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  • ‘People were afraid of me’


    A Muslim woman explains why she decided to stop wearing the hijab and the role faith plays in her life as an American:

    July 30, 2007 issue - Karima Berkani knows better than most the difficulties of trying to straddle two cultures. The 24-year-old daughter of an Algerian-born Muslim father and an American-born Roman Catholic mother, Berkani was raised in a bireligious household. Her parents taught her to believe in God, but left the faith of choice up to her. When she was 17, she chose Islam, and ever since she has been dealing with the question of how to live her life as a good Muslim in one of the nation’s most liberal, all-American towns. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with Berkani about her life in Madison, Wis., and her work as a political activist in Palestinian and anti-Iraq War movements.

    Excerpts:

    NEWSWEEK: Do you wear the hijab?

    Karima Berkani: Not anymore. I went through a period where I wore it before September 11, and after [the 9/11 attacks] I tried to keep it up for almost a year, but [I was] being accosted. Although I could deal with it, my parents had a problem with it. I was attracting attention, and it was creating a huge divide in my family. They thought it wasn't safe for me to wear it.

    What are the major dilemmas you face about wearing the headscarf or not?

    My personal interpretation of what Islam is asking of me is that I dress modestly. I don't think the Qur'an insists on the hijab, I don't think it's required of me, but at the same time I do feel that I should follow the example of Muhammad and his wife, who both covered their heads. It's also a lifestyle, and I felt like it was easier to be an active Muslim by separating myself from American culture. And if I wanted to pray, boom, I already had the veil on. It also easily identified me as Muslim to other Muslims, and it made it much easier to dress modestly.

    When you decided to wear the veil, how did non-Muslims react to you?

    A lot of my good friends, who I was friends with before I started wearing the hijab, we stopped being friends, because they just didn't get it. A year or two after that there was more tolerance.

    And how did people react to you when you were wearing the veil?

    I love talking to old people, but I felt like when I was wearing hijab there was more fear from them than willingness to talk to a nice girl in the grocery store. I would get really sympathetic looks from some women and they would be way too nice to me, or sometimes I felt like I was deformed, and people were looking, but trying not to look,or people would talk to me like I don't speak English. The October after September 11, I was in my car with another girl who wears hijab and we were driving to an event at the mosque. It was around Halloween, and these drunk guys starting yelling "get a better costume!" But I wasn't wearing a costume.

    Was there a big change in the way you were treated after September 11?

    After September 11, a lot happened. One time I was walking with my cousin and this college guy ran up to us and was like "You f---ing rag head, go back to where you came from." But I've been living in Madison my whole life, probably longer than him. At airports, I would give people my American passport but they would still assume that I'm an immigrant, that I don't speak English. Going onto an airplane, people would poke the person next to them, point at me and start whispering. And that's what really upset me. People were afraid of me like I was holding a gun to their face, just by existing. But the people who were affected most by it were Muslim men, my boyfriend and my father, because when I was wearing hijab they got weird looks, too. One time someone asked my father why he makes his daughter wear that, or people would assume my dad is my husband.

    Do you feel pressure from the Muslim community because you have chosen not to wear the veil?

    I feel like a lot of it is self-induced. There are moments when you see some older man, and you can tell he's really religious. You feel shy, there's a tension like he's going to think I'm a slut. But I don't really feel like I've been judged for not wearing it.

    To a lot of Americans the veil represents oppression. As an American woman who enjoys freedoms that women don't necessarily enjoy in the Arab world, what is your stance on that?

    It depends on the context. If a woman isn't given the right to choose, if she's forced to wear it, then it is a symbol of oppression, as anything would be that you are forced to do. I could say the same thing about American society making me wear short shorts because it's the style. I felt like it was incredibly liberating to wear hijab because I was moving away from that pressure to wear this or that or whether my thighs were OK. I felt like "judge me for what I'm saying as opposed to what I look like."

    In the Palestinian territories, there is a divide between religious and secular factions. How does that play out in American activism?

    Working on Palestinian issues, I would have these dinners because I felt like we were missing out on new ways to get people into the movement. So I started organizing Palestinian dinners and lectures, and embroidery shows and Debkeh [Palestinian dance] shows, which had nothing to do with politics. They were very apolitical events, but the [religious] Muslim students wouldn't even co-sponsor, let alone attend, the event.

    What are the major conflicts you face as a young, Muslim American in America?

    I think a lot of it, at twentysomething, is about finding a balance between where you're from, your traditions and where you're living. You need to be a productive part of society—Islam requires that of you, whether you're in a Muslim society or not. It's always a struggle to be around people who are different from you and I feel like I've become a lot more tolerant. But at the same time I'm hypersensitive. The second I turn on the news I feel so frustrated. Watching the news you always feel pushed on as a Muslim.

    Muslims in America have to take an extra step, because we're the newest group. People understand Jewish people and have cultural awareness that doesn't exist for Muslims. It's difficult figuring out where your place is, or even figuring out who am I going to get married to, where am I going to fit. I've met men who are too Western or not Western enough. Especially for Muslims who are first-generation Muslims, our parents raised us with standards from their societies from when they were our age. So many people who live in America are more strict than people in the countries where they're from.


  • #3
    hmm...what does a black person do when confronted with discrimination and prejudice? change the colour of his skin? there are thousands if not millions of women in europe who are fighting for the right to wear their hijaabs in public, and then we have those who feel that its not necessary at all and take it off for no 'apparent' reason.

    if your wear the wrong style of jeans in a particular context - no doubt people will stare and laugh? so where does all this stop, do we completely just leave the deen and behave as others because thats what the majority are doing? 'go back to where you came from' is said to every minority group not just muslims. even in the Uk the first thing non-muslims are usually thinking is can this hijaab -clad woman speak english? LOL - does this mean we take it off? just like that - because we are afraid of a few words?

    i mean there are far more horror stories of hijaab-clad women than facing a few disgruntled looks. women in the UK have had their niqaabs ripped from their faces, spat on, called terrorist etc, but they still remain strong. whats left for our future if we stumble at the first hurdle? what kind of muslims are we?

    why are we so eager to have it all, when clearly as a muslim we have restrictions we need to stick with- have we forgotten our purpose in life? fashion and trends come and go, today the hijaab is vilified tomorrow it will be something else. why do we follow the crowd? Allaah said He will test you, do you think that you will be left alone just because you say you believe?

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    • #4
      Originally posted by Ruks View Post
      even in the Uk the first thing non-muslims are usually thinking is can this hijaab -clad woman speak english?
      I don't think that's true in most cases, and the presumption is unhelpful to say the least.



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      • #5
        sorry voltaire, i hadn't realised you are a hijaab-clad woman, i guess your experiences are different to the ones i've been told about. good for you.

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        • #6
          Sorry Ruks, I just happen to be a British person, and I know that isn't how most British people think. Forgive me for my ignorance however because I'm sure you (in your infinite wisdom and moral righteousness) know better.



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          • #7
            I don't think the Qur'an insists on the hijab, I don't think it's required of me, but at the same time I do feel that I should follow the example of Muhammad
            Ummm, yes it ;sdkla;DKLS-ing DOES... ...

            wow... this is just sad... whenever people would insult me or look at me funny - that'd just make me stronger... and i'd save the tale and share it over dinner w/ my family... and we'd laugh and laugh... i guess it's mostly because 1/2 her family isn't used to seeing it and maybe she was so convinced cuz it was her family that was afraid of her

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            • #8
              LOL@ you voltaire, you truely crack me up, proper - i'm also a british person too, the difference being here that i'm talking from experience- not sure where your view comes from but nonetheless your entitled too it.

              your comment just reminds me of 'white' people trying to talk about the black persons experiences of racisim, middle class do-gooders what would we minority groups be without them - LOL

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              • #9
                This really is ludicrous - you said that most UK non-Muslims (of which you are not one) assume hijab-wearing women don't speak English. As a UK non-Muslim, and therefore being the one with "the authentic experience" here if you must use that term, I know that is not true.

                Being a member of one or another minority group gives you no unique moral authority to comment on an issue. And it certainly doesn't give you the right to make ignorant generalisations like you did in the first place.

                You sound like a stereotypical 1980s PC activist claiming that saying "speaking as a xyz" gives you a moral trump card to comment about issues. It doesn't now, and it never did. Your comment was wrong and ignorant, and it would still be wrong and ignorant regardless of whether you're a Muslim woman from the UK or not.



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                • #10
                  hmm....you know what, for a man of your age you should really know better, but i guess obnoxiousness knows no age.

                  its so strange when i was on here previously, i don't think you and i even exchanged one message, but now all i seem to see is you responding to most things i have to say, how come? whats changed? all this attention really ain't good for me at all, neither for you by the looks of it. Pay attention to the whole of the forum and don't just single one member out- you of all people should know that.

                  and thanks for all the generalisations about me and implying that i'm some sort of flaming terrorist (not that i have taken anything you have said about me on board - why would i?)- your views are so predictable and childish.

                  i'm astounded by your ignorance, prejudice and overall lack of any perception of anything at all. i'm not even sure of what you have contributed positively to this forum, if anything at all. but each to his own i guess. People are still free to write nonsensical stuff if they wish.

                  i hadn't realised i was writing in a language other than english. LOL

                  p.s. don't worry your little head about my morality and righteouness, concern yourself with developing some of your own.

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                  • #11
                    I've never said you were a terrorist, and I don't think you are one. Paranoid, much?

                    Ruks, look back over this thread. You made a comment about the mass of UK non-Muslims (many of whom are themselves members of minorities, incidentally) thinking women who wear the hijab don't speak English. I picked you up on it because I know that not to be true, and I think you know it too in your heart of hearts - hence all the blood and thunder you're now throwing into the discussion.

                    You have no idea what "my age" is, so let's move past that silly comment.

                    I've exhibited no prejudice at all - whereas you have done. Every comment you've made on this thread has had something in it about age, gender or ethnicity (mine in particular). I haven't made any mention of yours. I think you protest too much on the subject.

                    As for commenting on your generalised opinions, what do you expect? It's a discussion site, and if you say something inflammatory or controversial, then I'm flabbergasted that you'd complain when someone contradicts you. Incidentally, you needn't be so egocentric as to think that I "only" discuss with you. A quick search on my recent posts will show that clearly not to be true.

                    In terms of "contributions" we could debate all day, but I hardly think that inflammatory comments and acid ripostes count as a "positive contribution", so you might want to consider whether you're standing in a glass house before you start throwing stones.



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                    • #12
                      Either way, this is all rather off-topic, so I shall say no more. My apologies to other members for what has become a rather unpleasant diversion from the discussion at hand.



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                      • #13
                        i forgot to add to my last post, pretentious and patronising.

                        paranoia? hardly, i think you have selective amnesia-not enough Ovaltine in your diet? LOL

                        remember that post (in which you chose to digress off the topic) about salafi and terrorism? what you said was vile.

                        like i said previously, you're free to talk about your experiences and i'm free to talk about mine, if you don't like it, go drink some horlicks then.

                        you know what, you're so quick to jump onto what i have said or may or may not have implied, but when others freely come on here and make blatant racists/sexist comments you seem to be busy looking for your slippers then.


                        back to my point, there are many examples that i know of in which english people have assumed that hijaab clad women that they came across did not speak a word of english. actually just recently, a friend of mine who works with the MET, just recently met the person who she was dealing with over email and phone (the person she met is some DC or something). the first thing he said when he met her was, i didn't think that someone like you could speak so well and act so professionally! naturally she blasted him. LOL he got it that day!

                        so you know what, don't presume you talk for others, you only speak for yourself and no one else.

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