By Gabrielle Deonath
A few summers ago, we were on our family trip to Greece and our first stop, after the hotel, was the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. We spent a few hours and decided to leave around three o’clock. Walking down the long flight of steps that led away from the museum, my father turned around with his camera to capture the moment.
“Alright, that’s enough pictures of me. I’m going to find somewhere to sit,” I said as I left my dad snapping away. I followed my mom and my sister into the shady area at the side of the museum to take cover. As my dad made his way over, a woman approached him, almost out of nowhere.
“Would you like me to take a family picture?” she asked reaching for the camera. My dad agreed and handed it to her. Click. I thought now we would be able to go back to the hotel and nap before we headed out to dinner at the Placa.
“So where are you guys from?” she inquired. Clearly, I had thought wrong. She began to chat with my parents, telling us about her life in Greece. She listed the best places to visit in Athens and gave us insight into what it was like to live there. After that, she questioned my sister about the henna designs on her hands and then, she turned to me.
“It’s great that you wear that,” pointing to my hijab, “and that you want to be different from your mom and sister, but you don’t have to wear it. You can take it off.”
“I just started wearing it and I chose to put it on. I don’t think I’ll be taking it off anytime soon,” I responded.
“Oh, hmm, why did you decide to do that?”
“I started learning more about Islam and I believe it’s the best thing for me.”
“Well, the purpose is to be modest. Keeping my beauty and body to myself obligates people to value me for my personality and not my appearance.”
She shook her head, seeming to ignore my response altogether, and went on talking about various topics (restaurants, Greek life, attractions, etc.) and as soon as I thought I was in the clear, she would come back to me again. By the end of our encounter, I had counted five times that she commented on my hijab in the same exact way. Obviously, it was a subject that bothered her, but also a subject she knew absolutely nothing about. She continued on with her thoughts about Islam: “The religion seems oppressive to me. I remember seeing an ad of a Muslim couple on the beach, and the woman was covered from head to toe in black and she was walking way behind her husband.” I thought about what a funny stereotype that was. I realized that even me just walking behind my father in Athens fed more into these misconceptions about Islam that people seem to have all around the world. When I think about it, most of the time I do subconsciously walk behind my dad, but that is simply because he knows the directions to our destination.
She looked at my dad and while wagging her finger at him, she condescendingly asked, “You treat them well, right? You don’t misbehave, do you?” Would she have asked us these questions if we were not Muslim?
My mom stepped in at this point. “Islam gives women all of their freedoms. What you are referring to are cultural practices. We are Americans with every imaginable freedom. Women choose to wear the hijab,” she explained.
“So, how long are you guys staying in Greece?” the woman randomly queried. Clearly, she was not listening and we were not going to change her views on Islam today. There was no point to go on; she was not open to listening to what we had to say.
We tried to wrap up the conversation at this point, but this woman was a natural-born talker. One subject she spoke about I found particularly interesting. “Many Bangladeshi families live around here. I’ve become friends with many of them,” she stated. She explained that some of them were illegal residents and she helped them whenever they got into legal trouble, since she had friends in the court system. From her elaboration on her relationship with these families, I realized that she felt she was liberating those Bangladeshi women by helping them adjust to Grecian culture in the same way she thought she was liberating me when she was trying to convince me that I did not need to wear hijab. She was attempting to be an advocate and a voice for something that she did not quite understand herself.
Because I wear hijab, such a visible part of my presence, Islam and hijab are topics that are often brought up in conversation with Muslims, as well as non-Muslims. It prompts people who do not know much about either one to ask questions and educate themselves. Even though we may not have changed the woman’s views that day, I hope our talk made her question her position and enticed her to learn more. Who knows…maybe this was the first step in Allah’s plan to guide her to Islam one day.