Muslim in America: The Experiment

CNN recently featured a story of a social science experiment conducted by Dr. Akbar Ahmed, professor and chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

…[t]he project that’s been dubbed Journey into America…is an offshoot of a 2006 endeavor that took him, and a few of those traveling with him now… into the Muslim world abroad. That initial trip involving visits to mosques, madrassas (religious schools) and private homes from Syria to Indonesia became the basis of Ahmed’s book, “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization.”

“These questions Americans were asking [about Muslims] could not be answered without Americans looking at themselves … and looking at Muslims in the context of their own culture and society,” the professor explained. The group needed “to talk to Muslims and examine what they knew about American culture, American society and how they actually adjusted or assimilated or integrated — or not — into larger American society.”

Hailey Woldt. Image via CNN

Hailey Woldt. Image via CNN

The study includes not only interviewing Muslims around the United States but also having affiliates pose as Muslims, including Hailey Woldt, seen here. The article tells us of a portion of the experiment in which Woldt is in Arab, Alabama (oh, the irony) in “Muslim dress.”

“I expected people to say, ‘What is this terrorist doing here? We don’t want your kind here,’ ” said Woldt, a 22-year-old blue-eyed Catholic, recalling her anticipation before stepping into a local barbecue joint. “I thought I wouldn’t even be served.”

Instead, Woldt’s experiment in social anthropology opened her own eyes. Apart from the initial glances reserved for any outsider who might venture through a small-town restaurant’s doors, her experience was a pleasant one.

Reading this I had the same hesitations and concerns Jezebel contributor Megan did.

Woldt isn’t going to get looks or questions the same way an Arabic Muslim woman or an African Muslim woman would because she’s white and, with that, comes a basic assumption that she’s choosing to wear a garment for reasons that are her own. I mean, no one is going around arguing that the U.S. government needs to free Hasidic Jewish women from the confines of their wigs and modest clothing, right? No one is trying to get Mennonite or Amish women to free themselves from patriarchal religious structures that have them clothed in bonnets and long pioneer-woman type dresses (in some cases). No one is trying to get nuns to ditch their habits or their vows of chastity. And, yet, there is a very basic assumption that, for the (mostly) brown women who wear hijabs, abayas or niqabs for religious reasons, that they must be freed from the yokes of their oppressors — even in this country. Because, of course, if they knew they could choose, of course they wouldn’t.

Megan hits the nail on the head. As a social scientist myself, I can say that this is a strong criticism of the experiment if non-White Muslim women are no also affiliates  and places in similar situations. In and of itself, it does provide readers with an insight into the experiences of White, hijab/abaya-wearing, Muslim women and this is worth knowing as part of the larger picture. Nonetheless, having brown or black Muslim women, both with and without the abaya and hijab, should be a necessary component of the project if one wanted to make any conclusions about the experiences of affiliated females.

The project overall sounds fascinating and, with a scholar like Dr. Akbar Ahmed behind it, is sure to be educational and enlightening.  Let’s just hope the diversity of the Muslim community, including among Muslim women, is also reflected in the final results.

  • Broomstick

    oh god, not again. Not another white hijabi knock-off wannabe. You are right, non-white hijabis wouldn’t get as much pleasantries from Americans.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within our comment guidelines.]

  • saliha

    I think that’s a big assumption Broomstick. Race in America is very complicated. I’ve found that Whites tend to treat me better because they assume that I am something other than African American. I
    am very, very dark-skinned, but my features make me difficult to pinpoint. I’ve been in some real hee-haw kind of places and overwhelmingly my experiences are more positive than negative.

    I do think that I may have been treated more poorly in those places if I were not hijabi and more easily pinpointed as Black American.

  • saliha

    Also, White women catch more hell in some places than darker skinned women because other Whites often see White women in hijab as having betrayed the race, while a woman of color may be seen as simply adhering to her culture.

  • critical reader

    also, not many people in america are just going to come up to you and call you a terrorist or address you by black racial slurs. i think restaurants that refuse to serve people of color are very rare. the racism starts coming out when you actually discuss issues with white americans – and they don’t have to be from the rural south or uneducated to be ignorant. such racist views include their views on foreign policy and how women in other cultures are oppressed but american women aren’t, how minority men are more violent, etc. etc. i agree with saliha that whites will not be rude to you upfront because they see you as enacting your culture. but anytime you discuss social/political issues with many whites, the ignorance and racism starts showing.

  • Krista

    @ saliha: That’s an interesting point about white women being seen to have betrayed whiteness. I definitely think that happens, and provokes very different responses than what women of colour receive.

    I also had an interesting conversation with someone recently who was saying that she knows a couple white women who have become Muslim and wear hijab, and both of them have had people make assumptions that they’re forced to do so by their husbands. Even if they might be seen to have chosen Islam on their own, they’re still being slotted into stereotypes about Islam (ie, that there’s a big scary Muslim man somewhere in the picture), so they can still have Islamophobia directed at them in different ways. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as Megan suggests in the quote above, as if there is always “a basic assumption that she’s choosing to wear a garment for reasons that are her own.”

    As for some of Megan’s other points, I agree with some of what she says, but I also think that a lot of people are so confused when they see a white person in hijab that they can come up with a bunch of different reasons for it, and sometimes they assume that the woman isn’t white after all (or at least that she’s not really American/Canadian/whatever.) I think there are times that a white woman in hijab wouldn’t necessarily be treated any differently than a woman of colour in hijab, because either way the person interacting with them might assume that they are non-white/foreign/etc. (I’m talking specific interactions, not saying that hijab actually removes whiteness.)

  • Lex

    I’ve tried this! Though I’m a Roman Catholic and my heritage is of Ionian Greeks (Greeks from Turkey–I’m also the only Ionian Greek it seems who has Turkish friends and doesn’t want to scream “GENOCIDE” in their faces). I look apparently “fresh off the boat” Turkish, though Persian friends say I look Persian as well, or just “generally Middle Eastern” (LOL) so the hijab looked rather normal on me. I tried to do a hidden camera but it didn’t come out.

    I just wore nice concealing clothes and the headscarf, that was all, but it was all it took. I got tons of really strange looks that I never otherwise get, heard some rather nasty comments under people’s breath and most of the people who disapproved made a point of making sure I saw their disapproval. Plenty of other people, however, made a concerted effort to be nice to me and talk to me. I was just going to different stores. It was just such a totally different experience than how I am normally treated that I can’t imagine being out in hijab on certain days, such as the anniversary of 9/11 or any time negative stories about Islam are in the news. During the Israel/Lebanon war in 06 I cannot even imagine what I’d have gone through.

    I finally felt what it feels like, even though my women Muslim friends who aren’t all that devout and don’t wear hijab thought I was a bit crazy for doing it at all. I just had to find out though. I should post some pics at my site, come to think of it!

    Great post. I really am happy that I found this site (through a link at Islam Talk).

  • Lex

    Er, Talk Islam. Pardon me! OK, I posted the pic of me in hijab and am confusing my readers to no end as to whether or not I’ve converted/reverted…LOL.

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