This week, Americans are celebrating with Egyptians over the peaceful transfer of power in that historic country with a large Muslim population. But, Americans also are anxious about planned congresssional hearings that will target Muslim leaders and congregations in the U.S. The Friendship and Faith project is not interested in political divisions. We don’t take sides on such issues. We make friends.
We are always looking for ways to build authentic friendships in spite of whatever tumult we find around the world. We peacefully build briges. This week, we’re sharing a story from our book, which we hope you will purchase (at right) to help support our work. We also welcome your stories!
We’re sure you’ll see why this story is so timely. It’s called …
The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Had to Do
by Gigi Salka
Gigi is Muslim and the mother of three children living in Bloomfield Hills. She is an active volunteer in her community.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was to walk into my child’s school for the first time after I began wearing the headscarf that is distinctive for Muslim women. My son was in fifth grade at the time.
This all happened in February 2003. My husband and I finally decided to perform the pilgrimage, the Hajj. We had wanted to make the Hajj for years but, each time, something would come up. There always seemed to be so many reasons why we shouldn’t go. The kids were too young. My husband couldn’t leave work. It was a very serious decision. As Muslims we like to say that, when you go on the Hajj, you come back home the way you were born. It’s like all your sins are erased and you’re opening a new book in your life. For me, I knew that meant I would start wearing the headscarf.
I had not been wearing the headscarf and, because I hadn’t worn it, I didn’t stick out so obviously as Muslim in public. Just look at me and my kids—white, blond hair—we kind of blend into the American environment. But the question of wearing the headscarf had been weighing on my shoulders for some time. I grew up in America, attended university, had a successful career, married a loving husband and began raising my family. God has blessed me with so much. I wanted to start wearing the headscarf regularly as a sign of my faith, but I didn’t have the strength.
It wasn’t a big struggle for me to decide whether I should wear it. I wanted to wear it. I had already begun to change how I dressed. I only wore long skirts or pants and long-sleeve shirts. It is all about being modest; in dress, in attitude and in self-presentation. In my opinion, the headscarf was just another step toward greater modesty, but I could not garner the strength to put it on and wear it regularly. The biggest problem for me was the idea of facing people I had known for a long time—now wearing the headscarf. That’s hard for many American Muslim women, I think. I know it was for me.
When we went on the Hajj, though, I knew that I’d definitely want to start covering my hair. As the Hajj season nears each year, the excitement in the Muslim community grows. People start talking about who is going on the Hajj this year, and how they are preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Every year I remained at home, yearning to join the pilgrims, but this year was different: There were so many friends planning their trip that it was impossible to stay away. Although, in retrospect, it was probably the most inopportune time, my husband and I decided at the last minute to perform the Hajj that year. We were so late in deciding that we wound up Federal Expressing our passports, and we didn’t get our travel documents until we got to the airport. We were hurrying around and weren’t even sure that we’d be able to make the flight, but finally, we did get on the plane. This was a rushed trip, but I felt a sense of inner peace and security that I had never felt before. God gave me patience.
As we were hurrying around and getting ready to go, a Muslim friend came to visit and say goodbye. When I saw her, I suddenly had all these questions. I asked, “When am I going to put my headscarf on? The imam is coming with us on the plane, so should I put it on before I get on the plane? Should I put it on over there in Saudi Arabia? Or, when I’m coming home? How do I wear it right?”
So many questions!
She said: “Just put it on! Get it over with!”
So, I put it on as we went to the airport. Women wear the headscarf throughout the entire Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Then, when we were coming home on the plane, once again there were all these questions! I kept asking my husband: “Do I keep it on? Do I wear it when I get off the plane? What am I going to do?”
He was of no help. “It is your decision,” was the answer he repeated over and over again.
I got home and basically stayed at home for a week. I kept worrying: What do I do? I can’t take it off and, if I go out wearing it, what will people think when they see me for the first time? Then, soon, I had to face going into my children’s school. I’m very active there. I couldn’t stay away. There was a parent meeting I had to attend. Coming back from the Hajj, I did feel spiritually rejuvenated and stronger as a Muslim, but on that first day walking toward the school, I couldn’t stop asking myself: How will people react?
I hadn’t planned anything that I might say to people. If they asked questions, I would try to answer them. That’s how I am. But I really didn’t know what I would say to explain it all as I drove up that day. Our school is designed so there’s a parking lot and then there’s a loooong sidewalk that leads up to the school. There’s no way around it. You have to park and walk up this loooong sidewalk.
I parked my minivan and I made that walk very sloooowly.
No one at the school knew I had gone on Hajj or that I would start wearing this scarf. And on that first day that I went to the school, I knew that my son’s teacher had gone on maternity leave while we were away, so I didn’t know the new teacher at all. I was nervous.
All of the above!
People don’t know how to react when you make a change like this, so it puts more of a burden on you to break the ice. They wonder: Am I supposed to say something? Or not say something? Respond to this change? Or ask something? Or is it offensive to ask questions?
Finally, I reached the door. I walked into the school and, as soon as you walk in there’s this media center where people congregate for meetings. As usual, people were gathered there.
I saw a friend and I walked right toward her. And she said: “Oh, Gigi! You’ve covered your hair!”
I didn’t know what to say. I just said: “Yeah.”
She surprised me. She asked, “Are you making a political statement?”
I didn’t expect that question! I was still so nervous. I answered very slowly: “Nooooo. No, I’m not.” That thought never even crossed my mind, I was only trying in my humble way to fulfill a spiritual desire that I had worked so hard to attain.
I suddenly realized: They’re looking at me and they’re wondering why I’ve just made this change. This was when the memory of 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. So many things ran through my mind. Then, I just began to talk to my friend. I described the Hajj and what it meant to me. I explained to her how it was a spiritual rejuvenation and how I felt so much closer to my Creator during this time. I explained how I felt a sense of calm, peace and happiness upon my return. She listened.
We were friends—so she listened. And we remained good friends after that, because she was open. I remember that: She listened to my story. My life has changed since I began to wear the headscarf. Life does get a little bit harder when you decide to do this. You do have to keep wondering: Am I representing my faith properly? I know I’m just one person, but I do feel the weight of this commitment of wearing a visible sign that I am a part of the Muslim community.
I explain this to young women that, once you put on the scarf, your life does change. When people see you out in public, if you make a bad impression out there like you’re rude to someone—well, the people who might see that misbehavior in public don’t think: Oh, there’s a rude woman. Because of the headscarf, they think: Oh, there’s a rude Muslim!
This is a life-changing decision. It is a real responsibility to be a Muslim in America. I can’t believe that it has been six years since the Hajj. A lot has happened over that time, but a lot is still the same. I still volunteer at school and in my community. I have taken a greater role in publicly representing the beauty of my faith—to correct the many common misconceptions about Islam. My relationship with my Creator has grown stronger and has given me the inner peace I need to get through life. My headscarf is just another step in my spiritual journey.
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(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)