Sophomore Iesha Said remembers well the warm, fateful day when she and two Muslim friends – all donning hijabs – left their mosque in Denver after prayer service and walked to McDonalds to purchase ice cream. Ice cream in hand, the trio began walking home when one friend accidentally dropped her cone.
Disappointed in their lost treat, they continued down the road when a woman driving by stopped and shouted at them to pick it up. After a long attempt at de-escalation they acquiesced, thinking it would end the uncomfortable situation.
The woman, Said recalls, made a quick u-turn and began hollering from her car, “You terrorists, go back to your own country.”
The incident was a grim prelude to the discrimination that Said and other Muslim students at Knox maintain they have had to face.
Now a sophomore, Iesha, and other Muslim students at Knox, face this type of discrimination every day. Whether it be a well-meaning bank teller asking where a citizen, whose ID clearly reads Colorado, is from or a friendly staff member in the cafeteria assuming the brown skin and head scarf means they are an international student. Iesha explained she has found in her experience that racism like this is not malicious and happens because of stereotypes and people making assumptions based on her looks.
“There are days where I’m happy to talk about Islam,” she said. “But there are days where you don’t. I’m a regular person.”
Knox’s Islamic Club works to combat this ignorance with open dialogues in a safe space where people are free to ask questions and share their experiences.
Currently, Said is the only hijabi, or Muslim who wears the hijab, at Knox, an isolating experience to say the least. Her Co-President sophomore Shayan Nadeem, an international student from Pakistan, struggles with the transition. In his home country, Muslims are the majority.
“Racism doesn’t really exist in Pakistan, it’s more of a class system,” fellow Pakistani international student sophomore Amn Farooq said.
For many Muslim students at Knox, even a short sojourn into Galesburg can attract unwanted and unpleasant attention from sniggering, hushed whispers, jeers and snide remarks. Nadeem remembers getting on a Galesburg city bus to get groceries and overhearing a mother and daughter joking about ‘bombs’ and ‘brace yourselves’ because of his presence.
Nadeem admitted that he was more surprised than anything – shocked by the blatancy of it.
These incidents have prompted Nadeem and Said to create more cultural events geared toward promoting more open dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. They both expressed pride in their success, citing requests from elementary schools to come give presentations to the third and fifth grade students to educate them on Islam and the Muslim community.
As a hijabi, these events are particularly important for Said. The 20-year-old Ethiopian-American said she sometimes feels uncomfortable on campus and fears going into town alone. Iesha talked about checking over her shoulder in constant fear. Just last summer, a young 16-year-old Muslim girl in Virginia was chased down and murdered.
“My father was really worried . . . he was checking the neighborhoods around Knox. It was hard for him,” she said about first moving here.
Since Galesburg does not have a mosque, she and other Muslim students have to plan nearly a week ahead of time to get to Peoria if they want to go to Friday or Saturday prayers. This is a struggle for her. Back in Colorado she only has to go a few blocks to get to her family’s mosque. Though the lack of places of worship differs, the fear is still the same. Said’s home mosque has been vandalized dozens of times and has even received bomb threats on a few occasions.
The administration does try to provide for student’s requests, but issues persist.
Eating is a struggle. Muslims are not allowed to eat any pork products: no ham, no bacon. This is part of a halal diet and many students have talked at length about the lack of options they have. The Gizmo and Grab and Go will have one halal option daily and the Caf will usually have a few options, though labeling mistakes are not uncommon.
Nadeem mentions many incidents where he’s gone in for brunch or supper and gotten something that he believed was halal and was labeled as such but then found that he couldn’t eat it as it contained pork. In most cases, this has been due to halal foods being prepared on the same grills or labeling mistakes.
All of these incidents are caused by a lack of understanding and communication. Islamic Club, with the help of Monica Corsaro, the director of spiritual life at Knox, is working together to bridge this gap by taking students to Peoria or Rock Island once or twice a month for Friday prayers and providing a space in the cottage for students to host it themselves. Corsaro has also tried to work with Dining Services directly to order and provide more options. This winter the club hosted “Mocha with a Muslim” and also repeated the Hijab Day event that they hosted last year.
“Mocha with a Muslim” is a meeting held in the Gizmo every Thursday afternoon from 4 to 5:30 p.m. where students and residents from Galesburg have the opportunity to sit down and have coffee with a Muslim student. They can talk about religion and stereotypes or just talk about how bad the NFC playoffs were this year.
The annual hijab event happened during I-Fair with the forum on Wednesday Jan. 31 where students learned about and received their own green hijab to take home. Students then wore those hijabs on Thursday Feb. 1 with a debriefing forum held later that night. Last year they had 67 students attend the hijab forum and had similar numbers this year.
This event, held around the world, lets women learn about the practical and religious reasons behind the hijab. However, this is the first time in the Knox event’s three year history that it was held on World Hijab Day. At Knox, a female guest chaplin from Northwestern, Tahera Ahmad, ran the discussion helping students understand.
Said appreciated having someone so knowledgeable there to lead the conversation.
“The debrief was one of the best parts, the highlight,” she said. “You could see people asking questions and sharing their own personal experiences.”
For Said, wearing the hijab is a religious choice that she makes every day, and it is not a decision she makes lightly. Many Muslim women have chosen to no longer wear their hijabs in fear of retaliation and she has heard stories of young girls actually being told by their parents to no longer wear them.
Said wants Islamic Club to show the Knox community what Islam is and hope to show people that it really isn’t scary. They are confident that through greater understanding of each other’s religious practices, people will find that Islam is a fun and interesting religion with similarities to Christianity, Judaism and all of the other diverse religious practices around Knox.
“I had friends come up to me all day telling me, ‘the campus is green, you made the campus green,’” Nadeem said.
Corsaro was among the women who participated in this event and noted the feeling of isolation she felt. The women who participated were able to come together and see others who’d had similar experiences that day. But Said, on a regular day at Knox, does not get that pay off. Though events like this won’t make being a hijabi at Knox less isolating, there will be at least a handful of people who will go home with a better understanding of her and her religion.
Said huddled into the warmth of the Alumni Room of Old Main after a long hard day filled with midterms and mixed emotions. Having escaped the cold, she finds a group of women inside, some she knew and others she didn’t. Every single one of those women wore a green hijab that day in support of her and others like her. They were complete strangers, who decided for one day to walk a moment in her shoes and try to understand her experience.