Growing Up O’Muslim

I wrote this piece about two years ago, please forgive any mistake I may have made :)

I am 6 feet tall.

I have  green eyes.

I have freckles.

I was born Muslim.

I am a third-generation Irish-American daughter of converts.

My dad converted over 27 years ago, while my mom converted around 25 years ago. My mom whose family is agnostic, converted through Muslim friends of hers. My dad whose family is Catholic, also converted through Muslim friends but he also had an experience which brought him closer to making his decision to convert.

My dad was driving his friend’s camper on a trip they were taking. Inside of his friend’s camper was a sign that said “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His messenger. My dad’s friend was not Muslim, but he was appreciative of the teachings of Islam. To make a long story short, my dad fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the camper. He was ejected through the front windshield and ended up breaking both of his ankles. As soon as he made his way back to the camper wreckage, the sign which he had seen was still affixed to the wall and it was the first thing that he came to.


Well most people are, even more so since I recently started wearing the
hijab, or headscarf.

I chose to start wearing hijab on March 9. I had been going through
difficulties in my personal life and during that time God was the only
consistency in my life- when I felt I had no one else to turn to, He was
there. In Islam, modesty is commended in women (as well as men)- not only in appearance, but also in demeanor. Regardless of images that are shown daily on television, one of the key points of Islam, which is also written in chapter two of the Quran, is that there is no compulsion in Islam. Meaning whether a person wants to follow the guidelines of Islam or not, people cannot force religion upon each other, it is strictly between each individual and God.

Muslim women do not cover to please the men in their life. On the contrary, it has to do with their own self-respect, their own sense of self-worth and their own sense of independence. When you see a Muslim woman on the street she stands out. The hijab is worn so that we are respected. In today’s society where anorexia is rampant and plastic surgery is the norm, hijab is a form of liberation from these pressures. In Islam, we are told that each woman in her individuality is beautiful, there is no standard for physical beauty. We value inner beauty far more than outer beauty.

What many people forget is that other women of the book, both Jews and
Christians, were also instructed to cover their hair out of modesty. All one has to do is look at the statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary. She is always depicted with long loose clothing and a head covering just like the hijab.

Personally, I felt it was the right time for me because I believe that it
brings me closer to God and I wanted to do something that was for Him after all he has given me and brought me through. I understand how this may be hard for someone who does not believe in God to understand, but I suppose it is one of those things where you just have to step back and say to each his or her own.

Before wearing the hijab, people were shocked to find out that I am Muslim and their first reaction was usually that they thought I converted for a man. When I began to cover, the conversations I have had with people because of it have become quite interesting. It is such a nice feeling to be told by a stranger that they think you are beautiful in your hijab because they genuinely mean it, it’s not just some guy trying to get into your pants- or should I say..hijab?

I was recently at the cosmetics department of Macy’s where I used to work, getting my makeup done. The girl who was doing it was asking me about my hijab since she had never seen me wearing it when we worked together. I explained to her my reasons for wearing it and she was fascinated by the whole idea of it. She then told me how proud she was of me for doing it, Her exact words were: “You have balls, I could never do what you do.” We then got into a whole discussion about the way she feels when she sees a Muslim at the airport as well as society’s overall view of Muslims. I left the makeup counter that night not only looking a helluva lot better but also with a new perspective of how some people view Muslims and she told me she also learned a lot and had more of an understanding of Muslims.

I also used to work in a hotel, which brought about interesting interactions.

I have been asked if I am Iranian, Mormon, whether I am cold, or the gentleman who feigned shock when he found out that Muslim women can wear makeup, bless his heart.

There was a woman who, in the middle of check-in, said “So you are Muslim. But you couldn’t possibly have been born Muslim, so when did you convert?”

When people make comments to me like that, it bothers me, I get offended, but then I remind myself that it is only through ignorance that a person can say something like that. I would rather a random person ask me whatever questions they have about my beliefs than that they remain in ignorance.

No, we are not pagans. We follow the same pattern of other Abrahamic faiths. One God. Many Prophets. One final messenger. We are taught the same basic tenets of other religions: do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, no sex outside of marriage, do good, give to the poor, help the weak. One of the five pillars of Islam which include faith, prayer, fasting during Ramadan, performing hajj at least once if financially able, is giving to the poor and those less fortunate than you if you have the money to do so.

I take it upon myself to try to educate each person I meet and to set an
example as an American Muslim woman who can go to work and go to school and will one day get married, have children and have a career as a journalist.

I look to my Mother who wears the hijab as my example. When we were younger and people would stare at her, she would just smile and wave at them.

Last summer before I started wearing the hijab I took my sister who wears the hijab and her kids to Disneyland. People there were so rude they would stare at her, talk about her and even point. My sister did not even notice, but at that point I had to unleash this Irish temper of mine and I would ask them what they were looking at or say something to that effect. Now that I have put on the hijab, I understand my mother’s and
sister’s reactions. Do not get me wrong; I have no problem laying the smack down on someone who insults me or my religion, but if a person is ignorant or does not understand why I do what I do, I am happy to talk with them about it.

Often I try and make light of a situation because even though it hurts to be judged based on my outward appearance, what else can I do but laugh? When I was last on an airplane, I was sitting in the front row, prime location. Over half of the plane loaded and not one person sat next to me, meanwhile the rows surrounding me filled up. Finally a black man came and sat down next to me. I turned to him and motioning to my hijab told him that it was smart of him to sit next to me because on the full flight it was likely that the seat between us would remain empty. At first he seemed surprised to hear me say that but then he laughed and said, “between your scarf and my blackness that seat is guaranteed to stay empty!” 

People get uncomfortable and do not want to talk about prejudices, but the fact is, they exist and we all are prejudiced to some degree. The only way to address it and completely erase it from society toward not only Muslims, but all groups of people, is through conversation.

During the Gulf War, my eldest sister’s hijab was ripped off and trash was thrown on her by some boys on the school bus. Thankfully, such incidents are rare, but prejudices exist.

Growing up hearing Muslim women are abused, that they are not treated as equals, I thought to myself, that is not the Islam that I know. My father,in his nearly 25 years of marriage to my mother, has never raised a hand to her, has never said a harsh word to her. He treated her as his partner, as his equal and she has maintained her own identity.

Often times culture and religion is mixed up and some people often assume that backwards customs of a culture are part of a religion, when in fact they are not.

Islam was the first religion to give women the right to vote. Muslim women were given the right to hold property and the right to inheritance long before many of their European counterparts. Prophet Mohammed held women in a high regard and treated his wives as equals. Muslim women are not required to cook or clean for their husbands, in fact if they wish they can ask their husband for a maid or for money to clean and if a woman does it herself, than it is considered a charity act on her part toward her husband.

What happened along the way you ask? Culture. In general, Arab and South Asian men have a very dominating outlook when it comes to women and can be very proud and controlling. So when people here hear these stories of honor killings and the abuse of women they assume that it is something from the religion. But it is not, it is all cultural.

One thing that really bothers me is that the media and many Americans are so fixated on “liberating” Muslim women. What if we are happy in our hijabs? What if we are happy being Muslims. I find it ironic coming from a place where abuses against American women still occur. Where one in four women is raped by the time she finished college. Where domestic violence occurs. Where children dread going home for fear of abuse. Just because you hear of an American man abusing his wife, you are not going to say Christianity is a religion that abuses women. Abuse is abuse. It transcends culture, it is wrong no matter who does it.

I sit on the fence between the two worlds: holding onto my identity as an
Irish-American woman, while trying to maintain my identity as a Muslim
woman. Every day I walk the line between the two realms.

Christmas had to be the strangest day of the year when we were growing up because we knew that kids our age were waking up to gifts and festivities. My family and I joined the few people throughout the country who did not celebrate Christmas and went to one of the few places open on Christmas, the movie theater. The only holiday that we shared with our peers was Thanksgiving because it was secular, but no 8-year-old says the day after Thanksgiving, “So how about that turkey dinner?”

Thoughts of Christmas, Halloween and Easter vanished when the time came for our holidays: Ramadan, the sunrise to sunset fast that Muslims observe for one month and Eid which comes twice a year, once right after Ramadan and again two months later. I still remember the anticipation we felt the night before Eid, we could not sleep. On Eid morning we would shower, put on new dress clothes and go to the Eid prayer with thousands of other Muslims. After we returned home my mom would make a breakfast with an endless supply of cookies and sweets and invite our friends over. And of course the gifts. Whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, presents have the same meaning for kids all over the world. Yes, that is right, we get not one but two Christmases.

I have been explaining myself to people since I was a child.

My non-Muslim friends never fully understood why I was not allowed to date, why I chose not to drink (which, by the way, is not only for religious reasons because I have had the opportunity, but mostly because drunk people are not cute), why I had different holidays, etc.

People within the Muslim community would always assume that I converted. Often times I found myself the odd woman out at mosque gatherings and I have always had to explain myself to them. When they ask how long I have been Muslim, I usually answer their question with the same.

I have also been put on the “white Muslim” pedestal where Muslims want to show me off. As much as I am flattered by their opinion of me, I want to be judged as any other Muslim, or human for that matter, based on my actions and what kind of person I am, not on the color of my skin or religion.

Like any other group of people, you have the good ones and the bad ones. One of the things I love about Islam is the sense of sister and brotherhood that it brings followers. If you meet a Muslim randomly you can almost always connect on that and it would not be surprising if they invite you to dinner, or to visit their family.

Through all of this, I would not want it any other way. I love Islam. My
religion and connection to God brings me a sense of peace that I know I could not find elsewhere.

I am not Muslim because my parents are. I have made the conscious decision to follow Islam.

When Muslims are preparing for their five-time daily prayer, they must wash themselves properly before. The calmness that comes to me when doing that and performing prayer is like nothing else. It is that time of the day that you take out for just yourself and God. In a way it can be compared to the time that a Buddhist takes to meditate, it is when you just focus on one thing and ignore everything else around you which lead to the same goal, inner peace.

Every Friday is the Juma’a Prayer which is held at the mosque. Men are
required to go and while women are not required to go, it is good if they
can. Before the prayer starts you listen to what could be compared to a
sermon. The religious leader, called an imam, talks about a verse from the Quran and how it relates to people nowadays, or just events that are happening in the world. After the prayer everyone
usually stands around and socializes. Traditionally, the mosque is more than a house of worship, it has been the meeting place for people to hold meetings and socialize.

In August of last year I got to visit Saudi Arabia where two of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and
Medina, are located. We grew up looking at pictures of the Kaaba, which is the black square house built by the prophet Abraham, but when you are there it is so surreal. The moment I saw the minarets on high walls surrounding the Kaaba, my tears would not stop. Each step I took toward the Kaaba, the anticipation built. As you walk toward the Kaaba you are supposed to keep your eyes down and the moment it is within view, you look up and make a prayer thanking God and asking him for whatever it is you want. In Mecca, I performed the Umrah, or the lesser pilgrimage. It was an amazing experience, I joined thousands of Muslims from all over the world, in the sole purpose of worshipping God. After circling the Kaaba seven times, you make a prayer. You then have to walk between two mountains Safa and Marwa seven times. The story behind Safa and Marwa is that Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, ran between the two mountains seven times looking for water for her son, on the seventh time, God brought forth water from the ground, it is called the spring of zam zam and the water still flows today. After that, men shave their heads and women cut a small piece from their hair. And there you have it, the Cliffs notes version of Umrah.

Although Mecca is the center of Islam, Medina is where my heart is. Medina is called the city of the Prophet. It is where the first mosque was built by prophet Mohammed and where he and many of his companions are buried. There are certain rules you have to follow, not hurting anyone physically or verbally and not killing anything-not even a fly, that apply to both Mecca and Medina. I wish that everyone could go to Medina and just experience the kindness in the people there.

When I arrived in Medina, it was about four in the morning and we had just enough time to shower and get ready for the morning prayer. I remember looking at the Prophet’s mosque and just being in awe of its magnificence. After the prayer, my mom, my sister, her kids and I were sitting on the cool white Marble that surround the outside of the mosque. As I laid down and looked at the almost lavender sky above me, I felt the most at peace I ever have in my 21 years.

I look to my future as Sara O’Connell, an American Muslim journalist who will bridge the gap between east and west, who will take her own life experiences and use them to promote education and understanding between America and Islam.


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