“How do you feel when you hear the Muslim call to prayer?”
The workshop leader had asked the question. I was at the annual conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, attending a workshop on “Feminism, Faith, and Freedom: The Power of Commonality, The Dignity of Difference.” We were halfway through the workshop when Letty, the instructor, posed the question to a class of 8 Muslims and 30 Jewish women.
“I think it’s gutsy,” said a Jewish woman.
Its subject of lawsuits. You have church bells ringing every Sunday, but the Muslim call to prayer is litigated. The instructor posed her next question.
On Yarmulka, Payot, & Beard
“How do you feel when you see a man in a Yarmulka, payot, and beard?”
“What’s a payot?” I asked. She explained that it was the curls worn by Orthodox Jewish men and boys.
And how long have I lived in NY!
I heard a Jewish woman say that it made her angry, and she felt guilty at feeling angry. I heard more negative comments from the Jewish women, and this was a first for me. I had no idea that Orthodox garb evoked negative sentiments in the non-Orthodox community. Hold it! Don’t generalize. No one person speaks for a whole community. But wait! Let me think about it for a bit. Are intra-faith issues more potent than interfaith issues? My sample size is too small to draw any conclusion from one one-hour session. But I can conclude that in this arena—sectarian divide—we are no different.
A Muslim woman spoke up: “I lower my gaze…because I know they won’t talk to me.”
My turn: “The first time I saw them, I asked, ‘Who are they?’ Now when I see one, I want to get to know them.” I said. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to actually have a conversation with an Orthodox Jew about their practices?
Hijab or Nikab
“How do you feel when you see a woman in a hijab?” Letty asked.
Now listen to this, I mean read this:
Jewish: At first I would feel that this is a woman I cannot talk to…that if this woman knew I was a Jew, would she hate me? But now all that has changed. Now I am attracted to it.
Jewish: I would like us to hold a workshop on how to tie a headscarf. (Hijab)
Isn’t that cool!
How would you feel if a Muslim woman got elected to Congress?
Muslim: I would say, YES.
Jewish: “That what America stands for. It would affirm our ideals. I want to vote for a hijabi in congress.”
Bravo! That is Sisterhood. Can I give you a hug.
And how do you feel when you see a woman in a nikab?” the instructor asked. By the way, the nikab is not the burqa, it is the veil covering the face except the eyes.
Now the discussion really got going. There were as many opinions as were women in the room—well, almost. This is where I got so hyper that I lost track of who was saying what. Sad and oppressive said some; liberating said others.
Jewish: “In a workshop, we were asked to wear the burqa. Some felt claustrophobic and hot, some felt dirty, and some felt a sense of freedom.”
Jewish: “I have spoken with women who wore the nikab, and their take was that this is not something they are forced into, nor do they feel oppressed, they feel protected when they are covered. Many wear it by choice.”
My take: Covering the face conceals one’s identity. When your identity is concealed, you cannot be held accountable for your actions, and that power can be misused. There is a reason why one is asked for a picture I.D. I know people who have gone into places they are not supposed to, and been with people they are not supposed to; and have gotten away with it. It gives them undue power over men, where they can see men without being seen.
“How do you stereotype Muslims? Good stereotypes and negative stereotypes?” She asked the Jewish women.
I heard pious, family oriented, education seekers….funny.
Funny! And I am not hearing anything negative.
“And how do you Muslims stereotype Jews?”
Community oriented….family oriented….
And we are not saying anything negative.
Were we just being polite? Can I be honest! I am in this room, at this conference, at considerable expense, away from my husband for two days, missing the weekend away from my grandchildren….for a reason. I am drawn to these women. Perhaps I can say the same for all the others.
“What negative stereotypes do you see in Jewish people?” she asked the Jewish women.
Answer: Money grabbing…neurotic…materialistic…self-righteous…
Jeesh! That is the power of safe space.
“And Muslims, what negative stereotypes do you see in yourselves?”
Jeesh! We were looking across the room at our Jewish sisters, and exposing our vulnerabilities. Did I say Jewish sisters? I meant ‘sisters.’
“In interfaith dialogue, should women dialogue only with women, or should men be included?”
You can guess how we voted.
There were hugs, more hugs, some fumbling for business cards, digging out a pen & paper…. No one had walked out; no one wanted to leave.
Two days later, two Muslim women were elected to congress, one with the hijab.
If you missed part 1 of this amazing session, click on: You Cannot Leave The Room