, when I went through my divorce, it was a pretty rough time for me, and it made me sit down and rethink basically every aspect of my life. This is when I came across Islam and started studying it in depth. What appealed to me most was the simplicity of the faith aspect (believing that there is one God, no Trinity, no stuff that takes long metaphoric stories to explain), the fact that there was a nice straightforward set of rules that people are actually expected to follow, and an ideal of moderation (you do as much as you can as well as you can, and God doesn’t expect more or less from you than that).

Q. Why do you wear the hijab? I’m assuming, knowing you, it is a personal choice and that you aren’t pressured to wear it by anyone.  But I’m curious, beyond the religious requirements involved, why you would make that choice? Will you encourage your daughter to do so?

The first reason is that God tells me to. Actually, that’s pretty much it. However, I’ve learned to embrace the purpose behind it and the benefits that it is supposed to bring us. The idea is that men should respect women, and if we give them less to stare at, then they are more likely to behave. I will add, on a humorous note, that this isn’t always accomplished. I went to Austin where my cousin took me out to a bar, and I was actually hit on by a guy while I was wearing this full black head scarf. Now that is one bold dude.

Yes, I will definitely encourage my daughters to wear it, though I don’t think I would force them. An act of worship needs to be done by choice, or else it’s kind of pointless, right? My 10-year-old recently came to me and told me she was thinking of starting to wear it in a few weeks when her next birthday comes. We’ll see how that goes.

Q. Do you feel discriminated against when you come home to the Ozarks ever? If so, why?

Yeah, I do sometimes, but not more than in other places. I get more problems from people close to me rather than from strangers, who tend to find me a novelty. My old employer, who shall remain nameless, was practically cringing the last time I came through town and stopped in his place of business to say hello. He very obviously didn’t want people to see me there and was even more terrified that I might be moving back to town and would ask for my job back.

A friend of mine who was also from a small town in the Ozarks, became Muslim and started wearing the full face veil. She went back to her little hometown and wandered into the gas station, where the attendant thought she was going to rob him. No joke. She had to explain it was a religious covering.

I will admit I am scared to travel alone through unknown areas of the Ozarks where I feel I might actually be unsafe if I stumbled across a nest of KKK members or overzealous rednecks.

Q. How do you think it would be for you to live in the Ozarks now that you’ve changed your lifestyle? 

I did move back to my hometown, but for less than a year. In a nutshell, it was ok in a lot of ways, but awkward in enough ways to tire me out. The Girl Scouts wanted me to volunteer but didn’t want me to be the troop leader, though they were desperate for leaders and had no one else. When I ran into people I used to go to church with, they wouldn’t look me in the eye when we talked.

When my aunt and I asked my daughter’s teacher if we could come in and make gingerbread houses with the kids at Christmas, we were enthusiastically welcomed, but when I suggested I could have my daughter demonstrate Arabic writing and explain about our fasting during Ramadan, the teacher passed me off to the principal who told me that they were just way too busy with preparing for tests to take me up on my generous offer.

Q. Anything you miss about Arkansas and the Ozarks? 

Okra. My grandmother. Seeing everyone I know at a high school football game or wandering through Walmart. Spending summer days hiking up on Petit Jean or Mount Nebo.

Q. Do you feel like anything you learned growing up in the Ozarks had an impact on the choices you’ve made since you grew up and “left home” so to speak? 

I feel like I had to actually overcome a lot of what I learned growing up in order to make some choices that were right for me. For instance, it was a major, heartrending decision to do something that I knew would hurt and possibly embarrass my family, but I still made this choice because I knew it was right for me.

I didn’t leave all of it behind, though. I incorporated a lot of what I learned growing up into my current lifestyle… good manners, Southern hospitality, being kind to others with the expectation that they will do the same for you. I still say hello and wave to people who walk past my home (though that is not the standard procedure up here in New England), and a surprising number of them smile and say hello back. Simple things like that go a long way toward crossing religious barriers and opening dialogues in the community.

Q. Anything else you want to tell me about being a Muslim woman in the U.S.? 

It’s hard sometimes, but not in the ways you would think. There is a lot of room for different ideas and lifestyles, and most people may be curious about the way I dress but accept me once they get past the initial oddness of that.

The difficult part is the uneasiness that I feel over the probability that the government has my phones wiretapped and my emails tracked, and the fact that this prevents some people from wanting to be in touch with me. It’s having to grit my teeth and say nothing when the post office ripped open all 13 boxes of books that we shipped to our new home while we were moving, tearing out pictures of New York from my photo album and pulling my birth announcement out of my baby book because my birth date is 9/11.

It’s the humiliation of always being “randomly” searched in the airports and even having my infant son woken up so they could search his diaper. It’s the feeling of being gagged in a political arena, objecting to this war in Iraq just like I objected to the first war in Iraq, but not being able to say that openly because it was ok for an all-American girl to be a conscientious objector but not a hijabi woman. I hope that given enough time, this will change, but for now it’s something that I try to deal with in the best ways I know how and to speak up against when I get the chance so that my kids grow up with pride in their religious identity and not feeling like second class citizens.


5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Allie said,

    Great interview. Thanks to both of you.

  2. 2

    anamumin said,

    That is an amazing story.

  3. 3

    Raja Krishnamoorthy said,

    Thanks to the author for the interview. I am a convert to Christianity from Hinduism in India and I see how the difficulties in the Bible if not explained adequately, can mislead people.

  4. 4

    J said,

    I can NOT believe you remember the pet possum! 🙂

  5. 5

    hillbillymfa said,

    How could I forget that pet possum? I thought it was the coolest weird thing I’d ever heard of. I wanted one for myself, but my parents were like “you already have a pack of dogs and a couple of horses, we’re NOT getting a possum.” He he.

    I did, however, purchase a pot bellied pig for my mother as a birthday gift one year. That didn’t last long *cough*.

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