For a Muslim American in the Middle East, a new kind of prejudice
For a college student from Maryland, studying in an Islamic country presented a different set of problems ... Baltimore Sun
As a Muslim from the United States traveling to study in the Middle East, I assumed this would be the end to discrimination and prejudice toward me for being a Muslim, but I soon discovered otherwise. Even in a Muslim country, there were ways in which I felt discriminated against — although these differed from the type of prejudice I had become used to as a Muslim growing up in Maryland.
In the U.S., I often faced confusion and/or fear regarding my religion, especially as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab. People would look at me oddly and often publicly denounce my beliefs. Everyone from neighbors to politicians seems to think that it is OK to be fearful and suspicious of Islam and Muslims, especially following the tragic events of Sept. 11 (which some use to justify those beliefs).
Having faced this all my life, I looked at NYU Abu Dhabi's location optimistically — not only because it would be a new place and was an area of interest of mine, but because it was a Muslim country where I would be more accepted. But I soon discovered that even in the United Arab Emirates, there are certain expectations about the kind of person I was supposed to be as a Muslim.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way trying to go to a concert in Dubai. My friends were ushered in, but I was told that I would not be able to enter wearing the hijab. It was a moment that stopped me in my tracks: I was being discriminated against as a Muslim in a Muslim country.
I soon realized there were a host of laws that restricted me as a Muslim and that were intended to enforce my morality. These ranged from limitations on the sale of pork and alcohol to where I was and was not permitted to go (e.g. Muslims are not allowed in nightclubs because a proper Muslim should not be there). Some of these made sense, such as the laws regarding halal meat in a majority Muslim country, but others were less obvious, dictating who I was allowed to be with and where I was supposed to be. I went from being feared for my religion in the U.S. to having my religion dictated to me abroad.
In both situations, I experienced prejudice, but for different reasons and in different ways. In the U.S., I felt prejudice more in the court of public opinion, while my experiences in the UAE led to prejudice enshrined in law. In both cases, the determining factor — what identified me as a Muslim — was the hijab. In some situations, I was told that the law specifically applied to those in "national dress" (e.g. an abaya, hijab or dishdasha). I was even told that if I removed my hijab, I would be welcome to enter.
There were also ways that I felt more comfortable in both countries as a Muslim. In the United States, I was free to practice my religion in the way that felt right to me, and it was not dictated to me by others through laws or societal values. I was also part of a more close-knit community that was more accepting of different ways of practicing and participation.
In the United Arab Emirates, I immediately felt at home at first, finally being in a country where I was no longer the minority. I could hear the call to prayer and mosques; places to pray would now be easy to find and access, ranging from mosques on every street corner to places to pray in malls and movie theaters. I was also excited for the fact that I now blended in and was part of a larger Muslim community.
I have learned that prejudice takes many different forms, sometimes more subtle or more overt. But prejudice is prejudice. It affects me regardless of its form. As a Muslim, I have experienced a wide array of prejudices, from how I am expected to act to how I am expected to dress to how I am expected to worship. I have learned that regardless of the source of the restrictions, they have one thing in common: They aim to hold me back from being who I fully am.