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Kim Joseph: A Convert To Islam Finds Discrimination On Both Sides Of The Veil

19 October 2010 Huffington Post 19 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

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.

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19 Comments »

  1. Whatever Lady!! you just could not take the pressure that comes with Hijab and now you are actually trying to justify your failure at adhering to your new found religion. Great Piece of literature, you will certainly make a great “creative writing teacher” as for Adhering to the norms of Islam, I really have my doubts
    My advice is to find a support group; I know how hard it is to wear Hijab in a non Muslim environment. But , make no mistake about it, Americans are the kindest people in the world. If you thought you have been harassed in America, you should probably try living in Europe

    Assalam Alyke sister

  2. I’m also a Muslim convert who gre up in Texas. It is very frustrating when I meet new people to hear the question “where are you from?” and then when I say “Texas” I get “No, really” as if I didn’t understand the question! I also have chosen to wear hijab but hamdallah I have not been as openly harassed as you experienced. I think that might drive me to stop wearing hijab also. I’ve struggled with it the last year, with a some pressure from family and friends to stop wearing it.

  3. I’m also a native ohioan and I also feel extremely frustrated with “where are you from?” but as a south asian, taking off my hijab wouldn’t totally stop that stupid question. people have their assumptions and it’s up to us to challenge them, trifling as it may be. it’s too bad, but too true, that muslims are just as guilty of judging from the outside. best wishes on your continued struggle.

  4. Asalamu alaikum. Some muslimas remove their hijab because they don’t truely believe the reasoning behind it. Some remove it because now, in America, they can be “free.” (Free to enjoy what – dressing like a tramp and showing off your body to everyone?)

    I feel sorry for you. I’ve been through the hateful harassments, the glares, stares, threats…yet here I still am, in my hijab. Because if you accept a faith, you can’t believe in only part of it – you don’t get to pick and choose which “rules” to follow within an established religion. If you want to do that, go start your own religion.

    In my hijab, I also “…now exchange smiles and conversations with neighbors and strangers, but I know now who my real friends are.”

    You either believe or you don’t. Until you get off the fence, you won’t really belong to either “side.”

  5. “whatever lady?” what is wrong with you to post such a hurtful comment like that? I live in NYC and tried to wear hijjab and I know first hand how ppl look. I am Russian by the way! And I am mean, russian, russian, caucasian white woman, not a dark skinned woman. There are stereotypes in this world! I admire Kim Joseph for wearing her hijjab for as long as she could! It is her biz and we should support each other here and EVERYWHERE! If you are so strong, good for you! I hope your iman and actions are as strong as well! Salam!

  6. Muslim Lady, your comments are rude, insensitive and it is the kind of statement I would expect from an ignorant person who has no clue how hard it is being in hijab, Its not about whether you wear the hijab or not that defines you to be a good muslim! Its your words and actions! Before you put your hijab on in the morning, ask yourself if YOU are a true representation of Islam. Hurting someone through words and actions is a higher sin than not wearing hijab, Assalam Alaikum!

    Kim, thank you for sharing your story and giving perspective on hijab. Its not an easy thing to do and I give much respect to those ladies who wear it or have tried wearing it. We are all on our own journey and only Allah (sbt) is the one to judge us. Jazak

  7. MIchelle Grant, I think we should all leave the judging up to Allah. I dont wear hijab but I certainly DO NOT dress like a tramp! Im completely clothed with nothing hanging out. I just happen to leave my hair uncovered and that is a personal choice based on my own interpretation. And as for belonging to one “side”, Islam is not as black and white as you think. To each there own. Focus on your own deen because life is too short to be worried about what the next person is doing.

  8. The harassment,the assaults, and the accusatory looks that Miss Joseph was dealing with were meant to weaken her and cause her to take off her hijab. Guess what? it worked!!!
    You either wore hijab out of strong conviction and you still hold on to that regardless of the trials and the tribulation that befalls you or you don’t. Let’s take some individual responsibility here. Stop blaming the other.
    I am also your typical white Green eyes Russian American. I experience all of that. People don’t accept New York for an answer where then push and push about where my ancestors come from. I am also from a Jewish family and that probably has something to do with why I feel that it would take more than some Juvenile behavior and some petty harassment to make me take off my Hijab
    P.S. I will remember not to ever go to IKEA
    May Allah give you the strength of Iman that would help you put your Hijab back on. AMEN

  9. In Islam one does not have to wear a hijab, modest dress yes. When you pray, both men and women must cover their heads. Secondly no one has the right to be so pedantic and judgmental to another Muslim or non Muslim. Only Allah judges. Islam is a personal relationship with Allah, your -oneself, your internal and external struggle. I’m glad Kim wrote such a fragrant piece on her struggles an experience as a Muslim with hijab. If one decides to omit the hijab from her ‘islam’ it’s no issue and doesn’t mean that she’s s not a good Muslim. People that give odd looks to hijab’is are of course ignorant, live in fear an all watch fox news
    most likely, and anyone that watches fox news is really not someone that i personally want to converse with, I’d rather converse with a 3legged dog without

  10. Zarqa,
    I will remember not to seek your advice on religious matter. I did not think that Islamic Fatwas can be dispensed by just anyone, especially bloggers
    Thank you all, I am done here.

  11. Kim,

    I hope that you’ll just let the hateful comments roll off your back. It’s unfortunate, but many of today’s Muslims have forgotten the true meaning of Islam, as well as some of its core beliefs. Chief among those beliefs are that Islam is a flexible and pluralistic faith, and only God knows exactly what is in one’s heart.

    For these women to make such hateful comments tells me that they’re insecure in their own beliefs and need to find ways to validate them. Their weak attempt to denigrate your Islam is their way of reinforcing their flawed belief that only they are right. Ladies, I have news for your… since only God is all-knowing, for you to be so arrogant as to think that only your path to God is the right one, and all others are wrong, is a form of shirk. It’s also worthwhile to note that this same line of reasoning is employed by Muslim absolutists to validate their positions that Muslims from other schools of thought or sects are wrong or sinful. I’m confident that Muhammad (saw) would beg to differ with both groups.

    At the end of the day, whether a woman chooses to wear hijaab or not, wear shirts to her elbow, halfway down her forearm, or to the wrist… it’s HER decision. Allah (swt) has said there is no compulsion in Islam. No man or woman has the right to judge you for your choices. Instead, we should all learn to treat our fellow Muslims, and humans for that matter, with respect and with the assumption that he or she has the same end goal in mind, even if the path to that goal is a little different.

  12. Thank you for writing this because I could relate to each sentence you wrote. Hijab has somehow become a litmus test for what kind of Muslim and person that you are. I also have decided not to where hijab anymore. The judgments from the “Muslimah inner circle” about this issue are horrible and petty. I just cannot understand how hijabis put so much emphasis on a headcovering for religious reasonings and at the same time are so unkind to Muslim women (and non-Muslims) for not making that choice. Hijab has become the only definition of the Muslim woman. Very one-dimensional outlook and very sad. I cannot remember a single gathering of women where hijab was not mentioned in some capacity as if it is the only meaningful thing we can do or talk about as women. If anything this issue has brought me further away from Islam. IMHO, a just God is not going to punish a woman for not covering her head. The Islam of today puts out more fear then love. DIscouraging.

  13. The sad thing is… she would be executed in a muslim country that practices Sharia… just like the extremists Islamists would love to have in this country.

  14. You may feel that you must hide behind a shield when in my presence because of some perceived “visual assault” by me; then that is your right. But it is also my right to perceive you as insulting my integrity, and treat you accordingly.

  15. Fist of all thank you Kim for sharing your experiences and being honest.
    I read myself in your work. I’ve been a Muslim sine 1993 -that’s 18 years alhamdulillah! About 11 years ago I put hijab on. I honestly felt I was strong enough in my faith, but unfortunatley I wasn’t. After about a year of wearing it I, like you, caved into societal pressure and removed my hijab. I just couldn’t take it -the looks, the comments, being ignored by people (which can feel worse than the looks and comments!)
    About 3 years ago I put the hijab back on. What’s different? Nothing in regards to the treatment I get -I still get those looks, comments, ignored, etc. Even worse now since it’s pre-9/11. But what else is different is I am a stronger person, and I more support -I have a group of caring friends who wear hijab and know first hand what I go through.

    Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for you. Maybe one day you’ll have the strength and the right people in your life to bring you to wear hijab again. Inshallah I hope so sister, because NOW there’s nothing and no-one that would make me take hijab off and I can honestly say I LOVE my hijab, I feel more confident and peaceful with hijab this time around. I wish and pray the same for you.

    Salam

  16. *just re-read my post. Shoulda said “post-9/11″ not pre-9/11, but y’all are smart enough to have figured it out ;)

  17. Muslim sista and all other who judge kim,
    Who are u to judge, only Allah can.
    I’ve also expierenced discrimination nt to the extent of kim but, family members who urge u to remove the hijaab as a form of respect in there house, and ignorant people who automatically assume the Allah we serve is so idol or moon. All I can say is be the best muslim u can be. Wearing a hijab doesn’t mean u more pious and more righteous or have a stronger imaan than someone not wearing a hijaab. Many muslim gals who wear hijaab do the unthinkable thinking that by hiding behind a hijab they are so much better than us that choose not to.

    I can’t honestly believe what so called muslims can say to there muslim convert sisters who look for support, my own husband and muslim family constantly say comments like your people have no respect for themsleves when refering to christians.like covering ur head will remove all that inward sin.

    I kno more muslim girls that indulge in adultry and drugs than my so called people.
    And personally can’t understand why so many muslims change the koran to suit themselves. Look at ur own sin before telling others they are weak
    Why not encourage help all the convert sisters understand the beauty of islam instead of judging us for not wearing a hijaab we have enough prejudice against us once we embrass islam what we need is love , understanding what we have to go through.
    Everything takes time, it took wateva amount of years for us to find Allah, and it takes time to learn the surahs etc and feel confident discussin issues infront of other muslim.for fear of saying something wrong. It will take time for us to gain confidence to wear hijaab. Especially in the work place and by friends and family who knew before.

    All I ask is that you make dua that Allah will make things easy on us converts who have to adapt to so many changes.

  18. Islam is so beautiful and to make it so is those who belief in it, think about this, in unveiling your head and if someone following your action with your logic in doing it, their every sin will come to you and it will continue with every head unveil afer that. Are you prepare to anwser those sins and your own in front of Allah? ‘In Islam one does not have to wear a hijab’ such a false statement – zarqa open the Quran and read it to end you’ll fine that women will be question and punish for their reluctant to cover their head if now you feel unconfortable you should imagine what confront you when you die and it’s forever. You die when you die no warning will be given and no second chance.jazzakallah.

  19. France did the right thing by banning the hijab, naqab, veil, burqa whatever you call them. The followers of this blessed religion can wear the type of dress they want in Saudi Arabia or in one of the Godforsaken Islamic countries. If the Islamist insist on non-Muslim to adhere to Islamic dressing in his country, what is wrong in the others insisting on banning these medieval tools of suppression?

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