I started reading Terry Gilliam’s book, Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir. The first line of the book read “I was always frightened to take acid.” Here we go, I thought. I imagined we were getting right to the craziness that led to movies like Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Instead, Gilliam launched into tales of growing up in rural Minnesota. He described spending days outside, roaming land and having adventures. Church being not only a Sunday sermon but a source of social activity through barbecues and square dances. He rode pigs and read lots of books. Swap Colorado for Minnesota and cows for pigs, and his childhood didn’t sound so different from mine, at least in those respects.
Then the Gilliam family moved to California. Gilliams writes:
“The one thing that was truly different about arriving in California was that this was the first time I knew there were Jews in the world- not just in the Bible.”
Again I felt a kinship. Growing up in rural Colorado, our small town had at least ten different churches, but every single one of them was some sort of variety of Christianity. The closest I got to Judaism was in a history class. When I finally made a Jewish friend in my thirties, I questioned her relentlessly about the religion, my curiosity knowing no bounds. She was kind in discussing it with me, considering she hadn’t been practicing for quite some time. There is something in my nature that attracts me to what is unfamiliar- at least when it comes to religion.
I was reminded of that experience a couple of days ago when my own church announced an event to teach women to tie hijabs for World Hijab Day.
I attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation- or what I like to call “Hippie Church.” We do not pray to a specific god or teach from a single text. We accept people from all faiths and backgrounds. We say that love is our doctrine and service is our prayer. Doesn’t get much more hippie than that.
Our congregation tries to bring aspects of many religions and movements into our services. There is a Buddhist study group and an interfaith action committee. We have a “Black Lives Matter” banner in front of our building, and took part in the Women’s March. So I was not surprised to hear of the event for World Hijab Day.
World Hijab Day is according to their website “an open invitation to Muslims and Non-Muslims to experience the hijab for a day.” The facebook page for this event says this is a movement to “stand against bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice against Muslim women worldwide.”
I was immediately curious. As a feminist, I do not like to see discrimination against any woman. After reading about Donald Trump’s changes to immigration policy, I fear we are sending a very wrong and disturbing message to the rest of the world.
But aren’t hijabs used to subjugate women? Can I be a feminist and still wear one?
It is strange that I experienced such a strong debate within myself, considering I did not even know how to pronounce the word hijab. I asked a few other friends how to pronounce it and they didn’t know either. It is sad but not all that unusual that I have formed opinions about a religion I know virtually nothing about.
As coincidence would have it, my friend and I had decided to tour a local mosque before even hearing about World Hijab Day. What a perfect opportunity to ask questions and learn more.
Upon arrival, I as struck by the meticulous beauty of the mosque. I’m sure like all churches there are some mosques that are better maintained than others, but this mosque was gorgeous.
We took off our shoes and headed up the stairs to the prayer hall. A gentleman was waiting across the hall and motioned us to come closer. I felt unsure of myself and it took me a few seconds to move my feet. Were women allowed in the prayer hall? Should I have my head covered? Do I shake his hand or is that disrespectful? The man motioned again, and my feet got moving.
He welcomed us warmly and told us the tour was a chance for non-muslims to learn and ask questions. He gave us a brief rundown of the hall. He pointed out the stripes made from carpet, creating rows for people to line up to pray together. He said the lines also symbolized how everyone is equal before God. You could be a billionaire in the back row or a poor man in the front, and you are all the same before God. He pointed out that the mosque had no statues, similar to the Christian idea of not worshiping false idols. Instead the mosque uses tiles and architectural elements to add decoration.
He explained how Muslims gather multiple times a day to pray. This serves a dual purpose. First, to keep God in the forefront of the mind, for the purpose of taking God with you in your actions. Second, to create a community. If you regularly show up for prayer and one day you miss, someone might notice and inquire as to how you are doing. He told us that community is a cornerstone of the Muslim religion.
The comment he made that resonated the most was that the Muslim religion was like an XY graph. The vertical line represents connecting with God and gaining inner peace. The horizontal line represents spreading that peace and goodwill within your community. Unitarian Universalists are also big on taking care of others. Its great to commune with God, but if its not manifested in your life, what good does it do?
I asked about the hijab and what it represents. He said it is not meant treat women as inferior. For them it is a symbol of their modesty and reverence before God.
I did not come away feeling like I knew everything about hijabs or the Islamic faith. But I did come away thinking that this mosque was a place of peace. I can’t speak for every person that attends church there, but the man I spoke to seemed to have a great respect not only for women, but for people in general. He was kind and thoughtful and did his best to make us feel comfortable. When I asked about World Hijab Day, he phoned a friend to see if she would be willing to show us how to tie the scarves. I did not end up meeting up with the contact, but I did text with her and she provided usual information. She had just done an event at another local church where she taught women like me how to tie hijabs.
Whatever your views, whoever you believe in, I think we could all benefit from greater understanding. We don’t always have to agree, but so long as we are not imposing harm, we should offer respect. My time is put to better use learning more than debating points I don’t even understand.
I may not be able to walk a mile in your shoes, but I can spend a day wearing a hijab. I’m curious to see what the experience will bring.