As an American Muslim convert living in the southern USA, Theresa Corbin often finds herself in situations where she needs to explain to people her religion and what she’s wearing on her head. Here she shares the top four reactions from such encounters.
I am a native New Orleanian. For those of you who don’t know where New Orleans is, or what that means, New Orleans is a city near the end of the Mississippi River in the southern state of Louisiana, USA. Down here we grow up eating crawfish by the pound, going to Mardi Gras parades at carnival time, and wishin’ we could grow gills in the 100 percent humidity.
New Orleans is my home, and New Orleanians have been my people for generations. But since I converted to Islam and started wearing the hijab, people here find it hard to believe that I am, like them, a native from the south. As an adult and Muslim, I have moved all over the south from Dallas, Texas to Savannah, Georgia. I have yet to talk to a person who isn’t inquisitive about who I am and my choice of religion.
The reactions from the people I meet range from flat-out disbelief that I am, in fact, like them in all ways except belief, to inquisitiveness about the details of my life as a Muslim. These are the top four reactions I receive as I go about my day-to-day life in the American south.
Denial is the most common reaction I get. It is a defence mechanism to buffer the immediate shock. People who fall into this category block out the words that I tell them, and only stare at the scarf covering my hair. Sometimes, mid-way through a conversation about my religious choice and where I am from, the person in denial will ask me if I speak English. Obviously, nothing is getting through if he or she is questioning the very language in which we are conversing.
Other questions that I tend to get vary from: “Well, I know you are from America, but where are your parents from?” to “How long has your family been in this country? You must be from the Middle East?”
For this type of person who cannot or will not listen, I try my best to explain my position. But when the refusal to understand remains impenetrable, I politely wish them well and part ways. It can be hard to resist the urge to play with them a little and tell them: “In fact, I do not speak English, and I just flew in today from Mars.” But I bite my tongue (which ends ups hurting) and hold back my comments.
Unfortunately, this is the nastiest of the reactions, but it is becoming less and less common. The person who reacts with anger completely understands that I am a native, and that I’ve made a non-typical religious choice. The anger comes from thinking that to be Muslim is to be anti-American.
The angry person often asks: “How can you betray your country in such a way?” or “Don’t you want to be free?”
My reaction is to explain to this person that he or she has misunderstood what it truly means to be Muslim in America. How can I be anti-American when I am indulging in the freedom of religion the American constitution affords me?
This type of response is often the most innocent. The reaction is understandable. Even though more and more Americans are converting to Islam these days, it is still something to which many southerners are not exposed.
Questions range from the outrageous: “Did you convert for your husband?” to the silly: “How do you take a shower with that thing on your head?”
I enjoy talking to people who react with curiosity. They are the most susceptible to changing their perspective (and common misconceptions) about Muslims. I spend as much time as I can with such people to answer all their well-meaning questions.
This reaction comes every once in a while. And I am as much surprised by it. The person who has this reaction to my religious choice understands the full weight of such a profound decision, and is usually impressed by my taking such a leap to follow an uncommon path.
The questions from those who are in this category are the most thoughtful: “How did your family react? What lead you to your decision? Do you get a lot of stares in public because of your head covering?”
I think that deep down, people who react this way have, at one point, thought about breaking the mould of what is expected of them in one way or another. This person sees me as someone who is successfully leading a life that I chose and not a life that was chosen for me.
It is difficult to fully answer all of the questions these people have for me in a short span of time. So I direct them to my blog about my life as an American Muslim convert.
Being a Muslim American is a great opportunity to show and tell people what Islam is all about, and that anyone can be a Muslim.