When I was a sophomore at Taylor University in 2008, I took a class called Modern Middle East. over the course of the class, we Skyped with an alumna and her Palestinian husband, two computers connecting a classroom with a place across the world, a place that was only a dot on a map to most of us. We visited The Islamic Center of Indianapolis and had time to ask questions in a respectful and kind atmosphere. These are all treasures that I carry around in my heart. In that class, I was encouraged to be curious.
One of our required texts was a novel called A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. It was a hard book to read, mostly because of the vivid descriptions of abuse suffered by the main characters, two wives of an Afghan man (the perpetrator of the abuse).
However, as I was reading, I came across a passage written about the character Laila, who had come of age in a pre-Taliban world, a world in which she could roam the streets of Kabul with her head and body uncovered. The passage is about the swift transition from the life she’d known to one in which she needed to wear a burka (a garment which would cover her from head to foot) whenever she left the house. As I read, I remember thinking: What would that be like?
I’ve learned to pay attention to those questions that won’t leave me alone. I scheduled a meeting with my professor and asked him what he would think about my taking a single day and wearing a burka on campus, just to get the faintest taste of what Laila, and the many real women like her, might have experienced.
My professor was enthusiastic. He supported me as I went to other faculty members with whom I would have classes that day, asking their permission. He and I strategized ways in which I could contribute in class, so that my classmates would be forced to acknowledge me. Other than my roommate and my professors, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. When my burka came in the mail, I unpacked it, not quite ready to try it on.
The day came, and I began by dropping off some papers to a professor for my roommate. He accepted the papers and then asked if he could take a picture of me. When the department secretary came to find out what all the fuss was, he said: “This is a student having an experience.” And so it began.
I went about my day as usual. I had chosen a Monday, which meant that I would attend three classes and chapel. I was in an Old Testament survey, and I needed to read the book of Ruth before class. I sank into a chair in the student union with my Bible to read before chapel began.
As I read, I noticed a disturbance among the staff members in the union. They were clustered together, talking about something, looking in my direction. With a rush of blood to my face, I realized that they were talking about me. A few minutes later, campus security arrived.
The officer came and chatted with me for a moment, quickly discerning what I was doing. He left me to finish Ruth, but my hands shook a little as I turned the pages.
In chapel, I sat in my usual location with the people from my dorm. At least with the lights down for worship I didn’t feel quite so singled out.
As I walked down the hall, one professor bowed slightly. “Shalom,” he said. Other responses were not so kind. As I opened doors, encountering an unprepared person on the other side, I was met with expletives on more than one occasion. It’s hard to know if those if those people were responding specifically to my burka, or if they were simply startled to encounter someone dressed in head-to-toe black. Either way, I was inspiring a negative reaction. Beyond this, there was the staring. I’ve never felt so visible in my life. People openly gawked, as though I couldn’t see through the grid around my eyes.
In class, however, it was a different story. I had to fight to make myself heard, or to attract much attention at all. I wondered if it was because I couldn’t make eye contact, or if people were avoiding looking in my direction. I was thankful, then, that my Modern Middle East professor had suggested that we discuss my participation. Without that choreography, I’m not sure I could have found a way to say anything.
I made a point to meet people for lunch and dinner. At lunch, my two friends talked together, mostly around me. I navigated eating in a burka in silence, while they got on with their lunch date. I was finished long before they were.
Halfway through the day I returned to my room to take a nap. I needed a break.
As I entered the dining hall for the evening meal, beginning to descend the steps that led into the heart of the hall, a young woman getting soft serve ice cream looked up suddenly and saw me. She shrieked and dropped her cup of ice cream. The room was deathly silent. I kept walking down the stairs, not knowing what else to do.
At dinner, a staff photographer from the college paper joined us, snapping photos of me eating. One friend told me that I looked like a dementor from Harry Potter.
Later, I visited the Mac lab to work on a photoshop project for class. By then, my head was throbbing from the effort of looking through the small holes in my burka. It was everything I could do not to whip it off right then so that I could see, and so that I could stop being so seen. It was a relief to return to my room that night. It’s possible that I’ve never been more tired.
In the next few weeks, I heard a lot about the “weird girl who wore that robe.” On one particularly memorable occasion, I was walking with a friend (who knew about my experiment) and a girl I didn’t know. She went on and on to my friend. “That was really scary…why would someone do that? It couldn’t have been a student, could it?” My friend looked over at me from time to time as he sidestepped her questions. I couldn’t help wondering how the conversation would have gone if I hadn’t been there.
One of my classmates, Tamara Shaya, an Iraqi Chaldean Christian, was also our student body president that year. It was Tamara who spearheaded the first spring break trip to Jordan, and worked tirelessly to bring peace and perspective to our discourses around culture, especially as it related to the Middle East. She was enthusiastic about my project, which meant more to me coming from a woman of Middle Eastern heritage, especially in a sea of fearful and uncomfortable people. More than anything, I wanted her to feel the respect with which I approached the burka, and the culture I was wading into for a day.
Recently, Wheaton College, just a hop and a skip from Taylor, sprung onto the news scene when they moved to fire Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science. Dr. Hawkins chose to wear a hijab (a head covering worn by many Muslim women, which doesn’t cover the face like the full body burka) as an Advent discipline, to stand with American Muslims. She called it an act of “embodied solidarity.”
For Wheaton, the trouble apparently came in when Dr. Hawkins suggested that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, that we are all “people of the book.” I’m not suggesting that Muslims and Christians do not have theological differences, but based on my reading of the story of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac (and the consistently divided reading of scripture on this issue, going back to Medieval times, and extending now even among the Wheaton faculty), Dr. Hawkins has a point.
I wasn’t trying to do anything half so noble as Dr. Hawkins when I wore my burka years ago. But the experience, small as it was, gave me a heaping portion of empathy. Suddenly, I knew what it was like to inspire fear with my person (not a common experience for a short, blonde, white girl). Suddenly, I knew what it was like to be ignored on purpose, even avoided.
That day has made me sensitive to my own hate, to my own biases. It has changed the ways that I think about women in the Bible, many of them veiled and oppressed. It’s changed the way that I see American women who choose to identify with their heritage and their religion, even though it might be easier not to.
I’m guessing that Dr. Hawkins did not anticipate how controversial her act of solidarity would be. However, even though she and Wheaton have parted ways she doesn’t regret her decision to be loving instead of fearful, and respectful instead of dismissive, in fact, she put on her hijab again on February 1st for World Hijab Day.
Dr. Hawkins’ experience reminded me of something that I learned looking through the tiny embroidered holes of a burka, something that I never want to forget: all men and women, however different they may be from me, are worthy of being treated as humans, with dignity and honor.