by Raima Amin
“Where are you from?”
I sigh, exhausted. I am not tired physically; my shift has only begun, but I’m worn out by these persistent four words, posed as a question, which seem to follow me everywhere without reprieve. Where do I begin this time?
“Oh, I was born and raised here.” I try to appear as if the question surprised me, to make them doubt whatever prompted them to ask. Sometimes, if I say these words just right, or if the patient is already disoriented due to age or illness, I’ll catch a look of embarrassment cross their faces.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” they’ll say. “For some reason, your skin just looked a little dark to me.” I smile sympathetically, as if I have no idea what they’re talking about. I hope that my response will let the moment pass, that it will allow me to do my job without entertaining any follow-up questions of what a brown, hijabi girl like myself is doing here in Montana.
Most of the time, however, I’m not so lucky. “So what nationality are you?” is almost bound to come next.
“American.” I raise my voice slightly and look them directly in the eye to ensure my words are clear. This is typically the forking point in the conversation. Some will find it an appropriate moment to end their inquiries, but most are left unsatisfied. What I have suggested is unthinkable, and their minds simply won’t allow them to accept it. The idea that I am an American. That I was born and raised in Bozeman, and thereby, also qualify as a Montanan, even a Bozemanite. No, somehow this idea is too foreign to allow. After all, this is Montana. Rural, under-developed, Montana. There may be diversity in places like New York or California, but Montana? No, this place is for 3rd and 4th generation cowboys and ranchers, with skin that is as white as white can be. I’m often amazed by how this deeply ingrained idea can allow people to supersede the most basic pretenses of common sense.
“So…how long have you been here?”
I’m tempted to frown and raise my eyebrows. Didn’t I just say I was born here? Now you take a guess. Instead I respond calmly. “Well, I’ve lived here my whole life, so…it’s been about twen-ty…”
My audience watches anxiously. I realize they won’t be satisfied until I spell it out completely. “Twenty years.” I smile again, for that is all I can do to hide my frustration.
“Wow, that’s longer than I’ve been here!”
Yup, that’s what I figured. It is so often the case.
“Great place to live, huh?”
“Yeah, I love it! Anyway, I’m here to draw some blood from you…”
“Oh that’s right. Sorry about that.”
Finally. I am allowed to do what I came here for. Draw some blood, perhaps do an EKG, and promptly get out of their way. I am not paid to display my brown-ness, my hijab, or entertain questions from curious patients. Those come unsolicited. It’s not that I don’t mind answering. I could not be more proud of who I am, and I’m honored to be an ambassador for my faith. But sometimes, I just wish I could go unnoticed. It grows tiresome to constantly be the center of attention. Sometimes, I want only to elicit the same feelings of dread and discomfort that is prompted at the sight of other phlebotomists, my coworkers. Instead, my presence seems to trigger unending curiosity and a long train of questions. The “Where are you from?” questions are often followed by another series, with the related theme of “Why do you look that way?” It usually goes something like this.
“So, if you’re an American, then why do you dress that way?”
“Oh, that’s because I’m Muslim.” I want to tell them more, but phlebotomy is not the most ideal setting in which to engage in long theological discussions. I glance down at my hand-held “Mobilab”, displaying several other room numbers spread across the hospital where blood draws are due. I know if I don’t move quickly, my pager will begin beeping incessantly. I really don’t have time to stand here and play 20 Questions.
“Does your husband require you to dress that way?” I know they’re trying to be polite, but these questions are shocking nonetheless. Now I feel obligated to answer, to correct their misconceptions, to show them how far off they are.
“Well, I don’t have a husband,” I begin, as I tell them about the true motivations behind my choice of dress. I try to explain, in as few words as possible, the wisdom behind my modesty and the free will in all my choices. When I’m finished, I’m glad I took the time to share. My audience, often times consisting of the patient and several family members or friends, have a look of new-found respect. They finally understand, Alhamdulillah.
“That’s beautiful,” they say. “How long is your hair?” I think they realize that this isn’t entirely appropriate, but they take a chance anyway. “Oh I don’t know. Medium, I guess,” I have no idea what that means, and I hope they feel the same way. What I really want to explain is why they should never ask that of a hijabi, but I leave the message to be understood by my body language, my unspoken words.
“Well, it was nice to meet you!” I wave and dispose of my gray gloves now sticking to my hands with sweat, an indication that I have already been here too long. I close the door as I exit. I sigh, this time with satisfaction.
In all honesty, I’m glad they ask. I’d rather answer them myself than have them seek out answers from other sources that are untruthful or misleading. But at the same time, it feels like a cumbersome task, and I don’t know if I’m equipped to handle it. I’ve always been a quiet person, much more comfortable as a listener than a speaker. And yet, more and more, I’ve found that my commitment to Islam has increasingly pushed me into the spotlight. I thought wearing hijab would be a personal journey, part of a larger struggle to follow my religion as it was prescribed, in hopes of benefiting from its infinite wisdom and blessings.
However, I soon realized that practicing Islam, although a personal experience, requires many outward involvements. Unless I choose to become a hermit, I cannot expect to follow Islamic principles and go unnoticed by others. It’s impossible to pray five times a day, every day, all within the privacy of my own home. As a result, I’ve grown accustomed to praying behind bookshelves in my school library, where fellow patrons unknowingly come upon my location. During the month of fasting, I am often offered food during the day, obliging me to explain myself, explain Ramadan, and educate others about Islam. Considering this, it seems foolish to expect that I can wear hijab and not be questioned for it. Not in Montana, where strangers wave to each other in the streets and pass friendly greetings to those they have never met before. Perhaps I am lucky. I’ve never had the option of “blind faith,” because even if I don’t question why I practice Islam, there will always be others around me who will ask, compelling me to seek out answers to explain my faith. I don’t believe Montanans are unusually ignorant about Islam. Maybe they are just unusually curious. They are not satisfied to accept the rampant stereotypes when presented with the perfect opportunity to find out for themselves. When I knock on patient doors to draw blood, I present such an opportunity, and they embrace it. Instead of being frustrated for standing out, perhaps I should be grateful for their good nature. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by their questions, perhaps I should appreciate their curiosity for having helped me to further understand myself.
Thank you for wondering, for demanding the truth, and thank you for asking. I’m happy to answer.