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Silence is complicity

While anxiously awaiting my order of frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity Cafe in Georgetown, my friend Shajuti remembered that she hadn’t prayed Maghrib—the fourth of the five required daily prayers of the Muslim faith. Desperate to start praying before the call for the next prayer, Shajuti proclaimed that she was stepping outside of the restaurant to pray.

As Muslims, we are accustomed to creating makeshift prayer space in random corners. As a result, the act of praying outside didn’t seem out of the ordinary for the group of people that we were with. I was hesitant to let her leave alone, so I offered to step outside with her. Soon, I realized that Shajuti meant—very literally—that she was going to pray right outside the busy restaurant. 

Inevitably, she was going to be visible to everyone walking by. In Islam, prayers involve a set of repetitive actions, and it’s impossible to pray publicly without being noticed. Eventually, we discovered a corner that was slightly out of the way and distanced from the main pedestrian traffic. The reality, however, was that on a busy Saturday night in the streets of D.C.—no matter where Shajuti stood to offer her prayers—there would be hundreds of people walking by.

When she realized that there were so many people walking by, she looked at me and asked, “Maybe we should get one of the guys from the group?” Hesitant to accept Shajuti’s request for male protection, I encouraged her to go ahead and begin praying. 

I didn’t realize that the looks of the people walking by would bother me. I am a hijabi—meaning that, in order to model a certain level of modesty, I cover my hair and body almost completely every time I am in public. Because I literally wear my faith on my shoulders, I have become accustomed to the skin-penetrating glares. Consequently, I wrongly thought that the stares of people who witnessed Shajuti praying would not faze me.  

What surprised me was the caution apparent in the glares of those who walked by. In fact, a majority of those who stared at us seemed frightened. With each passing minute and raka’a—one set of prayer repetitions—my body became more pensive. I wanted to shout, “She’s just praying!” For awhile, I tried to smile—thinking that a warm and genuine smile would ease some of the discomfort and fear in the eyes of the bystanders.

When a young couple swiftly walked by with visible discontent in their expressions, I was assured that my smile would not offer much to the situation at hand. Simultaneously, l was reminded of the fear that accompanied my being a practicing Muslim in the states. In retrospect, the fear that overcame me for those four minutes was likely unjustified given the situation. In reality, though, my fears themselves were not illegitimate. 

My angst had stemmed from the random insults that strangers would scream at my car and from the hate crimes that countless women in my community had endured. My fear had roots in an uncomfortable situation in a local Durham store after the Boston Marathon bombings.

In order to distract myself from that very fear, I tried to think of a response in order to combat the stares.  Since smiling had not helped, I wanted to change my facial expression or say something to those who continued to walk by and stare at Shajuti. It needed to be an expression that offered comfort to those who were concerned, information to those who were confused and understanding to those who were fearful of Islam and Muslims.

 In desperation, I began to pray, “Please God, just don’t let anyone do or say anything hurtful.” 

In that moment, I had realized that years had passed since I’d addressed any of the stares that people gave me as a result of my hijab. It didn’t take long to realize that, in this situation, there was no way I could possibly say all that needed to be said in one statement. I was disappointed in my inability to compose myself in a manner that might have led to a positive response from someone watching. If one person who had walked by was curious enough to ask me a question or comfortable enough to approach me, then I could have at least made valid use of the emotions I had been subjected to. Instead, I merely stood there, unable to even look up at the crowd that walked by. But I soon realized that, every time I did not address the stares and comments about my faith, I subsequently contributed to the fear and misunderstanding that Shajuti and I were enduring. 

Perhaps attempting to solve this problem in that very moment was not appropriate, but the truth is, I have had eight years—the length of time since I started wearing the hijab—to address the misunderstandings and constant fear surrounding my faith and hijab. Not once had I approached someone who stared at me in fear or confusion. In reality, I had wasted so much energy fearing the potential outcomes of these stares, but never had I attempted to address them in a positive manner. 

After Shajuti had finished praying, she removed her hijab, and we returned to the cafe. For her, the stares had stopped. For me, it is inevitable that I will forever face the stares I witnessed in that moment.

That experience in D.C. reminded me of the complacency I’ve accepted since becoming accustomed to the stares. In the past, I made the excuse that those who actually wanted to learn about my hijab or my faith would take the initiative themselves. In all honesty, though, my passive responses have done nothing to help the situation. 

By remaining silent that day, I was reminded of my own need to take initiative. 

Nourhan Elsayed is a Trinity sophomore. Her biweekly column will begin in the Fall.

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