Lifting the veil
She turns the doorknob, inhales deeply, and exhales slowly. She’s preparing herself for the stares and mutters as she walks out into the sunlight. Whether the comments are intentionally meant to be heard or not, she’s perfected the art of selective hearing. Onlookers will assume her politics, what her family or friends are like, how her upbringing was, and even the behavior in her marriage—simply because she dared to come outside in traditional hijab attire.
Sometimes it is just easier to opt out of wearing the simple piece of georgette or polyester material altogether. Ironically by being more exposed, the mystery of her culture and religion aren’t as interesting to others—regardless of whether it’s their business or not.
“I like wearing a head scarf to religious gatherings,” says The Chicago School Board of Trustees member, Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, Ph.D., co-editor of the book Mirror on the Veil. “I look forward to events where I can wear it. But right now, the political climate in the U.S. is such that, if you wear the hijab, people mistakenly believe you represent all Muslims.”
In her book, women share stories of navigating the world practicing hijab and wearing veiling. In many of the essays, their physical appearance consistently leads strangers to prejudge them.
“I have currently made the choice not to wear my head scarf on a regular basis because I am not prepared to represent all of Islam; I’m only trying to represent myself,” Dr. Pasha-Zaidi says.
It’s relatively easy to show that the stereotypical correlations between the U.S. Muslim population and Islamic terrorism are muddy at best. According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, 3.35 million Muslims live in the U.S. today. Nearly a quarter of them are U.S. natives—meaning their families go back three or more generations. And the largest contingent of foreign-born Muslims, 35 percent, immigrated from Southeast Asian countries. Conversely, reports show that up to 75 percent of Arab Americans are Christian.
But stereotypes have a way of strangling the logical mind and nesting in the hearts of people to create gut feelings and knee-jerk reactions grounded in fear and uncertainty.
In the second quarter of 2017 (April 1 through June 30), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received 946 reports of potential bias incidents. Of that total, 451 of these incidents had an anti-Muslim bias. Sixteen percent of those 451 incidents involved nonviolent harassment, while 15 percent were hate crimes.
Victims’ homes were the most likely place (68 percent) in which they experienced these incidents. Highways, roads, and alleys came in second (58 percent). Air, bus, and train terminals followed closely behind (55 percent).
When discrimination and bias are used as the basis for public policy decisions, history plainly illustrates that we are heading down a dark path.
Washington State University reports that 58 percent of Americans favored a requirement that people of Arab descent receive a more intensive screening process at airports. No matter how unconstitutional this practice may lean, many have experienced this kind of prejudice firsthand.
In 2016, the Guardian reported that a trio of siblings were removed from an airplane after being falsely accused of reading ISIS propaganda materials. While none of them speak, read, or write Arabic, they were curiously questioned about whether they had Arabic texts on their phones or copies of the Quran.
Singular instances of discrimination are widespread and troubling. When discrimination and bias are used as the basis for public policy decisions, history plainly illustrates that we are heading down a dark path.
President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on January 27, 2017 led to pandemonium for American citizens, overseas residents, and refugees coming from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. For many, the ban was shocking and viewed as unconstitutional. And the Muslim community witnessed other signals of a sea change in Washington, D.C.
“Ever since the days of President Thomas Jefferson, the White House has recognized iftar, which is the evening meal that breaks the monthlong fast as part of Ramadan,” says Heather Laird, who just graduated from The Chicago School with a Ph.D. in Psychology with a concentration in Marriage and Family Therapy. “For the past 20 years, the White House has honored iftar—until the new administration came into office. President Trump canceled it.”
But believing Islamophobia in the U.S. can be blamed on any one person or policy may be the easy way out. Dr. Laird is quick to point out that the Muslim community has been dealing with prejudice and hate long before President Trump, and even long before Sept. 11.
Recommended Reading: “One woman’s journey to help destigmatize psychology within the Muslim community“
Last year, I spent time teaching Muslim children resiliency after experiencing Islamophobia, which is something I can relate to,” says Dr. Laird, who converted to Islam 25 years ago and does wear the traditional head scarf. Referring to her undergraduate experience in the ‘90s at Indiana University, Dr. Laird vividly remembers drivers being stopped and randomly searched by dogs.
“It felt strikingly similar to driving while black,” Dr. Laird says. “And the majority of Muslims in America are African-American, so that’s two minority groups being profiled at once. But in our case, it was driving while Muslim. These incredibly disturbing things were happening because of the Gulf War. When I would travel to conferences, I’d get extra searches at the airport. That has always been the case since I’ve been Muslim.”
From a mental health perspective, the cumulative effect of encounters like these may result in dire outcomes if left untreated.
“Post-traumatic slave syndrome, coined by Degruy in 2005, is a theory that has been developed from looking at history,” Dr. Laird continues. “For example, it examines the effects of slavery on the African-American community and its legacy of trauma on people today. What I found in my own research is that different ethnic groups have particular mental health issues that really have to do with their history.”
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC reports that minority populations often experience microaggressive messages. These are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. Victims of microaggressive messages often can exhibit negative mental health outcomes: increased distress and depression; decreased life satisfaction; increased risk for mood and substance use disorders; increased anxiety; and increased suicide risk.
Both Dr. Laird and Dr. Pasha-Zaidi want to help to change these mental health risks through self-care and education.
This fall, Dr. Laird is opening the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology, which will research the mental health of Muslims, expand community outreach, and include a clinic for students and community members to seek psychological services. This model will be replicated at five universities and colleges within five years starting at University of Southern California. The Center will host the conference “Moving Toward Defining Islamic Psychology” in February 2018. The first of its kind in the United States, it will work collaboratively with well-known Islamic scholars and mental health clinicians to define an Islamic psychology and create treatments for the Muslim population through an integration of belief and best practices.
She previously worked as a consultant with the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Safe Spaces initiative through the LA City Mayor’s Office to help empower communities; secure the sanctity of mosques; and promote Islamic values of civic engagement, public safety, and healthy identity formation.
Dr. Pasha-Zaidi has worked as an educator and academic advisor in the United States and the United Arab Emirates, where she specializes in English language learners and at-risk students. Her research, which explores culture, gender, and social justice in international systems, focuses on the Muslim population.
We have the power to be able to give our voice to other communities around the world. But in order to effect change, we have to listen to what is happening in other parts of the world.
“I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries,” she says. “As a psychologist, we have the power to be able to give our voice to other communities around the world. But in order to effect change, we have to listen to what is happening in other parts of the world. Becoming an ESL teacher and gaining international experience allowed me to become more open-minded, receptive, and understanding of different people in different parts of the world. Even as a Muslim who was born in Pakistan, I experienced culture shock when I moved to the Middle East, simply from living in the U.S. for so long and being raised within the American culture.”
As a language connoisseur, taking the sting out of common phrases such as “Allahu akbar” (meaning “God is great”) and “Inshallah” (meaning “God willing”) matter just as much as physical appearance to Dr. Pasha-Zaidi.
“Imagine how you would react if someone ducked for cover because you said ‘Hallelujah,’” she says. “That’s how Muslims feel when saying something as innocent as ‘Allahu akbar’ because it’s been misconstrued as something violent. The media and the entertainment industry have made it so people affiliate positive Islamic language with terrorism. It’s a shame.”
Dr. Laird and Dr. Pasha-Zaidi agree that if diverse communities nationwide would spend more time learning about each other’s similarities as much as they do differences, the risks of Islamophobia could decrease.
“Whether you are Muslim or not, find Muslims who you can talk with and who have a similar mission,” Dr. Pasha-Zaidi says. “And simply hold those hard conversations. ‘This is me. This is my experience.’ Open up your home for dinners and get-togethers with neighbors, co-workers, families, and friends. Start from a grassroots perspective to help improve and change your own neighborhood, regardless of what’s happening in the political world or on the news.”
Shamontiel L. Vaughn
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