Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series comes from J.R. Goudeau, yet another internet friend, introduced through an internet friend…Someday I will have to leave this small country and meet these fabulous women in person. J.R. blogs at Love is What You Do and doesn’t shy away from deep, think-ful topics. Every time I read a post I feel challenged and changed, including this one. The journey she shares is one adults are often unable to articulate or too proud to confess, and it is beautiful.

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

I understood in theory that it might be difficult for a woman who wears hijab to live out her daily life in a culture that doesn’t understand her choices, but it was not until I became friends with a group of Iraqi refugee women in Austin a few years ago that I began to see how hard it truly is. I cannot say that I understand the difficulties and I want to be clear that, unlike many of the fantastic writers in this series, I am not writing from first-hand experience.

I am writing as an outsider and as a friend. And I am not addressing women who wear the hijab, but other people who are around them, other outsiders, other potential friends. My story is simple: my children were changed by women who patiently helped them see past their differences.

But we didn’t start off that way.

I work with a group of Burmese refugee women in an apartment complex near downtown Austin. Over time, several other refugees moved into the area and we began to hang out with them and their children. There were refugees from Afghanistan, Cuba, Somalia, Nepal, Burundi and Iraq. It was like a small United Nations when the kids played pick-up soccer. For several years, our non-profit and others rented an apartment and offered tutoring and other community service programs in the apartment complex.

We never knew who would walk in next. My co-founder Caren and I are raising kids in what seems to be an unorthodox way (at least in our little corner of the world). Our kids have been exposed to all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds. We talk about skin color, hair color, eye color, cultural differences. Our oldest kids are the same age and together they’ve eaten spicy noodles, Cuban cookies and Nepali tea. It’s what’s normal for them.

Which makes the cultural faux pas that happened one night when they were three so particularly terrible to us.

A woman walked in to meet us; she had been a translator for the U.S. army and she was coming to the community center to see if we could help her revamp her resume. She was wearing a dark hijab and a dark dress. We were chatting and asking questions about her cute little girl and her new apartment.

My husband heard the little three-year-olds whispering as they pointed at the woman. He managed to catch our daughter but not my friend Caren’s daughter.

With all her three-year-old bounce, she ran up to our new friend and said in a bright little voice, “You’re a witch!”

We could have died.

The woman handled it beautifully. She leaned down and got on the little girl’s level and talked sweetly and calmly about her hijab. Caren knelt as well, gently explaining that we don’t use that word, that our friend was wearing a dark dress, that she was not a witch.

Her daughter, confused, seemed to get it finally. She nodded sagely. “Oh, so you’re a FRIENDLY witch.”

We’ve laughed about that story since then; our friend lived in the apartment complex for a year before moving on to another place. She was gracious and sweet about the whole thing. It was a childish moment, as bad as anything little kids say when they’re first learning about the differences between people. (And to be clear, my husband was having the same talk with our daughter in the other room—they both said it, he just caught her faster than Caren’s daughter.)

Their reaction shows, I think, the way Western kids, at least the ones in my life, are often conditioned to view people who are different from them as bad or evil or Other. In our girls’ lives, the ideas they associated with a long dark dress and dark hijab came from the depictions of “evil” characters in Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and other movies where the witch is dressed in dark colors. At three it was understandable, even if it was horrifying to their parents. And we are working like crazy to overcome those prejudices in the lives of our own children.

It was another woman, whom I’ll call Noori, who truly made a difference for our girls. During our weekly meetings with the Burmese refugee artisans, we hired Noori, who was also an Iraqi refugee, to babysit the kids. Week after week, Noori walked in wearing her hijab and loved on our children. Our daughters had a lot of questions at first, but it soon became Noori’s hijab became normal. They were much more concerned with whether she brought markers or glitter for her to play with.

Once we were shopping at Lowe’s and the woman who checked us out was wearing a hijab. I expected my girls to say something. The oldest got thoughtful, which is usually the sign she’s about to burst out with something inappropriate, but we made it all the way out of the store without her saying anything. Later, in the car, she brought it up.

“Mommy, that woman wore the cloth on her head that Noori wears.”

“You’re right, she did,” I said. “It’s called a hijab.” I was ready to talk about religious differences or cultural practices, but I was waited to hear her response.

She was quiet for a minute more. “I love Noori.”

To me, it was the perfect response. I love how Noori has changed my kids’ perceptions by being herself.

It’s a small example; I have seen much worse things happen to my Iraqi and Somali friends. People regularly assume these gorgeous, intelligent, brave women are repressed or terrorists or ignorant. As their friend, I am indignant. I also admire them immensely. I cannot imagine the gumption it sometimes takes to wear the hijab in Austin.

But I can say, by being themselves, I think they are quietly changing perceptions.

By loving Noori, by playing hopscotch and jumping rope and coloring with Noori’s kids, our children have learned a lot at a young age. And I am deeply grateful for my Iraqi friends’ patience in not dismissing our kids but loving them despite their frank reaction.

I admire and respect any woman or man who chooses to show their devotion to God through their habits and clothing and life choices. And I suspect that our small story demonstrates a universal truth: being friends with people makes it difficult to objectify them. Perhaps the answer for most Westerners, before judging, is to seek out and listen to women who have good stories and compelling reasons for the choices they have made.

At least for me, that worked out pretty well.

Jessica Scarf Headshot

J.R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found writing about books, babies and Burmese refugees or on twitter


Other Posts in the Series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati