Kim Joseph: A Convert To Islam Finds Discrimination On Both Sides Of The Veil
A woman wearing hijab enters the 7 train. She glances around and smiles, searching for a friendly face. Heads turn and eyes stare back. A strange silence envelopes the subway car. The woman walks towards an empty seat and sits down, selects a new song on her IPod, sips from her coffee and closes her blue eyes. She pretends she doesn’t notice the stares, the tension and the energy in the air. She asks God to surround her with healing energy, love and light. She asks to be able to stand up and speak up for herself when necessary and to respond appropriately from the right place. She asks for patience, guidance and wisdom. She asks for it to all be made easy for her.
That woman used to be me.
It ain’t easy being green, especially in this time of heightened Islamophobia. Ignorance begets fear, and fear introduces the concept of the “Other.” The anti Islam rhetoric consumes our newspapers and news channels. It fills the heads, homes and hearts of citizens, immigrants and children all over the United States, and it invades the daily lives of many Muslims with harassment and discrimination. It has filled me with a need to speak out through writing.
Let me introduce myself: My name is Kim Joseph, and I am a convert to Islam. I attended church camp, I sold Girl Scout cookies door to door, I went to homecoming and prom and I sang in the school choir. You may now know me as your friendly hijabbi-wearing barista who works at Starbucks. I cannot imagine being without America or Islam, without one or the other I would be incomplete. I simply cannot be the Other.
My past experience wearing a hijab in New York City was full of harassment and discrimination. I’ve had raw eggs thrown at me. I’ve been called a traitor and a fucking terrorist bitch. I have been verbally abused publicly on the streets, subway, restaurants and at work. No one assisted me at any time when I was mistreated. Not one single person said anything on the train when a man yelled and screamed at me for being me. For being Muslim. I asked that man if he got some sick sort of pleasure from harassing women on the train. He said he was harassing my religion, not me.
My faith in God flows through and from my very essence. I cannot be separated from it.
Many people told me they didn’t like me or my country of origin. I would respond, “Well, you don’t like America then because I am from Ohio.” That is spelled O-H-I-O, and it is west of Pennsylvania. It’s the buckeye state, y’all. Where am I really from? Where are my parents from? If you must know I am German, Croatian, Slovak and Welsh. I am a “typical” American, a zesty and tangy Heinz 57, if you please.
Six years and seven Ramadan’s ago, I began my walk with God by way of the religion of Islam. I am finally reaching a place of fluidity and individuality within that path. I have stripped myself of all the societal pressures from the Muslim community to conform, and I am now finding my Islam, my Surrender. I have learned that it is much more important to me to perform my acts of worship from an internal place. Wearing a hijab made me extremely aware of what kind of Muslim I was “supposed” to be, thus making my practice very external. Much of my worship was done from a place of obligation and not from a place of sincerity. Because I had been looking inward in hope of discovering what was truly sincere and from me, about three months ago, while shopping at IKEA, I took off my hijab. I could no longer deny myself the right to be me.
Since that day I have experienced a profound difference in the way people treat me. I am safe. I am white. I am no longer the Other. I am now “passing.” Historically within the US, “passing” refers to when a person is not of heterosexual orientation or is of more that one racial heritage. A person might choose to identify with the heritage or sexual orientation that does not give birth to prejudice and discrimination, thus passing from one heritage or sexual orientation to the next. Although I have chosen only to be my truest self, the result is that my choice to unveil has liberated me from prejudice. I now exchange smiles and conversations with neighbors and strangers, but I know now who my real friends are.
Speaking of real friends, some of my Muslim friends avoid me like the Plague. They must think unveiling is contagious. When I’m running around the city it’s very common to see Muslims. We’re everywhere. I may greet them with the traditional greeting of “Assalam alaykum,” but most times the greeting is not returned because I do not wear a hijab. They assume I am not Muslim. They look me up and down or avoid my eyes at all costs. Surely wishing someone, anyone, the peace and blessings of God is a beautiful thing. I now understand that if I am going to find community, I must search for and create that community. My exploration for community has propelled me into the most active career path of my life. For the first time I will be doing work that utilizes my creative talent in writing. I will be teaching a creative writing workshop called “Muslim Like Me” beginning in December at ICCNY. I have joined “Khadija’s Caravan”, a book club that discusses Islamic Literature and I have connected with a progressive Muslim meet-up group. I am also entering the interfaith dialogue in the city.
So, when a woman with chin-length blonde highlighted hair enters the 7 train, know that she is much more than what appears on the surface. She has a past, present and future self. She is constantly growing, learning and trying to become tall and wide in her understanding and compassion of herself and others. She never wanted to be treated differently because of her racial heritage, and she despises this unnecessary human limitation. She wishes the concept of the “Other” wasn’t a reality for so many people. She hates that she lives in a world where gender equality will never be a reality. She deeply desires that hypocrisy, racism, sexism, ageism, discrimination, prejudice and superiority didn’t run through the veins of society. She has promised to begin with herself.