Lamar University student Amber Barnhill talks with Nada Hammad and Oruba Shahid about their experiences as Muslim women in Southeast Texas, as well as her thoughts on an educational experiment wearing a hijab for the day. Barnhill decided to get insight into the religion and being identified as a Muslim as part of a Sociology of Religion class assignment to explore a different religion. With the okay of the community to don a hijab for the day, she went about her normal day’s activities, and noted her experiences interacting with the community at large while being perceived as Muslim. She has also attended a prayer service at the Islamic Center to round out her understanding of the faith. Photo taken Wednesday, September 30, 2015 Photo by Kim Brent
Amber Barnhill said she felt a disapproving look from another customer immediately on entering the FedEx store in Beaumont with a purple and pink scarf wrapped around her head.
But when Barnhill walked up to the counter to make copies, a worker complimented her sparkling, striped hijab, not knowing that Barnhill was only Muslim for the day.
Barnhill, a 30-year-old Lamar University student, on Wednesday wore a head scarf, or hijab, traditionally worn by Muslim women for a project in her sociology of religion class.
The students’ assignment was to attend a religious service of a faith different from their current beliefs.
Three other women in Barnhill’s class planned to join her but backed out a couple days earlier.
Two of the students said they had to work, and the other said her husband didn’t want her to participate. Barnhill said he thought it might be offensive to local Muslims.
Barnhill spoke with Nada Hammad and Oruba Shahid, two Muslim students who wear hijabs, to make sure she wouldn’t be offending the Islamic community.
“She’s doing it for educational reasons,” Hammad said. “To see how it feels (to be Muslim) is not offensive at all. If you’re a Muslim and you decide to wear it one day and not the next, that’s offensive because you’re not taking it seriously.”
Nidal Alsayyed, religious director and Imam at the Islamic Society of the Triplex, compared Barnhill’s project to visiting countries and wearing clothes specific to that culture.
It’s out of respect, he said.
Barnhill, Hammad and Shahid met for lunch at Katharine & Company, all three of them wearing hijabs. A police officer smiled at the women giggling by the counter.
Hammad said her experience as a Muslim woman in Southeast Texas has not always been positive.
She lived in Jordan for 10 years and then throughout the U.S., including North Carolina and Illinois.
“I’ve only experienced racism in Beaumont,” she said.
She said she has been on the receiving end of everything from dirty looks to hurled objects to accusations she is a terrorist.
Barnhill said she wanted to break some of the violent and oppressive stereotypes people harbor about Muslims – even some she admitted to once having.
When she first met Shahid in their composition class, Barnhill wasn’t sure her classmate was allowed to speak.
Many of her misconceptions, Barnhill said, come from being raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church. She could only wear skirts that fell below the knee, only trim her hair and expose a limited amount of skin from her neck.
Until she started her project, Barnhill didn’t realize that wearing the hijab was a choice Muslim women made.
While wearing the scarf, Barnhill said she was more “mindful” of her demeanor and the things she said, since she felt that she was representing a group of people.
She said people seemed to notice her right away as she ran errands throughout the day. Some of the looks came from people who weren’t sure what to say, even if it was something nice.
For her part, after three years, Hammad is no longer upset by dirty looks or name-calling.
“I’m immune,” she said. “It’s sad to say that you get used to people saying (those things) to you.”