An interfaith conversation has sparked on campus, as the Walk A Mile in My Hijab Project and Better Together Days generated student interest throughout March into early April. The Walk A Mile in My Hijab Project, created by senior interactive media major Sarah Mehmood, and Better Together Days, endorsed by theology professor Dr. Clare Rothschild, focused on creating dialogue and acceptance between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“The situation last year with the professor who wrote the poem [posted in the Aurora Public Library] ... made me want to do this project because I feel like people still don’t understand what a hijab is,” said Mahmood. The Walk A Mile in My Hijab Project allows students to experience wearing a hijab and to explore the practices and beliefs of Islam from a non-Muslim perspective. Mehmood worked with sophomore psychology major Serena Comfort, sophomore biology and theology major Tabitha Eager and senior psychology major Bethany Timm, while keeping her experiences as a Muslim woman in mind.
“When I first [started] wearing a hijab I was in middle school, and I [remembered] I walked in and my friend was like ‘Sarah, is that you?,’” said Mehmood. “He was kind of shocked; he didn’t know what a hijab was. Since I was the only hijabi in this school, I had a lot of negative feedback. People have known me as Sarah, the girl who wears the hijab. It’s kind of part of my identity. And as Islam has been in the media, some people look at it as, ‘it’s really nice that she’s protecting her modesty, to save that for her husband.’ And then there are people that look at me and say, ‘Oh she’s oppressed.’”
Mehmood invited each participant to her home, where they were able to discuss the practices of Islam and wearing a hijab, as well as subjects such as pious fashion. They attended a service at a mosque and visited an Arab restaurant together to ensure that each participant was able to obtain more insight into the culture surrounding Islam. Timm took part in wearing the hijab herself for the week of Tuesday, March 26 to Monday, March 31.
“I decided to participate in this project because I have so many friends that wear the hijab on a daily basis and have done so for years of their lives,” said Timm. “I felt that as much as I loved and appreciated them, I wasn’t truly respecting them until I was able to put myself in their shoes. I was honored to be asked to take part in this project and feel as if I am connected on a new level with those that I stood in solidarity with for that week. I am going to continue to stand in solidarity with them, through word and action. I plan to fast with my Muslim brothers and sisters for the entire month of Ramadan. To have such a deep connection to one’s faith is inspiring to me and I want to try to deepen my faith in God in this way.”
Prior to participating in the project, Timm spoke with each Muslim woman in her classes as well as other Muslim friends to ensure transparency and communicate a message of respect. Timm wore the hijab throughout her day, sometimes wearing it around her house, all while documenting how she felt on camera.
“I had so many positive experiences while wearing the hijab, the first stemming from the more physical part of the project,” said Timm. “Wearing the hijab allows a person to take emphasis away from their physical features and place it on more important characteristics such as their intelligence or personality. I received so much love and support from my Muslim brothers and sisters the entire time that I wore it. There were only a handful of moments during the week at which I felt judged or uncomfortable,” continued Timm.
“The first occurred when I had a doctor’s appointment and was discussing the project with the nurse practitioner overseeing my care. She was very insistent that no woman that wore the hijab was really, truly choosing to do so of her own volition.
Also, a man walked into the café I work at and proclaimed the amazing things that God had done in his life. He would look at me very obviously every single time he said ‘freedom’ during his speech. I also felt uncomfortable walking into two different restaurants in the town that I live in, Lemont; both times, I felt many stares.”
Mehmood and Timm have received support on Facebook, where they have posted pictures and videos as the project has evolved. Upon the project’s completion, Mehmood will compile all pictures and video clips from the project into a single video.
During the nationally-observed Better Together Days, Christian and Muslim students, along with Rothschild, ran a table promoting interfaith dialogue from Monday, April 8 to Friday, April 12. Students passing through the hallways of the arts and sciences building from 12 to 1 p.m. could purchase baked goods from different cultures, such as hot cross buns or maamoul, enter a raffle for a Better Together Days t-shirt or try on a hijab. Students working the table also passed out a card with the Lord’s Prayer from Christianity on one side and the al-Fātiḥah prayer from Islam on the other, an idea created by Eager.
“There are very few Jews on this campus, but many more Christians and Muslims, so our emphasis has been Christianity and Islam,” said Rothschild. “We are willing to include Hinduism and Buddhism as well, [though] we don’t have tons of people who practice that on this campus. As Better Together Days evolves in the future, I anticipate moving in those directions.”
The idea to participate in Better Together Days occurred when Rothschild proposed a class called The Quran and the Bible, leading her to attend a conference held by the Interfaith Youth Core. Rothschild met colleagues from The University of Redlands, whom Lewis began working with to create interfaith events on both campuses. While the table at Lewis raised funds for the Inner-City Muslim Network, Redlands hosted a Better Together Ball.
Both events were able to inform more students of the importance of productively discussing religion and deterring Islamophobia. Rothschild plans to celebrate Better Together Days next academic year.