The University of Illinois Experience: From One Muslim Woman

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be fully cognizant of the fact that I look different from everyone
else. This is a common feeling for any minority, and I, as
a headscarf donning Muslim woman, am not exempt from
this. My headscarf, or hijab, is more than just a piece of
cloth to me, and ironically, it means more than that to others
as well. Although for me it represents modesty, self-respect,
and dignity, I’ve come to realize that, to others, it represents
oppression, extremism, and religious fanaticism.
That is why, whenever I speak in class, I am well aware
that I am probably one of the only headscarf wearing Muslim
women, (or possibly even the only Muslim) that my
classmates and professors have ever interacted with. Thus,
my every action comes to represent what all Muslims would
do in that situation. My every word somehow represents
what one billion others would also say in that situation.
A Muslim friend of mine, who was an RA in a campus dormitory,
recalled an incident to me that epitomized this phenomenon.
One day, a girl in her hall said to her, “You know, I
used to think Muslims were pretty scary, but you’re really
nice!” “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
I thought.
It is terrifying to imagine that for
years this individual held such
notions of an entire people. And I
wondered, how many more of my
neighbors share similar sentiments?
But don’t get me wrong. I appreciate
those select individuals who
approach me with sincerity and an
open mind, wanting to better
understand my belief system. However,
this is not the usual response.
If Muslims are not all scary, then
they are at least foreign and uneducated. When I began
wearing the headscarf a few short years ago, I immediately
noticed that I was being asked, “Where are you from?”
more than I had ever previously been asked. People also
began speaking to me slower and louder. But I often sense
that classmates and professors are at first taken aback by
my outspokenness. It seems to disrupt their comfort zone.
Our student newspaper, the Daily Illini, is another force
that propagates ethnocentrism. For example, it has made it a
tradition to write an article every semester that attempts to
explain the Muslim headscarf. It is almost always written by
a white male who is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes frustrated,
and always misguided. These
men imply that Muslim women are
either forced to wear scarves to
degrade them, or choose to wear it
because they are self-righteous.
I did not expect to hear these ideas
in an institute of higher learning (to
say the least) but from the comments
that followed the articles, I learned
that many passionately agree with
these false, orientalist views. Freedom
of speech has become the freedom
to opine on how “the other” is
in need of civilizing. It is as if one has
the right to minimize or own other humans’ experiences
and colonize their freedom of expression.
Although there are one billion Muslims in the world, I
have learned from my news outlets, my textbooks, and my
educators, that the one billion of us are a monolith. We
can be painted by one brush stroke. That is perhaps why
the university has placed such little emphasis on developing
Islamic studies courses and programs of study. For,
whatever could American students possibly learn from
one-fifth of the world’s population and a culture with a
recorded history that dates back to the 6th Century?

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