Wednesday, March 25, 2009

White Girl Alert

"Are you from Russia?"

I was minding my own business, working on a presentation for a critical design review I coming up tomorrow, examining graphical circuit outputs, while sitting at a booth. The question came out of nowhere, and I didn't realize he was talking to me. Then he repeated it, sort of stamping his foot to get my attention.

"Are you from Russia?"

Rather confused at such a weird question (although, by now it shouldn't be weird anymore), I stammered, "Excuse me?"

And he asks it again, slowly, because I'm quite possibly Russian and maybe I'm having difficulty understanding him. "Are--you--Russian?"

By this time I'm giving him a rather puzzled look, curious at how this conversation is bound to turn out. "No," I reply simply, without going into details. He is standing about 10 ft away--too far for me to engage in easy discussion.

He starts making motions around his head, "But you're wearing your scarf..." and then it strikes him, "Are you from B---..." He looks at his wife. "What's the name of that place that starts with a B?" I try to contain my laughter while he again looks at me and asks very slowly "Balkans? Are you from somewhere in the Balkans?"

"No," I reply again. I'm amused, not annoyed. He explains, while over-exaggerating his gestures, imitating tying something around his head--that the way I'm wearing my scarf looks very nice. ("Thanks.") But he wants to know how I learned how to tie it that way, since I'm not Eastern European.

I'm baffled, as if it is something complicated. I mean, I've had to show other ladies how to tie an oblong wrap-around scarf, but this is just a square piece, folded into a triangle, wrapped around my head, pinned under my chin, with the front pieces just sort of where ever they fall. Perhaps it was the color or style (olive and dark green with paisleys) that suggested to him I was Russian. I can't say, I've never been to Russia and don't know what he based his assumption on.

But clearly "American convert to Islam" wasn't the first thing he thought of! So I told him it was quite simple, I just pinned the fabric under my chin. That seemed to satisfy him--he left me alone after that.

Now the weird thing is that I haven't been able to find any Eastern European hijabs styled the way I was wearing mine. So what he was really going on about... I have no idea. I should have said, "No, sir, I am a Muslim convert! Would you like to learn about Islam?" But no. I'm a chicken. Opportunity lost.


Amber said...


It's probably because it reminded him of a babushka. Orthodox women cover their hair, at least in worship, and many of them wear a scarf tied under the chin all the time.

If you google, well, I used Russian Orthodox Women, you get lots of pictures of women in a similar style. I even found one on Times Life that had two women in the back that could almost have been hijabi.

Tim said...

Amber hit it on the head - in the Orthodox Church (any variety, really) women are expected to cover their heads while in church. The Russian, Russian-descended, Eastern European and African churches tend to be a bit more observant of it, but even in the more relaxed Greek churches you'll find a few women covering their heads.

My wife's got a sizable collection of scarves, and most of them wouldn't be at all out of place in the Muslim world.

It's funny, though - you will often see women modestly covering their heads at Liturgy but wearing otherwise very immodest outfits.

bint khalid said...

"Amy Baji" :) I found you! Amusing you find yourself being asked where you're from more often than you'd like? I definitely agree with the last line of your post....'opportunity lost' for dawah! :)

Amy said...

Thanks Amber & Tim--you're right, it must've been "Babushka" that the man was thinking of. I was looking for Russian Muslims and European Muslimahs... didn't think to look for Orthodox women! But yeah, that was probably it.

Bint Khalid! :-)
I definitely do find myself being asked quite often where I am from, and yeah, probably more than I'd like. But honestly, I'm sure that Muslim women who aren't converts get the question about as frequently as I do. But it's been something I've had to adjust to I guess since I started covering. :-)

bint khalid said...

Alhamdulilah, I just go along with it now and find it nice that people think I'm everything BUT what I really am! It's like an amusing guessing game :)

btw..I LOVE your blog! :)

Aliocha said...

It is not only in eastern europe that people wear scarfs.
You can also see it in western countries, particularly among the elder ladies.
One of my grandmothers would never be without a scarf covering all of her hair.

Here are some photos of what I mean, from rural Portugal:

jana z. said...

amy i wanted to say that youre far from being a chicken. the fact that you wear your hijab proudly proves just that.