The Need to Belong: The Life of a Muslim in America

Facing Racism in Muncie, Indiana

Heather Gilvary-Hamad’s story written Angela Jackson-Brown

Heather is 46 years old

There are certain topics, as a Muslim . . . as a Muslim woman . . . that I am tired of addressing.

Conversations about hijab. Exhausting. Conversations about whether or not Muslims should apologize for the actions of terrorists who claim to be Muslims. Unfair and exhausting. Conversations about whether or not Muslim women are downtrodden and under the thumbs of their husbands. Absolutely wrong and emotionally draining that continually Muslim women have to explain that not only are we not downtrodden, we are revered and highly respected by our husbands and families.

At the same time, although I am tired of talking about the same issues over and over, I understand the conversations still need to occur [be had], particularly now when potential political leaders say things like, “We need databases for Muslims,” or “We should exclude Muslims from specific activities.”

So, we sometimes roll our eyes when it is just “us” together, but at the end of the day we know that we have to continue the dialogue because, in some cases, our lives depend on it.

Yes, talking about hijab can be frustrating. I personally don’t wear hijab on a regular basis, because we, as Muslims, know that it is not accepted by many non-Muslims. If I put on hijab, I worry that maybe I risk violent attitudes or negative responses from total strangers in the grocery store or the mall. Some people feel it is their right to comment on our attire, which is amazing to me. They don’t get that it is rude. It is the equivalent of me asking a Christian, “Why are you wearing that cross?”

That is just not something I or any Muslim would do. Until I wore hijab and felt the eyes on me, I didn’t understand what other Muslim women meant when they would say, “They are staring at me in public when I wear hijab.” Before I wore hijab, I would think, well, maybe you misinterpreted the stares, or maybe they really aren’t staring, or maybe it is more curiosity than animosity. But once I became that one person in the room who was doing something different like wearing hijab, I felt the fear that other Muslim women speak about.

And I come to find that fear is a constant in the lives of Muslims. Whether it is the way we dress or just the ordeal of traveling. . .we can’t get away from fear. The last time my family and I crossed the border, we were visiting my husband’s brother in Canada. We drove across the border on the day we stopped fasting for Ramadan. We had breakfast, prayers, and then we packed up. However, when we got to the border, preparing to cross over into Detroit, we were stopped for no less than four to five hours. Our car was searched, and my husband was taken to the back room. Before going to the back room, the officer put a glove on his hand, and instantly I knew what was about to happen.

My husband did not see the officer put the glove on his hand. My children didn’t understand what was happening. My husband went into the room with the officer, and I felt sick to my stomach. When he came out, my husband was almost deathly pale from the humiliation he had just endured. My son instantly started questioning, “Baba what happened to you? What did they do to you?” And I was like, “Hush. Baba doesn’t want to talk about what just happened to him in there.”

I knew it would be too humiliating. And then to have the officer, after hours of detaining us, say, “Well, there was a misunderstanding. You can go ahead and go.” We hadn’t eaten during this whole ordeal. This was the first day of the month during daylight hours that we could eat during the day, and so we were sitting there for all of those hours with our kids, after having told them earlier that day that, “Oh, today is a holiday, a celebration,” yet we were allowed no food, no drinks, and no bathroom visits without permission.

We had told the kids that once we crossed the border we would get lunch in Detroit. But there we were, four or five hours later, very hungry, very tired, and the last thing we wanted to do was to stop. We wanted to get as far away from the border as we could. So the kids were in the back, saying, “We want to eat. We want to eat.” We were like, “Sorry guys. We need to get out of here.” We wanted to get the experience as far away from us as we physically could.

Since then, my husband has tried to make sure he was clear to fly with airports and Customs before he attempted to fly to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but, of course, we were told there is no guarantee, so we don’t fly anywhere together as a family. If we want to go on vacation it has to be somewhere we can all get into the car and drive to because there is no more crossing the border for us. So it limits our ability to visit with his family. It’s tragic, but, sadly, it is the new normal for Muslim families.

I want my children to live in a place where they can interact with diverse populations of people, whether they be Muslims or someone else. . .maybe Jewish, maybe Hindu, maybe Atheist, maybe gay, maybe Black, maybe Hispanic. My children need to be out there interacting with all of different types of people because that is the world they are going to work and live in in the future.

So, I say to non-Muslims . . . we are just like you. We want the same things for ourselves and our families that you want for yours, and that is the freedom to love and live in peace.

This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.

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