On Thursday, September 7th the Multifaith Chaplaincy offered a field trip to The SPACE Gallery in Portland, ME to hear a panel discussion on the photography exhibit “Life as a Muslim Girl in Maine.” The talk featured several of the exhibit participants who discussed their thoughts, stories, and perspectives on life as Muslim girls in our state.
The three participants all came from different backgrounds and experiences. On the right sat Tabarek Kadhim, a junior at Deering High School in Portland where she plays track and tennis. Tabarek was born in Iraq, but spent most of her life in Jordan before coming to Maine.
In the middle sat Bilan Mohamed, a junior at Deering High School. Bilan was born in Maine to Somali parents. After graduating high school, she looks to pursue a career in medicine.
On the left was Maryam Hameed from Iraq. Maryam is a junior at Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) and hopes to become a master plumber. Afterwards she aspires to join the Portland police force.
The talk was moderated by Sarah Schmitt, a religion and history teacher at Deering who worked closely with the girls for the exhibit.
“I’m going to begin with Bilan,” started Schmitt. “What are some of the most memorable times or questions that you’ve heard with regards to being a Muslim woman?”
Bilan chuckled, “I was at my cousin’s birthday party and I heard a little girl say, ‘Is she bald under there?’ I found this really funny, so I turned around, and the girl was automatically embarrassed … [But] asking questions is how we can understand each other.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of memorable questions,” Tabarek started emphatically. “I’m on the tennis team and I practice [while] wearing my black hijab … So, I was at practice and [a girl came up to me] saying, ‘It’s so sunny outside, how can you even try to wear that hijab? Oh my gosh, I feel bad for you.’”
“Okay, I get the fact that you feel bad for me,” Tabarek said, “But I don’t feel bad for myself. If you’re going to ask me why I wear this hijab, I can give you a perfect answer. Saying that you feel bad for me feels disrespectful.”
A large portion of the talk revolved around the theme of how culture plays a role in Islam. One example is the hijab. Per Maryam, “[The Quran] doesn’t say ‘wear a hijab’ at all. It says ‘dress modestly.’ But then people started wearing a headwrap and it continued on from there … Dressing modestly [became] wearing the hijab.”
Of course, cultures differ greatly across all countries. Tabarek discussed how American culture has influenced her wardrobe: “I’ve lived in Jordan, and I don’t wear a long abaya … My mom wears an abaya, but I do not.” In conservative Muslim regions, it is custom for women to wear abayas or long loose dresses.
Another example of culture influence for Tabarek is makeup: “I wear makeup. Some people don’t like it, some people don’t wear it. In some cultures makeup is forbidden because in Islam it’s not so good to show your beauty. The purpose of the hijab is to cover up your beauty and let people judge you for the inside.”
Maryam also found American culture shaped the way she dresses. “There’s wearing jeans.” At this, she pointed at her own pair. “They show the shape of your legs — but they’re like, super comfortable! If I wore this in Iraq right now, people would be calling me out in the streets, calling me an s-word, ‘slut’ … But it’s still modest because I’m covering up my skin.”
Schmitt then asked, “A lot of people perceive Islam as being oppressive towards women, restricting women’s actions, beliefs, behaviors …Would anyone want to speak more to that?”
“Before the Prophet’s time is called ‘Jāhilīyyah’ or a time of ignorance,” answered Bilan, “People were practicing killing female children by putting pebbles over them and women couldn’t own property. After the prophet introduced Islam, women started having equal rights … [In fact] Islam is one of the most feminist religions because women are thought of as humans, and we’re taught that as children.”
Afterwards, the conversation opened up to the audience. One woman asked about how extremists groups like ISIS justify their violence as an act of religion.
“A word that we hear a lot being thrown around by the media is ‘jihad,’” answered Bilan. “A lot of us struggle to understand what it really means and we’re force fed a definition. Jihad means ‘holy war,’ but it can also mean ‘struggle,’ struggle in terms of being a better Muslim, struggling internally.” The girls agreed that these terrorists are not true Muslims and used the word as propaganda.
The end of the talk concerned the education system in America. The young women agreed that if they could change one thing, it would be the focus of history class.
“So I came to America,” began Maryam, “And what I learned in elementary school was United States History. And in middle school what they taught was,” she took a dramatic pause, “United States History. And in high school they taught one course of World Civilizations, and then the rest — United States History. It’s very very slow, and I feel like a lot of it is repetitive.”
Maryam continued, “Because schools don’t reach outside of their little bubbles, they don’t understand that there are other countries that have more experience … [and] we can really learn from their mistakes and successes.”
In the end, all three of the panel members agreed that through education, they sought to become global citizens, to identify as members of a larger conversation.