By: Samaa Moosa
Original Post Date: November 10th, 2016
Today I put on my hijab in solidarity with Muslim women afraid to step outside, along with all other minorities being verbally or physically attacked. I honestly thought that the most impactful part of my day would be going to and from work, and any shopping I do after. I didn’t think it would matter to people who already knew my background.
My students already knew I am Egyptian-American and knew of my Muslim background. So I expected the scarf to just be an added layer to them, and that our conversation would focus on the attacks of minorities yesterday.
But I was surprised as I walked into the building at how many people started in shock, and then to hear a student mumble, “I wonder if she brought a gun.” I’m glad I heard it even though he was whispering. I’m glad I had the guts to bet he was talking about me, even though I wasn’t sure. I’m glad I pulled him into my classroom. I’m glad I pushed for the truth, despite my doubts.
At first, he said he wasn’t sure why I pulled him into the class. When I repeated his sentence, he tried to laugh it off and say he wasn’t even talking about me. “I was just talking about some girl.” Honestly, I hated looking him in the eye and telling him he was lying. I mean what if I really HAD walked in at just the right (or rather wrong) second and he really was having another conversation about another girl and a gun?! It’s possible- but improbable. So I braced myself and said in the best teacher voice I have, “Have the moral courage to stand by what you said, or have the courage to admit a mistake and apologize; but your denial is cowardly.”
He looked at me for a second, without blinking. Then he said, “I didn’t realize it was you. I thought it was some other Muslim lady.” I told him, “It shouldn’t matter whether or not it was me. Your reaction was racist. Of course you’re not scared now that you realize it’s Ms. Moosa. But what if I’d been someone else? You think it’s okay to jump to whether or not I brought a gun just because I’m wearing hijab? You judged me by my clothes, and I know you don’t want me to judge you by your skin.” He apologized, but it’s disconcerting how many denials it took, and how much I had to push for the truth. I’m choosing to believe he learned something.
The incident started off my day in a way I wasn’t expecting honestly, but it also reminded me I teach high school children who haven’t seen enough of the world. More importantly, it reminded me that I’m a window, and that visuals matter. Saying I’m Egyptian-American wasn’t enough apparently. They had to SEE it to get it. Well, some of them anyway.
In first period, I said, “I’m wearing my scarf today in protest of how many minorities were attacked yesterday. I’m also wearing it in solidarity with Muslim women who are scared to step outside of their house with their scarves on.”
Student: “Are you Muslim?”
Me: “I wore the scarf for years, but took it off when I became less religious and didn’t want to be hypocritical.”
He asked me why I’d lost my faith, and I replied, “That’s complicated, but one of the main reasons is because I didn’t like how religions in general show favoritism to their own group. I don’t like when we think more highly of our group than other groups. And for me, this philosophy goes beyond religion. I don’t like it when nationalism does it, family ties, or even sports teams.”
Some were shocked that I even grouped something as harmless as sports teams in my philosophy. I explained that we put other teams down even though everyone’s trying their best. I prefer sportsmanship where you compete against yourself to be the best you can be. Some got it, but the one that the room really got silent for was nationalism.
“Don’t think you’re better just because you’re American. So what? Everyone else in the world is trying their best to live their lives, just like you. We’re all people, and we all live on Earth. You don’t deserve more or less because you were born here.” I think it was the first time someone expressly told them to NOT be proud to be an American. At least, that’s what their expressions implied.
At this point, I thought okay, I’ll have the same conversation all day, and we’re good to go. Nope! During second period, my seniors came in. I gave them the same speech. “I’m wearing my scarf today in protest of how many minorities were attacked yesterday. I’m also wearing it in solidarity with Muslim women who are scared to step outside of their house with their scarves on.” They were surprised that the attacks weren’t on the news. They apologized for not knowing. That was well done on their part.
Then they said, “Ms. Moosa, be careful. We don’t want you to get hurt. Is this really worth it?”
I paused. It touched me that they cared. But I needed to explain that yes, it was necessary.
“Thank you for caring enough to worry about me. But being able to take off my social identity is a privilege not afforded to many. I am privileged enough to be able to take off my scarf to shed my social identity, put it in the closet, and walk out the door and blend in. But you can’t take off your black skin, leave it in the closet, and walk out. Others can’t take off their gender, or accents, or ethnicity. Today, I am not using my privilege. Today, I am putting on my scarf and standing with those who can’t shed the characteristics that make them targets, whether it’s psychological- perhaps they’re so religious that they genuinely believe in the morality of their religious garb and can’t bring themselves to shed it; or because they physically can’t shed their identities. I choose to stand with them all.”
They heard me. They heard me admit I was privileged. They heard me recognize the pain of the black skin they can’t shed, but keep getting judged by anyway. And they heard me choose to reject my privilege, even for one day. They realized people can do that- reject whatever privilege they have and stand by the marginalized. They heard me stand up for people who do not share my social identities- people who weren’t even in the room with me. And I hope, one day, they do too.
Today, I saw respect on their faces.
I’ve been teaching these same students for a year and half. They liked me, sure. They even gave me the lukewarm respect given to teachers who stick around inner city schools for more than a year, or the respect given to teachers who take the time to explain rules, or the respect given to teachers who stayed after school to help them. I know they appreciated all those things about me. But honestly, it wasn’t until today that I truly saw genuine respect on their faces. And perhaps that is my fault for getting side tracked by all the math I need to teach them, but perhaps they wouldn’t have heard me so well if this wasn’t an authentic reaction to real events.
I don’t know. I’m just glad they listened.
Thank you for reading.
Thoughts? Comments? Samaa would love to hear them! Please leave a comment below.