Let me introduce to you my roommate at the 5th annual Global Online Academy faculty retreat. She entered our room at camp with two gigantic pink suitcases. She seemed to be both proud and embarrassed of all of the cool things she had accumulated to take back home from her trip. She was impeccably dressed in the most beautiful flowing garments and her enthusiasm filled the room.
On top of her duties as an educator, she directs short films that center on social issues and the empowerment of women. She works with young refugees in her hometown. She has her own blog. She writes for Huffpost, has over 7000 followers on Twitter, over 38,000 followers on Instagram, and 170,000 followers on Facebook. Her most recent live event on Facebook about domestic violence was attended by over 4000 people.
Based on my description, what do you think she looks like? Where do you think she is from? What kind of images do you have in your head as you try to come up with a persona that embodies the empowered young woman that I have described?
If you are like me, you imagine a white woman. Maybe someone like Taylor Swift or Emma Watson. If I were African American, I would probably envision someone different. My images of an empowered woman might look like Melissa Harris-Perry or Beyoncé.
Do you see where I’m leading you? We all look at the world through a lens. We all look at the world through our own bias, our preconceived notions, our prejudice. When something is described to us, our brains will formulate an image based on the data it currently holds. And most likely your brain took the description I gave and made that person look familiar to you.
So what if I were to tell you she is Muslim and teaches Arabic in Jordan? Now, what kind of woman do you see? Do you envision someone like Queen Rania? Or do you picture a woman completely covered in long black garments?
As an international school teacher, I think I’m open minded, accepting, and fully appreciative of everyone’s cultural differences. Yet, I am discovering that there are limits to my cultural sensitivity. Due to national and world events, the bias that has lain there in the dark halls of my mind are beginning to be illuminated and exposed.
The more angry I get at Donald Trump’s language of hate, the more depressed I get seeing young black men dying in incidents with police, the more I fear the random acts of terrorism encouraged by the Islamic State, the more I realize that there is prejudice hiding within me, too.
Ala Hamdan walked into my room with 2 giant pink suitcases. She introduced herself and we laughed and joked around as we unpacked our things. I knew from those first moments that she was going to tear down the barriers I had about women in the Islamic world.
When her teaching colleague said, “Do you know that Ala is huge on social media. She has like 60,000 followers!” Ala humbly explained that this was nothing. Just something she did on the side. Yet instantly, my mind was blown. How is it possible that this woman wearing the hijab would be allowed by her culture to be so exposed on social media?
Over the week I observed her with others. I interacted with her as we planned and designed our courses. We discussed the refugee crisis and we gushed about our families and homeland. We never spoke about our beliefs, we only “connected in our humanity,” as Ala likes to put it.
On the last day I revealed to her how she had made a change in me. I revealed to her that one thing about the Islamic faith that I could never get passed because of my own bias.
I have many Muslim friends but most of them dress just like me. When I see a woman in hijab, I cannot help but think that this woman is repressed in some way. If a woman is veiled she is held back from what she has the potential be.
I dress and wear what I like. That is not to say I dress provocatively, but if I wanted to, I could. And that belief made me think that if a woman has to cover her head and body, than this woman is not empowered.
Ala changed all that for me. She helped me see her power. She helped me see the power in other Muslim women who wear the hijab. She helped me see the beauty of her humanity and the humanity of other women like her.
Ala’s friends are much like mine. They understand the world through their lens. Their bias, for both good and bad, will make them see me the white American or her the Jordanian in a certain way. Her friends, like mine, have never left their home country or continent to experience a culture that seems to be at war with their own. They have never met that person who would change their impressions of what an empowered woman can look like.
Imagine what we women could accomplish if we could all sit together and really see each other’s humanity. What if we could talk like children do and ask the questions we are too ashamed as adults to ask? You know, those questions our parents silenced because they told us we were being rude? By having a meal together, sharing family photos, crying as we reveal the darkness that holds us back, we could make peace with our prejudice.
We empowered women could make peace in our world.
***For many Americans we got another example of an empowered woman this week. Ghazala Khan opened up to us about the loss of her son. She helped us see her silence on stage at the Democratic National Convention as a moment of great courage, rather than a moment of repression. Check out #CanYouHearUsNow on Twitter for more images of what empowered women look like.