By Whitney Christy
Seventeen-year-old Samantha Elauf was denied a sales job at Abercrombie & Fitch in 2008 because she wore a head scarf, referred as a hijab, in accordance with her Muslim faith. Elauf chose to take legal action against the religious discrimination, and her recent win against the company gained awareness for the Muslim community. It was one step closer to letting society know that discrimination of any form should not be tolerated.
Baton Rouge has a relatively large population of Muslims, with two large mosques located in the capital city. For many in the capital area, the experience of a Muslim woman in the community is a mystery. To learn more, a few local women have embarked upon social experiment called the Hijab Project, a term coined by Muslim teen Amara Majeed.
Amongst the group was Harmony Hobbs, a mother of three and a blogger; Shannon Allen, a breast cancer awareness event organizer; Sean Williams, a celebrity makeup artist; and Lakisa Celestine, a medical office assistant. These women were given the guidance of three local Muslim ladies—Fatimah Henderson, Sarah Malik, and Lena Sheikha—to help them understand the real meaning of the religion and why certain things are practiced amongst them.
Henderson, age 20, chose to convert to the Muslim faith over a year ago after being raised in a Southern Baptist household. She believes that by wearing a hijab, you force someone to see you for who you are and respect you intellectually. Malik, age 14, has practiced the religion her entire life. She believes that being Muslim means believing that there is no God but Allah (peace be upon him) and following the Prophet Muhammad’s ways to be the best Muslim she can be. Sheikha, age 19, believes that by wearing the Hijab, you are choosing to represent the entirety of Islam by your actions and how you present yourself.
“Hijab is my freedom,” said Sheikha. “It’s because I made the choice to wear my hijab. I choose how, why, and when. You wouldn’t understand what it’s like until you put it on and go out in public.”
Each woman was asked to wear a hijab over the course of two weeks and to share then their experiences. Many of them felt similarly regarding the fear of how others in their communities would treat them. After spending several hours meeting to learn about the Muslim religion and the ladies’ cultures, the non-Muslim group felt welcomed and excited to embark on the journey and learn what it’s like to be a Muslim in Baton Rouge.
Hobbs, as well as the other women, admitted she knew very little about the Muslim religion and hardly ever—if at all—interacted with someone that was Muslim. The levels of anxiety and excitement were high within the group.
“I am a mom of three, small children,” said Hobbs. “My greatest concern was how people would act towards me in public, in front of my children. I didn’t tell anyone about the experiment except for my husband because I wanted to see everyone’s unprepared reaction.
As a Caucasian female in the South, I have spent my entire life hyper aware that the way I look automatically brings me a certain level of privilege,” Hobbs explained. “One of my biggest goals as a parent is to teach acceptance to my children.”
The Muslim women believe it is important for the community to know that their religion is based in peace and respect for others, not violence or hate. They also seek to disprove the stereotype that Muslim women are treated as inferior to men, beaten, and restricted to where they can go. They’ll readily tell you that women are upheld with highest regard and respect in the Muslim community; men cherish them and are taught to admire their intellect before appearance.
“We are not a hateful people. Our religion is not built based on violence and should not be seen as a threat to others,” said Malik.
Some of the Muslim women have had their own negative encounters while in public with their hijabs. Henderson recalls a time being approached inappropriately while shopping in Baton Rouge.
“I politely say I understand how you feel, but can you please leave me alone,” she explained. “You have to remember that we are a respectful people and represent all Muslims, so being angry at the person only proves what they already assume of us.”
Allen, age 37, is a Christian. Her biggest anxiety was being seen by another Muslim woman without her hijab wrapped correctly.
Although the women only wore hijabs, there are more things to being Muslim than dressing the part. Muslims pray several times a day and perform “wudu,” a self-cleansing and mental preparation prior to prayer. It involves the washing of hands, elbows, face, mouth, and feet. During Ramadan, they fast between the hours of 4:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. It reminds them that not everyone knows where their next meal will be and strengthens their appreciation for what they have.
The ladies all stated that they weren’t overly warm in the hijabs, surprisingly. Other than a few saying it hindered their peripheral vision, the experience was overall positive.
“It makes you so much aware, you know?” said Celestine. “A lot of people were nice, but many avoided making eye contact. After some time, I was used to it, but you realize that these women have to deal with this every day.”
Every year at LSU, the Muslim organizations on campus host World Hijab Day on February 1st, where they provide information on hijabs and wrap anyone interested in wearing one.
“I am definitely in favor of everyone getting out of their comfort zone and experiencing something like this,” said Hobbs. “As a mother, I was proud to expose my children to this project. I don’t want them surrounded by people like them—they would never learn acceptance that way.”
At the end of the day, these Muslim women want society to respect their religion if they don’t agree with it.
“We are all human, and just like everyone else, we deserve to be treated like humans,” stated Malik.