Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, October 30, 2009
Covered Life Gives New Perspective:
Christian Young Woman Spencer Wall Wears Muslim Hijab for a Year
By Ana McKenzie
Daily Texan Staff
Published: Friday, June 5, 2009
Spencer Wall, fourth-year English and sociology major, talks about her experience wearing a hijab on Wednesday night at Kerbey Lane Cafe. Wall, a Christian from West Texas, embarked on a personal experience in which she dressed as a Muslim woman for a year, starting in April.
I first noticed Spencer Wall in my religion and society class toward the end of last semester. She wasn’t particularly outspoken, but the shawl that covered her hair, neck and shoulders made her stand out in the large class.
I usually gave her nothing more than a completely unconscious glance. But when she revealed to the class the decision that she made on April 27, I suddenly became aware of the attention I gave her.
Wall, a 20-year-old sociology and English senior, decided to assume the characteristics and attire of a “typical” Muslim woman for a year starting in late April.
She wears the traditional veil, or “hijab,” and loose-fitting clothing everywhere she goes and does not consume pork or alcohol in public. She avoids eye and physical contact with men and has adopted modest habits like walking with her arms glued to her sides or crossed in front of her to hide her chest.
I witnessed the looks Wall gets on a daily basis when we met at Kerbey Lane on the Drag recently.
She’s wearing a hijab splashed with vibrant shades of green and blue. A long-sleeved, black shirt and floor-length aqua skirt reveals only a few inches of skin.
Some who pass us try to be inconspicuous with their intrigue, limiting themselves to quick side glances. But most don’t even try to be candid with their exaggerated double-takes or blatant stares.
She passes by a group waiting to be seated, and all of them stare at the back of her head as she walks away. One guy even rolls his eyes.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” she says when I tell her about the group. “But look around. They’re not the only ones.”
She insists her decision is not a social experiment but more of a personal learning experience. As a white female from a small, West Texas town, Wall says she wanted to know what it would be like to be part of a “noticeable minority.”
“I’m not representing Muslim women or the Muslim community,” she says. “I just want to know what it’s like to walk in their shoes for a while.”
Initially, Wall elaborates on her “learning experience” when people would ask her questions, the most common being “So, where are you from?” She has abandoned these efforts. Now, when people ask about her attire, she simply says she is not Muslim but wears the hijab because she chooses to do so.
This explanation is not entirely untrue, as Wall admits to not being able to leave her home without the clothing.
“I decided a while ago that I was going to try and not wear the hijab for 24 hours,” she says. “I couldn’t even make it for half that.”
Wall says she receives different reactions when she wears the hijab. A man once fell into a display at Wal-Mart because he was staring at her. One day a group of male patrons at the restaurant where she works refused to be served by her. The same group called her derogatory names. But most of the time she said she is just respectfully avoided.
“I wouldn’t say guys don’t hit on me, but they do so in a very different way now,” she says. “It’s more respectful, less forward.”
The experience has taught Wall to pay attention to smaller details that would make a traditional Muslim lifestyle difficult to follow in the United States.
One day at a clothing store, Wall had to ask for a sheet to cover a gap between the floor and dressing room door so she could hide her bare legs as she changed. Her job as a waitress presents one of the most awkward situations as it naturally entails a lot of physical contact with strangers, which is not allowed for Muslim women, she said.
Wall has grown to appreciate this sort of privacy and, in some ways, respect it. Perhaps the most unexpected outcome of the experience is a newfound devotion to her Christian faith. The Islamic faith requires followers to pray five times a day, the first prayer being at 5 a.m. Though Wall has not yet assumed this tradition, she admits she may in the future, and finds herself praying more often.
“You know we live in a society that is very unconscious of daily religious activities,” she said. “Throughout this experience, I have noticed myself becoming much more aware of God.”
Throughout our conversation, I find myself wanting to discuss the most obvious topic, but can’t bring it up without having to continually justify myself. Doesn’t she feel constricted and even oppressed by the practices she is assuming?
Wall’s candidness to discuss such issues validates my impression of her. She constantly reassures me to ask even the most probing questions and to present any debate, illustrating a maturity and intelligence uncommon for a 20-year-old.
“This experience has taught me to respect a woman’s decision to stay home with her children or wear a hijab or go out and become CEOs,” Wall said.
She finishes her sentence, as I notice a young woman staring at the back of Wall’s head.
Her eyes momentarily follow the outline of the brightly colored veil and then quickly move away. Instead of feeling sorry for Wall and assuming that the attention is warranted by feelings of resentment or fear, I soon wonder if the girl is instead intrigued by the hijab.
Wall admits to only showing her hair in the most intimate of settings, and I realize that I’m slightly jealous of someone who respects something I easily take for granted.
Hijab is not just an Arab social custom. It's a requirement and is explained in the Qu'ran as a requirement for "the believing women." Ashley Tue Oct 20 2009 04:19 I was a Muslimah for two years before I was brave enough to start wearing hijab. I am so shy and was afraid of the attention I would get from wearing it here in the West. I actually get no problems whatsoever from other Americans at all. True, they do tend to "respectfully avoid" me. I actually get more staring and leering from Muslims, which I did not expect at all. Your name Sun Oct 18 2009 08:41 It takes a lot of strength to do that........i ask that allah may guide your to the right way in this world and here after. Just know one thing...........
Dear: Life is test, Islam is the best, Salaat is must, Akhira is for rest, World is only dust, if Quran is in the chest, Nothing need next, Obey Allah first, success will be next.
Your name Sun Oct 18 2009 08:40
It takes a lot of strength to do that........i ask that allah may guide your to the right way in this world and here after. Just know one thing...........
Life is test, Islam is the best, Salaat is must, Akhira is for rest, World is only dust, if Quran is in the chest, Nothing need next, Obey Allah first, success will be next.
Scott Sun Oct 11 2009 02:04
"Her job as a waitress presents one of the most awkward situations as it naturally entails a lot of physical contact with strangers, which is not allowed for Muslim women, she said." Her experiment is quite interesting, and if she wants to learn more about Islam she may want to travel to a few other countries. I'm a white American Jew who has been to Indonesia six times. I've met and spoken with hundreds of Muslim women there wearing the jilbab (jilbab refers to a headscarf in Indonesia). The vast majority of these women were outspoken, gregarious, educated and entertaining.
Remember that the social customs of a few Arab nations does not define Islamic culture or the entirety of the Islamic world.
Your name Mon Sep 28 2009 21:44
The idea that that a Muslim woman doesn't make eye contact and sometimes crosses her hands across her chest to cover seemed to me a bit like it was painting a reclusive image of the Muslim woman. In the professional sense, a Muslim woman should feel confident to make direct eye contact with men and establish her presence, albeit in a respectful, modest way. Also, hijab is a very personal choice, and this article states that the typical Muslim woman wears hijab. That is not necessarily true. Many people determine the Qur'anic verses of hijab as meaning to be modest, cover the chest, cover the neck and chest, cover the hair, cover the face, etc. When you state that a this girl adopted "modest habits" let's talk about what real hijab is all about, its modesty in your speech, your actions, your judgments, even in your thoughts. It's a constant struggle to keep the purity of your faith in parallel accord with your actions.
Physical hijab is only a part of it. So to say that the girl was modest because of the way she walked is very elementary to me. Your name Wed Sep 16 2009 19:51 I'd just like to comment on the phrase "does not consume pork or alcohol in public" Muslims don't eat pork or alcohol weather its in public or private. Ahsan Wed Sep 16 2009 17:08 Spencer your experiment has touched my heart, I cant help wanting the best for you in this life and the next. I pray that Allah bring you back to the mercy of Islam, the religion of your birth.
Md. Yeamin Hossain Tue Sep 15 2009 23:49 Earlier this year, I visited Texas and saw how is their dress ! I pray for her and May Allah SWT accept her as a Muslim and guide her in the straight path of ISLAM ins-Allah. Ameen. We all should pray for her. We. all the muslims should used to express ourselves by talking, hearing and dress that Allah SWT commanded us through HIS Book "The Holly Qu'ran" and messanger "Hazrat Mohammad SWT". Fee amman Allah. Yasmeen Abuagina Sun Sep 13 2009 18:17 I am very appreciative of what you chose to do, but there are a few wrongs in this article that should be corrected. Its not just about covering the hair and the skin, its to gt respect and gain more and more of it. Its also Allah's will to have us women of Islam to cover our hair. I wish it would just be respected just as the Jews, and Christians, and so on are respected. Why are we to be any different? We are just respecting and following our religious beliefs.
I am a Muslim highschool student who has had both views of how people react with or with out the hijab. I just recently bagan wearing the hijab, and I couldn't believe how long I lasted without wearing it. It makes me feel bold and respected and very beautiful. I have noticed most of my friends have changed with me since my decision to wear the hijab. I ignore all the actions and comments made, because I know what 'm doing is right and I love the warmth and feelings of it. I was born and raised here, but I am originally Palestinian. I was raised to act with respect and mannerful, with or without the hijab. I acted in this manner all my life, but i will admit that my manners and respect increased when i began to wear the hijab. So the hijab is not a punishment or cruelty, its actually a very beautiful thing in life and I love it and enjoy wearing it, and I truely don't care what people think about my decisions.
Hazar Thu Sep 10 2009 17:54 What a wonderful experiment! :)
RE Pir Sahib: It is kind of ridiculous to say that Muslim women wear hijab in the west to be part of a gang. It is a big part of worship for Muslim women and it is uh... obligatory. Therefore most girls would wear it, for Allah [swt]. How would you explain the converts, then? They are part of that culture and yet they put hijab (as I did).
If more girls are not wearing their hijabs, it has nothing to do with whether they are accepted or not in a lot of cases. You can't lump all Muslim girls in a category like that, whether or not you approve of the fact that they don't wear hijab as a Muslim man (questionable).
husna haq Wed Sep 9 2009 17:09
Your action moved me. It brought me to tears. All the praises and thanks to the lord, the creator of the heavens and the earth. You are amazing. May he guide you and protect you in this world. ameen. Nazia Ali Tue Sep 1 2009 16:02 what a great story! as a sociology graduate myself, i found this story to be quite endearing. good luck to spencer! may Allah (svt) guide you gracefully as you make your way through your journey... ridza Tue Aug 25 2009 04:00 Hi i'm an assistant researcher from Japan ^_^ it was amazing to read this real original news about Miss Wall....i just wanna say, "Ganbarimashou Kudasai" (goodluck) Sam Thu Aug 20 2009 22:38 This article has been translated into the Malaysian language and currently is making the rounds via e-mail.
I am a Muslim living and working in Malaysia. My wife wears the hijab, here we call it tudung. There is absolutely no problem in wearing that ,working outside and having a professional career. My wife was an auditor with a top international accounting firm and now she is heading a business development department responsible for the region in a multinational company. Wearing the hijab does not hinder her in anyway whilst working.
We travel a lot around the world. We travelled to New York, LA and Houston for work and sometimes for pleasure and we never encountered any problem with how my wife looked with the hijab and all. Passport control was a breeze, and we were treated respectfully. Our first visit to New York was 2 years after 911, we stayed at the marriott marquis in the middle of times square, the nice receptionist who is a white American man greeted us with the Moslem salutation and even recommended the way to the nearest mosque. We felt welcome.
In conclusion, we have never encountered any problem with my wife wearing the hijab. Here and abroad.
Alice Tue Aug 18 2009 06:49 What a fantastic, refreshing article!
I hope God continues to guide Spencer Wall. She is an amazing woman.
philip Sat Aug 15 2009 20:50 julia, islam isn't a race Dude Wed Aug 12 2009 16:13 Im really impressed by your commitment in this "experiment" and im glad to hear you learned something positive from it. Candace Mon Aug 3 2009 13:44 opps blooper in my last comment.
What makes it impossible is social resistance. And lacking social tolerance for.
Candace Mon Aug 3 2009 13:42 And one last thing. I believe the author or sociology student here has a mispreception about the cover. First she is discounting all the reasons why a person would wear it.
1. It's clothing- some people like more.
2. It's clothing- some people believe they should wear it.
3. It's faith- people believe its binding in faith.
4. It's culture- many people wear the hijab not just Muslims.
5. It's clothing- and its not opressive- people in society oppress women.
My conclusion by her statement that she can appreciate the choice of a women staying home or if a women chooses to go out to be a CEO. Can be conceived that she truly doesn't understand the way people treat women. To identify Hijab as to staying home with kids, is a misconception, women can be a business women in a hijab as well. The thing she missed is that what makes it impossible in America is the lack of social resistance that allows women to working America in a hijab in all spectrum of the economic industry. From Service jobs to the professional class. That what she should truly study. The social mobility of hijabi women in America.
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